Many people have this idea that Bangladesh has turned into a fanatic Islamic country, and therefore, Hindus are in a miserable shape there. Of course, most of these people with such ideas base their information on rumors, hearsay, and political propaganda aided by a certain brand of media — as opposed to first-hand knowledge or experience. But these days, ideas are cheap and easily available, and education is hard labor that nobody wants to undertake. So, lies and rumors spread like wildfire, unopposed. And more fanaticism, hate and violence follow.
It is true that since the British-inflicted arbitrary partition of Bengal in 1947, followed by enormous misery, poverty and bloodshed, a large number of Hindus left then East Bengal and migrated to the Indian side of West Bengal (and other parts of India) — resulting in a rapid shrinkage of Hindu population in the land now known as Bangladesh. A thriving 25-30 percent of East Bengal’s Hindu population came down to a small 5-7 percent in the past seventy years. Hindus migrated even more since after the bloody liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971, to flee from social, political and economic turmoil.
In this brief report, I include a few of the eye-witness accounts I have received from friends in Bangladesh. I have neither heard of any violence on the pujas from the Muslim community (except for one of two rumors that were debunked), nor have I heard of any government clamp-down on them. Hindus of Bangladesh, however small in size, are not in a miserable shape contrary to what the rumor-mongers spread. __________________________________ (1) “বাংলাদেশের এ বছরের দুর্গোৎসব। কলাবাগানের পুজোমণ্ডপের ভিডিও। মনোমুগ্ধকর পুজোমণ্ডপ। হিন্দু বাঙালিরা আনন্দে উদ্বেলিত। জনসমাগম কলকাতার কোনো পুজোমণ্ডপ থেকে কোনো অংশে কম নয়।” Video report by Anirban Banerjee from Dhanmandi, Kalabagan in the city of Dhaka at https://www.facebook.com/100036779585602/videos/147806279788691/?t=29
Today is the Bengali New Year’s Day — the first day of Baisakh, the first month in the Bengali calendar. Today is also the Punjabi New Year’s Day — Baisakhi.
In many other parts of India and Bangladesh, today is a very special day. On this day, small merchants and business owners — along with their employees — celebrate their trade with worshiping Lord Ganesha and Goddess Lakshmi, the two Hindu deities of wealth, success and prosperity.
Many parents decide to give the first formal education lesson to their children on this auspicious day. A Hindu or Muslim priest or an elderly in the family hand-holds the child and makes them write a vowel or a consonant with a piece of chalk or a pencil. Then, there is a sumptuous Bengali feast: the proverbial fish and sweets. Bengalis and Punjabis are both known for their food, fun and festivities. No fun festivity is full without food. Food. First! Food. Fast! 🙂
Today is also the day when at Vishva Bharati, Rabindranath Tagore’s university in the West Bengal village of Shantiniketan, they celebrate the birthday of the poet of all poets. It’s the tradition of the school to celebrate it today, even though Tagore’s real birthday is the 25th day of Baisakh, which normally falls on the 8th or 9th of May.
In Bangladesh also, many people follow Shantiniketan’s tradition and celebrate Tagore’s birthday on this day. In all, globally, at least a couple of hundred million people celebrate this day as their traditional New Year’s Day. Western media do not know or care to know. They never report it.
Regardless of the West’s ignorance, apathy and exclusion (I now call it Journalism of Exclusion OR Education of Exclusion), today is a very special day in our lives — lives of Hindu and Muslim and Christian and Sikh Indians and Bengalis across the world. It’s a happy day. It’s a day to forget about the ills of the past and move on to embrace the future.
I wish you all — my readers, friends and sympathizers all over the world. I wish you all a happy, prosperous and peaceful year ahead. May Goddess Lakshmi and Lord Ganesha bless you. May all your wishes and dreams come true.
The poet of all poets Tagore wrote:
“Jeerna ja kichhu jaha kichhu kheen Nabiner majhe hok ta bileen.”
“জীর্ণ যা কিছু যাহা কিছু ক্ষীণ
নবীনের মাঝে হোক তা বিলীন”
whatever is old ‘n doomed and whatever is low may they all vanish in the young and green’s glow.
