You could read this as a depressing note. I wouldn’t blame you if you did.
Because this note is about death (yes, again I’m writing about death — as if I can’t let go of it, ever). And death is never fun and writing about death is never fun either. It’s especially depressing if it’s about premature death. It’s about people I knew — so many of them — who died early; and they didn’t have to. They could’ve easily lived, and I could’ve easily been with them for some more years, and I didn’t have to feel so miserable that they didn’t live, and that I didn’t have the simple, ordinary pleasure of a simple, ordinary man to spend time with them and see them growing old, and grow old with some others who I wanted to grow old with.
But this is also a note to let my steam go, as if in a psychological therapy session. If you read it that way, it may not sound nearly as depressing.
In this little note of reflection, I’m trying to find reasons why they had to die so early and why I didn’t get the simple privilege of life to spend a little more time with them. Obviously, as you can see, I am hurting. And I don’t want to hurt so much.
You could call this a philosophical reflection. After all, discussing death is often philosophical. Talking about death with a heavy heart must always have an element of philosophy. An afterthought of dying early, prematurely, when these men and women were in the middle of us…with a full life that there was supposed to be…a life that was taken away from them…and a life that was taken away from us — must be philosophical analysis. If not a scholarly analysis, then at least it’s some emotion-framed rambling that may or may not make sense to others. But for someone like me who cannot simply either forget these deaths or brush them aside as harsh but unavoidable reality — this discussion is important.
Like they say in compassionate, educated discourses, it’s critical to close the chapter. Without closing these chapters, life hurts more and life hurts always. And you can’t hurt incessantly. You must move on. I have hurt incessantly, and I want to move on.
I could’ve titled this note “Why So Many I Knew Left So Early” instead of the title I chose — that would’ve been simpler, more prosaic and less emotional. People always charge me that I charge with emotion too much and it affects them negatively. They tell me I need to be more progressive and objective and less sentimental and old-fashioned. (In fact, they tell me that I should not dwell on the subject of death so much.)
But my dilemma about the title was that if I chose “Why So Many I Knew Left So Early!” as the title, it might have sounded as if I was merely complaining about these deaths. Or, come to think of it, it may have read (without the note of exclamation at the end) as if I was actually narrating the reasons about the deaths with absolutely confirmation that I indeed knew the reasons behind these early deaths. Choosing the title would always be quite difficult for such a note — a note that most people would not want to read more than once and if they read it at all, it would be quick and cursory only because the readers simply could not not avoid the urge to know what I had to say (thank you, brothers and sisters from all over the world).
No-name bloggers like with no pedigree or media or publishing house sponsorship have even more difficulty to choose the title of the blog and its length or format because there is always fear that these global, friendly readers might get turned off by depressing subjects and lengthy discussions, and may not return (and I want you all to return, believe me!).
Then, I couldn’t simply be disingenuous about what I had to say about these deaths. I neither knew the real reasons they had to leave so early, nor did I mean to complain-only about these untimely deaths. Of course, I knew why they died if you asked me the physical reasons behind them — like, my mother’s ovarian cancer when she was forty-two, or my childhood friend Subroto’s untreated clinical depression and his suicide at the age of forty-six just a few days after his father’s death, my brother in-law Ashim’s death at forty when a drunk driver hit his bicycle on the morning of Holi a few years ago, my big-brother-like maternal uncle Buddha’s death at the age of thirty-five when someone shot him in the head and left his body on his office floor, death of my wife’s most jovial uncle at the age of fifty or so when he had his early-morning breakfast and left for his neighborhood tea shop only to be electrocuted of live wire submerged in waterlogged street, my mother’s closest sister who loved me just like her own child died of meningitis when she was perhaps thirty or so leaving behind three little children, or my mother’s oldest brother Biswanath who out of poverty had a severe, untreated anxiety disorder only to die of a cerebral aneurism when he was in his forties and had to leave four young children behind, etc. I always knew the physical facts behind the deaths. I also saw some of them dying close up — like my mother and my uncle Biswanath; I remember seeing this uncle in his death bed at the Calcutta Medical College hospital emergency ward, breathing his last out of a bunch of tubes.
