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.
I just returned from a short, two-week trip to India.
It was way too short. Two weeks in India, especially when you’re visiting only once a year or every other year, is not enough time at all.
But new responsibilities at work do not allow for more than two weeks of away time. Plus, traveling by yourself and leaving your family behind here in New York, in this extreme, February cold when temperature is always below zero, it does not allow you to relax. You always have anxieties and worries about the people you left behind.
But India is always fun. Calcutta is always fascinating. Two weeks or one week. Meeting old and new people. Walking down the street — North to South, East to West. Crossing the Ganges over the two big bridges. Calling friends. Getting calls from friends you haven’t seen in thirty…even forty years. Attending weddings. Visiting someone in distress. Sharing stories of a friend of a friend who poured his heart out for you…just because nobody else wanted to hear his story anymore.
Waking up at three in the morning…for the first couple of days because of a terrible jet lag, and then followed by barking of street dogs…followed by crowing crows at four thirty…followed by the same-old old man whom you’d forgotten over the past twelve months since you came here the last time…the man whom you never saw but heard every morning at five to five fifteen before he disappeared rambling strangely…to himself. He had a strange, deep, eerie voice. Or, it could be that because you heard him in those strange hours, he sounded so.
Then the sound of the Hindu household dawn worship…the conch shell or sankha followed by soft, tinkling hand-held bells…and you know it’s about time to wake up…and ask for some early morning tea…and stroll off to do your early morning green vegetable and fish bazar at the open, country-style market…fish is now very expensive…fish is out of reach of a middle-class, lower middle-class Bengali family…and you know Bengalis couldn’t eat their rice without fish…in fact, everything is so unbelievably expensive…you can feel it even though you came back only after a year!
I went to the famous annual book fair. Books are expensive too. But I went twice. I had to. It brought back so many memories from those wonderful, romantic, youthful, Kolkata days. I couldn’t possibly miss the Boi Mela, as they call the fair in Bengali.
I went to see Sandipta Chatterjee’s grieving parents. I was by their side for two hours. I had to. It was too precious of an experience. To know how she died. Why she died. How careless her own people had been. How brutal the so-called, modern Indian medical system had been…how cruel they had all been to her!
To find some peace back, I went to our Scottish Church School alumni’s Saraswati Puja and saw old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in forty years. And they spoke with me with an incredible affection and love…the typical Calcutta way. And some others called to find out how my twenty five years of American living had been. And some of those I met asked me sing a few Tagore songs…just the same way they asked me to sing a few Tagore songs forty years ago…
Tired. Will write more. This is just the start.
I hope you come back and stay with me. This is a new, fascinating journey.
Sitar virtuoso, Indian music legend Ravi Shankar is no more. Pandit, Guru Ravi Shankar passed away in his California home on Tuesday. He was 92.
Many Indians, particularly the pre-kitsch, non-Bollywood-type Indians, and surprisingly a large number of Westerners know about Ravi Shankar and some of his remarkable achievements. They know of Shankar’s close association with Beatles’ George Harrison in the “psychedelic” sixties when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West. Some of know of Shankar’s memorable music direction to Satyajit Ray’s watershed movie Pather Panchali. Many others know that Ravi Shankar had a daughter out of a short-lived marriage, and the daughter is now a world-famous pop singer Norah Jones. Some others perhaps also know that Shankar had another marriage later which gave birth to Anoushka, who is now a well-known sitar player herself and has often played with her genius father at concerts all over the world. In fact, a simple Google or YouTube search would instantly find you thousands of stories and video clips on the legendary father and his two famous musician daughters.
It is common perception that George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the West. That may be true and Harrison did a rare act of recognition and appreciation for the Eastern culture; he also brought out the suffering of Bangladesh to the West during its 1971 Liberation War. But untrue is the nuance that Ravi Shankar became Ravi Shankar — the world-renowned musician — because of George Harrison. A genius like Shankar did not need any particular push to become a genius.
In fact, I have said it elsewhere that “Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart.” What I meant is that had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician from a West-undermined Bengal and India, his genius would be much more readily acclaimed at educated American and European living rooms. He would not have to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments — especially through identification with George Harrison or the so-called psychedelic sixties. Americans today have only remembered the marijuana smokescreen of the sixties and sadly forgotten all about its revolutionary search of peace and soul.
About that often-misplaced association, Shankar said “he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West… The music he played, he said, was sacred.”
In fact, the music he played all his life was about soul and shanti. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, thousand years of Indian civilization that taught the world how art and music can transcend the boundaries of man-made silos. Shankar and his co-disciples such as Ali Akbar Khan and their percussion accompanist Alla Rakha, as well as the more recent tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain all showed how the school of music they grew up in could take both the player and the listener from the world of mortality to immortality. To a Western aficionado, it might sound rather abstract, but in India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school or denomination to attain supreme religiosity.
