Sitar virtuoso, Indian music legend Ravi Shankar is no more. Pandit, Guru Ravi Shankar passed away in his California home on Tuesday. He was 92.
Many Indians, particularly the pre-kitsch, non-Bollywood-type Indians, and surprisingly a large number of Westerners know about Ravi Shankar and some of his remarkable achievements. They know of Shankar’s close association with Beatles’ George Harrison in the “psychedelic” sixties when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West. Some of know of Shankar’s memorable music direction to Satyajit Ray’s watershed movie Pather Panchali. Many others know that Ravi Shankar had a daughter out of a short-lived marriage, and the daughter is now a world-famous pop singer Norah Jones. Some others perhaps also know that Shankar had another marriage later which gave birth to Anoushka, who is now a well-known sitar player herself and has often played with her genius father at concerts all over the world. In fact, a simple Google or YouTube search would instantly find you thousands of stories and video clips on the legendary father and his two famous musician daughters.
It is common perception that George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the West. That may be true and Harrison did a rare act of recognition and appreciation for the Eastern culture; he also brought out the suffering of Bangladesh to the West during its 1971 Liberation War. But untrue is the nuance that Ravi Shankar became Ravi Shankar — the world-renowned musician — because of George Harrison. A genius like Shankar did not need any particular push to become a genius.
In fact, I have said it elsewhere that “Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart.” What I meant is that had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician from a West-undermined Bengal and India, his genius would be much more readily acclaimed at educated American and European living rooms. He would not have to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments — especially through identification with George Harrison or the so-called psychedelic sixties. Americans today have only remembered the marijuana smokescreen of the sixties and sadly forgotten all about its revolutionary search of peace and soul.
About that often-misplaced association, Shankar said “he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West… The music he played, he said, was sacred.”
In fact, the music he played all his life was about soul and shanti. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, thousand years of Indian civilization that taught the world how art and music can transcend the boundaries of man-made silos. Shankar and his co-disciples such as Ali Akbar Khan and their percussion accompanist Alla Rakha, as well as the more recent tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain all showed how the school of music they grew up in could take both the player and the listener from the world of mortality to immortality. To a Western aficionado, it might sound rather abstract, but in India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school or denomination to attain supreme religiosity.
Of course, some might say it’s not really that different in the West. They might say, other non-Harrison virtuosos Ravi Shankar played with: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass or conductor Andre Previn — all touched God through their music. But as someone who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical school, I would not be able to tell exactly what these legendary personalities thought about soul-searching through their music; I can only assume that all of them found their God when they performed. I know I can look at Menuhin pulling his bow on the violin, his eyes closed, and I know that he transcended from our lowly, mundane, fractious world to a blissful, divine height. We can definitely say that about Ray Charles too: his side-to-side sways while singing gave it all away. I know he had found his God.
Very few people perhaps know about the source of that spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Alauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when the Baba (or father) toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in for an in-house disciple. Alauddin Khan taught young Ravi how to play the sitar and tabla, sing, and understand the ocean-deep treasures of the Hindustani ragas — the many musical moods and structures. Just the same way the Baba showed him the countless improvisations and varieties, flexibilities and nuances and departures from the raga — properties that are primarily different from a rigorously structured Western classical — the Homer of modern-era Indian classical music, who lived through the age of 110, also trained Ravi on the lessons of a sacred, yet completely secular lifestyle — a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and peace. Muslim Alauddin Khan named his daughter Annapurna, a Hindu goddess, who some say was an even more talented sitar player than Ravi, and she became Ravi’s first wife.
When I talk about Ravi Shankar’s music transcending the boundaries of race and religion, I talk about humanity. I talk about peace. I talk about a progressive, futuristic way of life. That is life’s way our Eastern mentors taught us through centuries. Whether it’s the ancient saints or medieval-era Sri Chaitanya, or whether it’s the more recent Godly personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, this value is what streams through our blood streams.
Baba Alauddin inculcated that forward-looking lifestyle on all his students: his children. Ravi Shankar carried that mission forward when he played his sitar and built bridges between the East and the West.
Through his music, Ravi Shankar touched his God: humanity.
Guess what, I still have the Obama-2008 bumber sticker stuck on my old American car.
We all thought you were going to use your enormously powerful position to drive this country and virtually the entire world back to the direction of the ordinary working people and families, promote economic equality, hold the corporate criminals accountable and bring them to justice. We thought your leadership would stop global warfare and bloodshed, and bring some peace to mankind especially after the horrors of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Ashcroft.
I am very sorry and dejected to tell you that you have not fulfilled our hopes, dreams and aspirations. You have let us down.
Of course, at that time very few people thought you could lose; and I wrote the article even before that scandalous and racist “47 percent” Romney speech Mother Jones magazine broke: speech at a $50,000 per plate fundraising dinner Romney had in Florida ($50,000 is the average annual income for an American family; in many Third World countries, it’s the annual income for an entire city, perhaps). When that exposé came out, hardly anybody thought you could ever lose; in fact, even diehard Republicans thought Romney threw the elections straight in your lap; the Florida speech was so devastatingly damaging for him and the Republican Party. But who knows, maybe, that episode had made you overconfident, and you took the first presidential debate casually with no preparation whatsoever; your election prospects since then took a nose dive. Boy, how quickly things turn!
