Dr. Venu Gopal Menon

Duration: 39Mins 27Secs
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Uncorrected Transcript

Interview with: Dr. Venu Gopal Menon
Interviewed by: Dr. Nik Nikam
Date: August 23, 2012
Archive Number:


NN: Hi! I am Dr. Nik Nikam. Welcome to the Foundation For India Studies’ Oral History Project held in collaboration with Houston Community College and Houston Public Library!
This is a project where we record oral history from first generation Indians and it is recorded here at the Houston Community College and it is stored permanently in the Houston Public Library.
Our guests today are Dr. Venugopal Menon and Sridevi Menon. Venugopal and Sridevi, welcome to the Foundation For India Studies!

VM: Thank you, doctor!

NN: You are welcome. Let me start with you. Tell us something about where your life journey originated and where you landed in America and what has transpired since then?

VM: It has been quite a long journey, but before I get to that, thank you for having us here! We feel very honored to have been included! Of course age is in our favor that we kind of got included.
So this is a great thing that the Foundation For India Studies is doing, and to record it for our posterity, something great; the people who are behind it, like Dr. Krishna Vavilala, Vatsa Kumar, yourself. So our gratitude, our appreciation!

NN: Thank you, thank you!

VM: Starting our journey, we came to this country 1969, end of 1969. So we left India in ’68. We stayed a year in Scotland, and that was only a stepping stone to get over here.
Of course being a physician we had to write some qualifying exam, which we did in Scotland, and came here in ’69. We spent about three years on the East Coast.

NN: East Coast, where, what particular city were you in?

VM: We were in Washington D.C., where I was also doing my pediatric residency in DC General Hospital.

NN: I see, yeah.

VM: After two years there I went to University of Connecticut in Hartford. I did my third year of pediatric residency there, and then I had an interview for fellowship Allergy & Immunology in Houston. That was in ’72. I came here on an October afternoon. From a huge pile of snow in Connecticut, we landed in bright sunshine in Houston, and that moment I decided if I get selected, this is the place I want to be.

NN: So from ’72, you have been here since then?

VM: Yeah, yeah.

NN: Okay, let's go back a little further. What medical school did you go to?

VM: In India, the only medical school in our state Kerala was Trivandrum.

NN: Trivandrum, I see.

VM: I was in the 1956 batch, sixth batch of the Trivandrum Medical School. So after med school, that's the time India-China war was there, emergency, so I felt it's kind of an obligation or a duty as a citizen. So I joined the Army and served almost four years in the emergency medical corps.
And coming out I spent a few months in the State Medical Service before I decided to get out of the country.

NN: So when did you meet Sridevi?

VM: We got married in 1964, a year after my medical school.

NN: I see, yeah.

VM: So that's -- we are celebrating the 48th year this year.

NN: Oh, another two years it would be half a century.

VM: God willing.

NN: Okay, tell us about your experience after you came to Houston?

VM: Overall, it has been a very pleasant and a very rewarding experience. We came here as I said to do the fellowship in Allergy & Immunology; the only program at that time was Baylor

NN: I see, yeah.

VM: At the same time working with one of the major allergy clinic here, McGovern Allergy Clinic. So after the fellowship I did my boards in pediatrics first in 1976 and then Allergy Immunology boards in 1977. And they offered me a position, so I joined the clinic as an associate at that time.

NN: So you joined the clinic and retired from the clinic?

VM: Yes.

NN: Isn’t that fascinating?

VM: Absolutely!

NN: One job, not many people are lucky.

VM: I have absolutely no regrets. I worked for almost 35 years and I can probably say the last eight years before I retired I was the President of one of the well-known clinics in the country, so that is an accomplishment.

cue point

NN: Yeah. How did you switch from pediatrics to allergy and immunology?

VM: It's not switching as you know being a doctor. Once you have your primary course, you always look for something as a subspecialty, and honestly when I looked into many options, this is one I thought I would have a family life without too much of interruption, too much of night calls and all that, and I was right.

