Men about Manhattan, 1971

S. Mitra Kalita

Sept. 5, 2021

Narendra Kumar Bora Memorial Service

ISKON, Potomac, Maryland

NOTE: My father has had two strokes in the last 2.5 years and has struggled with speech as a result. And so I was asked to try to convey remarks and feelings about his old friend.

It is an honor to speak to you today, and despite the circumstances, I want to acknowledge how restorative it is to see you all in person. We have missed you. 

Ping and Rimjhim asked me to say something on behalf of my parents. I quickly realized that it is impossible to share their recollections of Dr. Naren Bora, whom I call and consider Bora Uncle, without involving many other Assamese friends who arrived in America in the early 1970s. I do want to say in advance that memories of the people I talked to are shaky and so I apologize if I got anything wrong. 

My father Mohesh Kalita arrived in the U.S. on the same day as Bora Uncle. It was December 1971, and he was on a different flight but they came on the same day. Bora Uncle’s travel companion was Habibur Rahman Boruah, another close friend of many of us who died last week. We remember him today as well. 

This trio found housing on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and soon expanded the group. Ajit Khaund knew Rahman Boruah Uncle from their days in Assam so he moved in. Sankar Sinha also came to stay in the same room. Ishwar Agarwalla and Bikash Dutta were also included. My father remembers a Bihari guy named Bankshi who, like Bora Uncle, was trying to get clearance to practice medicine in America. Bora Uncle lived in the Clinton Arms Hotel on 99th and Broadway, and my father was a few blocks away in a different hotel with Brojen Bordoloi. After a year, my father moved out with Ajit Khaund Uncle, and from what I gathered, they were a few blocks away and eventually moved to Jackson Heights, not too far from where I live today. All of these neighborhoods have changed, but I want to acknowledge Bora Uncle’s role in the transition of New York City during a really critical moment in its history. 

These early days in America, according to my parents and some of the other friends, were really fun. But also filled with struggle. “We all had a hard time in the beginning,” said Khaund Uncle. He said for entertainment, they would all take long walks around New York City, every evening, led by Bikash Dutta and my father. It was a free activity and they could all speak Assamese together. Bora Uncle was often a part of this group. 

Eventually, some wives and children started to come over to join these men and the group living disbanded. My parents (my mother Nirmala and elder brother Sanjib came over, too) moved to Brooklyn. Bora Uncle, Rina Auntie, Ping and Pong moved to Flushing. (Just an aside on this: A few years ago, Pong, Kim and Asha came to stay with us and a big part of their New York experience was not just Broadway but also finding their family’s old apartment to understand these early days.) One significant event took place on a day about 46 years ago, the Boras’ Flushing apartment held a blessing ceremony for a baby about to be born -- that was me, and I can attest my life has been most blessed. 

On family life, when I asked about Bora Uncle, everyone’s recollections are of Ping and Pong running around. My mother said Pong’s humor defined him at an early age. Anil Thakuria said he met Bora Uncle at a Bihu picnic held in the Bronx, and that led to them meeting many more Assamese families. His wife, Paraja Thakuria, recalls seeing Bora Uncle and the family at her first son Pranti’s baby shower, hosted by Ishwar and Surjama Agarwalla. “We could be very carefree with Dr. Bora,” said Paraja Auntie. Thakuria Uncle recalls his sense of humor: “My car was on-again, off-again,” he told me. “Dr. Bora said, ‘You will never get to where you need to go with that car!’”

In these days, Bora Uncle played a significant role in helping people along in their careers. When her baby was six months old, Paraja Auntie passed her board exams. The timing coincided with Bora Uncle doing his residency and wanting to go to India. But it was impossible to leave residency without some backup coverage. So he went to Paraja Auntie and asked her to fill in and said, “You are a doctor now. You can do this.” Paraja Auntie now says: “My medical career started with him. He introduced me to the system.”

Before he resumed practicing medicine in the U.S., you might not know that Bora Uncle worked at Citibank. Many of these immigrant took up temp or odd jobs in the early 1970s while they tried to find employment in what they actually wanted to do. My father was a file clerk in the Manhattan DA’s office and Brojen Bordoloi worked at Alexander’s department; they started at $1.85 per hour. Bora Uncle called my dad and said he could make much more at Citibank. My father joined him and eventually earned $3/an hour. He retired in the year 2000 as a vice president, a remarkable trajectory begun thanks to Bora Uncle’s recommendation. 

These friends often discussed politics and many appreciated Bora Uncle’s different perspective. Paraja Auntie described him as “neutral” but always willing to diffuse an argument or discussion with his humor and calm ways. 

Another common trait Bora Uncle’s friends commented upon was his love of Rina Auntie. My mother said she would separate fish from the bones so he could eat it safely. Paraja Auntie recalls how seriously Bora Uncle took Valentine’s Day, always making sure to get his wife a gift. “Do Assamese men even care for love?” Paraja Auntie asked. “He was very different. They were like lovebirds, with a quiet love for each other.”

When the family moved to Kansas and then West Virginia, it was similarly followed by a scattering of this Assamese diaspora, some to California, Ohio, North Carolina. But what all of these uncles and aunties did and I think of is my greatest memory of Bora Uncle and his legacy is that we all stayed in touch. We would gather in each other’s houses after long drives and have sleepovers and reunions. It was so much fun for us kids, forging the bonds that keep us all in touch today. I asked my parents and their friends why they went through so much trouble, specifically Bora Uncle’s role in this. “He was the older brother to all of us,” said Anil Thakuria. “These people became more than friends to us,” my mother said. “Even more than family. It was such a hard time when we started. I can never forget it.”

While all the families eventually became more comfortable, buying houses, having more children, the one word people keep using to describe Bora Uncle is “humble.” The other is “helpful.” Paraja Auntie recalls him coming to visit them in Ohio and she would leave for work and Rina Auntie and Bora Uncle would watch her young kids. He made frequent trips to North Carolina, recalls Khaund Uncle, when his friends there - Surjama Auntie, Bikash Uncle - would get sick. Khaund Uncle had a stroke in 1989 and said Bora Uncle came many times to help, often for four or five days. When my own mother had heart surgery in 2012, I can attest that every night we returned from the hospital to a call or voice message from Bora Uncle just checking in. That was the kind of man he was. 

This group of friends became even closer after the death of Bikash Dutta. Paraja Auntie recalls a group of them very sad after the funeral in Dutta Uncle’s home. Someone said, “where will we all sleep?” Bora Uncle said, “The floor, of course.” So dozens of people made beds on the floor, as they had been for decades, and they laughed about it, even though they were still very sad for the loss of their friend. 

Besides his humor, which I think we see he passed onto Pong, Bora Uncle was also very handy, building shelves, sofas, even a balcony. This is clearly something he passed onto Ping. And these legacies seem a good place for me to end today, not just the characteristics he passed onto his own family with but all of us as well. In asking me to talk about their father, I learned so much more about my own. Once again, we all drove so many distances to be together. What I hope is that we--and Ping, Pong, and Asha and Alisha and Devin and Naya and Riya and all of us here today -- will continue to do so. Thank you. 

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