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An Accountant In New York

by Shrikant Rangnekar

Mahesh Agashiwala came to America in October 1970 at the age of 26. He came from a well-to-do family in Bombay, India. His father was a partner at a prominent accounting firm. He was interested in accounting as a career, and was expected to make a career in his father's firm.

In the seventies, the Indian economy was a "License Raj"-almost any business action required a license from the government. A license could only be obtained by an elaborate process of bribery. If you did succeed in making money, the highest tax bracket was 97% which no one paid, paying bribes instead. When he started working for the firm, he saw the pervasiveness of corruption in the system. He correctly concluded that he would have to be proficient in bribing in order to succeed as an accountant in India. He did not want to lead that kind of professional life. Further, in the firm itself, he had a privileged and protected status of "boss's son". He was eager to shed this protected life in a corrupt system, and see what he could do on his own in a clean country. He concluded that it was not his cup of tea to fight to change the system, and that it would be in his best interest to migrate to another English speaking country.

At that time, America welcomed educated immigrants. He had a Bachelors' degree in Business Administration and Law as well as Chartered Accountant diploma (the Indian equivalent of a CPA). He decided to move to America. He was granted a green card through the predecessors of EB2 3rd preference visa for skilled professionals.

His father and his partners were taken aback at his decision of giving up the golden path ready for him-an action almost unheard of at that time in India. They tried to dissuade him with the strongest of words. But he had made up his mind-he was going to seek an independent life in America.

On his way to America, he made two stops to visit friends. The first stop was in Tehran, Iran. Many Indians were being drawn to the lucrative jobs in the oil countries in the Persian Gulf during the oil boom of the 70's. Though the friends he visited were doing well financially, he noticed that they were always looking over their shoulder afraid of being spied on by SAVAK, the Shah's secret police. He did not want to even think of living there no matter how good the financial benefits were.

The next day, he had a stopover in London for a day to visit a friend. He was grilled for a long time by the immigration agent at the Airport, though he wanted to stay in London only for a day and had a ticket to New York for the next day. After answering a battery of questions, he was allowed to stay for a day in London. He was turned off by this experience.

When he landed in New York, his experience was diametrically opposite to those described above. The agent greeted him cheerfully. After he looked through his papers, he said "Could you wait for 5 minutes, sir? I will get your green card. Thank you for choosing America as your country." He felt he had come to the right country.

In the seventies, when immigrants landed in America they had very little information about America, and they were in for a series of shocks as they learnt about their new country. They had left behind the protective circle of family and relatives. They had to learn the simplest things to the most complex things on their own, like making a telephone call, finding a job, and communicating (Mahesh's first employer asked him to talk slower because he could not understand a word of what he said otherwise.)

He had arrived in New York with $8 in his pocket. His friend who had come to receive him informed him that the taxi to the city would cost $10 and hence they took a bus and subway to get to the city for 35 cents. Many Indian youths who came to New York in those times ended up sharing rooms in youth hostels in the vicinity of Columbia University. His first order of business was to find a job--any job. He had never done any manual labor before, but he took factory job because that was the only one he could find immediately. In India, he had lived in a protected environment created by his family. He had never understood the value of a dollar until he had worked with his hands and earned his first one here in the US.

Soon he started looking for accounting jobs. He discovered that his extensive Indian education was not acceptable to the prospective employers. The professional CPA firms wanted someone with an American education or experience. For others, he was "over-qualified", a term he never heard in India. He decided that he had to get a CPA in order to be employed in the accounting industry. But there were eligibility requirements to take the exam including a liberal arts education. He started taking evening classes in American history, literature etc. to qualify for the CPA Exam.

While working on the CPA, he decided to find a book keeping job. Getting the first job as a book keeper was hard. He would apply for jobs and wait to be called on a public phone outside his room at the hostel. Finally, he received a call from an employer who needed to hire a book keeper in a hurry. The employer asked him how much he expected to be paid. He was desperate to get the job and was scared to ask for too much money. His friends in the hostel were doing mostly manual work and making $100 per week, so he asked for $110/week with trepidation. The employer said he would pay him $125/week instead. In two weeks, seeing that Mahesh could do everything he was expected to do and much more, the employer raised it to $175/week on his own. Mahesh was struck by the sense of fair play in the US. He spent two years working as a book keeper while working on the preliminaries necessary to take the CPA Exam and got the accounting job he had hoped to get when he landed here.

Over the last 35 years, Mahesh built a successful accounting practice in Manhattan. I asked him what he likes about America. He said that he likes the American people because they are friendly, open and fair. His greatest satisfaction about his decision to come to America and leading a professional life is that he was neither asked nor has paid a single bribe--in this clean country, he was able to focus instead on working well and taking care of his wife and children.

Editor's note: This article is part of a series featuring the stories of immigrants based on interviews by ILW.COM team member Shrikant Rangnekar.