My Wife Said, “Let’s Have Some Indian Music.”

Ravi ShankarIs that a good title for today’s blog? Well, I believe it is. I’ll tell you why.

So, yesterday, Park Slope Food Coop — a member-run not-for-profit specializing on healthy foods — put her in charge of preparing meals for some of the longtime staff at the coop. Obviously, because of her new reputation with Mukti’s Kitchen, they asked her to cook Indian dishes.

She found a number of volunteers to sous-chef, and I volunteered as one too (!).

It’s a two-day process. The first day, yesterday, five or six coop members helped her to cut vegetables, boil and peel eggs, grind spices, and then cook some of the dishes. The second day, today, they are going to finish it all — to cap with a sumptuous lunch. They’re all looking forward to it.

So, a half hour into the preparation early in the morning, Mukti said, “Why don’t we play some Indian music?” I said to myself, “Why couldn’t I think of it first? It’s natural today.”

On my iPhone, I began playing a Ravi Shankar sitar. He is a legend I spoke and wrote about many times. Here’s a CNN story after his passing. Moni Basu quoted me in it.

Ravi Shankar’s sitar was the first thing that came to my mind. Salute to the great maestro, who along with Ali Akbar Khan had thought about bringing Indian music to America long time ago, back in the sixties, when the Beatles became his fans, and George Harrison took sitar lessons after the phenomenal concert in California.

Then, Nicholas took over. He was one of the sous-chefs.

Nicholas turned on the coop kitchen computer, and put on an incredible sitar off YouTube. I don’t know who the artist was: could be Ravi Shankar, Vilayet Khan, or Budhaditya Mukherjee — one of the new maestros. I am not exactly sure.

But it was absolutely beautiful. I could use other terms to describe it: magical, spiritual, divine. But I would leave it up to you to decide. Meditative and relaxing, for sure. The entire environment in the kitchen lit up. He left the music on for the entire day — it played from 8 A.M. to 1.30 P.M., when we adjourned.

Today, August 14, is the day when I left my beloved India, Bengal and Calcutta — out of emotional and political desperation — to come to USA. It was extremely difficult.

Looking back, I am deeply sad that I could not stay back in a place that I care for so much. Its people, its love, its poetry. Looking back, I am extremely happy that along with my wife, I built a life from zero in an alien land, and gained knowledge, critical thinking, and reputation. (Oh yes, I couldn’t speak a full sentence in English before; now I can — a little bit.)

Both countries have given me so much. I owe so much to both places. In our small ways, we are giving back to both of them.

My wife is giving back through teaching Indian cooking secrets to her American students — literally hundreds of them. I am giving back through teaching my labor union worker students — literally thousands of them. Writing and translating 24/7 about our culture.

Ravi Shankar did it in his magnanimous way. He brought the treasures of the Indian civilization to America. And Americans — like Nicholas — are still in love with it.

We are doing it in our little ways.

I’m glad she was the one who thought of playing Indian music in the kitchen, and we all loved to help her cook Indian food, for the enlightened and embracing American friends.

Today, August 14, is a good day for us — to celebrate.

Sincerely, in love and gratitude,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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MK foods
Courtesy: Mukti’s Kitchen, Brooklyn, New York.

My Very Special Birthday Wish

A Reason to Celebrate: My New Tagore Album. Please visit, listen and download (click on the picture).

Today I’m writing to celebrate my birthday. But today is not my birthday. It’s tomorrow.

I’m writing today because tomorrow I won’t have any free time. Birthdays here in the U.S. do not wait for a free day (or a day when you can make yourself free), and just like some other days I love to celebrate — such as Durga Puja or Tagore Jubilee — they often fall on a busy day in the middle of the week, and I cannot celebrate them the way I want to.

That’s not what I call a free country. (But that’s a different story.)

I also want to celebrate those days I love to celebrate with a lot of people and family and friends, and that don’t ever happen either.

