Archive for October, 2011

Poor Immigrants in America: an Ongoing Story

I’m using my blog space now to publish a Bengali story I recently translated. This is important for me as a first-generation immigrant because even though Said Mujtaba Ali wrote this story at least fifty years ago, the situation has not changed much when it comes to poor, new immigrants’ lives here in America.

I hope you have time to read it and let me know your thoughts. Also, this is one of the dozens of Bengali and Indian stories I translated with hopes to publish them as a book.

Thank you. I’ll come back soon to continue on with my regular blog.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

_________________________

Salt Water

Said Mujtaba Ali

(1904-1974)

It was the good-old Goalanda-Chandpur steam ship. I knew the liner for the past thirty years. Even with my eyes closed, I could reach for and find the water tap, the tea stand, and the poultry cages. Yet, I was not a sailor– only an irregular passenger.

Over these thirty years, everything else had changed except for this small group of mail-dispatch steamers. They made a few little redesigning here and there on the deck or in the cabins, but the smell of all the vessels stayed just about the same. It was a kind of wet, a sort of grimy feeling, and then the thick, garlicy odor of chicken curry cooked on board, a smell that pervaded everything. I’d often thought that maybe the ship itself was a humongous chicken, and they were cooking its curry within its own cavity. One could easily find the stench at Chandpur, Goalanda or Narayanganj[1] – any of the regular stops. Indeed, these ships were living, visible mementos of the old times; the only thing that noticeably differed was a sparser crowd on board.

I took my afternoon meal, lay down on a deck chair and looked at the distant horizon. Poetry never came to me: I’d be hard-pressed to find beauty until Rabi Thakur[2] made me appreciate it. I therefore liked the music box more than the moonshine. I was about to bring over my portable gramophone when a mangled literary magazine, like an unescorted woman, caught my eyes. Well, I thought, what’s the harm even if a stranger me had flirted with her for a little while – would it really annoy her lawful companion?

In the magazine, a new young writer nicknamed Bystander wrote a compelling story about steamship drudgers who worked like dogs. Wow, I said to myself, this guy got to be talented – how could he describe so much in such a meticulous way? How did he manage to dig out so much? Boy, it’s a big scoop…a pure scandal! As far as my writing talents, even putting together a leave of application would be overwhelming. The stuff this guy wrote though…was it true? It was massive injustice; why didn’t the laborers fight back against it? But pooh…these naïve idiots would fight against the cunning, powerful British merchants?[3] That’d be absurd.

My eyes fell on the Second Officer of the ship – they called him the Mate. He’d probably had a day off. Wearing his silk lungi, cotton shirt and embroidered Islamic taz, he was taking a leisurely deck stroll. He glanced at me a few times too. Well, I thought, why not ask this fella how much of the Bystander story was for real and how much was hot-air fluff.

I cleared my throat a little loudly and asked him, “Hello Mr. Mate Sir, I hope the boat ain’t doin’ late.”

The man quickly walked up to me and wrung his hands, “Oh Sir, please don’t call me Sir, Sir. I haven’t seen you more than a couple of times, but I know your dad and brothers, Sir. All of them have been kind and generous to me, Sir.”

Needless to say, I was quite taken by his modesty. I asked, “Where do you come from? Do you have time to sit down and chat a little, or you’re perhaps too busy?”

Right away, he squatted down on the deck with a thud.

I said, “Oh brother, why, bring a stool or something…you don’t need to sit on…” I didn’t finish my sentence and he didn’t bring a stool either[4]. Then we had a talk. He was a fellow Bengali Mussalman[5]; so we of course talked about our lives, our common pleasures and sorrows. Finally, I took the opportunity to read him the entire Bystander story. He listened to it with great attention, so much so that it seemed he was following his Mullah’s sermon at the mosque.

Then he sighed a very long sigh, put his right hand on the forehead in reverence to the Almighty and said, “Sir, you mentioned lack of justice; but then, where do you find justice in this world? Those who have the most from Allah are the biggest promoters of injustice. Then, who knows what kind of justice Allah has provided for whom?…Did you know our Samiruddi who lived in Mirika for many years and became rich?”

The word Mirika, or America, helped me remember the name. “Wasn’t he from the Chauthali area or some place like that?”

The sailor said, “He was from my village Dhalaichara, Sir. The money he made overseas was…like very few people could make that kind of money. We both went to the Kolkata Khidirpur Dock and signed up together to work aboard.”

I asked, “What happened to him? I don’t quite know the whole story.”

He said, “Listen Sir…

The story you just read to me about injustice on ship laborers was all valid and true. However, nobody can describe the extent of the suffering one goes through here especially when they start working…nobody would know how hellish it is if had he not done it himself. The guy who stands next to the boiler for hours and dumps coal into it – have you ever seen how his whole body sweats? And here upstairs on this same ship with both ends wide open, with sweet breeze blowing across from the river Padma. At the same time, in that cavity, in the engine room, it’s dark, all the doors are shut tight, and no air can enter. Nobody can imagine how big that boiler room is for these ten or twelve thousand-ton steamships, and how terribly hot it is. Children of the rivers, free spirits we are – suddenly, one fine morning, we discover ourselves thrown into a hell full of huge, black, oily machines and iron shafts.

The first few months, everybody simply passes out. They pull them out on the deck and douse them under the water tap. After they regain consciousness, they feed them with lumps of salt; all the salt from the body comes out with the sweat – without the force-feeding, they’d die.

Or, you see someone dumping coal into the boiler quite normally; then suddenly, he drops everything, shoots out and runs up the stairs to jump overboard. He’s lost his head in the intolerable heat. Sir, we sailors call this Emokh.”

I asked, “Is this the same as the English word Amuck? But then people running amuck might try to kill someone!”

The sailor said, “Yes Sir, they do. If you want to stop him at that time, he’d grab anything he can find and kill you.” After a little pause, he said, “Well Sir, we’ve all had this bout once or twice and others have calmed us down by dumping water on us. But Samiruddi never ever had this problem – that’s how strong he was. Did you ever see him Sir? He was as slim as an eel, but his body was as tough as the turtle shell. We had a giant-like Chinese chef – Samiruddi could lift him with two hands and throw him down on the floor with the blink of an eye. His leopard-like strength came from doing gymnastics in the country with bamboo poles. But the reason he never fainted in the boiler room is not because of his physical strength but rather his mental firmness; he had determination that he would make money by any means, and that he wouldn’t faint or fall sick, ever.”

The sailor continued the story of his voyage, “After going through hell for the first few weeks, we finally reached the city of Culum.”

I asked, “Where’s Culum?”

He said, “Sir, in Bengali it’s called Lanka.”

I said, “I see, it’s Colombo.”

“Indeed, Sir. Our accent is not as refined as yours. We call it Culum City. They let us get off for a while, but kept a close eye on us, the first-time workers. Samuriddi however didn’t even get off. He said, ‘Getting down would mean unnecessary spending.’ And he was right: sailors off the ship blow money like crazy. Those who never saw a five-taka[6] bill in his entire life now have fifteen or twenty in their hand. He wants to buy a crow!