I hope we can usher in a new era of knowledge, wisdom and insight. I hope we can learn from the mistakes of the past, and walk together on the shiny, glowing path of a prosperous, progressive future.
UPDATE on January 6, 2014. — Bangladesh is falling apart. Bengal is falling apart. First Britain, and then USA, with help from their cronies and crooks, have managed to destroy a very prosperous land with a thousand years of glorious history, art, poetry, literature, wealth and religious harmony. Oh God!! I don’t know Palestine well. But I know Bangladesh. I weep for Palestine. I cry out loud for Bangladesh.
This is a repeat slaughter of Bengali workers — mostly young women aged 12 to 24 or so — at a Wal-Mart, Disney, Gap, H&M, Hanes or Tommy Hilfiger outsourced factory run by these corporations and their international and domestic agents. Even New York Times expressed their disapproval. Even CNN thought it was not pleasant to have so many sweatshop workers killed so often.
I wrote about Latino immigrants in Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft’s America. I wrote straight from the Arizona-Nogales border — straight from a van we took to cross through the Sonoran desert when it was 115 degrees Fahrenheit. I wrote from the morgue where they kept unidentified dead bodies of women and children who perished walking across the scorching desert into the U.S.
I wrote about my experience in Israel and Palestine when I had an opportunity to visit the Middle East as a journalism student from a prestigious journalism school here in New York. I saw how Palestinians lived and suffered at the hands of the powerful. I went to see Golan Heights at the Syrian border where the Six-day War back in 1967 permanently displaced Palestinians from their own land and international big brothers made sure they remained destitute forever.
I wrote about the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation Struggle when some people decided a British-pauperized, partitioned East Bengal and its millions of newly-impoverished people had no right to food, freedom, dignity or even their own language, and they decided to send a Kissinger-crafted CIA war into that land through Pakistan, and killed ten million people, raped half a million women, and evicted ten million more from their homes and lands — to repeat a similarly bloody and catastrophic 1947 history in less than twenty five years.
I went to work on the borders of India and Bangladesh to see the suffering of those refugees first hand. I wrote about them.
I am now writing again to express my feelings about the poor Bangladeshi garment workers who were burnt alive yesterday in a repeat inferno at a Wal-Mart, Disney, Gap, H&M, Hanes or Tommy Hilfiger sweatshop at the outskirts of Dhaka.
I don’t know if my writing has any impact at all on the minds of the otherwise intelligent, educated and human rights-minded liberals in America and India — the two countries I know the best — or for that matter, anywhere else in the world. I have every doubt that such killings are now transient news blips that come on the surface, shake up a few minds for thirty seconds or less, shake up their conscience for an even smaller amount of time, and then disappear into oblivion.
Worse, these otherwise intelligent, educated, human rights-minded liberals in America and India — the two countries I know the best — or for that matter, anywhere else in the world keep supporting the Democratic Party and its leaders like Obama or Clinton, or the Congress Party and the Gandhi Dynasty in India…or…you put your favorite country and its political system and leaders…and by doing that, they sustain an inhumane, corrupt and cruel, exploitative socioeconomic system that is responsible for all these horrendous acts that are killing and torturing and maiming and starving and displacing and destroying millions of poor men, women and children — all over the world.
I have no hope that bringing up these horrendous acts of violence — political or economic — on the surface would make any long-term change within the status-quo minds of these intelligent, educated and human rights-minded people.
I have learned how not to hope anymore. Not from the elite liberals anways — American or Indian.
I just write about it because I have no other way to cleanse myself of my own sin — of being a part of this system.
Thank you for at least listening. Now if you want, you can go back and do your Christmas shopping at Wal-Mart, Disney, Gap, H&M, Hanes or Tommy Hilfiger. If you’re in India, find your favorite shopping mall for Diwali shopping. Soon, you’ll find Wal-Mart and Disney too…across the country.
Please do it. I wouldn’t mind at all.
Sincerely Writing (without caring about the outcome),
Now, this poet made me blue many times. He always had this habit of making his readers blue. He did that again, one last time this morning, when I got the news of his death. I wept one last time, for him.
I hope this is the last time I did it, for him. I hope this is the last time he did it, to me. We are too old for such corny stuff, right? Weeping and all? I know he wouldn’t like it. I wouldn’t like it either. It’s time to grow up. So, this is just once, only once.