(But that’s a different story too.)

I really love to celebrate my birthday. I’ve always loved to do it. I’ve done it in our small, limited-means way both in Calcutta, Kolkata — where I spent the first half of my life when Ma cooked some of the best Indian-Bengali dishes you could ever get anywhere in the world (ask any of my old friends); and then here in the U.S. — where I spent the second half and where my wife cooked some of the best Indian and Bengali dishes you can ever get anywhere in the world. Believe me: I’m not making it up.

So, great food is not a priority no more on my wish list. I’ve been blessed with great food — homemade and heartfelt — all my life. I seek something else. My mind asks for something more. It’s a spiritual yearning.

Perhaps, my very special birthday wish this year is: would you be mine? (Now, I know that’s cheesy 🙂

This is a very special note at this very special time. I want to smile. I want to chime.

Would you remember today to smile and chime? Mr. Bright? Ms. Bright? (That’s also perhaps again not so cheesy, right? 🙂

I need to see a lot of smile. I need to hear a lot of laughs. I want to hear a lot of songs. Happiness has been in seriously short supply. Seriously. Recently, it’s reached a critically low level.

Yeah, that’s it!

My family and friends — especially those who I know deeply care for me — often tell me these days that I have changed slowly but surely from a sprity, forthrighty, frothy, fizzy, frolicky, fun person always with a big smile and grin and loud laugh and sense of humor to a rather sad, glum and grumpy old man. Now, that’s major bad news. I want to change it.

This is a major tipping point.

So, on this very special day (like, starting from tomorrow), I want to remember the good things that happened to my life and be happy thinking about how lucky I am that those good things indeed, actually happened to me — things that do not happen to most people I know (and I know a heck of a lot of people — like, thousands, literally). I’ve sort of decided to come to a resolution that I shall, in my mind, focus on those positives and ignore, delete and de-focus the negatives.

Now, I know it’s easier said than done.

I also know it sounds like one of those Deepak Chopra books — comics that people actually buy and read and make-believe they are happy now. But Deepak Chopra or not, I know I ain’t got no more choice. Or, it’s gonna be fast and painful death for me. I don’t want to die fast and painful. More importantly, I don’t want to die and be remembered a sad and glum and grumpy man. Oh, no no no, man! Because, I am not a sad and glum and grumpy man. I never was. I never will be.

I’ve actually thought about it long and hard: what is it that pulls me down and makes me sad and angry?

I could perhaps post a long laundry list of those things in layman’s terms — events, experiences and feelings all of which happen to be true and raw and depressing and dirty — that could pull any human being with a heart and brain down. Like, deaths of loved ones — and way too many of them too untimely. Like, leaving India practically for good — out of compulsion. Like, being born too poor and seeing too much poverty and starvation too up close. Like, going through a hell of a lot of physical and mental injury and insult. Like, extreme verbal and physical abuse…like, sexual abuse. Like, hiding them all…way too many of them…and pretending they didn’t happen.

Then, there is more. Like, being forced to go through a social, educational, economic and political system that absolutely, totally, unquestionably cheated you. Like, not being able to use your delightful, lovable, warm personality and sprite, blotting-paper-like desire to learn and respect for your teachers, God-given talents, knowledge, experience, analysis and proven leadership to put to use to change the society and system in a significant way…and at the same time helplessly witnessing one of the darkest and dumbest and most exploitative and violent chapters in human history unfolding in your own life…one event at a time…like a bad, obnoxious movie…acted, directed, produced and promoted by some of the most corrupt and inefficient-yet-arrogant crooks in human history. Compared to them, yes, Caligula or Nero or Kissinger or Cheney is like child’s play.

I’ve come to a major resolution. I can never be president of the United States. Heck, I know I can never even be the chief minister of West Bengal. Only people with tons of money, a Bush-like one-of-a-kind predecessor, a major-media-sponsored genocide or a despondent-hopeless-pathetic regime and equally hopeless electorate could make you a president of the U.S. or a chief minister of West Bengal. I’ve therefore given up on those secretest desires.