You took that debate with your now-familiar demeanor: you took your audience — your supporters and sympathizers and onlookers across the country — for granted. That non-performance in the debate was really symptomatic of your four years of non-performance. That abject failure to rise up and overpower your fierce, well-oiled opponents and their media with measured documents and reasons was symptomatic of your four years of abject failure to rise up and do the right thing at the most critical moment.
You’re going to be paying a hefty price for that non-performance. And you’re going to drag us all down with you, by your non-performance and lackluster presidency. Your elite circle of advisors — dubious and ill-reputed political insiders who are really part of the now-infamous 1 percent, exposed because of Occupy Wall Street’s resistance and challenge — have ill-advised you. You believed in them, and took us for granted. Your drones killed many innocent people overseas; your political actions killed hopes and dreams of many here in the U.S.
President Obama, let me be clear. I would be very sad and disheartened if you get a shock defeat in this election. I would get a chill in my bones if someone like Romney whose racism and hypocrisy is now exposed becomes the president of America. I know he’s going to start another devastating war in Iran: the war industries and Karl Rove are working hard for his victory. I would be frozen to death if a social and economic extremist like Ryan with his Tea Party Glenn Beck doctrine becomes the vice president of this country. I know he is going to kill off the last remnant of the New Deal, including Medicare and Social Security as well as collective bargaining and such precious rights of the working people of America. His party will probably overturn Roe v Wade too, destroying women’s precious reproductive rights. Corporate America, NRA and Koch Brothers as well as organized bigoted groups are working hard for his victory.
Even though I have serious, major issues with your presidency and every single day, I feel cheated by the promises you and your administration didn’t keep, just because I NEVER want a racist and a bigot become the world’s top leaders, I would want you to win.
The only problem is that deep inside, I feel you are not going to win. And you can blame nobody other than yourself for this looming, historic defeat. Your likely loss would be the final letdown of the billions of people — particularly the young generation here in America and peace and democracy soldiers all across the world — who believed so much in your message of hope. They believed in YOU!
You let them all down. How terrible this letdown has been!
Because the so-called mainstream media is not asking them, I thought the onus is on us.
Even though it’s an American election where U.S. citizens vote to elect their president this November, actually it’s an election that has serious impact for the entire world. In a way, it’s a global election. Therefore, politically enlightened people from all over the world need to understand the various aspects of the election as clearly as possible. For the entire world, the stake is too high.
I was happy to see the level of reaction to my posts. A surprisingly high number of readers of this blog — now from near and far corners of the world — read the questions I asked to the Democratic and Republican candidates. Some wrote their comments directly on the blog, and some others sent me their feedback personally. Some of these friends had a strong disagreement with my position on Obama; they were also unhappy to see how a super-excited 2008 me turned into a less than enthusiastic 2012 me. These friends challenged my political acumen when I asked some critical questions to the Obama campaign. When I said I was not feeling excited at all for Obama, they warned me not to pop their excitement balloon. They said my wet blanket to douse their party bonfire might hurt Obama’s chances.
I felt delighted — by the thought that my little, no-name blog had so much power!
Of course, this is almost an academic discussion. Neither Romney nor Obama is going to read my blog, let alone answer my questions. But this is all I can do. I have said it many times before: other than my writing that I use to make my readers, friends and sympathizers think, I have no power. I have no money, no pedigree, no political connection and no real hope for publishing my thoughts for a wide mainstream audience. Therefore, this is really the extent of my political activism. This is the best use of my experience, analysis and energy.
I try to make people think. I try to challenge their minds. This is my only non-violent weapon.
Now, for the sake of time, let’s select only a few issues that are critically important both for an U.S. and global audiences. Food, clothes and shelter: these three have always, historically, been the most primary for the ordinary people across the world. In today’s globally-connected society, some other issues have become critical: I could perhaps select war and violence, energy, environment, education and health for the list. Then, we could perhaps include the subject of labor, immigration and society. I’m sure you quickly see a few other issues that you would want to include in your first list. I am sure I myself would later reflect on it and include a few more that I might have missed this time around.
But at least for the time being, not to make this post unnecessarily long, let’s put together our first list of issues and compare the two big parties and their two big candidates on these issues. It might help us to understand the nature of the electioneering process as it is heating up here in the U.S., and determine objectively what exactly is going on. Often, these critical issues do not surface our way — the ordinary, powerless people’s way — in the 24/7 conversation on big media done by their big experts. I call it Journalism of Exclusion.
Therefore, again, the onus is on us to do it. We must do it. Questioning is democracy. Analyzing is too.
So far, we have identified the following issues to be critical to compare the positions of Obama and Romney and their two big parties.
(4) War and violence
Of course, the all-encompassing, all-pervasive, overarching factor would be economics and money. Given its overlapping nature, I decided not to itemize economics as a separate point. The discussion of money would feature quite prominently when we take up these points — one point at a time. Foreign policy would be another such aspect: it’s going to be interwoven in the discussion of all the other points — one way or the other. And obviously, jobs, wages and unemployment would be another — if not the most important — all-pervasive subject. It brings us to the question of poverty, exploitation and injustice.