NN: That's a very good point, because there are some surgeons who are hardly home few hours a week.

VM: Absolutely! You don’t get to see your children when they are awake or something.

NN: So you said you came to Houston in 19 --

VM: ’73, actually we landed here January 1, 1973.

NN: So what were things like in Houston in terms of -- I mean, obviously the climate was pretty close to what it is in Kerala, but in terms of people, job, and interaction with community?

VM: Seeing the question I looked about that, Houston space-wise, the area might have doubled in the last 40 years or something, and I would say the population has doubled, but the Indians I was told, when I came here there were about 600 Indians in Houston, probably some of the people to be interviewed have been here that long. So Indian population has multiplied about 200 times as compared to doubling.

NN: I think by some estimates the Indian population at this time is 125,000 people.

VM: So 600 to 125,000, it's about 200 times. So it has been -- so we decided to stay here, and after about seven, eight years of working here I had this urge, you may call it an itch to go back and serve India.

NN: Is that right?

VM: So 14 years. So sometime in ’83, we packed up and left for India, and that was with Apollo Hospital, which was starting in Madras at that time.

NN: In Madras, yeah, yeah.

VM: So Dr. Reddy came here and then kind of tried to get people. So I was one among them. Went there and then after two years for various reasons we decided to come back. So the second time around it was permanent, this is the place to live.

NN: So what was the experience dealing with the mainstream Americans back in 1970s, when there was lot of questions about discrimination or segregation, things like that, which other ethnic groups have experienced?

VM: I have to relate to a story of one of my cousins who came to this country as a physician in 1959. So when he described all the difficulties; the gas stations will not pump gas into your car, or you cannot get -- so I was expecting that kind of an experience, but coming here in the 70s, that made a lot of difference. So personally, thank God, we didn’t have that kind of experience.
Even though occasionally you come across an occasional patient or somebody in the shopping mall or something, they look at you as if you are a different species or something, but if you are prepared for that, which I was, it was not a major problem, I wouldn't say it was. Occasionally you feel kind of awkward and maybe sad and angry at times, but that was a very rare experience I would say.

NN: Sridevi, we would like you to jump in any time you want to, agree with him or contradict, whatever. You don't have to feel shy.

SM: He wears western clothes, right, but I was wearing sarees all the time. But always people were, oh, that looks lovely! What does it mean, this bindi? So those days -- and how do you wrap the saree, all those things, in a shopping center. But that also, they kind of compliment usually.
But only one experience we had in the neighborhood where we were living, the Fondren Southwest area, there were -- some kids used to run and come and put eggs on our door.

NN: Is that right?

SM: Yeah, that happened many times, about at least ten times, because every time I went and I hear this sound, and every time I look, just kids, just kids, but that happened. That's the only thing. I think you can call it discrimination or what.

NN: Well, even it happens today, people will come and grab all the trees in the neighborhood. So I mean kids are kids.


VM: Kids are kids.

SM: That's the only thing we had, we didn’t have any other thing.

NN: Tell us, both of you can tell us about your experience with the children, interacting with the schools and what kind of --

VM: You are more familiar with that, so you can tell.

SM: Actually our older daughter, she was born in India, so she had to move so many times and that too in the middle of the year, like January. He used to change jobs. So she was a little nervous about all that. She used to have some physical problem with that, because she will -- nervous and all that.

But the others, when they came, we were trying to keep our language at home so they could speak, and she was very fluent in that. But as soon as the second one was born, she just -- I got more busier with the other kid, then the other one came, so we have three children. So she was -- she will start to talk to them only in English and like -- so she had an excuse to speak in English more. So she just shied away from Malayalam slowly, but she still understands and she speaks --

VM: All of them speak the language, they have to.

SM: She has to, but she just won't speak all the time.

cue point

NN: Yeah, that's an interesting point, because especially Asian-Indians, we want to preserve our language, heritage, culture, and all this for the second generation Indians. They have a lot of challenge, because in English -- I mean at school they have English and all this, and friends speak English, and it becomes extra challenging for parents to continue to cultivate our cultural --

VM: And from the children’s point of view, they have been through kind of a turmoil time, coming home with a different culture and going to school, and they have to deal with their classmates, that poses a big problem.