At the port, we ate to our heart’s content: especially vegetables. We don’t see that stuff much on the ship – it’s practically non-existent.

Then we sailed from Culum to Adun.”

I knew he meant Port of Eden.

“From there, we crossed the Red Sea over to Suso’s Khadi – on both sides was nothing but the desert and piles and piles of sand, and in the middle there was this narrow canal.”

I realized Suso’s Khadi was the Suez Canal, the way he described it.

“Then we went on to Pursoi where the Khadi ended. It was a swell port city. We got off to have vegetable salads. The veterans slipped out to commit sin.”

I noticed that the sailor knew about the famous red light district of Port Said. By that time, I sort of got a hang of how English and other foreign terms were transcribed in his Sylheti[7] dialect. I’d realized he was now talking about Marseilles or Hamburg. I also noticed that he’d mastered the names of the ports directly from French or German and was using the original pronunciations, unlike in the distorted English way we call them.

The sailor said, “All the cargo was disembarked at Hambur. We reloaded the ship there, and crossing over the big ocean, arrived at the port of Nu-Awk – in the Mirikin country.

But they wouldn’t let anybody – either a first-timer or a veteran – get off at Nu-Awk; they were too strict. And why not? Mirikin country is the land of gold. Even idiots like us could easily make five to seven hundred there. People with a darker skin color – much darker than us – make even more. If they let us disembark, all would take a flight and disperse around the country, like a swarm of bees, to make money. That would hurt Mirikans a lot. So, they kept us confined on the ship.

Just before we dropped anchor at the port of Nu-Awk, Samiruddi got a bad stomach flu. All of us had often faked illness to avoid work, but because Samiruddi never did it, upon any excuses, the doctor allowed him to take off from work and rest.

The evening the ship arrived at Nu-Awk, Samiruddi called me over, asked me to swear to Allah, and whispered that he had a plan to escape. He explained it to me.

You wouldn’t believe Sir how meticulously he’d crafted it. He’d already bought from Kolkata’s flea market a nice-looking blue suit, shirt, tie, shoes and socks. I only helped him to get a large, brass soup pan. When it was dark, Samiruddi put on his swimming trunks and climbed down into the ocean away from the shore side. He put all his clothes and a towel in the pan. He’d push the pan through the water with his chest and drift half a mile away from the crowd to get on shore. Once he was there, he’d wipe off, sink the pan and swimming trunks, and walk merrily into the city. A friend from Sylhet would wait there for him; he’d already sent him a message from Hambur. Until the cops gave up on chasing him, he’d just hide there for a few days, shave his beard and go to a place far from Nu-Awk, a place where Sylhetis lived and made money. He’d of course run the risk of being caught ashore, but once he managed to put on his suit and dissolve into the street, nobody could think of him anyone but an ordinary beach-goer.

The plan worked out, Sir. They started looking for him the next morning. By the time, the bird flew out of his cage and hid into the woods. There was no trace of him. It was like, maybe the cops could catch the bird back from the woods, but not Samiruddi from the wilderness of the big city.”

The sailor stopped for a while and left for his Zohr prayers[8]. He returned quickly and resumed it without any further ado, “After that Sir, I spent a full seven years on the ship. A few times I landed at Kolkata’s Khidirpur, but never got an opportunity to go home. There was no reason for me to go home either: my parents were dead, and I hadn’t married at that time…so nobody to visit, really. I always sent money to my dad when he was alive; he spent his last few years happily. Peace Be Upon Him, Sir, the old woman still cried for me. Well Sir, someone like me who’s never distressed by the vast ocean salt water couldn’t be distressed by a few drops of tears, could he?”

Of course, he said that, but then I saw a few drops of salt water moistening his eyes.

He continued, “Anyway, what I learned from people over the years was that Samiruddi had made tons of money; he’d often sent money back home, but he’d settled in the Mirikin country and would not return. To be honest, I never regretted his decision because who’d know where the Almighty found food for us?

Then, one day at work, I slipped on an oil spill in the bathroom and broke my ankle. I had to leave my cargo-ship job, came back home and then got a job on this dispatch steamer. A few days later, I was getting ready to wash up for the early-morning prayer – I was stunned to see Samiruddi sitting on the deck. Wow! I ran up to him, gave him a big hug and said, “Samiruddi, Brother, you’re here!” In an instant, I remembered how much I’d loved him and cared for him.

But I was even more stunned to see that he didn’t even respond. He sat there just like a piece of wood and stared at the sea. I said, “I never heard you got back. And now where are you headed – Kolkata? Why? Didn’t you like to be back home?”

But he didn’t say a thing. He sat there still and silent, like a fakir, a saint. He kept looking at the ocean, as if he didn’t even see me.

I knew something was wrong. However, for the time being, I didn’t bother him. I dragged him to my cabin and put a variety of food on the table: fried eggs, paratha[9] and all — things that he always liked. But he wouldn’t even touch it. Yet, very slowly, like a mother feeding her stubborn child, I put some food in his mouth.

That afternoon, I didn’t let him get off at Goalanda: I remembered how he’d escaped and disappeared in Nu-Awk.

Samiruddi opened up late at night, and that too, rather abruptly.”

The Mate paused, maybe, to catch a breath, or for some other reason. I didn’t push him either. Then he said, “Sir, I don’t know how I can describe his hurt and sorrow in the best possible way. I still remember how he told me his story in the darkness of my cabin that night. His words pierced through the dark and hit me hard, even though he didn’t speak for long at all.

In seven years, Samiruddi had sent more than twenty thousand to his brother at home. I don’t even know how much twenty thousand is; I’ve never seen it in my life…”

I interrupted, “Neither have I.”

“There you go, Sir, so you know how many lives it takes to make that kind of money…

He first sent five hundred and wrote his brother to get the family house out of the lender’s mortgage. Then he sent about two thousand to buy the wasteland next to the house; then a lot more to dig a lake out of the wasteland, and gradually even more to build in the village an urban-style, brick-walled, tile-roofed house, and in the back a pond only for women. He sent money to purchase cows, barns, rice fields, warehouses and so on, and finally, five thousand to build a cement-made mosque in front of the lake.

For seven years, Samiruddi labored in Mirika two or three shifts a day, like an animal. The money he made was all clean, uncorrupt; the money he spent on himself was pittance – even beggars in Mirika can afford more than that.

All the money he made, he poured in to build the house, to buy the land. He thought just like the people in Mirika who live in their own house and plough their own land, he’d do the same once he went back to his poor village.

His brother back in his village kept writing him letters that he’d been taking care of everything and things were sure being built one at a time. Finally, the day Samiruddi learned that the mosque had been completed, he left Nu-Awk to return home. Samiruddi was a highly skilled worker by now and with the recommendation from his previous employers, easily got a job on the ship. He disembarked at Kolkata in the evening and went straight to the rail station. He spent the night at the station platform, and the next day, took the Chittagong mail train to Sylhet. At three o’clock early morning, the train arrived at the local station in Sylhet. Without waiting for a minute, he started walking to their village Dhalaichara: he’d reach there around sunrise. He’d have to walk across a rice field just before his village could be seen.