That’s sarcasm, as you can see.

My parents-in-law became destitute refugees, overnight. Thanks, Gandhi.

But truly and cross-my-heartly, I’ve resigned to believe a few other not-so-idiosyncratic thoughts. Like, the two Golden Bengals will never be reunited and Bengalis will forever be blasted and looked-down-upon by the West and East alike as a failed race (and nobody will read the history book and know either the Pala Dynasty, Sri Chaitanya’s Bhakti movement, Raja Ram Mohan Ray, Derozio, Vidyasagar, Lalan, Swami Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Tagore…and of course, on the flip side of history, the British barbarism). Nobody would ever know how prosperous Bengal was where after the Battle of Plassey, Lord Clive and his women looted so much gold and jewelry that they went absolutely wild berserk. (Read about Clive’s atrocities here.)

I’ve resigned to believe that at the London Olympics of summer, 2012, there will be no demand from the millions of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi immigrants-turned-British citizens for an official apology and reparation for the British Raj’s two centuries of occupation, brutality, mass-killing and mass-looting. I’ve resigned to believe that in India, the same illiterate and feudal-chauvinists who were responsible for a bloody partition, riots, refugees and famines will keep in power for many years to come. I have resigned to believe that very few people even in the so-called enlightened West would ever care to know exactly how many hundreds of thousands of Bengali women were raped and killed by the Kissinger-backed Pakistani army in the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War.

I have resigned to believe that people who I thought would care would not care. I have a number of examples of that disillusionment. Obama has been the latest example on that list.

My Alma-Mater Speaks Loudly.

I have resigned to believe that Tagore’s Nobel Prize, stolen from his own Vishva Bharati University’s national museum, would never be found. I know the British monarchy would never return Koh-I-Noor and numerous other treasures they looted from India. I now know the British government would never tell us how Subhas Bose — whom Gandhi sabotaged — perished in exile. (Am I digressing too much?)

Okay then. I’ve come to realize that nobody in the elite academia in the “free-thinking” West — especially those in the seat of power — would ever care to learn or promote philosophers and intellectuals outside of what Harvard, Columbia or University of Chicago asks of them to freely think. They would not want to know Tagore. They would not know Bengal Renaissance. They would refuse to know or teach anything majorly un-Euro-American.

I know for the fact that none of the above would ever read my blog.

So, as you can see, I have my reasons to slowly but surely transform from sprity, fun, frolicky to sad and glum and grumpy. But at this rather critical juncture of my life, I refuse to be a victim of their doing and die and be remembered a sad, glum and grumpy, bitter man. I shall not give in to their grand plan: destroy the thinking mind, dumb-down the non-thinking others, keep the trouble makers on the edge, and kill all the smiles.

No, I won’t die their prescribed death.

I want to celebrate this birthday. I want to celebrate it with a smile. I shall live on the many positives that happened to me.

I hope you do too.

Smile with me.

Let’s celebrate life. Let’s celebrate it together.

That is my very special birthday wish today…and tomorrow.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Another Reason to Celebrate: Teaching American Labor Rights!

Rivertalk: the Way Women Touch me

Two Rivers: Bhagirathi and Jamuna

I’m going to continue talking about the women in my life.

On this post, I’m going to talk about the way women touch me…have touched me. This is the third episode: I named it Rivertalk.

If you’re interested about the first two episodes — Foretalk and Flowertalk — just click on these links. You’ll get a more comprehensive picture of my relationship with my women in my life. I hope to write a couple of more episodes in the coming days. I hope that you come back to read more. In fact, I implore that you do.