But in this intricately-connected world society of the new millennium, where political boundaries have become almost meaningless, especially when we consider how economics and money (and work) can move from one part of the globe to the opposite part — with a speed of light, and considering how the people in power are using the global connectedness to their advantage, I believe that perhaps we could add one more item on our list. And that item would be:
There! I believe we have come up with a good list, at least for the time being. Now let’s see if we can briefly discuss and compare the positions of the two candidates and their parties on these issues. I’ll try to do it as simply as possible, without making it sound too academic. I’ll try to do it with a language most of us — including myself — would understand. You tell me, please, if this language works for you.
If we think carefully, there is practically no way we can discuss one of the above twelve topics exclusively: they are all overlapping. What role does food and water play in today’s politics? Food prices, food quality, water sources, water quality — and the politics of U.S. government and its two big parties — one that media hardly talks about? Coca Cola’s capturing of natural water displacing millions of poor people from their land (and putting a famous movie celebrity as their PR)? U.S. seed company Monsanto’s forced replacement of Indian farmers’ traditional seed banks with their one-crop, genetically engineered seeds forcing those farmers to go bankrupt and commit suicides in hundreds of thousands every year? McDonald’s food colonization with substandard, unhygienic food that caused obesity and serious harmful effects in the U.S. and throughout the world?
Where is the discussion either at the huge, confetti-covered RNC or DNC? Is there going to be any discussion at the presidential debates? Will New York Times, NPR, PBS or CNN talk about them between now and November?
Now, let’s see. war and violence are two subjects where the two parties’ positions are different, they say. Okay, it is true that Romney, Ryan and Rush Limbaugh’s Republican Party openly talk about a new, imminent war on Iran (or Syria, or Yemen…it doesn’t matter); on the other hand, Obama and Hillary Clinton talk about how they have finished the Iraq war and how they’re going to withdraw from Afghanistan in two years. And then of course comes Joe Biden and gives a war-drumbeat speech at DNC…as if John McCain or Joe Lieberman (remember him?) was speaking. And there is rousing chants all around at the convention…USA…USA…USA…
But let’s see: was there any reason for U.S. to be in Iraq in the first place after six or seven years of destroying an ancient civilization, killing hundreds of thousands of people, and looting their oil, gold and other treasures? It’s almost like the British colony withdrawing from India after total plundering, brutalizing and partitioning a once-prosperous civilization, putting their handpicked, subservient, “Gandhian” feudals in power. The aggressors were going to leave sooner or later anyways: there was no more reason either for the British to stay in India or for the U.S. to stay in Iraq. Where is that perspective?
Can we talk about it in a straightforward way? Oh yes, can we also include the politics Israel has always played and has been playing in this incredible mess? Isn’t Iran or Syria or Egypt or Libya or Saudi cards used in the same game?
And then come Obama’s hit list and the drones and the relentless bombing…the war is over?
And then comes Julian Assange and Wikileaks and Bradley Manning…didn’t they say whistle blowing was actually patriotic?
Would New York Times, NPR, PBS or CNN talk about them? Would anyone throw these questions — this straightforward way — in the presidential debate?
We’ll now talk about globalization, immigration, labor and the economy — and their interconnectedness. We need to know how these two parties and their candidates are different on these issues.
I hope you come back to participate in that discussion. I need you in that discussion.
NOTE: I wrote this blog using my personal time and resources.
Recently, I wrote two articles on this blog — both on the subject of the U.S. presidential elections. They were both popular — beyond my expectation. I want to thank all the readers — practically from all over the world — for their kind interest. It’s been a gratifying experience.
In the first article (click on the link here), I expressed my fear that Romney and Ryan — the Republican ticket — would win (that was before the Mother Jones “47%” expose broke out). In the more recent article I posted just a few days ago during the Republican National Convention, I challenged and asked some questions to the R&R ticket. You can read it here too.
Readers visited both articles with surprisingly high interest; particularly, the newest post where I challenged Romney, Ryan and Republicans to answer my questions got a very high number of readers. I was delighted. Of course, I never got any response from the Republicans at all; my doubt is that they never even heard my name, let alone read my questions. I wish they did.
But it was reassuring that so many readers took a moment out of their busy life to think about what I had to say on the political and economic scenario — of USA and almost by default, of the entire world. Given that my readership — especially my American readership — has a more liberal tilt, and that too, perhaps with a Democratic affiliation, I felt happy that my questions reached them and that they had the opportunity to use and share those twelve bullet points in their own circles. Who knows, maybe, some of these people are going to attend the Democratic National Convention that’s happening in North Carolina this week; chances are, at least a few of them who perhaps heard my name and about my OneFinalBlog through grapevine, Facebook and Twitter would talk about the issues I addressed in my articles, and have some productive, positive discussion.
At least, that is my hope. With that hope in mind, I’m now going to ask a few questions to President Obama and his Democratic Party — again, on the current political and economic scenario of America, and almost by default, of the entire world.
Republicans are now asking the American voters, borrowing the famous line from Ronald Reagan: “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” Actually, even though I have absolutely no soft spot for the Republicans and I said it loud and clear that I would never vote for Romney and Ryan, I believe the question they’re asking is not irrelevant at all. In fact, that is a perfect ask any voters should ask themselves: are we now better off or worse off? And, what is the measure of being better off or worse off? Is it economic, is it the war and violence situation, is it domestic repression, is it the elitist status quo, or is it something else?
