K.R. Thiagarajan

Duration: 39Mins 27Secs
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: K.R. Thiagarajan
Interviewed by: Nimmi Vale
August 23, 2012
Archive Number:



NV: Namaste!  My name is Nirmala Vale, interviewing Mr. Thiagarajan on behalf of the Foundation for India Studies, for the Oral History Project, being done in partnership with Houston Public Library and Houston Community College.  Welcome Mr. Thiagarajan and Mrs. Dhanalakshmi Thiagarajan!

KT: Thank you for inviting me.

NV: And I know that you have come here to this place so many years ago and we would like to know, can you please tell us what inspired you and what motivated you to come to this place?

KT: Like most Indians, you come to the States to study and go back, so that is the same internship I had, is to come here and get your PhD and go back to teach. I used to be teaching before I came. I was teaching at Annamalai University for five years. So I came here hoping that will happen, that didn’t happen. I didn’t go back. Now, I have been telling my wife, we will be going back, going back, going back, and when children grew up, they told us if you want to go back, you go back, we are going to stay here, because for them this is their mother country, not India.
So if the children are going to be here, we might as well.  There is nothing you can do about it.

NV: So these days there are so many ways of traveling to India, and today you decide that you want to go tomorrow and you just buy the ticket and you leave. But tell us about the way how you came here and how long did it take?

KT: I used all modes of transportation, from bullock cart, to train, to ship, and the small vessel to cross the Channel, and then plane, and it took me one month. August 2 I believe I left and September 1 I reached New York.

NV: Almost a month?

KT: Almost a month. Because in those days there was no direct flight from Bombay to New York, so I had to use this mode of transportation and that was the cheapest one possible. It cost me about 2,000 rupees at that time; that is equivalent to $300 in 1961.

NV: Tell me something about your experience when you are traveling in a ship, were you allowed to bring lot of things?

KT: There is a limitation, you can bring so much. But luckily I didn’t bring much except clothes, because they provide the food and all those things. And we are going to a new country and I didn’t want to carry anything and get into trouble, this kind of thing.
But luckily in the ship, on those 25-26 days in the ship, I had a good company. There was a pastor, Catholic priest, he was with me, who was the one giving me the moral support and there was a chess player who was related to a famous one in Madras, Manuel Aaron. He was one of the champions in those days. So I was able to spend the time usefully and also some confidence from the pastor, he gave me lot of confidence. He had been traveling between the United States and India several times a year. It went beautifully.

NV: So that tells me you came alone at that time --

KT: I came alone.

NV: -- and your wife joined you later?

KT: Five years later, yeah, five years later.

NV: Can you give us some kind of background, your background and your mother tongue, especially your mother tongue and where you come from, because you said you had used all kinds of transportation, starting from bullock cart all the way to the airplane.

KT: My hometown is Thiruvarur. That is famous for two things; one, the Carnatic Music Trinity, all those three were born in Thiruvarur, but they moved away, but they were born there. And also the Chief Minister, former Chief Minister Karunanidhi, he was born in Thiruvarur. And the temple is famous, Thyagaraja Temple. That is all the Godly name. All the first sons used to get that name, in most cases, if you were born in Thiruvarur.
I have three sisters and two brothers; I am the oldest in the family. My father was a teacher and he broke the tradition because we used to be businesspeople; either farmers or business.

NV: What kind of business?

KT: Wholesale, grocery merchants kind of thing, but my father broke away from the tradition and became a teacher. After that in my family, almost all of us, except my sister, we were teachers. And of course my sons, they didn’t follow. Both of them are doctors; one is a cardiologist; the other one does family practice. They are married to – we speak Tamil. That is my mother tongue. They are married to Telugu girls, two Telugu girls. And I thought that it was wonderful because the girls will speak the same language, there will be less problem.