At the crack of dawn, Samiruddi walked across the rice field.

His brother had written about a tall tower of the newly built mosque. Samiruddi had an Egyptian engineer friend in Mirika who did the design for him; he drew the design based on a famous mosque in Egypt. You would see the tower from far, just the way they’s see it on the Egyptian desert.

But Samiruddi was baffled not to see the tower. Then he walked some more toward the village and found neither the new lake, nor the brick house. Everything remained just the about same as ever before.”

I stopped the Mate and asked in great surprise, “What was the matter?”

It seemed the sailor didn’t even hear me. He carried on, as if in a daze, “Nothing – none whatsoever. It was the same-old, rundown straw hut – it was even older now. The day Samiruddi left home, the hut had four poles to prop it up; now it had six. Could it be that brother had built the house and all in another locality? Well, in that case, wouldn’t he ever write him about it?

At this time, he ran into Basit Mullah, an elderly man and village priest. He recognized Samiruddi, ran up to him and took him in his arms.

First though, he didn’t want to divulge anything. Then, at Samiruddi’s insistence, he broke the news right there in the middle of the field. The brother blew away all the money. In the beginning, he did it at nearby towns – Sylhet, Maulavi Bazar – then in Kolkata…spent it all on gambling, cheap women, and what not.”

I couldn’t keep quiet anymore. I said, “What in the world are you talking about, Mate? It must’ve been too much of a shock for him. But tell me, why didn’t someone from the village write him about what was going on?”

The sailor said, “How’d they know why and how much of the money was coming in the first place? The brother kept telling them that Samiruddi had made millions in Mirika and sent just a small fragment for him to have fun. He didn’t even show Samiruddi’s letters to anyone else, and even though Samiruddi himself was illiterate and had someone else read and write for him, he’d sent his brother to school. Still, Basit Mullah and some other village elders were worried to see the brother throwing so much money away, and did advise him to build a house or buy some land. But he said that Samiruddi got married in Mirika and would never return. Even if he did, he’d bring another million and put three houses together in a matter of weeks.”

I said, “Oh my God, that is so evil!”

The sailor said, “Samiruddi didn’t set foot in the village. He slowly got up, and walked back to the train station. The Mullah must have requested him not to leave, but he wouldn’t listen. He said he was going to go back to his own country now.

The Kolkata train would come at night; he’d wait the entire day at the station. Meanwhile, Mullah and a few other men found the wretched brother and dragged him down to him. The brother sobbed and wept, fell to his feet and sought thousand apologies. Mullah said, “Son, if you want to go back to Mirika, that’s up to you; we’d understand. But please stay back for a few days before you did.”

I asked, “How did that shameless criminal come to see him in the first place?”

The sailor said, “I had the same question. But Sir, do you know what Samiruddi did? He didn’t slap or kick his brother or yelled at him or nothing. He simply said that he would not return to the village, and asked the village elderly not to insist.

It was the next morning I saw him, like I said before, on this ship. He sat there still, like a ghost…like a puppet they sell at the country fair.”

The sailor took a deep breath and said, “Samiruddi told me the entire story in a few minutes. But in the end, he muttered a few words I didn’t quite understand. What he said in effect was that the street beggar dreamed that he’d suddenly found riches, only to wake up the next morning in his own old, real world of rags. He said, ‘I sent money home to buy property, to become a rich man. Where am I going to be, now that the future I dreamed of is shattered?’ That was the last time I saw him.”

The Mate stopped. If it were a fiction instead of a true story, I probably would’ve stopped too. But because it’s not a fiction, I must write the rest of it. Or, it wouldn’t be fair on anyone.

The Mate said, “It’s been so many years, but seems it was just the other night Samiruddi sat here, telling me his heart-wrenching tale.

But you mentioned justice, Sir. Can you please tell me where to find it? Listen.

Samiruddi went back to Mirika, and in ten years made another thirty thousand. This time, he wouldn’t send the money to anyone; he kept it in a bank. Finally, he set out to return home, but couldn’t make it: he died on the ship. The news reached his village, and because Samiruddi had no other direct relations, his money eventually came back to his brother. He blew it again.

Justice, Sir? Where is it?”

###

Across the Seven Seas...In Search of Gold...

 


[1] Port cities now in Bangladesh.

[2] Nobel Laureate poet and author Rabindranath Tagore.

[3] In pre-partition, undivided Bengal – a then-British colony – the shipping companies were owned by English owners. On-board laborers were brutally repressed.

[4] Traditionally, younger people would not sit at the same level with the elderly or someone respectable.

[5] South Asian synonym for Muslim.

[6] Bengali currency: now official currency of Bangladesh. Indian West Bengalis still call the Indian Rupee a Taka.

[7] Sylhet is an eastern district in East Bengal, now Bangladesh.

[8] Devout Muslims offer prayers five times a day.

[9] Fried hand-made flour bread.

Long…Long… in City Pent

“To one who has been long in City Pent…”

Obviously, I’m stealing from Keats. Obviously, it’s a bad steal.

Tonight is Diwali night. For those who don’t know what Diwali is, its Westernized, twenty-first-century synonym is Festival of Lights. Tonight, all over India, regardless of religion, class or caste, men, women and children light up their houses with clay lamps, candles, electric lights, and perhaps these days, electronic illuminations. Fireworks light up a new-moon sky throughout the night. Music and dance floats down every city street and village nooks. Sweets are almost force-fed into even the Lord and Lady Glum of each and every household.

Even though Diwali is really built around the religious observance of worshiping Goddess Kali who vanquishes the demon in a terrible, clothe-less, armed dance in the dark, desolate and scary burning Hindu pyre field, along with her female demons, witches and sorceresses — in a fiercely feminist exhibition of wrath, the rather strange and cultural manifest has drawn in Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Parsees, Buddhists, intellectuals and atheists…and surprisingly, the social outcastes and so-called untouchables…even though I have every reason to believe in many parts of India, the poor and the hapless do not have means to be a part of any lavish festivities.

But at least, there is an attempt in modern-day India to be a little more inclusive than ever before when it comes to be merry; I have other reasons to believe that uppity young-generation Indians do not choose friends and companions based on castes (unless it’s one of those God-forsaken, primitive places where they still practice suttee)…even though the class and religion barriers are still in vogue. It’s just like here in the U.S. where the younger, liberal Americans would not mind dating or marrying boys and girls from a new immigrant family — as long as they belong to their privileged class. I have not seen much social blending across economic classes here just the same way I have not seen a lot of inter-religious weddings in India, or for that matter, marriage between a “high caste” and a “low caste.” There are probably a handful of exceptions.

But this is not a lecture on social science or cultural anthropology. It’s an ongoing journey into some never-ending personal feelings — hoping that somewhere my journey would resonate and find common grounds with like-minded others. Tonight, on this Deepavali night — night of many lamps — sitting here in this remote corner of a Brooklyn neighborhood, melancholy has a field day. And overwhelming isolation takes over. Lighting up the fourteen, long-saved clay lamps once a year, in front of the house, remembering my mother doing the same on the window-sill of our North Calcutta mezzanine apartment, shedding a tear in her memory, and at the same time hoping that here across the seven seas some passing-by neighbors would notice the flickers and then make an appreciative gesture — these emotions rock back and forth.

Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta wrote about it two centuries ago. About this alienation.

Bengali poet Michael Madhusudan Dutta wrote about it two centuries ago. About this alienation.

Pity Tent — I named it, just for tonight. Pity Tent — because it’s living like refugees in a makeshift tent; you are allowed to use your imagination to know what kind of tent and refugees I’m talking about (hint: it doesn’t have to be physical). It’s turning cold. It’s turning windy. The clay lamps would not last long in this increasingly uncomfortable, late-fall-evening wind. Cold weather would not allow us to stand outside on the porch to enjoy it for too long either. We took some quick snaps. There was not much time to notice who passed by and noticed those short-lived flickers, and made an appreciative gesture. Maybe, they did. Maybe, they didn’t.

“Who is more happy, when, with heart’s content,

Fatigued he sinks into some pleasant lair

Of wavy grass, and reads a debonair

And gentle tale of love and languishment?”

That was Keats a hundred years ago. This is me, now in 2011. He longed for a gentle tale of love and languishment. He wanted to know who is more happy and who is fatigued. Yeah? Perhaps…with a little poetic stretch?

“E’en like the passage of an angel’s tear

That falls through the clear ether silently.”

On this night when Festival of Lights permeates a billion hearts on the other side of the globe, I am yearning for an angel’s tear. I’m waiting to see an almost invisible rainbow of lights across the eastern sky — as sure indication that the fireworks have started now…there. There begins the community Kali Puja on our Calcutta street. The country drums are now blaring…Hindu women are blowing the holy conch shells…it’s auspicious time to garland Mother Kali with the one-hundred-and-eight-flower blood-red Hibiscus garland.

Ever lived on two sides of the globe…exactly at the same time? I have. In fact, I have been living like that for a long time now. Here…there…and everywhere.

Some days are not Pity Tent days. Some nights are. Tonight is one of those nights. For me, for us — who know what we miss and how much. To one…who has been there…this soliloquy is especially for you.

Tonight, I’ll dream of my mother lighting those little clay lamps on the window sill of our North Calcutta mezzanine apartment. Tonight, I’ll dream of the firecrackers, sparkling sticks, burning snakes and red-n-green matchsticks my friends and I lit up on our unpaved, earth-smelling alleys. Tonight, I’ll be happy imagining how happy those people are…

I am a first-generation immigrant American now. I am tough. I must be. I am stoic. I must be. I am not a wimp. I shall not be too emotional.

Right?

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

###

Live Here…and There…Everywhere!

Have you ever lived on two opposite sides of globe…exactly at the same time?

I have. In fact, I have been living that way for a long time now.

I want to keep it very simple this time. Look at this map. I’m talking about USA and India. They’re precisely on the opposite sides of each other on the globe.

Look at the dots and lines. On the U.S. map, it points perhaps to New York or Washington. On the Indian map, it perhaps points to Bombay, now called Mumbai. It could have pointed to New Delhi…or Kolkata (better known as Calcutta) where I left behind my father, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces…teachers…students…and hundreds of friends…literally hundreds of friends…and neighbors. These are people I grew up with and spent quality (or lazy) time with. In India, friends and neighbors are often like your family. In Kolkata or Benaras, you call your next door neighbor uncle or aunt; their daughter comes straight into your living room (they call it drawing room) — often the only room in the house — every morning to read the second newspaper or pages of the one and only newspaper you’re not reading; your mom would even treat her with some breakfast. Your childhood friend would show up and yell your name from the street; then he’d come in and have some tea and snacks with you before dragging you out to another friend’s house for a second round of tea.

I know of a few people in our North Calcutta whose children grew up believing their neighbors were their family members; they were heartbroken (and got very sick) when the neighbors moved away. There is a society in place, unlike here in America, where the society there was even thirty years ago is practically non-existent (now don’t tell me Facebook or Google Chat is society: that’s pure crap).

In the country where I grew up, if you needed help, and asked for ten people, a hundred would easily show up, causing you much annoyance. But that’s how it was. Calcutta and Bengal, particularly, were more like it (I have some knowledge to believe the entire Indian subcontinent used to be like that). There’s a society you could count on; there was a society you soaked up life from. Of course, with the neo-colonization of young minds and invasion of Facebook, Skype and online chat, it’s changing fast. But it’s still somewhat like it, especially in poor and low-income neighborhoods — like the one where I grew up.

North Calcutta, where I grew up

India doesn’t have a time zone system. Unlike USA, it also doesn’t turn its clock forward or backward twice a year (here, I’m not using a metaphor, just in case you thought so). Therefore, roughly, discounting those zones and small time shifts in the U.S., when it’s nine o’clock in the morning here in the U.S., it’s approximately nine o’clock at night over there in India. When it’s five in the afternoon here, it’s five in the morning over there.

You think it’s fun that way? Like, imagining what people are doing back there at nine in the morning — getting ready to go to work or school when you’re about to contemplate a night-time reading or on weekdays, perhaps crash early? Do you find it exciting to imagine what if those people back there are thinking about you exactly at the same time? In fact, if you ran your imagination wild, and especially if you had imagination in the first place (or did not go brain dead after being displaced and isolated-exiled for so long), you could see mental pictures that nobody else could even dream of. That’s what I call imagination. Try it! I did.

Well, ah…maybe not: don’t try it if you can’t handle it. Many people can’t handle it. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend you lived your life like that. First, you’d fast slip into depression out of those rocking back ‘n forth emotions; secondly, you could either run somebody over here if you’re driving, or get run over by somebody if you’re walking. See picture below.

That imagination is academically exciting and nostalgically romantic. But not fun…especially the run-over part. Be stoic, be indifferent, and get rid of all your fluffy, corny, soppy, weepy, wimpy emotions. Live in one world only…at a time. Life will be peaceful that way…and you’ll have your bones where they’re supposed to be.

Don’t Day Dream. Get Real.

I am a first-generation immigrant. That means I came to America myself as an immigrant from India some two decades ago. I originally came as a foreign student to do my Ph.D. in biology; later, after being in science for many years, when I could afford time and money, I switched careers and got a second graduate degree to move into humanities. I also have no relatives in America; unlike many other immigrants who come here from various parts of the globe on family reunification, my small nuclear family and I lived here all by ourselves for so many years. Now, after being here for so long, we have found many wonderful friends; some of them have become like our family. Yet, the longing for India and the place and people we left behind still haunts us. Sometimes, the longing becomes unbearable.