“I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no, I won’t shed a tear.”
Our ever-young Bengali poet Sunil Ganguly — more formally Sunil Gangopadhyay if we used his Sanskrit name — is no more. But because I’m writing this blog sitting in New York, ten thousand miles away from Calcutta, Bengal, India where he so suddenly passed away, and I’m writing this blog primarily for an English-speaking audience across the world, I prefer to use his Anglicized last name Ganguly. Sunil Ganguly. Like the way the Western “user-friendly” world forced me to use my Anglicized last name Banerjee, abandoning my Sanskrit last name Bandyopadhyay. In this life in exile (however hard I try to be a part of a global world, pretending this exile really doesn’t matter to me that much and that I’ve really become a universal citizen), there are times when you feel how enormously these musicians and artists and poets and authors and filmmakers and humanists matter to you.
Their departures stun you, shake you to the core. Because they have always been such an important, inseparable part of your own existence. No matter if you’ve ever met them or talked to them. No matter how much physical distance you’ve had with them, with no possibility to meet them or talk to them at all. They have always been with you — as a friend, as a brother, as a sister, as a mentor, as a family member. As if you could always talk to them, had there been an opportunity, about their most recent novel, music CD, or maybe, the rise and fall of the American empire…or even, the place in Calcutta where they have the best Indian Chinese, biryani and spicy fish…and in Sunil’s case, a healthy dose of a mighty-hard drink. (And I thought those drinks could do no harm to his ever-young heart!)
These are people that have always been a part of your identity.
Sunil Ganguly, whom I actually met once and talked twice here in New York at the power-poet-couple Jyotirmoy-Meenakshi Duttas’ place, was one such personality. The persona Sunil Ganguly and the poet Sunil Ganguly have always been a part of my cultural consciousness. From that point of view, he was as close to me as Rabindranath Tagore, Nazrul Islam, Satyajit Ray, Bibhutibhushan Banerjee, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Maxim Gorky, Victor Hugo, Shakespeare, Robert Frost, Bob Dylan, Beatles, Bob Marley, Mahashweta Devi, Ritwik Ghatak or Mrinal Sen.
Sunil Ganguly was the big brother who taught me how to fall in love, make love and hurt in love. He taught me how to imagine a woman’s love. He taught me how to write love letters. He taught me how to grow up — loving and hurting, and then loving again. He taught me how to hope…and imagine hope.
This is a milieu of a consciousness that made me the “me” that I am today. This half century-old me. If they were not with me all along, I would not have had this identity, this brain, this belonging to this human, thinking, moving, seeing life.
When they leave my familiar world, one after the other, they also take away a part of “me” forever with them. Their departure is truly like severing with a limb or an organ. It’s excruciatingly painful — physically and emotionally, and it’s extremely difficult to deal with it their post-departure. Especially if you do not go through a major therapy… and rehabilitation. And sitting here ten thousand miles away, there is hardly any rehabilitation. The society of familiar people with familiar, shared emotions, knowledge and values that you need for the rehabilitation is simply absent. Here I write about poet Sunil Ganguly, Tagore, Satyajit Ray, et al., and you know you’re not making your readers cry. You bereave — all by yourself.
Therefore, the tragedy and the pain and trauma associated with that tragedy remains with you forever. It literally debilitates you. You’re now dealing with a lost limb or organ, with nothing to make up for it. Worse, you know this is not the first time it happened to you, and neither would it be the last time.
Tagore died way before my birth. My mother died a painful death when I was a young man in my early twenties causing major, lifelong bereavement. But at least I was back there, in the midst of a supportive society. Satyajit Ray’s death in 1992 and Suchitra Mitra the Tagore singer’s death in January of 2011 touched me, impacted me this way. The news of Sunil Ganguly’s death this morning was a similar jolt…perhaps a bigger jolt because first, he was so forever young…as if he was born in 1974 and not in 1934. Most importantly, deep inside, I never thought Sunil Ganguly could actually die. I never thought he would be old one day, and die.
But he did. This is the first time when he kind of let me down. Well, at least he didn’t lay sick in some nursing home bed with tubes coming out of his nose and arms and legs to keep him alive. No, he would refuse to wear those tubes and artificial ways to sustain “life.” He would refuse to be a part of such artificiality.