Of course, some might say it’s not really that different in the West. They might say, other non-Harrison virtuosos Ravi Shankar played with: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass or conductor Andre Previn — all touched God through their music. But as someone who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical school, I would not be able to tell exactly what these legendary personalities thought about soul-searching through their music; I can only assume that all of them found their God when they performed. I know I can look at Menuhin pulling his bow on the violin, his eyes closed, and I know that he transcended from our lowly, mundane, fractious world to a blissful, divine height. We can definitely say that about Ray Charles too: his side-to-side sways while singing gave it all away. I know he had found his God.
Very few people perhaps know about the source of that spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Alauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when the Baba (or father) toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in for an in-house disciple. Alauddin Khan taught young Ravi how to play the sitar and tabla, sing, and understand the ocean-deep treasures of the Hindustani ragas — the many musical moods and structures. Just the same way the Baba showed him the countless improvisations and varieties, flexibilities and nuances and departures from the raga — properties that are primarily different from a rigorously structured Western classical — the Homer of modern-era Indian classical music, who lived through the age of 110, also trained Ravi on the lessons of a sacred, yet completely secular lifestyle — a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and peace. Muslim Alauddin Khan named his daughter Annapurna, a Hindu goddess, who some say was an even more talented sitar player than Ravi, and she became Ravi’s first wife.
When I talk about Ravi Shankar’s music transcending the boundaries of race and religion, I talk about humanity. I talk about peace. I talk about a progressive, futuristic way of life. That is life’s way our Eastern mentors taught us through centuries. Whether it’s the ancient saints or medieval-era Sri Chaitanya, or whether it’s the more recent Godly personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, this value is what streams through our blood streams.
Baba Alauddin inculcated that forward-looking lifestyle on all his students: his children. Ravi Shankar carried that mission forward when he played his sitar and built bridges between the East and the West.
Through his music, Ravi Shankar touched his God: humanity.
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!”
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?
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.
Foreword: I am renewing my blog after quite a while. It is quite surprising — and pleasantly so — that OneFinalBlog is getting a substantial size of hits every single day even though I have not been posting new stuff. Maybe, maybe, my readers, friends and sympathizers keep finding my articles worth exploring. So, a BIG thank you. Please send your comments.
The following article is the first part of a long chapter — one of more than a dozen chapters — I just wrote for my new book project on Rabindranath Tagore. It’s about my feelings about the great poet and musician, and that too, sitting here in the U.S. for over twenty-five years. These feelings are real, they are precious, and they are raw too. I invite you to let me know what your feelings are — after you read it.
P.S. — I’m also inviting you to listen to the Tagore songs I just recorded in December-January when I was in India. You can get a copy of my double-CD album Aro Ektu Bosho at major music stores in Calcutta, or if you’re in the U.S., from me. Thank you. (You can click on the link Aro Ektu Bosho to hear a few of my recorded songs.)
It was three in the morning. Long Island, New York.
Last night, music came upon me But you were not there to see
There was a big rainstorm. Wind was blowing like crazy. The American flag atop the high pole was swinging in fierce motion. The normally calm ocean was roaring restlessly.
I came to teach my usual, weekend labor workshop and stayed over at this simple retreat – the way I do it every weekend. This year, I’m teaching my American students global economics. It was three in the dark, eerie morning. I woke up dreaming about a song – a Bengali song. It was a Tagore song.
Make me anew, with new adorns on me Adore me, adorn me, adore me too
It was a song from the famous dance drama Chitrangada – the Tagore-adopted Mahabharata tale of the warrior Manipur princess and her mind-body transformation. The couple of lines kept coming back…over and over again…as if I was sitting in a crowd of audience where the drama was happening…as if I was taking part in the drama…singing…in front of me beautiful, young Bengali women were dancing away on the stage…with their silvery ankle-bells jingling… make me anew…with new adorns on me…as if I was hearing in my dreams the celestial voice of Suchitra Mitra the great Tagore exponent – her magical, pure, clear, fountain-like voice.
And it blew me away and woke me up.
I sat there on my bed for the next few minutes … as if I was possessed. And I loved it.
Why would it happen this way? Why would such emotions rock me back and forth, every now and then? Why would they drift me off reality? Who would care to know about these emotions, these flooding-over dreams? Reality sank in…or did it?
The next morning, just before class, when my American students stood up to say the pledge of allegiance, “One nation under God,” etc., I stood up too. But in my mind the song was still swirling around…make me anew, with new adorns on me…adore me…adorn me – I almost laughed. So glad they didn’t get to see what was going on in my mind! It’s nothing new.