NV: You know that takes me to my next question. Basically I am a Telugu also, my husband is a Tamilian. Now, how did you meet your wife and I am sure your mother tongue is also Tamil or --

KT: She is related to me. Her father and my mother are second cousins. So her father, I would address him as uncle, mama. In Telugu I don’t know what term they use.

NV: In Telugu it’s also mama.

KT: Mama. So it is a marriageable relationship between her and me, but first time I laid my eyes on her was on the day of the marriage.

NV: There you go. Love at first sight.

KT: Okay, let’s put it that way. You worked at it.

NV: Right, and your daughters-in-law are Telugu and you are Tamil, so how do you think the life is taking now, with them, with their children, your grandchildren, what kind of language do you --

KT: They all speak English.

DT: English, but they understand Telugu, they can watch movie, they understand Tamil, they can watch movies.

NV: Your grandchildren or –

KT: Yeah.

DT: Grandkids and daughter-in-law and son. My kids, they didn’t speak Tamil, but when they grew up we don’t have it, and now Houston have a lot of music class and Tamil class, so many things.

KT: Language classes.

DT: But 1966, 1967, you don’t have anything to particularly train you, so we don’t have anything. Now I am so impressed, my kids have grown up in this town, they can learn a lot. But my grandkids, they have a chance to learn. We can teach them our culture, but my kids, I teach them our money value, cultural value, that’s the way they learn. But now that helped me a lot.

NV: You came in 1960s, was there any kind of cultural shock to you or how did you manage with your Indian culture with an American culture, did you have any kind of --

KT: See, there was only Black and White movies, but some of the shenanigans that go on now, you see the late night movie. Whenever I see something like that I would close my eyes. I would say, my God, what is this? Why we came here and all that. But then slowly you get used to it, because you have no other choice, don’t watch those things. But today it is much, much worse. There was a shock, whenever people kiss on the streets that give us a real shock. It happens even today but you are not that sensitive anymore, you know what I mean? As you get older you are desensitized.

NV: So since you are a housewife and tell us about what kind of things you used to do in early 1960s and how did you manage at home for cooking and all that, was Indian spices and other things weren’t available at that time and what did you do?

DT: Sometime my father used to send in six months Britannia biscuit container that comes with everything mixed up. So I told him to stop everything. So we go around all the downtown area and store and what they have. Finally we managed.
So spices we ordered from New York. And then we find out one day the Jay Store has started. Yeah, so we come every week. But very hard to find the Indian stores. I mean, even though fresh coconut, green pepper, very hard to find. So it is very -- I want to go back because of no food. I don’t eat meat. I can’t take the whole meal. Yeah, I am so scared and everything with meat, so they mix with that.

NV: So both of you are vegetarians?

KT: She is perfect vegetarian even today. I am spoiled.

NV: No, you shouldn’t say spoiled, but then you are able to --

KT: I eat everything.

DT: Now he has become a veggie --

KT: Our family -- we are traditionally a vegetarian family, we changed.

NV: Incident like 9/11, that incident, did it have any kind of impact on your personal life as well as your business and whatever?

KT: Definitely, definitely. It hurt us so bad. How crazy people can be to do this kind of thing. How much hatred you must have inside to do this kind of thing? Those guys, they were willing to give up their lives to destroy 4,000 people, and this is very difficult to believe.
Now, I was asking myself, what is it in the religion that tells you that you can do these things and still go to heaven? I cannot understand that. It was a big shock. I was teaching at Prairie View at that time, it was around 8:30 or something that that happened. So I was trying to make some copies of a paper for the class. I saw this. And I was telling my friends, colleagues sitting there, hey, what is it, you are watching TV now? Then the second plane came and hit and I realized, my God, it is very shocking.

NV: Can you tell us about your involvement with the Indian culture, your involvement with the temples or sports?