The only problem is, Republican leaders are asking the question disingenuously, and cheating their ordinary Republican (or undecided) voters who may or may not remember the whole story. If these leaders — most of them affluent and powerful and with deep ties with Corporate America and its powerful lobbyists — were not so dishonest and if they didn’t have an equally disingenuous media on their side, they would rather phrase the question this way:
“We know eight years of Bush completely destroyed the American economy, created an astronomical budget deficit, gave obnoxious tax breaks to the super wealthy, bailed out billionaire bank executives and corporate criminals, waged catastrophic genocides in Iraq and Afghanistan killing millions, looting oil and destroying history of ancient civilizations and bleeding us the U.S. taxpayers here to death, and tarnished the American superpower image once and for all across the world, but still, we believe that we are better than the Democrats to run this country. So, would you not vote for us? Please?”
Neither the Republicans nor the disingenuous, gloss-over U.S. mainstream media would frame their question to the voters this way. They don’t have the guts or honesty to do it.
(And Bill Clinton, in spite of his jackpot speech at the DNC, forgot to tell us how he destroyed age-old American welfare especially for poor women, imposed NAFTA with majority help from Republicans drastically cutting U.S. manufacturing jobs in the U.S., overturned landmark Glass-Stegall, rehired Greenspan to destroy the economy even more, and deregulated financial derivatives with help from Rubin and Summers. He also forgot to tell us how he and war criminal W. Bush have been great buddies ever since. Maybe, he’s preparing us for a Hillary 2016 and a Jeb Bush 2020. Who knows? Nobody but the elite knows anything: it’s all elitist secret. And they call it a democracy!)
In any case, we can never believe that Obama-Biden and the Democrats did a wonderful job in these four years and should be able to put all the blame on those eight years of a Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld-Ashcroft presidency; hence, we should all be happy and happily vote for another four years of Obama-Biden. Not so easy. We have some serious questions for President Obama and his Democratic Party, and here they are. Again, for the sake of time — both of my esteemed readers and Obama and the Democratic leaders who are busy and important people, I’m going to ask only a handful. I’ll save the rest for later.
You know what? I like Barack Obama as a person. I like Michelle Obama too. They are two of the smartest and modernest first couple America has seen for the first time in generations. And I know for sure that just because they are black, a large number of Americans (and Indians — from India) hate them. It’s unbelievable that even in 2012, millions of people especially in USA, Europe and India believe blacks are inferior to whites (and to browns and red and yellows and olives and purples and grays…) and a black president is a disgrace for this God’s Country called USA.
Well, let me tell you this. I think these people are pure racists and sexists and bigots and jerks too; and just because I know them so well from my own long experience to be with racists and sexists and bigots and jerks, I think at the end of the day, I’ll come out and vote for Obama, even though I think his Democratic administration has cheated me of my hope, expectation and enthusiasm for a change. But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to vote FOR a presidential candidate FOR him, and not AGAINST his racist and bigoted and sexist and lying opponents.
So, at this point, without annoying my patient readers to death, I’ll ask a few questions to Barack. Mr. President, Sir, would you please be kind enough to respond, or at least ask one of your colleagues to do it? It would be much appreciated. My questions are not prioritized in any particular fashion.
Question 1.(I asked this to Romey and Ryan too). — Rachel Corrie, a young American woman, in 2003 stood in front of an Israeli bulldozer to protest against Israeli government’s demolition of houses of Palestinian civilians. The bulldozer crushed her to death. Your Democratic Party leaders such as Hillary and Bill Clinton had blasted Chinese government’s human rights violation when its tanks threatened to kill Chinese protesters at Tienanmen Square a few years ago. Do you think your Democratic Party can show the same resolution to protest against the action of the Israeli government when they killed Rachel Corrie? (You might also add here the drama of including Jerusalem as the Israel’s capital in the Democratic election platform.)
Question 2. (I asked this to Romey and Ryan too). — Multinational, U.S.-based companies such as Monsanto, Union Carbide, Coca Cola, Chevron and Disney (among many others) have caused havoc in many other countries because of their ways of doing business. For example, over the past decade, 200,000 Indian farmers (yes, you’ve heard it right!) have committed suicide — the largest in human history — because of Monsanto’s permanent seed replacement with their own genetically engineered products and false promises of crop yield. Union Carbide’s infamous toxic gas leak in Bhopal in 1984 had killed thousand of poor workers and their families; women who suffered are still delivering crippled babies. Are you going to bring these companies to justice and compensate the victims for the disasters they went through?
Question 3.(I asked this to Romey and Ryan too). — Have you ever visited an agricultural or industrial farm in California, Tennessee, Arizona, Florida or Texas where owners work immigrant workers like slaves in a toxic situation — with zero human rights? Many of them die of cancer, tuberculosis and such diseases — because of their inhumane work conditions. Do you see any difference between their condition and that of the black workers and their families in a cotton plantation during the slavery days? Your government has detained and deported more undocumented immigrants — many of such poor workers — than even Bush and Ashcroft government did.
Question 4. — Why did your administration let Goldman Sachs, one of the biggest corporate criminals in the history of modern human civilization, off the hook even after their criminal activities were exposed beyond doubt at bipartisan Congressional hearings?
Question 5. — Why did you include people such as Larry Summers, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, Jeff Immelt, et al. — some of the worst-known corporate elements responsible behind the financial disaster — in your administration and would not purge them in spite of repeated pressure even from the pro-people sections of your own party? Why did you not stand behind the Overturn Citizen United campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders — 100 percent?