Now, I’m not writing about it to sound like a cry-baby — a whiner. I’ve lived in America long enough to get rough and tough (in fine language, they call it acculturation). In America, you couldn’t survive as a first-generation immigrant if you’re not rough and tough: you’d plain wither away. I’ve seen a lot of whiners and whimpers especially from India who simply perished because they could never adjust to this new land that asks for nerves and muscles. I’m just glad after the first couple of years (when there was a constant urge to return to India), we got used to it, and made the best out of it. This new land had a lot to offer — good and bad — and we took advantage of both: the good to make us better, and also the bad to make us understand what is good and what is bad. In India, in Calcutta, Mumbai, Karachi or Dhaka, nobody teaches you the bad unless you grew up bad; immediate result is that you snap and buckle and break down at the first encounter of bad. Or, you get sucked up quick in the bad quicksand.

Anyway. I shall come back and write more. You come back too. You’ll like it. Promise.

I know you will.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Here He Comes! That's Him, That's Him!

Ahem. Announcement. Loudspeaker. Drumroll. Would you please meet your own Renaissance Man?

Would you please consider standing up and greet your one and only Renaissance Man…like…the only one you’ve known in your personal, private world? That’s the purpose of the words “your” and “own.”

Is it too much of an expectation from him? Is it too much of a demand? At least…a dream…maybe?

I know other than you, nobody knows him. He is not big. He is not tall. He is not rich. He is not famous. He’s not white. He’s not black. He can’t run fast. He can’t shoot guns. He can’t climb mountains…he can’t move mountains…he can’t even climb a tree. He’s not an agile swimmer; he can barely float. He’s not a heavyweight lifter; his knees gave out because of a series of cricket and soccer-football injuries. His left ear has been ringing bad in winter since seventh grade when a North Calcutta thug punched him hard. His rib cage aches from time to time even since in eighth grade a school teacher beat him up black and blue.

He does not come from a prosperous family; he doesn’t have any pedigree. He doesn’t belong to the elite class so that people truly hate him. He doesn’t even belong to the proletariat class so that people truly empathize him. He is not widely traveled. He has not read all the books an averagely intelligent person should read…not even all the available English translations of famous writers…not even enough English literature in English. He’s not a polyglot; he’s only managed to speak, read and write a couple of simple dialects. He is not even that fluent in languages he’s picked up. In fact, if you make him angry or nervous, he starts fumbling and mumbling even speaking the handful of new words he painstakingly learned. You can hear him stammer…that is…if you can get close to him. But It’s difficult to get close to him because he’s often rude and arrogant and defensive and egotistical and unyielding. He is not an easy man. Common perception is that he’s a difficult man.

But he still believes he is your personal, one-and-only Renaissance Man. Therefore, would you please rise up and delight him with a standing ovation? Here he comes…confetti, claps, table thumping and loud cheers…major jostling for a close-up look…media frenzy…paparazzi shots…black limousine…red carpet…limelight…flashlight…floodlight…fill-in light…deep focus…soft silhouettes, pretty, young, tall female companions in sexy evening dresses…

Well…um…actually…they’re not there with him…yet. But you’re a sensitive, imaginative person, aren’t you? You can imagine it all! Can’t you?

Please do. It’s big fun that way…to imagine…paint a mental picture!

Now, why in the world does he consider himself to be a Renaissance Man? I mean, given what we just heard about him and drew a mental picture, what makes him think that he belongs to that rare, elite, powerful group of people with dexterity in diverse arrays of life?

Well, the last time I heard, the only reason is that some of his friends and family members pumped his balloon too much, and ballooned his bubble. Just the same way they ballooned the stock market bubble before it all crashed. I’m now very apprehensive and worried that this man’s ballooned bubble is ’bout to bust…before we can believe him.

We also heard that one of his friends actually called him a Renaissance Man in front of him. A facebook friend (can you believe…a facebook friend…ha!) called him a role model. I heard another person wrote on his wall that she got the ability to see through the woods because of his writing, and his analysis. That person since left his facebook…for some unknown reasons. However, stupid and naîve he is, it was enough for him to believe that he was indeed one. I mean, how can you take your friends…real or virtual-world friends…so seriously…however smart or honest those friend are? I mean, don’t you think you need to look in the mirror yourself first before you start believing in yourself?

I always check in the mirror. If I know I’m short, I wouldn’t think I could do things a tall man can do. If I see myself to be a poor and powerless man, I would never dream of going beyond the box, cross the line, come too close to the elite and powerful, and consider myself (even remotely) to be one of their own. Like they say in old Indian-colonial-British English, I am a burnt cow. I’ve seen the fire way too many times. I am a dreading cow. I cower.

Enough digression already. Are you still reading?

I actually had a chance to speak with this man. I have to be honest. Remember, this blog I promised would be all about honesty and heartfelt feelings…without hiding a thing? So, this is what I found out…and I must say this guy has reasons to believe his friend was right. In all fairness, at least he deserves to dream that he could be one…one of those days.

Now, crossing over the elitism gap…well, that’s a story we’ll leave up to the political movers and shakers…and social scientists.

I sat down with him with my note pad, and here’s my scribbles. We spoke for about ten or fifteen short minutes.

Did I say I was impressed? I didn’t? Well…I did…sort of…in my confusing-confounding way.

Listen…you read to read twice what I wrote, okay? Yes. Let me confess: I was impressed with what he had to say about himself, his life, his work, and his mission. In fact, it was in plain English even I could understand.

I’d strongly ask you to have a talk with him — one on one — maybe, over a cup of Darjeeling tea. You’ll find out.

He has reasons to believe he is one of a kind. Grab him…come close to him. He’ll be yours. He’s ready to be yours.

Meet and greet your own Renaissance Man.

Would you?

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Talk Over a Cup of Tea

Where to Go? Where to Look?

I have a confession to make. I’m not doing very well these days.

My cliche-like “metaphor” (one that everybody got tired with by now) is that my Mr. Hyde is doing much better than my Dr. Jekyll. I can’t think of a better statement right now: my mind is not functioning in a way that you can call spirited. Mean-spirited, perhaps; down-spirited: possibly. Spiritless: sure. Not much fun. In fact, it’s anything but fun. It’s quite painful.

Then again, this is a space where I promised I shall not hide my feelings. This is a space where a suprisingly high number of people actually come back, and from time to time check out what I’m up to. Not that they miss my short or long absences too terribly. But for that, I can’t blame them at all. After all, who wants to check out if a searching soul is still soul searching…and not finding it? How boring is that!

Yet, I somehow managed to put together a poem last night describing a certain condition of my personal “state of state.” I was in pain writing it. I remembered some of my friends and readers told me that the pain thing worked rather well for me. I think what they actually meant is that I write better when I’m hurting more than when I’m not.

Sure! Thanks! What else could I say?

I even wrote a piece on pain. If you’ve missed it before, here it is. Just click.

Anyway, not being in a great state of mind, I don’t want to prolong this conversation. I have a feeling I shall come back writing more about it — about the state of my heart, etc., in case anybody shows interest to know. For now, would you please read the poem? Would you please read it more than once…if you can? It might make a difference to get beneath the surface. I hope you actually find something beneath the surface.

Let me know what you think. Maybe, your search will be as futile as mine.

________________

The Return of the Mammoth 
On a dune deserted track
Desolate, no-man’s land
Condemned death bowl
I heard the mammoth return.