KT: In the beginning, 1974 -- before 1974, the only cultural activity is to have some movies and some music, Carnatic music. In those days if 30 or 40 people show up, that’s a big deal. There is not that many people. As a matter of fact, when we moved to Prairie View, to teach, the only other Indian, who is going to be interviewed next by Vatsa Kumar, Dr. R.N.S. Rao, he was the only other Indian. The numbers were so small, whenever we showed movies, you would have Telugus, Tamils, Kannadigas and Malayalis, all of them will be there. Their family, everybody there --

NV: As Indians?

KT: Yeah. Of course the movie may be in Tamil or Telugu, but these are the people, because they may not know what is going on, but they come -- this is your time to talk to people. So that is how it was at that time.
Then in 1974, we decided maybe we have enough people to start an organization, and that is how Bharathi Kalai Manram Trinity existed. In essence, it happened in my house; Kannappan, Guruswamy, Viswanathan, these are the prime -- myself, we are the prime --

NV: Founding members.

KT: Founding members. And in 1977, Kannappan wanted me to help in this Meenakshi Temple thing. It all happened by accident and then Meenakshi Temple came along. So I served BKM as President twice; one is 1977 and 1990. And Meenakshi Temple, 1978-1982, and then 1993-1995, two times.
And also interestingly, my son was also on the Board four-five years ago. He was the first American-born Indian to be on the Board, religious Board, it was the first time.

NV: Do you have any kind of concerns now looking at this community versus our Indian community getting into the mainstream and whether you think that we have problems in letting them know about their culture or is it a smooth sailing, what is your opinion about that?

KT: It is not going to be a smooth sailing. You are going to have conflicts. But sometimes I wonder whether our Indian culture is any different from American culture. Because some of the things you see on TV in India, I was wondering whether it was a reflection of life in India or life is a reflection of what goes on, on TV? Because we have -- the nightclub scenes are there, all those things are there and also majority culture is going to dominate, how much you try to bring your culture to the kids, the majority culture is going to influence, there is nothing you can do about it.

NV: Can you tell us about your support to any particular organization? You had mentioned about BKM. Other than that can you talk about businesses like in the Hillcroft and other places? Do you have any kind of --

KT: Oh yeah. We do shopping there. So in that financial sense we have and ICC, whenever they meet they have fun somehow we are not active, we are not very active. We are more active in BKM and Meenakshi Temple.

NV: Right! You told me that your son 16:40 and they were born here. So do they ask any questions about our Indian culture or do they have any kind of conversation or a debate and they 16:52?

KT: Yeah. See whenever I tell them our culture is great and all that then they are going to come up with some examples and say, what is this , this is what you said going there?

DT: Not only sons and now grandsons.

NV: Grandsons.

KT: Yeah, they also. But they imbibe some of the Indian culture. Once in awhile he would ask me why we are doing this, why we are doing that? For some questions I don’t even have the answer. Because we do certain things by rote, because the priest says do this, you do it. And we don’t know the reason why we are doing it. When the kids ask you that question, but with my sons I used to tell them, okay, forget it, but with the grandchildren you cannot do that.

NV: You need to explain it to them.

KT: You have to explain it, otherwise they will tell you, Tatha you don’t know.

DT: They go to web and then find out.

NV: And any kind of unique experiences you have had in your workplace as an Indian?

KT: Okay, I worked in three places, one in Washington with the Federal Government and in Mississippi, that is also Federal Government, and then finally a pre-review which is the University. And the first two I have interactions with the community. Of course Blacks are also there but mostly White. At pre-review it is all, 95% of the students are Black students. I had a good name as a teacher and also I tried to help, there are weak students, all students are not alike, some of them are smart, some of them are not. So I tried to spend some time, at least one hour for three days a week, I used to have special classes, and with the result, you know, as a human being they liked me and also as a teacher I was tolerably good I believe.

DT: Sometimes we go to Mall or some place, they ask him, hello, you remember me? They come and ask, you forgot, I am your student, you teach me this year, my son going to Mall 19:05, I think he missed my grandson with my son, I am so proud of him, someone remembered him.