NN: So how many children you all have and what do your children do now?

VM: We have three children, two girls and a boy. They all are married and we have six grandchildren between all of them. Unfortunately, nobody is in Houston.

NN: So you have got a permanent job then.

VM: She had; mostly she took care of them.

SM: But for the language thing, then luckily we got this dance school stuff. When the first one was about 10 years and the second one 5 years, so we enrolled them in the Indian Bharatanatyam and all that.

VM: Ratna Kumar came and started that.

SM: Then there was a change, like they were very interested in learning dance and through that they learned a lot of Indian stuff, the stories.

NN: The stories, yeah. Yeah, the cultural dances cover all aspects of Indian life.

VM: Indian cultural activities.

NN: Dress, music, discipline, culture, so all these different --

SM: It was wonderful to have that, yeah. So it helped us a lot. Yeah.

NN: So what would you say would be the biggest challenge after you came to Houston that you had to face?

VM: I would think that life was easy, kind of, and of course you had to work hard too.

NN: Your subject, allergy and immunology, you are not like a cardiac surgeon.

VM: It's not like cardio, but it's a lot to read about, a lot to -- all those challenges and requirements of going through the boards, and then establishing a practice.

Of course I was fortunate to have walked into and joined into an already established, well-known clinic. So it's a question of time before patients found out even though I come from a different shade and different accent, as long as you provide service to them and you are caring and concerned about their problem, gradually you build up your practice.

NN: So did you find accent to be a difficult stumbling block between you and the rest of the community?

VM: I would say selectively. Some of the people from a different kind of background or set up, who are not -- strangely when I talk to somebody on the phone, I hardly have any problem, but when they walk in, and then look at you, they have the block to begin with, this person, his lingo or the way he speaks, I am not going to -- so some of the people who are very traditionally not exposed to much of outsiders and all that, there was some problem.


And we have this bad habit of speaking too fast, when you speak to Americans, you have to slow down and separate words and phonetically, so eventually we survived.

NN: So what do you think was your biggest professional challenge?

VM: Professional challenge is to the people who come to you, trusting you, and expecting you to help them, the professional challenge is to give them relief for what they approach you. As you know being a doctor, they throw out everything on you, including not only their problem, the family problems and all that, and you have to lend that ear, be patient, listening to them more than you talk to them.

And if you are that -- and you show that concern and caring, medicines, what you do is only a small percentage, that's my belief, the medications and all that is only as important as how you feel for them.

cue point

NN: Sridevi, tell us something about the social interaction and what kind of challenges you faced as a head of the house?

SM: Yes, mostly it was all easier, but then we used to go to the school, children’s used to have the International Day and a little bit of all that. However, we started out in those days; food for the birthdays and some things like that. Then the kids will come.

Before we had some neighbors and then those kids, our children used to say, why are you always cooking rice? Then I said, rice is there, but the other things are different, right? But the neighbors came, the Americans, they used to play together, and then they were asking, why you are using your fingers to eat? They asked. I said, God has given you fingers, you don't need all that, and it is easy and you can wash your hands and all those things. And so they were surprised, why are we eating with our fingers.

NN: That's an interesting point, because even in 2012, one of the prominent persons from America went to India and said, why you people are eating food with your fingers? And somebody turned around and said, how do you eat your fried chicken and all these, or hot dogs? So I think --

VM: It’s a God given fork.

NN: There are foods which have to be eaten with hand.

SM: Kids used to ask lot of questions. One thing was religious, so the religion, you try to do something. And then at that time we started -- there was some bhajan kind of group, so we were in that. And then eventually this temple happened.

So then we used to take the children because we were all -- that is one where -- because being Hindus, how do you carry on with your traditions? So whatever is possible we used to do in the family and as a group, but then this temple came and it helped us.

NN: What's the name of the temple?