Question 6. — Why did you not take up, let alone pass, the Employee Free Choice Act when labor unions have always been such an ardently faithful ally? Isn’t that one of the worst examples of not keeping your 2008 campaign promises?
Question 7. — President Jimmy Carter has condemned your drone attacks and hit lists that killed thousands of innocent civilians in Pakistan and Afghanistan (and recently in Yemen too). Isn’t that one of the grossest violations of international peace treaties and human rights laws? (And we all know you also backtracked on closing down Guantanamo.)
Post Script. — This is from New York Times tonight (click for the news story here). Obama’s top strategist, David Axelrod, said, “We’re in a better position than we were four years ago in our economy.” But Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland, a Democrat, answered “no” on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” though he blamed Republicans. Other aides equivocated.
I’ll tell you this. Martin O’Malley and the other aides are honest. David Axelrod is dishonest and arrogant with his answer. And that is my problem with this Democratic Party and its top people who run the show. If you tell me we’re better off than four years ago, you’re kidding me. If you tell that to an ordinary American voter — Democrat or Republican or undecided — you’re going to lose their vote. Remember, many of these people didn’t watch Bill Clinton last night: they were working a late-evening shift to make ends meet.
We, the ordinary people who live and work in the U.S., who lost their jobs, health care, life’s savings and houses, and who can’t afford to play the stock market, are not better off. People like us do not see light at the end of the tunnel. President Obama and Mr. Axelrod, you must face the truth. You must tell the truth.
Most importantly, tell us why should we vote FOR you, and not just against your bigoted, lying, racist, sexist opponents?
Thank you, Sir, for your valuable time and kind response. Sincerely Writing,
I normally do not get emotional about a movie icon.
But this Fourth of July, I can’t keep emotions totally out of my system. Because I’m writing about an icon who I thought was somebody I could remember for the rest of my life. This is someone who makes me happy every time I think about him and watch his shows. He gives me reasons to believe in sanity, moderation, common-sense life and human compassion. He gives me reasons to love and keep faith in love.
I am writing about Andy Griffith. I’m trying make a connection between him, Middle America and yes, the Fourth of July.
Of course, it’s not just about Andy Griffith as a person; rather, it’s about a way of life he iconized through mass media. This is a value system he established even deeper in American soil. That is critically important to remember today because today’s America and American media do not talk about the way of life Andy Griffith, his shows and his friends, colleagues and co-actors talked about. This America and this media today have made a 180 degree turn from the philosophies that his prime time shows in the sixties popularized: philosophies that took deep roots in Mid-America and its moderate, loving and caring, smiling, ordinary, working men, women and children.
They were the philosophies of non-violence, social togetherness, inclusion, equality, modern outlooks and a greed-free lifestyle. Those were the American values that made America an exemplary nation throughout the world. Those were the values that brought millions of immigrants like me to this country — with high hopes and optimism.
Andy Griffith, a small-town Southern sheriff named Andy Taylor, never carried a gun. But he carried those eternal American values we terribly miss now.
Those are the American values we want to remember on this Fourth of July.
Of course, he is not the only one who preached and practiced and popularized sanity, society and peace on media and entertainment. Around the same time — in the sixties — icons such as Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson or the Beatles were more or less doing the same in the Western world. It was a tumultuous time. The glorious civil rights movement on one hand and a few years later, the valiant mass resistance against the Vietnam war shook America to the core. Countless artists, poets, singers, filmmakers, actors and actresses joined in on the peace movement globally and the civil rights movement within America. Brutally violent rulers across the world and brutally repressive rulers across the U.S. were struggling to put down the civil disobedience tempest. American young generation was waking up to fresh air of new realities. They were embracing the concepts of peace, justice and equality. The Berlin Wall of color, race and religion was crumbling.
Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Paul Robeson or the Beatles’ styles were, however, different from Andy Griffith’s. The simple sheriff in the Southern small-town of Mayberry did not join in on a civil rights protest march or gave a speech about the futility of war. He wasn’t even remotely interested about politics, although he had to run for elections every few years to keep his paid position as the sheriff. He also took sides on local mayoral candidates, and once opposed his own Aunt Bee who stood for mayor, causing serious domestic strife. But he was largely a non-political man: his job was to run the small town of Mayberry as smoothly as possible, with help from his laughably inefficient deputy and a group of awkward country simpletons (or even a town alcoholic he was rehabilitating).
Doing this, however, a widower with a small boy Opie, he wouldn’t have no lack of time to engage in several affairs (one affair at a time) with local belles, go fishing regularly with the son, organize and sing in the church choir, or occasionally visit for dinner Mount Pilot, the nearest big town seven miles away. Sheriff Andy Taylor refuses to leave his birthplace Mayberry even when an old-time, high-school sweetheart attempts to lure him away to Chicago. No he wouldn’t leave: he loves his relaxed lifestyle and rural lads and lasses.