I could’ve seen them growing old and dying at a mature, normal age. That did not happen.
Or, two of my Scottish classmates Anjan and Nikhil — whom I met through Subroto — died so suddenly when Anjan, then a newly-graduated doctor, fell on the street one fine morning and died of a massive stroke. Nikhil was killed with his whole family — his parents, wife and child — when he was driving back to Calcutta from Delhi and an out-of-control supply truck crushed the entire family to death.
Then I can think of some other deaths that I never thought would affect me at all because they were neither my friends nor relatives; they were only people I knew from a distance. But looking back, they all touched me deeply one way or the other. Like, the death of a young, happy boy Suranjan whom I saw the day before his last, who was playing basketball in our Scottish Church School’s courtyard when a mismanaged, poorly-built chunk of cement that held the basketball basket fell on him and one other kid to kill them instantly. Or, the other young man from Buddha’s alley whose name I cannot remember now — whom I saw acting in an amateur play with Buddha who a phenomenal actor and director, just days before his death; one morning, on his way to work, he fell off an overcrowded no-door Calcutta bus pedestal and got run over by the dilapidated, double-decker bus. He was the only earning member of his large family with a number of unmarried sisters. We were in college at that time and had enough courage and desire to go see the remnants of his body and blood strewn on Beadon Street.
Or, like, when I was five or six years old, a young man Ranjit, I think sixteen or seventeen years of age, who happened to be the elder brother of a boy I used to play alley football and cricket with, hanged himself to death (or did he take poison?). I was the only child then: my sister wasn’t born yet. My parents were so concerned that the incident next door might hit me hard — they did not let me see the dead body laying on a wooden cot before the funeral procession. I remember I only heard some subdued wailing of Ranjit’s poor mother. Or maybe, I’m only imagining. I was too small. That I think was my very first encounter with untimely, shocking death.
Why did Ranjit kill himself? I don’t know. Maybe, he failed in love? Maybe, he failed in his high school exam and could not find a way out of their poverty; I knew for the fact that they were extremely poor. His younger brother Rabin who played ball with us, I remember, would always be overly cautious that the ball we played with would be lost and then he’d have to come up with the money-share for the lost, thirty-paisa ball. Therefore, every time he bowled in a game of cricket, he would yell, “I’m not responsible if the ball’s lost!”
I still remember that so vividly!
In a few years, when I was a high school student and doing well in my exams and all, I saw Rabin working as a part-time usher at our local, North Calcutta theater halls where my parents would take me for a weekday evening, discount show of Satyajit Ray or Charlie Chaplin.
Rabin never finished school.
Ranjit killed himself. Many years later, Ganesh, another friend from the same North Calcutta alley who set up a small grocery shop in our Calcutta neighborhood to make ends meet, only never to be able to make ends meet, killed himself. On top of their humiliating poverty, he also had to come up with expenses for his old parents’ health care, costs that recently went completely out of control in post-socialism India. I was not in Calcutta when Ganesh died; I was already in the U.S. studying journalism at Columbia University (and already considering myself to be a part of the elite U.S. media). It was incidentally about the same time when Subroto stood in front of a speedy commuter train only to be cut up in half.
Ganesh, Subroto and I played and gossiped together back in those romantic Calcutta days. We could grow old together. That didn’t happen either.
Didn’t I say I must tell these stories to close some chapters?
Have you seen death closely? I have. In fact, I’ve seen death up close too many times.
I have written about death on this blog. I’ve written about my mother’s death in India, when I lived there. I’ve written about my dear uncle Buddha’s death, a few years later, when I was still there. Then, I wrote about my childhood friend Subrato’s death in Calcutta; at that time, after already being in the U.S. for fifteen years, I switched my career from science to humanities, and was studying journalism at Columbia University here in New York.
I wrote about other deaths too — both on this blog and elsewhere. Death is not a new experience for me.
I’ve written about Lord Yama, the God of Death. I’ve talked about him: how he visited us like an unwanted guest — like a distant village uncle who would show his face every now and then, inviting himself to a family that does not want to see him at all. Then, he’d invite himself over and over again, knowing his vulnerable, fearful host family that didn’t know how to say no in his face. He would come, he would stay, and then he would leave whenever he liked.