Bhagirathi, Jamuna and Saraswati are three major rivers in the Hindu holy land that descended from the Himalayas, flew through the North Indian heartland, met at a confluence called Prayag near the bustling city of Allahabad, and then flew their own separate ways all the way through Bihar, West Bengal, Bangladesh and Assam before dissolving into the Bay of Bengal. Incidentally, Saraswati is now non-existent: there are underground traces of that once-mighty river at the Lord Krishna-glorified Prayag confluence. Bhagirathi is also known as the mighty, holy river Ganga or Ganges. The Hindu pilgrimage of Varanasi or Benaras is of course famous for its temples and picturesque steps on its riverbanks.

Bhagirathi, Jamuna and Saraswati, in my present story, are three women who worked as domestic helpers at my Calcutta household for eons. In Bengal and in India, domestic helpers are often part of the family; for pittance, they work for the family almost for their entire lives, and practically consider the employer family as their own. I don’t know how they actually do it, considering they have their own families to take care of, and often those families are so poor and helpless that these women’s paltry wages are their only source of income. Often, they are refugees of war, partition and communal riots or other such disasters: in India and Bengal, we don’t have any lack of them.

Plus, they do manual labor for both families, killing themselves. Yet, they never forget to smile, never forget to greet you, and never ask for more than what they’re given. More often than not, they are grossly underpaid and grossly overworked.

Bengal and India’s urban middle-class households — all one billion of them — are run on their shoulders and by their overworked palms. Bhagirathi and Jamuna, as you can see in the picture above, are still working for my family back there in Calcutta. As you can see, Jamuna the woman doing dishes on the dingy kitchen floor now has a granddaughter who is happily accompanying her grandma to our place. There is every likelihood that in course of time, she will take her grandma’s place in our family.

They are somewhat lucky, in spite of their lifelong misfortune, that they’re working for us — an employer family with some humanity and kindness. In times of emergencies and major disasters, we try to do our best to help them. There are many other — in fact, numerous — maids who are not so lucky: poor young girls have a high risk of being sexually violated (at least constantly looked down upon as sexual objects), and young boy servants have even a greater risk of being verbally and physically abused. In the event of any possible theft in the family — small or big — the young boy servant would take the initial brutal beating, both by members of the household and also by the police. In India, it’s commonplace. Nobody even talks about it.

In case of our Bhagirathi and our Jamuna, they flow relentlessly, smoothly, and without saying a word. They wake up at the crack of dawn, walk in the dark over to our house, and start doing their chores without waiting for any instructions. Jamuna does the dishes piled up from the night before; Bhagirathi makes tea, goes to the local market to do daily groceries and pick up the rationed milk bottles. Then, she starts cooking. Jamuna meanwhile sweeps and mops the living room and bedroom floors.

They leave when they’re finished with their morning chores, return to their own families, and perhaps replicate all of the above — of course, in a scaled-down way for they simply could not afford it like we do. Then they come back again to do an afternoon and evening version of the morning routine, only to leave at eight or nine at night, after we’re finished with our dinner and ready to go to bed with our favorite novel or music. Facebook enthusiasts would lift their legs on the chair against the computer table while the boy or the maid keeps sweeping the floor underneath. The fun online discussions and chats would not disturb the worlds of either parties.

Saraswati worked with us for a few years when my mother died. It was a time when our home was more disorganized than a refugee colony. We didn’t know who’d cook, who’d clean, and whether or not there would be food on the table the way it did uninterrupted when my mother was around. It was a very difficult time — both physically and emotionally. Saraswati came to help us at that time; we also had a young boy named Kanai who was a skilled cook at the age of thirteen. He came from some drought-stricken village in south Bengal, and we became good friends. Saraswati, meanwhile, disappeared just like the once-active river. One could find her trace only deep underground — if you know how to dig deep into your memory.

Surprisingly, these domestic helpers somehow always had a lot of affection for me. For that reason only, I can never forget them. I’ll come back and talk about them a bit more. I hope you come back too.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

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Durga Puja? That’s Great! What is It?

Our Demon-Slayer Goddess.

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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.