That is his real America. Here, a group of Italian farmer immigrants with no English-speaking skills gets a hostile bunch of “mainstream” Americans — to the point of being driven away. An innocent man for absolutely no valid reason is suddenly ostracized by the entire town because the people with their superstition think he is jinx. The old barber Floyd spreads rumors about anything and it catches on like wildfire. Local ruffians engaged in illegal trading threat the weakling deputy. Sinister outsiders stash drug money in the barber shop. A bank is going to get robbed by armed robbers faking a film shooting. A dangerously violent criminal jailbreaks and hides in Mayberry, stealing the deputy’s gun.
And in all instances, it falls on the shoulders of Sheriff Taylor to interfere, mitigate and resolve the issue. And he does it with the use of his head — a head of a genius strategist and game maker — with absolutely no intention to use his gun. I take it back: he never had a gun (not even at his North Carolina home). He always thought problems could be handled nonviolently if he’d acted with determination and had the support and confidence of the society. And he did enjoy the support and confidence of the society.
In fact, he had had a society and they all cared for one another.
Sadly, that sane and moderate America is taken away from us. Extreme inequality, war, violence, hate, bigotry and economic exploitation have pervaded this land once again.
Sheriff Andy Taylor would never spare opportunities to sit down with his motherless child for his homework, sort out the small boy’s small but significant problems growing up, go fishing with him whistling away, talk to his school teacher Helen Crump who would later be his girlfriend, and attend church meetings and evening dinners religiously with Aunt Bee and son Opie, with frequent presence of childhood friend Deputy Bernie Fife who as a concerned family friend would also attempt to educate the boy, however inadequately. Andy would not miss an opportunity to play his guitar sitting out on the front porch, with Bee, Opie, Ms. Crump, Fife and sometimes Fife’s girlfriend Thelma Lou joining in. The country music would be slow and soothing, with soft and subtle strumming of the nylon guitar. The full moon would look down upon these simple, honest creatures; its soft and subtle silvery light would flood the Mid-American little town Mayberry — as if it had brought the divine blessings from the Almighty who is sending down his message of togetherness, love, compassion and peace.
Opie, Ron Howard, is now a big-time filmmaker; he is, I guess, my generation. A celebrity in his own right now, does he remember those soft, love-laced days from the sixties? I do. I wish I had an opportunity to go fishing with Sheriff Taylor. Only once…that’s all.
I wanted to play a small part in Andy Griffith’s message of love, social togetherness and nonviolence. I wanted to be a small part in the Grand-Ole American message of hope, togetherness and nonviolence.
Mr. Sheriff, I’m going to miss you. I’m going to miss the Middle American values you lived and died for.
This Fourth of July, I swear to God, Middle America is going to miss you too.
It took me a long time to decide on the title. I thought about it and thought it over.
I read it once. I read it twice. I paused and read it again. Finally, I decided. This is it. This is the title.
No, I don’t want to make it sound corny. That’s not the purpose. I truly feel that it could be one last time I get to live on the 25th of Baisakh — Tagore’s birthday — which normally falls on the 8th of May. This year, it’s the poet’s one hundred fifty-first birth anniversary. This year, just like any other year, much fanfare is happening in West Bengal and Bangladesh, various Bengali neighborhoods of India, as well as cities across the world wherever there is a community of Bengali people — big or small.
There will be Tagore’s songs. There will be Tagore’s plays. There will be Tagore’s poetry. There will be Tagore’s dances. There will be talks about the poet-philosopher’s poetry and philosophy. More resourceful Bengali communities in places such as Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dhaka and London and Toronto will put out special literary publications to observe the special day. Some will try experimental music — using Tagore’s songs. Some will stage Tagore’s famous plays — Post Office, Land of Cards or Red Oleanders from a new, refreshing point of view. Some will perhaps have an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings.
I know here in New York, a group of Bengali musicians and artists is putting together an audio book of Tagore’s short stories — the Man from Kabul, Return of the Little Boy, the Postmaster — with help from young-generation, college-age Bengali-American boys and girls. Kudos to them.
I have no doubt there’s going to be countless other events, programs and performances all over the world to celebrate this occasion. Especially, Tagore’s 150th birthday was particularly celebratory; it is likely this year many places are perhaps completing their year-long observance with special wrap-up celebrations.
I could not be a part of any of the numerous gatherings — either in America or Bengal. I am not a part of any of the numerous Bengali clubs, societies and organizations — either in America or Bengal. I do not live in India anymore. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood where there is a small smattering of immigrants from West Bengal; I know once they had an association that held Durga Puja and therefore, perhaps, Tagore Jubilee as well. But I know the group slowly dwindled, some old inhabitants left this unsung corner of New York City and some others went back to India. In any case, we never hear from them.
There is a large Bangladeshi community within walking distance of where we live in Brooklyn. In fact, working as an immigrant rights activist especially among the South Asians, once I had made an estimate that only this community counted about 30,000 people. It is a large community that has associations from many known and unknown districts of Bangladesh; they frequently host their picnics, street fairs and Eid dinners. But I am not sure if they ever hosted any Tagore birthday celebration. I learned from various friends that most of them came from conservative-Muslim areas in Bangladesh where “Hindu-liberal” Rabindranath Tagore was not such a household name. That is not to say all conservative Muslims are anti-Tagore or anti-Hindu.
In some other West Bengali and Bangladeshi communities in New York and New Jersey, there will be programs and performances. But these days, after working with and for especially the Bangladeshi community, it has dawned to me that inviting someone like me who is not from political Bangladesh is not a priority. After living in New York City for so many years, my family and I have accepted the fact that in spite of our desire to belong with a larger, undivided Bengali diaspora, we are not, in any real sense, part of either a “mainstream immigrant” Bangladesh or West Bengal. (Apologies for using an oxymoron.)