When you see death so many times, and when you see so many untimely deaths, you stop thinking of death as a rare or special experience; you don’t care about the spirituality aspect of it. Seeing Lord Yama frequently is neither pleasant nor religious. In fact, you pray to your other gods to remove this horrific curse. It’s too traumatic. In fact, after seeing a number of untimely deaths, even the pain doesn’t affect you too much. At that point, you don’t hurt anymore. You desensitize.
Then, there are deaths that still come as a rare and special experience. It brings your soft feelings back. It brings your human senses back. The experience is sad, but wonderful. It touches your soul.
You don’t experience any of the little joys and sorrows of the people that you left behind. You don’t participate in the social and cultural events that were once so near and dear to you. You don’t go to those temples or join in those exciting political rallies anymore. You don’t get to chat with your school buddies anymore; you miss their reunions every single year. You don’t get to eat the Hilsa fish at family gatherings in the monsoon months or play chess, carrom or badminton at fun picnics in early January. You don’t get to see the cricket or football games you once craved to see.
You don’t get to sing with them the songs you so much loved to sing.
And you don’t get to be present at the death bed of someone who loved you so much.
My wife lost both her parents when we were here in America. She could not be with them when they wanted to see her one last time. She was making the last-minute preparation to fly to Calcutta to see her father; just the night before her departure, news came that he’d passed away. She left the next day, only to be held up by British Airways in London for three days for some strange reasons; they did not or could not make any alternate arrangement for her to reach Calcutta right away. She did not get a chance to see him or perform his last rites at the funeral. It left a permanent scar on her.
The same thing happened when her mother died four years later: she could not arrive on time to see her alive. She passed away quite suddenly. But at least at this time, we made arrangements with those relatives to preserve her body; my wife was able to touch her mother one last time and was able to be a part of the rites at the funeral by the Holy Ganges.
It’s painful and traumatic, but nothing unique for new immigrants like us. At least, unlike many other immigrants who could never return to their home countries because of problems with money or documents, we could fly back and spend a little, precious time with the family. I have seen too many times an immigrant from Bangladesh, Punjab or Pakistan weeping inconsolably with their friends trying to calm them down: they just got news that a parent or a brother or sister died and they could not afford to go back at all. The feeling of helplessness tore them apart.
I know that’s been our fate all along since we decided to migrate out of India. I know I’m going to go through exactly the same experience my wife went through, when time comes to say goodbye to my father. He is now eighty-eight years old, and is not doing well at all. Last week, I got news from my sister that he fell on the floor, hurt his feet badly, and also had a deep cut on his forehead.
I know his time is coming to an end. I know when it’s all over, it’s very likely I won’t be able to be on his side.
When our rabbit died this Sunday at 10 P.M., we were all by his side. This little creature — we called him Gutke or the little brat (rough translation from Bengali) was with us since the tragedies of September Eleventh; he was a rescued bunny. We called him by many other names, such as Gutubaba, Gersh, etc. etc. My sister during her visit from India called him Gutu Kumar. I even gave him a proper name in case we ever decided to send him to a rabbit reform school: the name was Lal Mohan (borrowing the immortal character from Satyajit Ray’s detective stories), even though the little brat never managed to go to school. Ah well, if one decides to remain a lifelong illiterate, what can you do?
The Irish-American lady here in Brooklyn who gave him to us said he was then about a year old back then; therefore, going by her, Gutubaba was about twelve years old when he died; calculating that into human age, he was a very, very old man — of 120.
Now, because most people don’t keep a rabbit for a pet, even here in New York City where almost every other American man and woman have a dog or cat (I once had a bird in Calcutta), they don’t realize how beautiful, happy and loving these rabbits can be. I don’t know about the emotions and intelligence of the typical snow-white rabbits with ruby-red eyes that we used to see back in Calcutta (the ones that never lived long), our Gutubaba was exceptional. Before him, we had another, kind-of pedigree bunny named Chicory, but she only lived for eight years; we loved her too, but never quite formed the bonding we developed with this little street rascal.