Boom, boom, boom…
Like the frightening T-rex in Jurassic Park
I heard them thump down
absolute positive
bone-chillin’ blood-curdlin’ scary.

Thump, thud…thump…thud
Stomp…plod…trudge
Boom…boom…boom
I knew they were comin’
I sensed skins friction
Fume.

If I happened a normal, sensible man
If I belonged
I would instant flee
run for life
Before they ran me over
With tons of megalith wool
Tank belly, hell-like bodily odor
Enormous, branching tusks
Screaming battlefront bugle
Massive, wavering trunk
Primitive, piercing eyes
Like the T-rex in Jurassic Park.

Here they march down, stampede
To trample, crush me like dehuskin’ oat
With those dirty, hairy, gray
Walnut trunk-like elephant legs
Ugly, disease-like elephant legs
Like walnut trunk
They’re marchin’ down
Thump…thud…
Thump…thud…boom
To blow my lung out
Splittin’ open my traumatic heart
With one final sure massive force
Like a walnut suture-blasted.
Zap.

I was tempted to run
I even paused and contemplated
My life
My time
But I didn’t.

On the deserted track
On the desolate, primitive dune
condemned swamp
I stopped and waited
I looked up one last time
A huge wild herd
Chargin’ gargoyle beasts
I saw them comin’
In a fiery dusty storm
Whirling omen
Oscillating highrise trunks
Exposed undulate ivory
Flapping ear spathes.

I did not flee
I stopped and stooped.

I squatted down my knees
Closed my eyes
And then lied down
On my back
On the barren track
On the bleak, depressing, spoilage mud

And waited
Like a captive worm
To be swatted like a fly
a violent blow.

Darkness.

I waited…
And listened to the
approaching
Thump ‘n stomp…
frictionin’ skin…
fumin’ froth…

Because
I always waited
for the
Mammoth
to return.

Here they come.

Return of the Mammoth

One of those magic moments…

 -One-

This is about the often-strange state of my mind, I presume. But it’s about music. It’s about my daily meditation, my Bhakti Yoga, my trance.

I report it to you.

Judge it, if you please. Adore it, if you can. Chastise it, if you must. But this is me. This is what it is: another shameless confession. I told you my blog would be about one hundred percent, heartfelt, honest feelings. I can’t hide it anymore.

I won’t hide it anymore.


Every morning, a different song comes to my mind
. Often, I dream about it. Last week, I dreamed of a Tagore song based on a morning raga and a slow, seven-beat rhythm.

aji suprabhaate
nutan pran dao sakha…

(this new beautiful morning
give me a new life
my friend)

Today, I dreamed of a Nazrul Islam song.

Mor ghumoghore ele manohar
namo namo

shiyore bashi chupi chupi
chumile nayan…

(you came to me in my dreams
beautiful

you sat by my head, silently,
and kissed my eyes…)

It comes and it goes…in rhythms…and in waves

The songs appear in strange ways. As if I’m singing a few lines, somewhere – a friendly gathering here in America where suddenly two of my pretty Calcutta cousins show up with a big smile, cousins I haven’t seen in twenty years. Or, as if I’m performing at one of the Bengali New Year or Tagore birthday celebrations I organized in Southern Illinois or upstate New York. Or, a new-generation Calcutta poet and I are having a pleasant conversation talking about the new trend of cerebral Indian music; we both happily decided that Bollywood was pure trash. Or else, maybe it’s an unknown, uncanny, turbulent river where I’m in sole charge of the oars, and I’m nervous, but still singing, a little incoherently.

Then I wake up.

The song stays with me for the rest of the day, and I sing it in my mind, silently, as if I don’t want to let the others know about my new secret today. Not even to the woman who’s sleeping next to me, and waking up together with me. Sometimes she knows because I’m singing it just a little louder, either in the shower or in the kitchen downstairs, making tea. Sometimes a new song – similar to the original one, perhaps based on the same raga, carrying a similar mood – hijacks the tune and takes me over, and I sing the new song from that point on, only to be taken over by a third song, and then perhaps by a fourth. Often, I forget the original one that I began my day with: I can’t seem to remember it at all, however hard I try. In fact, the more I try, the more it slips away. And I know I don’t like the new song I’m singing now because I want to get back to the first one – the one that came in my early morning dream.

As if I’m trying hard to remember the face of my very first crush: way back when, on the early-Spring balconies of North Calcutta.

Then I stop singing altogether, and trivial, mundane things take my day over. Like, I ride the bus and there’s an argument between the cranky driver and an attitude passenger. Or, it’s a Christian preacher screaming on the crowded subway calling everybody a doomed sinner (and nobody questions). A poor, homeless man is sleeping covered head to toe on the crowded, morning train taking up an entire row of seats. Two old women are talking to each other in their own language at a pollution-level decibel. A Hispanic singer plays nylon-string guitar on the platform. Or, a line of cheerful kids goes on a field trip with their teacher, chortling. I forget my song.

Then, at night, in the quiet comfort of my bed, while reading a favorite book I’d read thousands of times – maybe one of those Satyajit Ray, Saradindu Banerjee or Parashuram stories – it suddenly crawls back, as if it was waiting all day to return to me – the real me.

It says, “Hi, I’m back, see?” It says, “Now sing me secretly again, deep inside your heart, before you fall asleep.” It says, “Close your eyes now, and think about me. I’m all yours.”

And I very gently caress it, make love to it, and sleep with it.

In those dreams…

-Two-

I don’t know how it all began. But I remember I sang since I was very little, as far back my memory can go – maybe when I was only three or four. At the Montessori school Shishu Niketan, we stood up in a line in the semi-dark assembly hall and our music teacher Sister Ela would play on her small, ancient, decrepit piano and lead us on:

amar hiyar majhe lukiye chhile
dekhte tomay pai ni ami
dekhte tomay pai ni
bahir paane chokh melechhi
ami tomar kachhe jai ni…

(You were hidden in my heart
I couldn’t but see you
I couldn’t but see you
I looked out to the outside world
Yet I didn’t return to find you)

Or, she’d sing something more cheerful:

amra sabai raja
amader ei rajar rajatwe
noile moder rajar saney
milbo ki sattwe

We’re all royals
in this kingdom of our King
or else, how can we
meet
how can we greet
with no treasures
that’s ours

Did we understand the meaning of the songs? Hardly; but it didn’t matter. It was fun. Deep-voiced yet mellifluous Sister Ela would sing Tagore tuned in simple talas: the three-beat Dadra, four-beat Tritala, or three-two-three-two-beat Jhampaka. She’d sing three or four songs, taking fifteen minutes or so, and we the little crickets would happily chirp in, slowly settling down. Morning songs, and then fun games, Bengali and English rhymes and reading. Then, after lunch from our small tiffin boxes we brought in from home, it’s time for an afternoon nap in the dark and quiet nap room wrapping in our homespun quilts, supervised by junior teachers. At three thirty, it’s time to run. Ma would be waiting outside the school gate along with the other mothers and sisters, to pick up their precious little ones. The Nepali gatekeeper Bahadur would carefully let us out, one cricket at a time.