A Bengali, Indian poet just died in Calcutta — ten thousand miles away from New York where I live. I know in the next day or two, millions of Bengalis from both the West and East sides of the artificial border would pour down on the streets of Bengal to pay their last respect to the ever-young poet. I won’t be there. I was not there when they paid their last respect to Satyajit Ray or Suchitra Mitra. Or, Tagore in 1941. No, I won’t be a part of that million-man march accompanying the poet and his mortal remains to the Hindu crematorium.
But I can only imagine. Sunil Ganguly was one of the major imagination teachers I’ve had. I can imagine.
I’ll show to the world that even though he kind of let me down, I did not let him.
I can still imagine, even in this dreaded exile. I can still hope.
I can still imagine that even in this dreadful, horrific time with the wars and violence and bombing and beating and droning and waterboarding, a beautiful, rain-soaked sun is slowly rising in the Eastern sky.
It don’t matter if you’re in exile or not.
Jodi nirbasan dao
Ami osthe anguri chhoabo
Ami bishpan kore more jabo
If you send me in exile
I’ll touch my ring to my lips
I’ll take poison and die
Bisanno aloy ei Bangladesh
Nodir shiyore jhuke pora megh
Prantare diganta nirnimesh
E amari sare tin haat bhumi
This Bangladesh in a pale dim light
Clouds hover on river banks
Borderless horizon of bountiful fields
This is indeed my three and a half yards of space
Jodi nirbasan dao
Ami osthe anguri chhoabo
Ami bishpan kore more jabo
If you send me in exile
I’ll touch my ring to my lips
I’ll take poison and die
Dhankhete chap chap rakto
Eikhane jhorechhilo manusher ghaam
Ekhono snaner aage keu keu kore thake nodike pronam
Dear Indira, please don’t visit the Gujarat flood
Sitting by your airplane window
It’s a dangerous game
Angry waters raged and uprooted train tracks
Bridges collapsed, scattered kids near the belly of
An old man’s eyeglasses float down the waves
Man found desperate friendship with treetops
These are fragments of the sight – a type of truth
Partial, yet too intense
These partials truths indeed become primary
During these terrible times
Indira, dear girl, you must not forget
Even if you cried out of your cloud castle
It would never resonate with the collective tragedies
Your chapped lips
For how long they did not get streaks of a kiss
Dark, deep fatigue visible under your eyes
Faces bear marks of a dejected loverBut you chose this path yourself
With no more ways to return no more
Indira dearest, please do not fly by North Bengal skies
Or those of Assam,
sitting by your airplane windowIt is a dangerous game
Yet I warn you one more time –
You look down and find miles of barrenness
You see rules of nature and ruthless rulelessness
And their great devastationYou see huge currents of new flood waters
As if the cloudy sky lay upon the land, upside down
Interspersed by houses like small islands
Lush green heads of trunkless treesSeeing the sight of those floods
Some day, Indira, these words might slip off your tongue:
“Oh, how beautiful it is!”
Anyway, either title would have been just as fine. I could’ve also included IMF and 1% in the title. All of the above would have been just as fine. And just as true. And just as powerful. And just as appropriate.
But I settled on the Obama and vote title. Just because I thought it might find a wider audience if I made is a little more controversial, sensitive, sexy.
Now that Rahm Emmanuel has found such strong support from Romney and Ryan — Republican candidates one of whom is far right Tea Party and the other is a known union basher and private outsourcer — who’s going to block his path? Plus, Koch Brothers and Murdoch and Heritage Foundation and some other big media (and foam-in-the-mouth Rush) will pump in big money and other resources to support Rahm. Who knows, maybe, he will be the education secretary in a new Romney-Ryan cabinet!
Unbelievable to see the anti-labor-union sentiment in this country called USA where the entire middle class was built with the blood, sweat and tears of the working people and labor unions — for at least forty years. Most of these people who are calling the striking union names, blaming the teachers for all the problems of the poor and failing students, and expressing outrage that these teachers are asking for better wages and benefits either lie about or are ignorant about that glorious history from not too long ago.