When he was young, we had to put up a makeshift wooden door at the bottom of our staircase; still, at every possible and impossible opportunity, he would sneak in and hop up the stairs to go up to the second or even the third floor of our house, and would not ever want to come down. We always had to lure him out of the places he’d hide — mostly from under the bed — by using his favorite cereal, crackers, raisins or grapes. He would always be outside of his cage except for the few times he went back for food or water; and believe it or not, he was almost potty-trained. Well, sort of.
Gutubaba loved children. All our friends — American, Bengali, Indian and all whoever came to our place with their kids — would be amazed to see how friendly he was; in his younger years, he would jump over from the floor onto the couch and sit there for hours, with children and adults alike. He would watch TV with us (sometimes facing away from the TV if it’s a movie that we saw many times before), and listen to Tagore songs with much respect and attention.
Then he got old and slowed down — quite rapidly. He could not move around; we removed the makeshift wooden door from the bottom of the stairwell because he could never go back up. He got arthritis on both front legs, and then he got cataract on his eyes. He gradually stopped eating. Still, he would respond whenever there was smell of freshly made tea because he knew there would be cracker pieces for him, or occasionally, a piece of raisin. The children in our home were extremely attached to him and his love; this brat would lick his favorite children and not stop.
On Sunday, July 15, Gutke breathed his last. We were all present by his side. He started taking very fast breaths, and then he slowed down. He went back to his favorite cage and stayed there one last time. We carefully took him out and lay him on our living room carpet. We rubbed our fingers slowly and softly on his head and his salt-and-pepper fur, and called out his name over and over again. He took a few last sips of water — as if water from the Holy Ganges.
He opened his mouth and took in a few last gasps of air. Then, he stopped breathing.
Gutubaba left us — in peace.
My wife wept inconsolably. She said she had not seen death so up close in her life.
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.
[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.
First week in India and here’s my newest show ‘n tell. I’m going to show you some photos and suggest a short description for each. I invite you to take a close look at them, and come up with your own “tell.” Or, you can just go with my take on them.
I am still not completely out of the massive jetlag; it happens when you fly from one side of the globe to the other in a relatively short time. Your body takes time to recover from the silent trauma and adjust to the local clock. It normally takes about a week to completely get out of it. For me, it’s been five days, and my body clock is slowly realizing that 1 A.M. is actually 1 A.M. India time and not 2.30 P.M. New York Time. The older you are, your stupid body clock takes longer to adjust to reality.
Therefore, I’m not in the greatest state of mind to write something long. Yet, I also feel that unless I write about things I’ve already noticed in my first week in India — however briefly — I may not remember them all. More importantly, considering the unbelievable, ever-shifting mosaic of events one can easily encounter here on a daily basis, more pictures will quickly show up taking over the older ones. So, let me put something together to show you what I’ve gone through in five days around here.
I leave it up to you to decide if these observations are worth anything. Please write your comments freely, would you?
In Ma’s painful cancer death at the age of forty-two, he saw there was a gold mine to mine in this poor, God-forsaken, North Calcutta mezzanine household. He grinned, and he grimaced, and he growled.
And then he howled.
That evening, Ma came out of her home one last time. I didn’t cry, and I’m positive father didn’t either; but everybody else did. Poorna, my sister (whose Tagore songs you’ve perhaps heard here on my blog), wept hard, and Sova, my aunt, cried out loud. Kakima, our next-door neighbor, wept too. All our previous domestic maids over the years, who came to see Ma one last time, inconsolably sobbed. Slowly, with extreme care, we carried Ma and put her on the flower-adorned cot sitting on the earthen alley. “Bolo Hari, Hari Bol,” they all chanted out Lord Vishnu’s name in a familiar way, one I had heard numerous times in Calcutta ever since I remembered. Four of us hoisted the four corners of the cot up on our shoulders now cushioned with a cotton towel. In a few moments, all the male members of the family and friends, in the midst of the loud and subdued cries, set out on the final procession on foot to the Ganges, about five miles away to the West side of the city.
I believe about a hundred people came along with us.