NV: Actually a teaching profession is a very, very noble profession and I am a teacher myself.

KT: Oh, that’s wonderful!

NV: And I am a Montessori teacher and absolutely, you are absolutely right and that’s why you are teaching, you don’t know where it stops, it goes on. Like you know if you are teaching thousand people, from thousand people they are going to take thousand other people. So it goes on, you will have a very noble --

KT: I had a very good experience. I have one student, that was 2004 or 2003, I am not sure. That student said, Mr. T --

NV: You came in the early ’60s

KT: ’61.

NV: Now ’61, and when you came to Houston, how was Houston at that time and what kind of changes do you see now?

KT: Well, in 1961 I came to University of Tennessee, Knoxville, in 1967 I came to Houston; 1965-1967 we were in Jackson, Mississippi, that is where Ram was born, and all the Black Power and all those things were taking place at that time. I have seen Martin Luther King three times, him speak. That was a turbulent time in Mississippi, but when I came to Houston, this year, in 1967, it was not that bad, but still we were nervous. Because you don’t know which restaurant you can go, whether there is going to be any problem, this kind of thing, that was there. The only place we knew at that time was Pizza Inn; that is where we would go every weekend.

DT: But when you compare 1967 to 2001, the world and Houston completely changed.

KT: And also people’s attitude, everything has changed.

DT: And then old Houston, you cannot see any old building, old highways, everything is now new and the economics is good.

KT: To come to the temple you came on what is called Hempstead Highway and take 610, go around Cullen Parkway, Cullen Boulevard or Cullen Parkway, then take a 518, McLean Road and temple.

DT: It will take two hours.

NV: As an immigrant did you encounter any kind of racial or color discrimination, any kind of experience you had?

KT: In Mississippi, yes; in Washington, D.C., none.

NV: Tell us a little more about that?

KT: In Mississippi, before she came, I wouldn’t go to a restaurant, because nobody would serve me, and there was a hamburger place called Krystal Hamburger, that you go in, buy and get out. And then of course there is no restriction there. But in restaurants I had a bad experience once. I went there, sat there for about 20 minutes, nobody came to serve me. So I decided not to go. After she came, we wanted to try, see how it works, so I would push her to go in first. She would go in, then I will open the door and get in. They didn’t know what to do with me. The people who had seen me before and the way they treated me, now they don’t know who to deal with this.

NV: Is it because of --

KT: Because of her saree, yeah. She was wearing the saree, they knew she was foreigner. In my case they were wondering where I am from, this kind of thing. After that it became somewhat easy in Mississippi. We can go to some restaurant, and she became somewhat of a familiar figure in sarees, because when we go around the mall area, people have some idea who this person is. There are no Indians in that town, Jackson, Mississippi. But after coming here it was a fear that restricted us from going to many places, but over a period of time things were not that bad here. And also, where I worked, it is mostly Blacks, so you have no reason to interact with White people, but there were some Whites who were working there. So we didn’t have a very bad experience in Texas.

NV: Since we are talking about races, what do you think about interracial marriages?

KT: Whatever my opinion, it is coming, you be prepared for it.

NV: Yes, sure, I mean, you just have to say your opinions on that.

KT: Yeah. My opinion is, thank God my children got married, so now I have to worry about my grandchildren. This is what I used to tell my older son Ram. She was very particular he marries somebody who speaks Tamil. I said, as far as I am concerned, any South Indian girl is okay. If that is not possible, any Indian girl is okay. If that is not possible, you do anything. There is nothing much I can do at that point. So it is coming. And there is one experience I had in Mississippi. You know that Tougaloo College professor. There was an Indian guy who married a Black girl.
That is one of the solidest marriages, you know. So, you never know there are Indian marriages I have heard not doing that great and there are international marriages they are doing great.

NV: So, does that change your mind?

KT: Definitely, suppose my grandson says, I am going to marry this girl, what I am going to do?