It’s absolutely unbelievable to see that there is so little in-depth information and analysis on mainstream media about the key demands of the striking teachers and what forced them to finally come to this point where they have no other way but to strike. Why historic? Because they risk losing and they’re fighting to expose both big parties and their anti-union agenda — one explicit and the other hidden.
Even in the mighty, all-important New York Times, there is hardly any serious analysis of the CTU strike with drawing connection between this strike and other recent strikes across the U.S. and other places of the world. I have already mentioned the UPS strike of 1997. There is hardly any serious discussion of labor unrest and what economic and political games global powers are playing to crush organized labor. How many people know what International Monetary Fund’s Structural Adjustment Program is that works so closely with global political powers, as well as multinational corporations — GE, Wal-Mart, Disney, McDonald’s or Monsanto — that are so infamous for their long history of oppression and violence on any labor mobilization?
How many people know the deep-rooted connections between all these dots?
Yet, that discussion would be so critical at this point. New York Times and Wall Street Journal and CNN would not get into that discussion. So, as I often say, the onus is on us.
Now, today on September 11, Jobs with Justice — an activist group that emphasizes rights and justice for the working people of America — threw their support behind the CTU strikers, and huge rallies came out on the streets of Chicago. That is reassuring, even though I have doubts how long the public school teachers’ union would be able to sustain their energy and strength, especially when mighty forces such as Obama and Clinton on the Democratic side and Romney and Ryan on the Republican side would clamp down on them so heavily, with help from corporate and mentor media.
I have worked with unions closely here in America, and also in India — for many years. My father was a factory employee most of his life. I have seen good unions with honest and caring and efficient leadership. I’ve also seen unions with dishonest and inefficient bosses.
But regardless of the good or bad union bosses and their good or bad politics, I have every drop of blood in my body to support the cause of organized labor. Labor unions are the last stumbling block for the elite, powerful 1 percent and their absolute, global economic tyranny against the poor and middle class working people and families. I’ve talked about it before. Check it out here.
Now, people who are expressing their outrage at the striking teachers of Chicago, have the same-old points that anti-union power such as Scott Walker or Mitt Romney or the union-busting corporations (yes, some companies only specialize in union busting, for a hefty fee) always use. They are:
(1) Union workers (in this case, the striking public school teachers) are asking for too much salary and benefits; they already make a lot. Plus, this is the time for austerity: the country is going through a severe recession. There must be austerity now.
(2) Students are failing because these teachers are incompetent and lazy. So instead of giving them tenure, the education department and mayor should fire them.
(3) Labor unions (in this case, the striking teachers) only care about themselves; they don’t care about the larger society, or the students or their parents. That’s why the striking teachers are against the teacher evaluation system.
(4) Union leaders are all thugs and crooks; they make big money and cut secret deals with the government.
(5) Public sector enterprises (in this case, public education system) have failed; it’s time to kill the government and government organizations. People should not finance public employees, public teachers and public health officials, etc. with their hard-earned money and taxes.
There may be more points. I am sure you can find more points to add here.
Sure! We all know where you’re coming from. You can find it all in Heritage Foundation or IMF’s manuals. Or, just read Ronald Reagan’s biography.
Let’s take these points one at a time.
1. Union workers make too much money. — Chicago striking teachers make too much money already. How much do they make? In a major city like Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Boston or New York, where the living expenses are way too high, a $70,000 per year salary for a family of four is not that high. In fact, if you have to pay back your high income taxes, student loans (or help your grown-up children to pay back theirs), car loans, house mortgage (or apartment rent) and car insurance (most places in America do not have public transportation: you must have a car to go to work) on top of your other monthly expenses, it’s definitely not much. In fact, with that kind of salary with no perks or bonuses, you have to be very careful not to get into additional debt.
But most importantly, why not talk about the obnoxious, outrageous, unconscionable income gap that middle class (including these teachers) has with the affluent of this country? I’m not even talking about the nauseating money Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Countrywide, Merrill Lynch, Chase or AIG executives made before or even after the 2007-2008 crash. How much Lehman Brothers CEO made when he was actually driving his company into ground? I’m not talking about how GE didn’t pay their income taxes. I’m talking about an AVERAGE worker’s salary at Goldman Sachs, which is over $600,000. Why do they make so much, and produce or manufacture or create NOTHING (except more wealth for themselves), and yet nobody talks about their outrageous earnings?