But Subrato, my best friend didn’t show; he’d later said he didn’t because he couldn’t take it; my mother’s death was too much pain for him to bear. He came from a solvent family with both parents working and a reasonably affluent lifestyle. He was a very bright student, yet a very weak man – so much so that many years later, when his father suddenly died, he couldn’t take it either, and in a matter of days, during the obligatory bereavement period, he walked out of his house in his mourning garb leaving a mother, a sister, a wife and two young sons behind, and stood on the tracks of a speeding commuter train. He was killed instantly.
Somebody emailed us here in New York about his violent death. Not an agreeable way to deal with the sudden death of your best friend.
But much before that, in quick succession of Ma’s death, came small and big bolts from the blue. Uncle Yama had warned me long ago that I was going to see him frequently once I grew up. Now I knew I had grown up.
Just the next Sunday, about the same time in the evening, Jethu, father’s oldest brother who lived only walks away, died of a prolonged oral cancer. A chain smoker, he had been suffering for nearly two years, and got the disease way before Ma fell sick; in fact, it was Ma who first told me that Jethu got cancer. This is a man who lived with us for years before finding his own apartment, played the flute sitting on our narrow veranda in the evening, and took him out on leisurely spring-night tram rides. He bought me my first (and last) pair of cricket gloves.
In less than a year, my oldest maternal uncle Bishwanath died of a stroke; he couldn’t handle the enormous financial mess he got himself in by playing the Indian stock market, got bankrupt, and left four small children and a widow behind. I went to see him in his final hours at the Calcutta Medical College emergency. I remember he lay on a narrow bed in a very small room, eyes closed, and his upper body was all hooked up with pipes, monitors and tubes; his mouth was wide open, and he was fiercely and noisily gasping for breath like a big fish out of water. I saw his chest pumping like a balloon inhaling and exhaling air; I knew just by looking at his terrible suffering that he was not going to make it. This is an uncle who was a soft-nature man, a singer. He was a champion carrom player too. What niyati Lord Yama had set aside for him!
Two years later, when the men were not home, my middle maternal uncle Madhu’s wife Amita – a schizophrenic woman who angrily refused any basic medical help – screamed about her poverty and distress, poured kerosene on her body, and lighted herself up. Then, she ran fiercely up and down the narrow, dark, dingy alley next to their bedroom, shrieked violently in extreme fear and pain, tried to tear off her burning sari and blouse, and my poor grandmother and Sova ran back and forth to rescue her and away, and cried out and begged to everyone for help. In half hour, in front of practically all the helplessly onlooking residents of their neighborhood who did all they could to save her including a last-ditch attempt to blanket out the fire, a charcoal-black Amita got a heart attack, and dropped dead.
Madhu and Amita had been married for only two years, and she left a six-month old child behind. Sova now became the mother of that child.
And then the final blow came five years after Ma’s death, just two weeks before I was scheduled to take my TOEFL to come to study in the U.S., when on a Friday Christmas-eve night, Buddha, an Indira Gandhi Congress rising star, was found in his State Electricity Board office room in Central Calcutta, shot in the head to death.
The gun was never found. The assassins were never found either. In India, law enforcement and administration do not work for you unless you can force or bribe them. We could not force or bribe them: we were too poor and powerless to do it.
To me, Buddha was more like a big brother than an uncle, just like Sova was always more like a big sister than an aunt; when I was very young, I saw Buddha playing alley marble, street football and strike-day cricket; and I saw Sova playing jump rope, hide and seek and rhyme games with her teen friends. I accompanied them to their simple, frugal but fun winter picnics – on rooftops and at school compounds. I saw Buddha’s ambitious ascent, slowly assuming leadership in his friends’ circle and then in politics. I went to hear his speeches at political rallies; I went to hear him recite Tagore and Sukanto poetry at cultural events. And I unknowingly emulated him in my own political and cultural performances. I helped him write New Year greetings cards he’d send out to numerous friends and followers. I followed him on, and I followed him often.
Buddha’s death was a huge blow to us – our entire family. Even the entire neighborhood of that long, narrow alley behind the vegetable and fish market was completely shocked and frozen. The final ray of hope for my poor grandmother was gone.