DT: That’s not your opinion, that’s their opinion.

KT: Of course, that is another thing.

DT: That’s their parents problem, we don’t know we are going to stay that long or not.

KT: This is what I would say, stand one year, if you still want to marry that girl, it's okay, go ahead. See whether it lasts that long.

NV: Now let’s talk about sports. Did you play any sports in India?

KT: I am what it was called a deck of all craze. Except cricket, tennis, I played almost everything. Badminton, Indian badminton, that is a different kind. I used to be a good player and Ping Pong also, I used to be, but not anymore.

DT: You played Chess.

KT: Huh? Chess.

NV: So, after coming here what did you continue to play here, what kind of sports did you continue to play here?

KT: Chess, play with the computer.

DT: No, but he teaches chess for our grandkids.

KT: Yeah.

NV: Now that your grandchildren are old enough, do you go and watch their sports?

KT: Sometimes we sit and watch, basketball I can watch and enjoy. Football, I was never able to understand the game. And baseball it is a slow moving game but I watch when the grand-kids are there. Basketball I really enjoy, like it’s fast.

DT: My kids play tennis and baseball and basketball in school.

NV: So you must have taken them to all those games.

KT: Yeah, they loved, because I watched almost all games the kids play because that is the only time.

DT: When grandkids are playing tennis tournament then he used to go and watch out the game.

NV: So is it because whether your children and grandchildren, do you go there to watch their sports and sports?

KT: It is grandchildren.

DT: Grandchildren and somehow we need to –

KT: We want to see them play and we want to encourage them. Sometimes the fathers are not very good encouragers. If the kid makes a mistake you can see frown, but grandparents don’t feel that way. So they always come close to you, whenever they make a mistake after the game they will come to you, going around you --

NV: It's a comfort zone for the children.

KT: Comfort zone for them.

NV: Okay, and do you have any kind of involvement with the political and religious organization?

KT: Yes, political, I am a democrat. I don’t know whether it is good or bad, but that is what I am. I help whenever the help is sought otherwise I am not very active in the organization teaching – huh?

DT: Hempstead.

KT: Well that is okay, in the University of Hempstead I used to be the Vice President of Hempstead Economic Development Corporation. That is a corporation that created to bring industries. Hempstead is a very small town purely agricultural, known very much for watermelon, it used to be called watermelon capital, no industry.
So in order to bring industry they created this organization. I was there for five years as Vice President and also I was there as one of the members of planning and zoning commission to bring houses, apartments approval and that kind of thing. So that is where my very active involvement.

NV: Since you are a democrat can I ask you a question?

KT: Sure.

NV: What do you think is going to win?

KT: I hope Obama wins.

NV: Why? Why do you think that he should be our President?

KT: He has handicapped quite a few, but normally no president can do the job in four years, it takes eight years. First you have to learn the rules. Unfortunately when he came, he entered into a very bad economy disaster, it was waiting.
And he is not very smart to bring politics together and get the job done. And already many republicans hate him, sometimes I wonder whether it is because of the race, racial involvement. I listen to him all the time. But that guy is Venom, touring Venom. So it is my prayer right now that he wins, so he can get a second term and he can do a better job.
Of course the other team is a formidable team too. And because one is very successful businessman, the other one is ideology-oriented person and also he talks as good as Obama.

NV: So, your 30:57 running mate?

KT: Yeah, if he is a challenging guy, I like him, but it doesn’t mean I work for him.

NV: Do you think our president has shown any kind of interest in the Indian community?

KT: Well, quite a few people on job of course they all left, that is another story. And I think being a politician and president he has to play a game. How far he will go, how much he will do, we have no idea. But my own feeling is, he has some sympathies for Indian community.

NV: Local issues, what kind of issues really matter most to you?

KT: You specified something.

NV: In any issue, it doesn’t matter, political or environmental or educational?