Why don’t these people talk about the fact that in the U.S., an AVERAGE CEO makes 450 TIMES more than the average working person at the same company? In other words, for an average worker to make the kind of money their CEO makes in one year, they have to work for 450 years. Nice!
What about the corporate reformers who always tell us that teachers make too much money? Here’s a recent chart.
2. Students are failing because of these incompetent teachers. — Is it really the teachers or a failed education system that funnels and shifts money and resources from public education to charter schools or other elite schools, sucking the already-malnourished public schools dry? I’ll give you two examples from my own experience. I know very well about Stuyvesant High School, located next to Ground Zero (today is a stark reminder: some of our students saw the WTC terrorist attack from their chemistry lab on 9/11). New York City pumped in maximum resources for their prestigious public schools such as Stuyvesant, Bronx Science or Brooklyn Tech — and you wouldn’t believe how affluent these schools are. Yet, so many public schools in the vicinity of Stuyvasant have practically nothing: they are in such as sad state of affairs with no money to repair their classrooms, fix their toilets, and upgrade their chemistry lab. Or, maybe, they don’t have a chemistry lab. I know they definitely don’t have an Olympic-size swimming pool that Stuyvesant has — indoor.
I also worked with an East Harlem public school when I was a journalism student at Columbia University; I wrote a feature on one of the teachers there. She showed me their biology lab; the entire high school had only one microscope for its entire body of students. She showed me how the ceilings were leaky and students sometimes had to sit outside of the classroom when it rained hard. The students told me how they worked hard, but were depressed that they would not be able to go to a good college because they were not well-prepared, or didn’t have money for college.
And I’m not even talking about the privileged private schools. Even within the public school system, there is so much outrageous disparity. Teachers’ fault? Really?
3. Teachers are against the evaluation system and uncaring about the students and parents. — I’ll answer the second part first. I have been a teacher all my life. I have taught in an extremely poor village in India for years before coming to America. Here in the U.S., I have taught at schools near Chicago and then I have taught in two cities in New York. I am a teacher now. Teachers care. Teachers care about the students, and teachers care about the parents. Teachers go out of their way to help their students. This is true across the board — public or private school teachers. Guess what…many of these teachers are parents themselves! They experience the process of education both various sides of the issue. In fact, these teachers know how parents feel when the student doesn’t do well; they know what needs to be done. But again, public schools everywhere have gone through major budget cuts draining their scant resources even more. In many places in the U.S., pro-privatization governments with help from corporations have funneled money from public schools to charter schools.
In case of the striking Chicago teachers, they have never said no to a fair evaluation system. But Rahm Emmanuel’s administration has imposed more and more rigorous and threatening evaluations on the teachers: they’ve recently increased the share of student performance in the evaluation process from 25% to 40%. Teachers failed to negotiate with the arrogant mayor; in fact, Rahm refused to see the teachers at the bargaining table for months. Many say that had he not been so arrogant to sit down with the teachers, this strike would not have taken place.
4. Union leaders are all thugs and crooks; they make big money and cut secret deals with the government. — This is a ploy anti-union politicians and media use all the time — all over the world. But U.S. media have taken it one step further. You never hear a pro-union story on radio, watch on TV or read in the big newspapers. You never get to see the working, struggling side of labor. You never get to see the Labor Day parade. You never know the contribution of the labor movement in building a strong middle class. Organized labor, through many years of anti-labor propaganda on the media, has lost its popularity and reputation it had. Most people here in America believe that labor union is a bad thing and has no relevance in a modern society. Nobody knows that Dr. Martin Luther King was a labor leader too; in fact, the last speech he gave the day before his assassination in Memphis was to a group of poor, striking sanitation workers. Nobody knows what collective bargaining really means. Nobody knows what some of the rights and benefits we enjoy today — and ALL workers blue-collar or white-collar enjoy them — ONLY because labor unions fought so hard for them, for generations. Anti-union propaganda has really reached a new low in this country. I know from personal experience that India is the other country where similar propaganda has tarnished the image of labor unions.