Chances are, we will not know if there were Tagore celebrations in New York or New Jersey where my long, post-9/11 activist experience once had an estimate of some two hundred thousand Bengalis — over eighty percent of whom were from Bangladesh. Practically all the weekend Bengali-language parochial schools and practically all of the two dozens of weekly Bengali-language newspapers and magazines operating and publishing out of New York are Bangladeshi.
For a long time, my family and I were actively involved with one of the weekend schools where I taught advanced-level Bengali to just-graduated students, and my family members participated in their cultural programs. For a number of years, especially after 9/11, as an important part of my immigrant rights activism, I wrote columns in a number of Bengali weekly newspapers and magazines — Thikana, Ekhon Samoy, Bangalee, Sangbad, Porshee.
With the schools and publications alike, I always did what I always do: educate the community about the difference between culture and kitsch, and speak and write about human rights and justice. When I worked professionally for two immigrant advocacy organizations — one in Jackson Heights, New York City and the other in New Jersey, I also worked with Bangladeshi immigrant families who bore the brunt of a terribly unjust and primitive immigration system here in the U.S. Among other activities, I worked with a few men and women who were in prison for a long time for minor immigration violations; I also worked with some others who were spared from prison detention or deportation because of our work.
I have many friends and acquaintances. I built precious connections with journalists, activists, writers, singers, playwrights and music teachers. I always felt proud to have thought I was a member of the larger immigrant Bengal and immigrant South Asia.
Yet, there is a strange disjunct — an insurmountable wall — between me and my family and the societies both in the Bangladeshi and West Bengali community. West Bengali immigrants do not know us well: we live in a not-affluent area in Brooklyn mostly inhabited by African-Americans, Jewish people, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Bangladeshi immigrants do not think we are one of them because we came from India — a country they do not know anymore. The conservative-Muslim Bangladeshis (the variety I mentioned above) do not like or understand a liberal-progressive, one-nation Bengal that Tagore and his predecessors from Bengal Renaissance envisioned. The young-generation, liberal-educated Bangladeshis do not know the common history and heritage of two Bengals shared over one thousand years before the British cut the land of Bengal in halves, erecting insurmountable, blood-soaked borders.
Yet, a very large section of Bangladeshi Bengalis (it’s a very strange term, in my opinion) — most are Muslims — are moderate in their religious and social views, avid music, theater and literature lovers, and are the biggest consumers of music and movies from Calcutta and West Bengal — even today. Strangely, however, some of them have a general apathy, indifference, ignorance and often anathema about political West Bengal and India. When they find out I am from India and not from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong, they talk to me differently. Again, I’m not generalizing. How can I, when I have so many special friends from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong?
There are quite a few other Bengali immigrants both from Bangladesh and West Bengal — highly educated, scholarly and erudite — who are satisfied with the small society they have and therefore do not feel any particular urge to invite outsiders like us. New Jersey or Long Island — where most of these more affluent, educated West Bengalis live — is like a group of islands only connected by long-distance, car-driven highways, creating more distances between people. We do not have the time or desire to go out of New York City to see either a Durga Puja or a Tagore performance, and return more depressed that we never felt truly welcome.
All of the above — the entire, personal, true story I told here — is a slow but sure recipé for death. If I was not a high-energy, activist, never-say-die-type personality who would go out of his way to find new friends, colleagues and communities and stay involved with newer and ever-challenging, creative activities — immigrant movement or labor education or Brooklyn For Peace or Durga Puja or Bengali New Year celebration (or even the Tagore-150 we organized in Manhattan last year with help from New Yorker) — death would have come much faster. In my twenty-five-plus years of living in the U.S., I have seen a number of people — a few of them being highly talented but decidedly loners — falling victims of this extreme alienation followed by depression, dark diseases and death. I always, always carry that fear deep inside that one day, I’m going to be a victim of a similar alienation and die untimely.
Every year, therefore, at this time when the rest of the world is celebrating the life and work of this incredible genius named Rabindranath Tagore, the question comes to my mind: am I going to live one more year to see the next Tagore birthday celebration? Which song would be the last Tagore song I hear before I die? Which Tagore poem would be the last one I read? Which short story would I translate the last before I perish — and perish prematurely?
I hope I didn’t make you too sad or perturbed and I certainly hope I didn’t make it sound too corny, as if I was trying to draw your sympathy — sympathy for a forlorn soul.
If you feel that way, I am sorry. I do not have anything to offer you to compensate for it — other than the two dozens of Tagore songs I recorded. I also have a few translations of these songs as well as translations of a few Tagore short stories.
I also have a YouTube of one of my talks on culture and Tagore — a talk I gave recently at an Indian university. And if I may say it, I have recently managed to compile a whole host of my essays on Tagore in relation to cultural erosion and globalized kitsch. I’m actually in the middle of writing a book on the above.
I hope you receive these gifts I leave for you, and forgive me for my personal, not-so-cheerful rambling.
Celebrate Tagore. He showed us an educated, modern, progressive way to live. He was not a perfect man. In fact, he had many flaws. I do not consider him a God. I consider him a very important, humanist philosopher-poet teacher who taught us human spirituality, universality and peace.
