February 4 is my father’s birthday. He turns 90.
I must put a smiley here. Here we go.
In the midst of this never-ending snow and cold and gloom, that is sure a little bit of happy news.
I’m very happy that he is still around. And I wanted to share my happiness with you.
My father Jitendra Nath Banerjee is not a famous man. He is not a rich man. Newspapers are not going to publish his story today. TV channels are not going to air an interview with him.
But that’s okay. In fact, my father would not even entertain the idea of his birthday advertised even if media wanted to do it.
All his life, he stayed away from limelight, and carried out what he believed to be morally upright and ideologically suited to his cause. He has always believed in Hindu scripture’s axiom “Ma Phaleshu Kadachanah,” which means [keep working and] do not work expecting returns.
He was not a saint. He had his intellectual flaws and he had his emotional outbursts. In his earlier years, he was much more stubborn and stricter for his right-wing ideologies, which put me and my mother in high stress on many occasions.
But he has always been an honest man. He has always been someone who gave his life for his causes, and done it for no returns. To me, in spite of being on the wrong (or, different) side of the political spectrum, with his absolute honesty and total renunciation of material gains, he has been an inspiration.
In today’s India, an honest and sacrificing man is a rare gem. My father is one of those few, surviving rare gems.
I have written about him in this blog a few times, and I won’t repeat what I wrote before. I do hope you take the time to read them, and let me know your thoughts.
In today’s India, self-sufficiency in a man in an extremely patriarchal country is also a rare attribute. Left, right, center, or the vast majority of politically indifferent, Indian men (from India, Pakistan, Nepal or Bangladesh or global immigrant communities) are overwhelmingly dependent on their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters or servants. I’ve written about the pathetic Indian patriarchy elsewhere too.
But my father has always been a strong-willed, self-sufficient, confident man. He cooked when my mother couldn’t. He cleaned when the maid did not turn up. He sewed his own pants and buttoned his own shirts. He rode his bicycle to go to work until one day, he left it outside on the street and it got stolen; he never had the money to buy another. He walked for miles when there was one of the countless bus or tram strikes or factory lockouts with no wages in Calcutta. He was good at binding my school homework notebooks. He used old magazine pages for covers for my text books. He would take me to the museum and music festivals, and football and cricket games. He first introduced me to American films.
And guess what, contrary to what most think about Indian Brahmins and the caste system, my father often cleaned the bathroom and mopped floors when the part-time janitor failed to show up, especially after monsoon street floods seeping into our mezzanine floor.
He never believed in the exploitative nature of the caste system. And this is a right-wing Hindu militant I’m talking about!
How little we know!
If Jitendra Nath Banerjee had not given up on his bright student career halfway through college, only for his political activism, I’m sure he would find a nice job in post-1947 India, make a much better living, and be able to build a house of his own, and have a comfortable life, just like most other men from a similar background.
Instead, because his pro-Hindu right-wing organization RSS was implicated in Gandhi’s assassination, he was put in prison by the Indian government, and after he came out, he was blacklisted by the government that forced him to take jobs at places for low wages and lifelong uncertainties. For his final job, he worked for Calcutta’s then-famous Usha Sewing Machine factories (now demolished and replaced by South City Mall: watch a short video here to see how the mall owners evicted poor families), making paltry salaries and putting me, my mother and rest of the family in perpetual near-poverty.
My mother was under severe anxiety and stress. She died at the age of forty-two. She died of cancer that rapidly spread because our financial situation prevented my father to find expensive treatment and hospital care at the earliest possible stage of the disease. When the doctors diagnosed her cancer, it was already Stage IV. Metastasis took over.
Recently in Calcutta, my wife Mukti had a short interview with my father. Here’s a summary of the talk.
Mukti: You’ve lived long, father. You’re now 90, and it’s been a blessing for us. How do you feel?
Father: It feels amazing. Most people [in India] do not live this long.
Mukti: What do you think has kept you alive?
Father: How to live free of stress. How to live a life loving others. To find love from them. So many people have loved me, and did their best so that I had in life what I had. Education…everything.
Mukti: What do you want us to learn?
Father: That how not to criticize others. If you criticize anybody, find your own flaws, and not anybody else’s. In our Sanskrit language, there’s a saying: “Atmanam Viddhi,” which means “know thyself.” We need to soul search, and find who we are. That gives you strength. Love and not hate. Do not do anything to others that you wouldn’t do to yourself.
Now, that’s major radical humanistic for a so-called diehard, dogmatic right-winger, in my opinion!
What do you think?
Let me know. Please.
I wish there were more such so-called “diehard, dogmatic right-wingers” in India today — of his variety. India today would be a much better place than the current one ruined by the so-called liberals — of the Gandhi’ite variety. [Sorry, I had to say it.]
His honesty, uprightness and self-sufficiency made me what I am today. And his love for literature, music, movies, and yes, grassroots organizing, and writing. He has also made India a place I would want to go back and live any time they asked me to. Like, I would drop everything yesterday, and leave America and its so-called material pleasures.
My father made me believe that an honest, morally upright and loving, caring India with a huge, treasured history and heritage is real. He proved to me it was present even today.
That reality keeps me going. I believe in that present.
I owe it to my father and his milestone 90.
Very thankfully to God or whoever it is who made this landmark possible,
Brooklyn, New York