It was as if as soon as Ma left, the force of love that held the family together melted away, and everything fell apart. And my grandmother had to go through it all, one tragedy at a time.
Before my grandma died, she had lost five children.
Enough for now. (By the way, this is all from my memoir I’m slowly putting together. Any takers? Let me know.)
You might ask, why in the world am I writing about it, especially when it is so personal and so painful? Am I trying to self-inflict pain into those covered-over wounds?
No. Seriously. I’m not trying to draw your sympathy and consolation — believe me. It’s been quite a while. I’m out of it…you know…sorta. You feel bad? Thank you. I appreciate. But that’s about it.
I’m telling you these stories because this is the India that you probably do not know or hear about, especially in today’s media glitz and superpower blitz. I know for sure many of you did not hear these stories from someone like me who actually lived them.
Lord Uncle Yama has been playing his cunning death games on us — the poor and the vulnerable in that little corner of the world — for eternity.
I feel I’m still a small pawn in his game.
(come back for more, if you still not completely un-like it.)
I have seen death too many times in my life. He’s been with me all along.
Honestly. Really. Nothin’ to brag about. But it’s true.
I know Lord Yama, the god of death, all too well. I can’t say I like him a lot. But because I’ve accepted the fact that I can never get rid of him, I have resigned to un-dislike him. Or, is it dis-unlike him?
You see, it’s not easy to explain. This guy is like the distant uncle from the village who’d show up at least once a year, totally uninvited, and wouldn’t mind our very obvious unwelcoming gestures…until he decided to travel somewhere else, to be someone else’s guest. Some years, he’d show up even more than once a year. Gosh…really annoying!
What can I say: he’s always been quite whimsical.
When I was a child, I didn’t know him all that well. Growing up, I heard strange tales about him…where he lives…what he does…where he goes…how he makes a living, and all. I never paid close attention to those tales. I never believed I had to. I was least bothered.
Slowly but surely though, his presence became matter of factly. Then, one day, he volunteered to introduce himself. I saw his face up close when I was only in sixth grade. He said to me, “Hello kid…I am your Lord Yama Uncle.” He said, “Pleased to meet you.”
I was speechless.
He said to me, “You don’t look very happy meeting me, do you, kid? That’s okay. I’m leaving you now for a while. But you’ll see me again, don’t worry. I’ll be back.” And just before he left, he grinned, uncannily, and said, “You’ll see me over and over again. You better know me well, kid. Or, you’re gonna be miserable.”
He was right. A few years went by.
When I just got into our M.Sc. program at the University of Calcutta, Uncle Yama for some reason decided he’d now be our guest for a quite a while. Maybe, he didn’t have no other place to visit. Maybe, his village had a drought and he must eat and sleep at somebody else’s house. Maybe, he realized he didn’t see us for a long while and started missing us too much. So, one early summer evening, around seven thirty, he showed up and knocked at our mezzanine apartment door.
In fact, he banged hard. He wouldn’t wait no more.
Ma was dying of cancer. Uncle Yama took her first…and left…
He left…but only for a short while. In Ma’s death, he’d struck a gold mine. He saw with his unearthly, uncanny eyes (see his profile photo above) that this was a place where he could come back now…quite often…over and over again…uninvited…and these people wouldn’t say no to him…couldn’t say no to him.
He knew we were too good and too powerless to dis-un-dislike him.
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.
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.
Have you ever lived on two opposite sides of globe…exactly at the same time?
I have. In fact, I have been living that way for a long time now.
I want to keep it very simple this time. Look at this map. I’m talking about USA and India. They’re precisely on the opposite sides of each other on the globe.
Look at the dots and lines. On the U.S. map, it points perhaps to New York or Washington. On the Indian map, it perhaps points to Bombay, now called Mumbai. It could have pointed to New Delhi…or Kolkata (better known as Calcutta) where I left behind my father, sister, cousins, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces…teachers…students…and hundreds of friends…literally hundreds of friends…and neighbors. These are people I grew up with and spent quality (or lazy) time with. In India, friends and neighbors are often like your family. In Kolkata or Benaras, you call your next door neighbor uncle or aunt; their daughter comes straight into your living room (they call it drawing room) — often the only room in the house — every morning to read the second newspaper or pages of the one and only newspaper you’re not reading; your mom would even treat her with some breakfast. Your childhood friend would show up and yell your name from the street; then he’d come in and have some tea and snacks with you before dragging you out to another friend’s house for a second round of tea.