SM: We are involved in Meenakshi Temple, that is existing for 32 years now. At that time our children were a little big.

VM: That temple was the first established religious institution in Houston, Indian institution of course; since then many have come up, and we have been -- from day one we have been involved with Meenakshi Temple to this day.

And the only regret is it came full-fledged by the time our children grew up and left for college and all that. So even though it benefited -- our involvement benefited the future generations, our children were not the beneficiaries at that time.

NN: Yeah. So are you involved in any type of social, cultural --

VM: We had to be. From the very beginning we can think of Meenakshi Temple is one; ICC, the first meeting onwards, we were ICC, India Culture Center was established, now it is on very strong footing and established the India House and all that. But at that time we met in a clubhouse.

NN: What year was this?

VM: I believe maybe around 1974.

NN: 1974?

VM: 1974, I think.

NN: The India Culture Center.

VM: Indian Culture Center. Then Indo-American Charity Foundation; she was involved from the very beginning, Daya, and she was one of the founding members.

VM: Then Indian Doctors Club, which is Indian Doctors Association now, we were all the initial founders.
SM: As an Auxiliary of Indian Association, yeah, I was involved in that.

VM: So looking back it’s very, very satisfying, very accomplishment that -- and what you are doing today, you record it as facts so that our future generations can --

NN: Yeah, it is, it’s very important for our children and grandchildren to see what kind of experience we had and how it can benefit them in terms of interacting with the other populations. I mean, there are many ethnic groups who have recorded oral history from their generations.

VM: Absolutely! America of course is a melting pot from many people, and so I firmly believe we do that. This is our country now. As much as we help India wherever it’s possible, we have to pitch in to promote whatever, culture, and even though we are not in the mainstream. When we came we tried kind of season tickets for Symphony and NBA and all that; after some time you go through that stage and then you settle back.

NN: It’s kind of interesting, because initially we are attracted to all this new fancy stuff, but as we get older we are more interested in our ethnic food and our music, our culture, and we feel comfortable at home.

VM: This is what we grew up with, and that’s engrained in our brain and our whole system will --

cue point

NN: Since we are talking about the American system, let me ask you, were you fascinated by the American sports, politics?

VM: Oh, there’s so much of goodness in people. Fundamentally, Americans are very generous and very kind-hearted, even though not very well-informed, average American is not, so out of ignorance and not being aware of so many things they may -- but if I could even compare with that, Indians are not snoopy about neighbors and get into all kinds of petty kind of, so that way. Otherwise, this is a country of -- the best country you can think of if you were to leave your homeland, this is probably the best.

NN: Yeah, I was in France just two weeks ago and after drinking the water first time I said I need to go back to Sugar Land, Texas.

VM: Anywhere else in the world you feel you belong, and it’s very comfortable.

NN: So do you have any political views?

VM: Probably religion and politics are not something to be discussed on, but it’s all right. We believe in -- there is a good system here; conservatism, to the other end liberalism, somewhere in between. And I believe in sharing. Fortunately, we have made it well, the life has been good and we are getting. So I think there is a little obligation for us to take care of the not so fortunate. I believe that the people who are not so well, most of them don’t do it by choice, so that is my philosophy. Extreme, anything is bad, so is liberalism or conservatism.

NN: Do you have any hobbies, interests, special interests?

VM: Yeah, we have been involved with -- we played tennis for quite a bit, many, many years. She was in the circuit, going around; she was in the league and all that. She was a very good tennis player.
We traveled almost all over the world with children when they were young, and now we have slowed down on those things. I was very fond of photography, so that was one thing. I like to write whenever I can. That’s as a past time. What else?

NN: You touched upon your children growing up, tell me something about the cultural clash, what kind of impact it had on your children and both of you?

SM: Yeah, there was -- the clash came in the time of marriage.

NN: Is that right?

SM: Yeah, that was the worry we had in the beginning of course when the children are growing up. So that was the main worry. There was nothing else to be worried about.
So then our first daughter dropped this bombshell on us, she wanted to marry somebody, like a American boy, but he turned out to be the nicest man.