Ma and father both could sing. Father mostly sang patriotic songs, and he sang rather well. I’ve seen our relatives, especially his cousins, requesting him to perform at small family gatherings. Ma would sing quietly, when nobody else is home, and she’d sing in a strangely soft and artificial contralto, as if she’s stifled to sing normally. She would not sing in front of anybody else; I was her exclusive audience. Sometimes I made fun of the way Ma sang and she’d pretend to be upset. In a few seconds, though, she would laugh it away. She couldn’t be upset with me. She wouldn’t be unhappy with me.

It was music. I has always been music.

[I shall return and write more. I hope you return too. Thank you, my friends.]

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Moonshine galore…overflood overtide

“Mystical Poet” Tagore wrote his non-mystical Bengali verse a hundred years ago:

“Anandamoyeer agamane anande giyechhe desh chheye

Hero oi dhanir duare daRaiya kangalinee meye…”

 

Bliss filled the mortal earth up and down below

Almighty Mother arrived: time for joyous psalm 

But watch the poor, naked girl with nowhere else to go

Arrived at the rich’s door with an ever-extended palm


Has anything changed since Tagore wrote it? Just look around.

Of course, Bengal and India were undivided back in those days. A British colonial rule was in place. People like me or my parents or grandparents didn’t have political freedom. There was famine. There was rule of the jungle. There was huge rich and poor disparity – with the Indian rich with their British masters exploiting and whipping their Indian servants, womanizing their Indian women, and shooting and hanging “terrorist” revolutionaries (they did it for a hundred years before Gandhi and his Congress Party were brought from South Africa, and put in power). There was extreme poverty; a once-rich and prosperous civilization was force-transformed very quickly into a pauper nation. Beggars would mob affluent Desi landlords and their ladies (i.e., Rajas and Ranis spending millions on their cat’s wedding) visiting the Kali temple in Kalighat. Prostitutes and their pimps would line up the same streets after dark. There would be huge charity at the Durga Puja festivities organized by powerful community leaders known for their unquestionable allegiance to the most powerful people in their version of White House or 10 Downing Street…

But wait a minute! I just read the above lines the second time over…what am I talking about? Have I gone insane? It seems I’m talking about  2011, and not 1911 — two years before Tagore got his first-ever-Asian’s Nobel Prize and exactly the same year when the British moved the Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi!

I just realized I was describing today, when I was thinking about a century before. What nonsense!

So, now…I promised my readers that I would not write in a long-winded, complicated way; I promised I would keep it simple. So, my point is this.

The Slumdog Here and the Millionaire Over There

Nothing seriously has changed in India. Even after sixty-some years of the British-donated independence and transfer of power to a bunch of feudal, racist, patriarchal, corrupt and violent people that ruled the subcontinent and its three, partition-created countries, out of the estimated 1.2 billion people (i.e., a fifth of the world’s population), nearly eighty percent still live in either abject poverty or some variety of poverty. Women are systematically subjugated, bride burning and dowry deaths are rampant, children don’t get enough to eat and can’t go to school, corruption, police brutality and violence are sky high, and a large number of people are extremely superstitious, illiterate without the ability to think or analyze, and those who can afford to spend money would not spend money for any social justice or even a liberal-philanthropic cause. But they would not blink for a moment before spending millions on their cat’s wedding (or else, cat walks). The poor and the minority are considered untouchable.

If you need an even longer list of failures of a failed Indian (or Pakistani) state, read my little article Sixty Years of Fake Freedom.

Hey, nothing personal, really. This is what it is. You don’t believe me? Let’s have a debate. Now.

So, what does it all have to do with religion and spirituality? Well, the ongoing Durga Puja across India and the Indian-Bengali diaspora is an example of that fakeness.

What IS Sprituality? Live Merry with “Eyes Closed?”

The high-excitement community Durga Puja has taken an extremely degenerate form where corporate money flows like Hudson River’s polluted water (I was tempted to say Ganges’ filthy water — then decided not to because of religious sentiments, even though Holy Mother Ganges is perhaps the most polluted river in the world now). Billions of dollars are spent to erect makeshift community puja temples with their blaring-deafening microphones that would all come down in just four days; another few billions are spent on making the clay idols that would also dissolve in the same Ganges or her sister rivers in four days. The other few billions are spent by the upper class and middle class Indians and Bengalis on expensive saris, kurtas, ornaments and sundry expenses. And oh yes, how can I forget…Bengalis would spend like crazy to eat out…no fun and festivity would be complete for Bengali-Indians without fancy feasts and fabulous fish curry.

But they would not spare even a paltry ten or fifteen percent of the unthinkably-outrageous amount to feed, clothe, heal or educate the poor and the destitute, even in the name of the goddess. Swami Vivekananda called this ignorance-apathy “a crime.” But he died a hundred years ago, and his teachings died soon after.

Tagore observed the un-Godly inequality a century ago. He wrote about it all his life (media feel real uncomfortable talking about it; the “mystic” thing works nice). Nothing changed ever since. Poor people are still poor, the hungry and the sick are still hungry and sick, anemic women are still fetching water from two miles away from home, beggars are still begging at the temple courtyard waiting for the rich to dole out alms (for the “pious,” that would be a holy, religious act for a sure no-return birth to heaven — no reincarnation required at all), and slaves and virtual slaves are still serving their masters — in urban and rural India and Bengal.

In the midst of fun-holiday-decorated, highly charged, electrifying, gold- and silver-ornamented Durga Puja, Eid, Diwali and Christmas festivities, the have Indians don’t have much time to think about the have-nots — the poor and dispossessed that Tagore, Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita talked about. In fact, using terminology such as haves and have-nots would automatically qualify me to be a communist…radical…at least, too political. India don’t do political no more! That “sin” too died a hundred years ago.

The conscience of the haves, perhaps, still pricks once in a while. Then, to absolve themselves from the committed sins and possibly-committed sins, they offer more pujas, salats and salts to their gods and goddesses, and offer more alms to the beggars mobbing them at the temple courtyard. (Hey, you know, that’s safe too — just get rid of ‘em ASAP — or you could get either bedbugs or badmouths.)

A great, ancient civilization — along with her great, ancient religions — moves on. That poor, naked, hungry, sick girl Tagore wrote about waits for her dream reincarnation to be a film star, or at least to be the wife of a politician, business magnet or cricket player.

Jai Ma Durga!

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

###

More than a Century at the Kali Temple: Waiting for Alms

O Mother, Give Us Back Our Soul!

-2-

This evening, my family and I came back from another community Durga Puja organized by a Bengali-Indian organization in New York.

Once again, just like any other year, instead of feeling a part of an excitement and exuberance — trademark feelings Durga Puja is normally supposed to create — I felt it was a meaningless few hours of my time (the horrific bumper-to-bumper driving time included, and that jam too, not because of the puja of course). Once again, I thought Bengali-Indian immigrants are desperately trying to celebrate their biggest social and religious event of the year — without a purpose.

I felt as if there was no soul attached to it.