5. Finally, pro-privatization forces are now extremely powerful. USA and India are two places I know where the public sector has suffered enormously. Public schools, public hospitals and health care facilities, public employment, public transportation and all such government programs especially for the poor and middle class have declined miserably. Conservative think tanks and corporate media have blasted anything connected with the government; in the U.S., the schools of Ayn Rand, Milton Freedman and Alan Greenspan with their powerful libertarian followers in the seat of power have maligned the concept of the government altogether. Now, both the Tea Party far right in the Republican camp and Blue Dog Democrats have given away the economy of this country to private corporations. That was the primary cause of the current financial disaster.
With help from IMF, World Bank and such global organizations, and with special help for corporate media, a so-called economic reform has neocolonized the entire world: the two largest democracies such as the U.S. and India perhaps have suffered the most. In my classes and workshops, I simply this process for the students and show them the four most important policy doctrines that have expedited this global economic aggression. They are:
(A) Deregulation of every aspect of the economy, which has caused havoc to the U.S. economy.
(B) Tax cuts for rich individuals and corporations, which has created even more debt to an already-depleted U.S. treasury. Federal Reserve, which is anything but federal, has been given historic, unprecedented powers by the government to print money and loan it to the government itself, at a high interest rate. Major wars have contribute to the debt.
(C) Drastic cuts in public assistance and welfare for the needy and underprivileged. Ronald Reagan started the process, and Clinton continued it through cutting the U.S. welfare system, virtually ending the New Deal economy that was the cornerstone of American democracy for forty years.
(D) Clamping down on labor unions. There won’t be any collective bargaining anymore. Do away with all the pro-labor laws that working men and women fought for over centuries.
I began this article with a few other tentative titles for it. I mentioned Bangladesh to show how in the less-law-enforced Third World, labor leaders who are mobilizing against this global tyranny are being repressed and killed. Just a few days ago, Aminul Islam — noted textile workers’ leader in Bangladesh — was killed. In the eighties, many say, CIA broke down a massive textile workers’ strike in Bombay, India and planted its own man Bal Thackeray — who has turned out to be as much a bigot and fascist as there can be: perhaps only KKK would come close. In more law-enforced countries such as U.K., Italy, Greece or USA, the people in power and their media have clamped down on the labor movement differently. The newest barrage of hate on the right-wing media and more subtle, moderate-looking opinion pieces in so-called neutral, liberal media are doing just the same.
Who could have saved labor unions, and at this particular moment, the striking Chicago teachers, from such draconian repression?
I would think it’s someone like Barack Obama.
Think about it, Mr. President. I don’t have much power. But I SHALL decide on my vote — based on your actions.
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.
A special note: I’d like to take a moment to thank all the readers especially those who read it from places I otherwise have no way to reach. It is a matter of great comfort that this post was read in countries — other than India, USA, Canada and U.K. — such as Austria, Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, Spain and Thailand (and some more). I believe the cruelty and violence I described in this blog is global, and there is enough reason to believe that we are trying to find solidarity here — to stop this brutality. Thank you, readers. I hope you take a moment to share it with others. -Partha
Today, I remember a day from my school life. I was thirteen at that time – an eighth grader. It was Calcutta, India. It was perhaps a late summer day.
Calcutta’s name has now changed to Kolkata. Bombay has changed to Mumbai. Madras is now Chennai. A lot has changed in India since then…a lot…especially with the invasion of new shopping malls, MTV, McDonald’s, KFC and Pizza Hut.
Has child abuse changed in India? If your answer is yes, show me how. Give me some examples. If your answer is no, tell me why not.
Here is a real story from a real life.
Bang, bang, bang…
Whack, whack, blow…
Slap, slap, kick, thud…
A stout, muscular man in his forties held a young boy by the hair. He held him down with one hand. With his other hand, he beat up the boy mercilessly. He beat him up continuously. He punched him on his head and upper body. He slapped him fiercely, repeatedly, on his tender cheeks. He pulled his hair so hard that the boy was almost airborne. He pulled his earlobes so strongly that they were blood red. The slaps made reddish pink finger marks on his cheeks.
Along with the beating, the man groaned, ground his teeth, and grunted, “Huh, huh, huh…”
The boy took the abuse…the horrible beating. But he did not fight back. And he did not cry out, or ask for mercy. He did not ask him to stop. He did not show any visible sign of pain.