Tagore taught us the message of emancipation: in Bengali, the word is Mukti. It means inner freedom: liberation of the soul. Nandini showed us the way in Red Oleanders.
If this is the last Tagore birthday before my death, I want to remember him that way.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[I dedicate this post to the legendary liberation struggle of Bangladesh and the unsung, victorious freedom fighters.]
I wrote: “Kolkata makes loves to me. Oh God, how can I thank you for bringing me back to her?”
(In case you don’t know, Kolkata is Calcutta — the media-distorted British-raped “City of Joy.” We’ll slowly talk about the violence and abuse.)
Obviously, Calcuttans — of my type — were fascinated with my fascination. Praises poured in. Enchanting…I said to myself…not just the idea of making love to her…but also the idea that other beautiful people like me loved the idea of making love to her…and that too, without ever getting out of your mind…and your dreams!
Inspired by admiration and adulation from fellow-lovers, I went on and wrote:
“Food, music, film, dance, fun, literature, politics, science, arts and what not…in spite of all the problems and stupid politicians and promoters today, it’s just incredible. And I’m not even talking about her GLORIOUS history.”
Again, confetti and claps…a whole bunch of them. This lovemaking is sure catching on…and catching on fire. I knew it would!
And then, a sister, who left Bombay and Delhi to live in this much-maligned city, wrote:
(By the way, this travelogue is not about comparing anything with anything…in case you think I’m being biased against your place. I may be biased for my place, but I’m definitely not biased against yours. Or, for that matter, against my second first city New York.)
“For me, Kolkata is like my mother, whom, despite all her weaknesses and ailments I love and care for….no matter where I stay, live or what I do, the umbilical connect will always be there.”
Now, that’s also very true. She pulled my ear — just like one of the many middle-school teachers who did it to me many times over many years — and put it in perspective. Of course, she is right! And I am right too! Now, how can I resolve this dilemma?
Is Kolkata my mother…or is she “Je t’aime mon amie?”…Like…“ami tomay eto bhalobashi, sakhi…”
(By this time, other Calcuttans — probably a few of my detractors included — started throwing confetti and claps the sister’s way. Hey, I thought, I need to do something to fix it — now — or she’s gonna steal the show. And yet, I cannot ever lie. This is way too delicate and honest to be cunning and dishonest about.)
Then, I came up with this brilliant reflection. I wrote:
“So wonderful, sister.” [Note: while doing an important debate, in front of an eager audience, you always want to compliment the opposition — that’s a little political trick I learned years ago…here in Calcutta; your sentimental (Calcuttan-type) detractors now pay attention to you too. Who knows: you now might get a few flying kisses.]
So, I wrote:
“Bengal is my mother. Bangladesh is my mother. It doesn’t matter where I live now. I’ve written about it in the memoir I’m putting together. My mother is an important part of it. Kolkata, on one hand, I feel more like, was my mother when I was little, and on the other hand, it became like my first girlfriend when I became a teenager. It took on various forms and shapes at different stages of my life.”
[Fantastic! Ain’t it? What a brilliant observation…and that too…one hundred and ten percent genuine…like Tagore…cross my heart.]
To draw in accolades from supporters and opposition alike, I explained:
“So, when I say Kolkata makes love to me, I think about the teeanger-time Kolkata when my senses started to bloom like a bunch of tuberose, with its radiating beauty and fragrance. It comes back every time I return here. That’s an incredible feeling: it wraps me around and won’t let me go.”
[By this time, I observed I managed to steal the limelight away from the opposition…and into my direction. I knew I was on a roll.]
Charged and cheered up, I announced:
“…and then I go back to my old mezzanine flat in old North Calcutta where my mother first walked me to school, and where I returned one day in second grade with lit-up eyes to tell Ma I stood first in class, and she was waiting for me standing in that little two-feet wide balcony — I feel like I’ve come back to my mother again. This is indescribable. This is pure spiritual experience.”
End of debate. Humble, sweet victory…and I knew it. My opposition said something good too in her closing remarks:
“Yes…Kolkata, Bengal, Bangladesh – same speak. Just as the love for one’s mother is unconditional, so too, my love for the place…I accept her as she is….she beckons; she attends to you with all the love and care possible, in the humblest of ways…and when it’s time to bid her goodbye, her memories persist and fill the air with a scent that keep your senses going till the very end….I can identify with your feelings – it’s about a strong sense of belonging..indescribable, indeed!”
In a debate, and that too of this sort, you don’t want to show your emotions too much — in front of the audience. So, I didn’t do it. Did I weep and tremble later? Well…that’s a secret I would not divulge here. You can privately call me to find out.
I can only say to you this much: this is the city and this is the joy…for me (as opposed to some junk Kiplingers or later rapists).
Come along with me to know more about the smiles and tears and fights and fears and poetry and prose and jasmine, tuberose…that Kolkata is to offer to the entire world…even today…even after so much violence and hurt!
Kolkata makes love to me. It’s pure bliss. It’s spiritual. It’s like taking a long, relaxing dip in Mother Ganges. You emerge clean.
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.
Brooklyn, New York
Said Mujtaba Ali
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 – 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 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? 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. Then we had a talk. He was a fellow Bengali Mussalman; 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 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 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. 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 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.