VM: In our lives, yeah. We were very concerned about many things. There are so many difference than similarities, so we were afraid.
SM: But he was very much willing to -- he knew everything, like I mean, he accepted our traditions, including our traditions.

VM: They are married almost 20 years and have two children, they are very well-settled.
Our second daughter is married to a Gujarati, and of course an Indian, similar background, they grew up here, and they have three children.
And our son is the only one who is married to a Malayali girl, whom he found out. So we don’t have anything, it’s all their choices and they are all -- thank goodness they are all well-settled and happy.

cue point

NN: So what has been your biggest lesson coming to America that you could share with the next generation?

VM: Biggest lesson, the first flight we took out of India, it wrote a different history in your life and in your future. So we after, I don’t know, thousands of years of traditions and all in India, we took the bold step or a false step, we don’t know, only time will tell, but right now we made that cutoff point and moved over to this and then we became one of the melting pots. And I firmly believe as much as we got from the society or the country, we have an obligation and a duty, responsibility to give back to that community.

NN: That is true, that is true.

VM: So we are involved with whatever charity we can. Culturally it’s limited, because we don’t have any background or that kind of thing. So that is our obligation.
Politically, I cast my vote, depending on who I feel is a right candidate.
SM: So I think we have seen the change, after one generation of our kids growing up, that is good only. Yeah, now the mainstream Indians are -- the Americans are very much aware of many of our things.
Today I just came back from the temple, there was a busload of people seeing the temple, and now they know, they automatically take their shoes off and things like that. All those traditions, they are aware of it. And see how much yoga is widespread. And our things they are accepting and even praising sometimes, our family values and all that. So that is our contribution.

VM: I should add, the fact that we tried to impart our culture and traditions to our children as they grew up, and even though they were kind of conflicting between the two cultures in the school and all that, including our children, most of our children, this next generation did extremely well accomplishing -- doing very well in school. So it has only added to two kinds of cultures, it has added to our contribution as citizens of the country.

NN: So what advise you have for the new generation Indians?

VM: New generation Indians, you are chosen to be in this country as a citizen of this country. So your loyalty, your input, you pitch in the best you can. At the same time, not forgetting your fundamental values and culture and --
SM: Roots.

VM: The roots. And in addition to that, that can be not a deterrent to the society, it could be a contribution, adding on to the cultural spectrum of this country and contributing and enhancing the culture.
So many of our values, even the ayurvedic things and the yoga, the meditation, it’s all commonplace now, and even though they may or may not give the credit to where it all came from, we can be proud that this is definitely contributing to the mainstream culture.

NN: You said when you came there were only 600 people and now it’s close to 125,000 people, with multitude of organizations and nonprofit setup and all. What is your thought on this fragmentation of the Indian society?

VM: I am with you, I wish there was a cohesiveness, and in spite of our individual interest and all that, collectively I hope we feel we are united as Indians, serving the country we have decided to be our home.

So fragmentation is a major kind of problem I see and I wish -- and also the next generations may not even have that kind of -- they may be all first Americans, could be.

NN: And like a sandwich generation and our children are also like a sandwich generation.

VM: Sandwich generation.

NN: Between, from the pure Indian culture to mixed culture, and they want to be in the mainstream altogether.

VM: So eventually that's probably what's going to happen, and though after many, many generations you still call Italian-Americans, African-Americans, and so it could be an Indian-American generation five generations from now.

NN: Things are going to evolve like the rest of the communities.

VM: But I think being the first generation or zero generation, we have done our best. I think all of us have pitched in, being good citizens. We have contributed professionally, culturally, and economically, and we are exceedingly a good community which has left our shores and established our homes in this country.

cue point

NN: Now that you are retired, let me ask you a question, how do you all spend your time?

VM: Good question, yeah.

NN: Being in a community which is different from the American life.