That made the man even angrier. He became more violent. He forced the boy to sit in an animal position, with his palms and knees touching the floor. The man then climbed up on him, and started to hit his back with his bent elbow. He also kicked him…or did he?
The violence went on for nearly ten, fifteen, twenty minutes…maybe, half an hour. The man lost his sense of time. The boy did too. He was nearly unconscious at this point.
The entire episode happened in a classroom. It happened in front of some forty or fifty frozen, traumatized, eighth-grade students. They watched it with horror; some covered their faces. A few of them fell sick. Another boy urinated in his pants. One of their teachers was doing this to one of their classmates: they couldn’t believe their eyes! But none of them stood up or said a word against the barbarism. They watched it in complete silence…for the entire time.
Ashu Kar, a teacher in our famous, 150-year-old, missionary Scottish Church Collegiate School, was famous for his bad temper. There were a few other teachers who were even more notorious than him. They were never known for their quality of teaching or love for the students; they were only known for their dexterity to mercilessly, violently beat the kids.
But luckily, these men would not teach us, some of the best students. Back then, Scottish had merit-based promotion; they would always place us in Section A because we topped in the final exam. The abusive teachers would not take our classes. We were privileged to get some of the phenomenal educators of Calcutta whose presence in the classroom was like a gentle breeze coming off the ocean. Shyamadas Mukherjee of Mathematics, Bijan Goswami and Amiya Roy of Bengali, Rev. Santosh Biswas and Sudhendu Deuri of English, Nitya Sengupta of Chemistry, and Tarun Datta of Biology. Then, there was our famous headmaster A. R. Roy, known for his personality and poise. They were great teachers. We learned from them as eagerly and as fast as blotting paper would soak up water or ink – through every possible capillary of our young, inquisitive minds. We’d look forward to their classes.
The horrible hangmen would get the poor, “backward” students in Section C, D or E. We’d often hear horror stories from them. Even in elementary school, in fourth grade, there was severe student abuse. And I’m not even talking about the verbal abuse that was commonplace: teachers would make personal, intrusive, insulting, snide, negative remarks, constantly on a daily basis, to students that did not do well in tests or failed to turn in the homework; particularly, students who came from underprivileged families. Indian boys and girls were used to verbal abuse. At home, they got it from their fathers, uncles or neighbors. At school, they got it from teachers. The verbal insult and undermining would dash their self-esteem once and for all.
Now I’m talking about the more serious, inhumane, physical abuse. We the “good” boys from Section A came to know about them in middle school, since maybe, when we were in sixth or seventh grade.
There were two men named Mr. Jana and Mr. Dafadar who took Section E classes only: boys who did the poorest in last year’s finals. They brought in class their own special teaching methods and tools. Every day, they’d enter the classroom, and before doing anything else, call out some students they decided the worst backbenchers. They’d line them up outside the classroom facing against the wall, with their arms all the way up, the length of the arm touching the wall, as if cops doing a shakedown on them. I’m convinced these teachers were cops or military men before they became teachers; they did it to their sixth, seventh or eighth-grade students exactly the way cops did it to suspected, frisked criminals. Or, in case of today’s India or USA, anyone the cops or military might suspect to be trouble makers.
Jana and Dafadar – I don’t remember which one was more dangerous – would then return to classroom, take attendance for the remaining students, give them some meaningless work to do – maybe, a bunch of arithmetic or English grammar problems from the textbook without showing them how to do it, and return to their “favorite” students waiting outside. Now, they’d stick out their personal, two-feet-long, wooden ruler scale or a long, bent cane, and spank the students real hard until they all cried out in pain. Some diehards would not budge; some of the kids were so used to it that they’d look the other way, and chuckle while the bad cops kept beating the others. If they’re lucky, they’re spared. If Jana and Dafadar caught them chuckling, they’d have some more special treat that day.
Some E or D students regularly cut classes. They also nicknamed the abusive teachers: Jana and Dafadar were called Jharudar or something, meaning the sweeper; alternately, it could mean the one who beats badly.
That was them. Then there was our Ashu Kar. In between, there were some more child molesters – big or small.
Why do people get so violent? Why are some people so cruel? What pleasure do some big, powerful men get out of beating young boys or girls who can’t resist or fight back?
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.