Now, let’s talk about the social and religious background, just in case you’re not aware of it. The four-day Hindu festival Durga Puja takes place every fall all over India. Puja is a Sanskrit word for worship and Durga is a goddess who vanquishes the demon Asura with her ten arms. According to the Bengali Hindu traditions, Mother Goddess Durga comes down from her Himalayan abode on to the plains for those four autumn days, and brings along her children Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik, who each symbolizes a special force.

The combination of Durga’s warrior image and image of a mother yearly-visiting her parents is purely non-fundamentalist, and has little to do with more stringent versions of Hinduism. Liberal, progressive Bengalis and Indians are proud to have departed from fundamentalist dogmas, once and for all.

Particularly in West Bengal and Bangladesh, where Hindus celebrate it with much fanfare, and Muslims and Christians enthusiastically visit their Hindu friends’ communities on this special occasion, it’s really more about expressing incredible folk artistry and music rather than the religion itself. Don’t believe me? You can check out Tareq and Catherine Masud’s award-winning movie The Clay Bird. [Brother Tareq, RIP.]

The entire experience is simply electrifying.

But here in America, you wouldn’t know it. Even though the big city community pujas gather together hundreds of Bengalis (almost everywhere on weekends — practically never following the actual auspicious days), their Indian friends, and occasionally their [almost-exclusively white] American spouses and school mates, they neither have the feeling of all-inclusiveness, secularism and diversity, nor do they have that charged atmosphere.

If anything, as more years are going by and old-time immigrant organizers are getting older, Bengali-Indian-American immigrants’ Durga Puja is wearing a more inwardly depressed and desolate look than ever before (you need to look hard beyond the glitzy surface).

Plus, in many places, they now charge mandatory entry fees, which is unthinkable for a community religious and social gathering that should be by default open and free. I say to them: look, if you can’t afford the high costs of singers and dancers you’re importing from “back home,” don’t import them. Invite artists and performers from your own community, would you? There are quite a few highly skilled performers around here, whom you’re excluding on purpose!

Moreover, there are many poor, working-class Bengalis who cannot afford the exorbitant fees, and would never show up — only to avoid the embarrassment. But most of them are Bangladeshi Bengalis — Hindu or Muslim — and more affluent Indian Bengalis couldn’t care less about them. Period!

The new-generation organizers (if any — I see the same-old faces every single year) do not invite their American friends to be a part of it. They do not invite mainstream media to report on it; such a colorful festivity always remains out of the news-hungry media’s radar screen, even here in New York City — the seat of American diversity. The organizers do their best to un-invite their Muslim friends, they have no Latino or Chinese friends; and they always go out of their way (with rare exception) to un-welcome their black brothers and sisters. The words “friends,” “brothers” and “sisters” in the above sentence are purely matters of playful imagination.

I remember many years ago, when we first started going to the St. Louis celebration, I saw a beautiful, black woman doctor who would show up with her Bengali-Indian husband, perhaps with hopes to know more about the festivity and also to make some new friends. I would, however, see her sitting in the back of the audience, all by herself, not particularly overjoyed at the blatant and obvious disregard of the members of her husband’s community — a community she thought would be her own.

I’m not sure the exclusion, bias and elitism have changed over the years. I doubt it has gotten any better, even with the rise of a new-generation, young, second-generation immigrants. It is still largely a boring, monochromatic display of the so-called diversity, where a group of un-imaginative, self-alienated, otherwise-well-to-do immigrants is displaying an annual exercise of the so-called religiosity and social togetherness, and gratification of personal egos. There is no purpose.

(Plus, like we lament frequently: when you’re in trouble, you’d be hard-pressed to find a couple of “good friends in need” out of this glitzy gala; in fact, you’d be lucky if you found even one. Indeed!)

But Indians and Bengalis living in India and Bengal wouldn’t have a clue, thanks to a totally distorted, exaggerated and artificially flamboyant media description of an American Durga Puja.

Sure, there are exceptions. But don’t exceptions only prove the rule?

Will tell more personal stories in my next post. Please visit again. Comment freely on my posts. I’d much welcome them.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

###

Make-believe Reality.

Make-believe Reality.

Our Demon-Slayer Goddess.

-1-

So, a couple of days ago, I had a chat with my friends and colleagues here in New York. It went something like this.

Me: I’m going take this weekend off. I can’t teach the weekend workshop. I found someone who’s going to do it for me.

They: Yeah, sure. You deserve a break, man! So, what’s goin’ on this weekend? Mukti’s Kitchen got some cooking? (affectionate laugh…they know about my wife’s little home-based Indian cooking class and catering; Mukti has quickly got some reputation.)

Me: No, this weekend is our religious holiday. I’m going to spend time with my family.

They: What’s the name of it?

Me: You wouldn’t get it.

They: Try.

Me: It’s called Durga Puja.

They: Durago…Puza…that’s great! What is it? (NOTE: my American friend was NOT being disrespectful; he was trying to pronounce it the best possible way.)

Me: (don’t know how to react) It’s our Hindu religious festival. You heard about Diwali? Dusserah?

They: Ha, ha, I’m just kiddin’. You guys have fun…alright? Don’t worry about the class. We’ll take care of it.

(another friend nodded at this time positively; she heard about Diwali.)

Now, this little interaction is nothing new. We’ve been here in America for twenty-five years now. Durga Puja comes and goes once a year — mostly in October. We cannot go to India because it’s in the middle of the school year and it’s not easy to take a few weeks off at this time, dropping everything.

There…Thousands Throng…Here…the Line’s Not Long.

So, we never go to see our family and friends in India at this fun and festive time. And what fun that is! I mean, the one back there.

It’s fascinating, it’s fabulous, it’s folk art, and it’s full of people…millions of people freely frolicking. But we can’t be a part of it. In a quarter of a century, we’ve managed to go there only twice to lick that fun up; in fact, I managed to go only once. I actually did a photo story on my once-in-a-quarter-century revisit experience. If you’re interested, you can look it up here. You’ll get a taste of that incredible, electrifying environment, I promise.

The first few years of our new immigrant life here in America, we completely missed it. We lived in an isolated, small-town, Midwestern place in Illinois back then; the nearest city that had a Bengali-Indian association hosting the puja was Chicago or St. Louis. We didn’t have a car to drive to either place. I remember the first time we went to the St. Louis Bengali association Durga Puja was the third year after coming to America; a Bengali colleague and her husband who liked to hear my Tagore songs drove us down there. And there we sang and we danced. And we ate at the community feast.

The first two years, however, we just looked at the calendar, and called our families a couple of times on those auspicious days (couldn’t call much: international calls were $3.50 per minute).

We put the phone very tight to our earlobe and tried hard to hear the huge noise and big drum (Dhak) play rising up from the streets of Calcutta. Here’s my very short YouTube clip on Dhak.

But thanks to Indian and Bengali media’s “reporting” what I frequently call “Journalism of Exclusion,” people back there have no clue about what emotional roller coaster we go through. It’s not easy to do it every year. And we’re not even that religious.

I shall come back and write more on this very real, very raw emotion. I hope you come back too.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Durga Puja in Albany, New York. We were organizers when we lived up there.