KT: Environmental, that is the big thing and if you drive around Pasadena area you cannot get out of the car and breathe. That smell of chemicals and all that kind of thing. Those things are you need industry where at the same time you have this problem, if you put restrictions on this emissions and all that, it raises the cost of the things. So it is a kind of vicious circle.

NV: Do you think your grandchildren they like to go back to India to visit or they ask more questions about India?

KT: They may be, but for permanent settlement I don’t think so. Because they develop a bad impression as well they go there, it gets sick, first thing. Once you get sick in a foreign country you begin to dislike that country. It happened to my sons and also my grandchildren. Of course once in a while tourists goes to see Taj Mahal and things like that.

NV: What do you think about al the Indian organizations here in Houston; there are several?

KT: That is one thing that bothers me; it’s a dynamite let me put it that way. I want to have my own BKM and the next moment I ask myself there are so many land you oriented on, what do you call Indian, what is Indian?

NV: And I know you get involved in your temple and also your involvement in Tamil schools also helping children and generally you are helping with everything else, and do you have any kind of issues about if you want to change any kind of issues in the American system here. What would you choose?

KT: You are talking about educational system?

NV: About educational system.

KT: I look at my children and grandchildren both of my sons, they did very well in the high school; Ram is a valedictorian and the younger one was a salutatorian, and grandchildren are also doing well. But the grandchildren are in private schools. My children went to public school, the county school system. Of course my son tells me that in private schools they are more demanding, in public schools they are not that demanding. I used to tell him, yeah, you did all right, we want to spend that kind of money for private education. But he says, it is better, I don’t know what it is.
But it looks like there is more discipline in the private school system. I don’t know how you can bring that into the public school system, I don’t know, I guess lot many things are happening in public school, people carrying guns, 10-year-old, 12-year-old.

NV: But do you think that it doesn’t happen in private schools because of the smaller --

KT: Smaller crowd and also more controlled, more discipline there. Probably they come from the upper crust. So maybe that is correct. In a public school you have all classes of people, in private schools only who can afford.

NV: Right, but as parents and grandparents, do you think we can have some kind of impact on the children?

KT: Yes, of course, you can teach them some ethical values, moral values, you can do all those things. Because you are a grandparent they will listen more than the parents. That is our deal. How much you are going to stick –

NV: You have to wait and see.

KT: We have to wait and see.

DT: We used to live in training you, and the grand-kids from there and take there and bring it back, take one hour or more than a hour to come here, but at that time he always teach them some math units, or some questions asked and he doesn’t turn the radio on, not at all.

KT: That’s wonderful.

NV: And give them some problems.

DT: So he asked them some common questions, how many cars going, how many cars behind, at how much speed they are going, some kind of –

NV: Educating.

DT: Out kids also when we come for a shopping, we always talk about some 36:52 and we spend the time, he always like teach math or anything. My son always said, how come, if I ask any question you always give me the answer, you never say, I don’t know, I will think about it. He never said, he always kept up to a good answer.

NV: Because he has been educated.

DT: So he always liked to teach the kids, and they liked to listen.

NV: I think it's been wonderful interviewing both of you.

KT: Thank you!

NV: And this is being recorded here at the Houston Community College and the recording will be stored in a Houston Public Library. And thank you so much, and the last and final question to you is, what do you have for your grandchildren and children who would be looking at this from years?

KT: Well once it is ready I will ask them to see, and ask me questions.

NV: Okay, but what kind of advise you would want to give them or even not advise, what do you have -- as a final word what do you have for them?

KT: You try to instill in them certain cultural and moral values, you have to get moral and ethical value, they are almost everywhere. But you know you are drawing from your own sources, you can tell them these are good things to do. And as I said earlier I hope this stays with them in all their life.

NV:  So, thank you very much!

KT: Thank you.

NV: Namaste!

DT: We enjoyed.

NV: Thank you very much!

KT: Thanks too!