I know of a few people in our North Calcutta whose children grew up believing their neighbors were their family members; they were heartbroken (and got very sick) when the neighbors moved away. There is a society in place, unlike here in America, where the society there was even thirty years ago is practically non-existent (now don’t tell me Facebook or Google Chat is society: that’s pure crap).
In the country where I grew up, if you needed help, and asked for ten people, a hundred would easily show up, causing you much annoyance. But that’s how it was. Calcutta and Bengal, particularly, were more like it (I have some knowledge to believe the entire Indian subcontinent used to be like that). There’s a society you could count on; there was a society you soaked up life from. Of course, with the neo-colonization of young minds and invasion of Facebook, Skype and online chat, it’s changing fast. But it’s still somewhat like it, especially in poor and low-income neighborhoods — like the one where I grew up.
India doesn’t have a time zone system. Unlike USA, it also doesn’t turn its clock forward or backward twice a year (here, I’m not using a metaphor, just in case you thought so). Therefore, roughly, discounting those zones and small time shifts in the U.S., when it’s nine o’clock in the morning here in the U.S., it’s approximately nine o’clock at night over there in India. When it’s five in the afternoon here, it’s five in the morning over there.
You think it’s fun that way? Like, imagining what people are doing back there at nine in the morning — getting ready to go to work or school when you’re about to contemplate a night-time reading or on weekdays, perhaps crash early? Do you find it exciting to imagine what if those people back there are thinking about you exactly at the same time? In fact, if you ran your imagination wild, and especially if you had imagination in the first place (or did not go brain dead after being displaced and isolated-exiled for so long), you could see mental pictures that nobody else could even dream of. That’s what I call imagination. Try it! I did.
Well, ah…maybe not: don’t try it if you can’t handle it. Many people can’t handle it. Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend you lived your life like that. First, you’d fast slip into depression out of those rocking back ‘n forth emotions; secondly, you could either run somebody over here if you’re driving, or get run over by somebody if you’re walking. See picture below.
That imagination is academically exciting and nostalgically romantic. But not fun…especially the run-over part. Be stoic, be indifferent, and get rid of all your fluffy, corny, soppy, weepy, wimpy emotions. Live in one world only…at a time. Life will be peaceful that way…and you’ll have your bones where they’re supposed to be.
I am a first-generation immigrant. That means I came to America myself as an immigrant from India some two decades ago. I originally came as a foreign student to do my Ph.D. in biology; later, after being in science for many years, when I could afford time and money, I switched careers and got a second graduate degree to move into humanities. I also have no relatives in America; unlike many other immigrants who come here from various parts of the globe on family reunification, my small nuclear family and I lived here all by ourselves for so many years. Now, after being here for so long, we have found many wonderful friends; some of them have become like our family. Yet, the longing for India and the place and people we left behind still haunts us. Sometimes, the longing becomes unbearable.
Now, I’m not writing about it to sound like a cry-baby — a whiner. I’ve lived in America long enough to get rough and tough (in fine language, they call it acculturation). In America, you couldn’t survive as a first-generation immigrant if you’re not rough and tough: you’d plain wither away. I’ve seen a lot of whiners and whimpers especially from India who simply perished because they could never adjust to this new land that asks for nerves and muscles. I’m just glad after the first couple of years (when there was a constant urge to return to India), we got used to it, and made the best out of it. This new land had a lot to offer — good and bad — and we took advantage of both: the good to make us better, and also the bad to make us understand what is good and what is bad. In India, in Calcutta, Mumbai, Karachi or Dhaka, nobody teaches you the bad unless you grew up bad; immediate result is that you snap and buckle and break down at the first encounter of bad. Or, you get sucked up quick in the bad quicksand.
Anyway. I shall come back and write more. You come back too. You’ll like it. Promise.