VM: For whatever reason we decided when we retired -- before retiring, we bought a piece of land next to the Meenakshi Temple, and it was not our plan for long-term, but then we chose to build a house adjacent to the temple. So being the temple -- and she is very religious, she walks in the temple twice a day and she spends -- and volunteering here and doing all kinds of things. So for her, it's a routine, and I am also involved in an advisory role.

And I do read, write. So temple has been a very big, positive thing in retirement age. I hope we can establish a community around the temple so maybe we can have --

NN: You wrote a book and --

VM: I didn’t know that it would be of relevance here, but this is a book written in Malayalam, it's about our mother, my mother.

NN: What could be more important than a mother?

VM: Exactly! So when she passed away three years ago, I was here, I wasn’t with her, but she was in the hospital only for one day, she was 93-years-old, and she raised seven children; I am the eldest of the seven.

NN: I see, yeah.

VM: And when I went there, the usual traditional final rites and all that, I was leading as the eldest. So after we finished all that, 14 or 15 days of those things, we all sat around and then talked about, maybe we should write something about our mother. So it so evolved that after a year we have written enough, so my brother in India compiled the whole thing as a book; it means our mother.

NN: You know, it's ironic what you and your brothers have done in a book is what the Foundation For India Studies is doing, recording the experiences of first generation Indians, so it very perfectly fits with what we are trying to do this afternoon.

VM: Excellent! So that's our accomplishment, and it's probably one thing we can always pass it on to the -- unfortunately, it's mostly in Malayalam, I am in the process of translating it into English. It's not that easy, but for our children to understand, so that’s what I am trying to do.

NN: Do you think America is headed in the right direction in overall perspective compared to what it was in the 1960s and the 1980s?


VM: You ask that question and I am reminded of that book that recently -- who fell into kind of trouble with, what is it, Fareed Zakaria, who wrote ‘The Post-American World’. Of course every country passes through the phase of evolution. India probably 1,000, 2,000 years ago had its time, and then Europe came along, and this is the millennium of United States of America.
And I think it is still many years behind in its history or future that it will still be -- of course it has become a small -- universe has become very small with all the communications and all the technology. So a child growing up in India or United States or anywhere in the world is exposed to the same kind of information.
So that way, economically there is -- always there is -- right now China is coming up and I don’t know, we cannot --
But if we stay to our original habits and traditions of this country, working hard and reaching the best you can, and from the input and all the sharing of cultures and heritage from all over the world, this is a country which will be on the top for a long time, that’s my view.

NN: So what are your future plans, you are still young?

VM: I am still young, turned 75 three days ago, 28th was my 75th birthday.

NN: Congratulations!

VM: And I keep -- I don’t know, with all our philosophical understanding or belief, you shouldn’t be worrying about that, but it is a concern, how we are going to go, how long it’s going to take?
So future is, keep doing what you are doing and let the destiny or fate take its course. Of course, for we are reasonably alright probably financially and of course then if it runs out of our hands then of course children can decide, and they are good children, they are caring

NN: You are watching Foundation For India Studies’ Oral History Project, I am Dr. Nik Nikam. And our guests today are Dr. Venugopal Menon and Sridevi Menon. Any final thoughts you have?

VM: So this is a tremendous project you are doing Foundation For India Studies and Oral History, recording the whole thing, and all the volunteers, our gratitude and our appreciation, and for Dr. Nikam doing a splendid job! And I hope it makes some sense collectively what we have talked about. Collectively it will be of some benefit to the future generation and for the project you are doing. So thanking you!

NN: Sridevi, do you have any final thoughts?
SM: The same thing, I agree with him, like this is a good idea, recording all this. It will be there for the future generations.

NN: Thank you very much!

VM: Thank you!

NN: Thank you very much! I am Dr. Nik Nikam. We are talking about Foundation For India Studies’ Oral History Project. This has been a presentation of the Foundation For India Studies in collaboration with Houston Community College and also Houston Public Library.
We want to thank the Houston Community College for hosting this project here, and we also want to thank the Houston Public Library for hosting the recorded video on their library permanently. Again, I am Dr. Nik Nikam. Thank you for watching Foundation For India Studies!