These emotions taking over my mind, living here in America, are nothing new. I sang many such songs while driving on the high-speed highway – with my fingers tapping away the rhythms right on the steering wheel. My car was speeding at sixty, seventy, even eighty miles per hour – one hundred twenty…thirty…forty kilometers – with absolutely no scope for mistakes, when it’s a question of life and death – the emotions and the songs came over and seized me. My eyes were spot on reality; yet my mind was drifting away in the paradise of Tagore – in his words and his tunes. Unseen tears kept flowing in an unexpressed pain; yet there was so much happiness, so much bliss – flowers bloomed, flutes blew, and harps harped.
Throughout this entire exile from India, Rabindranath Tagore’s songs, Jibanananda Das’ poetry, Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay’s stories and Satyajit Ray’s movies always gave us refuge – as if a big and strong, full-foliage banyan tree in the middle of a huge, barren, waterless field. They filled our hearts, they fulfilled our lives, and they gave us shelter. They kept our souls alive. And Tagore has always been the primary shelter among all the shelters.
Not just in this quarter-century immigrant life; he has been like it ever since I was a child playing rubber ball on the dusty streets of Kolkata. I still remember a little about Tagore’s centenary celebrations in India. I was barely a child. I vaguely remember my kindergarten school Shishu Niketan – perhaps – staged Tagore’s the Land of Cards at Subhas Bose-founded Mahajati Sadan auditorium. I was there – a dhoti and kurta-clad child – holding onto my parents. Thrills came upon me, just the way a child gets thrills over his entire body – to know the unknown, to feel a little bit of love in his little heart. He gets the first sense of romance. He starts believing – in something good, great, divine. He starts to understand the beautiful.
Could it really be that “without me, your love would be meaningless?” Am I really this precious?
But, nobody had told me about it before! Who knows, maybe, it’s true! I feel amazed – what if it is really true?
There would be a small Tagore birthday celebration on the rooftop of a spiral-alley, dank-dingy Kolkata house. A cluster of tuberoses in an old, discolored brass urn, a bunch of incense sticks, and on a bedsheet-covered chair stood a garlanded, framed painting of a pensive Tagore in his familiar, long robe. We had dances, we had poetry, and we had his songs. In a totally unknown, falling-apart neighborhood of North Kolkata – a place that nobody wants to know about – small children coming from small, poverty-stricken families sang Tagore’s finest songs; they performed parts of his internationally-known dance dramas with the highest possible dexterity – Chitrangada, Land of Cards, or Game of Illusions.
There was a group of some twenty-five or thirty audience members sitting on palm-leaf mattresses laid down on the rooftop. They were all parents, siblings, cousins and friends of the performers. A local college principal took the coveted position of the event’s ceremonial president. A fatherless, teenager boy from an extremely impoverished family put icing on the cake by reciting Tagore’s celebrated, long poem Bring Me Back Now – straight from memory. What an upright way to chant, what a firm, clear pronunciation! He didn’t have enough to eat – that’s how poor they were. His poor mother literally begged from door to door for some rice to feed her young son; she managed to admit him to a middle school where the college principal agreed to pay his monthly school fees.
Where did this destitute boy get this strength and courage to recite Tagore’s major verse of strength and courage? Who would ever remember such talents, who would ever search for such hidden treasures? Amazing that this poor, underfed boy from a penniless family got to know Tagore; he was able to take a fearless dip in the unending ocean of Tagore’s words.
The sun and the moon and the celestial stars All my life they sent me their light Rays of your blessings, and beautifully bright Oh Lord! Oh Lord!
All my life your words sent me bright rays
Your songs gave me reasons to live.
So, my Tagore recording began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
Embarrassing! Geez! I said. Then I thought, heck, so what, I’m not doing anything wrong! In fact, I’m doing it just right. This is exactly how it should be. Anything else would be disrespectful and phony.
Yeah. But that was later. Early in the morning, when it was quite unusually cold and foggy, I arrived right on time at the doorstep of the North Kolkata studio — only to find out that the local cable company already had dug a long trench off the concrete alley to repair some faulty fixtures underground; they said it would take at least a week to finish the work and cover up the trenches. Dirt and debris piled up on the two sides of the trench, and you’d have to walk like a rope walker over and along the hill, balancing yourself every step of the way to reach your destination.
Which meant that the musicians and their instruments would have to walk the entire length of the alley — about a quarter mile off the main road — to enter the studio; given some of these musicians and their instruments are very expensive and famous (and heavy too), they would not like it a lot. Great! I’m definitely in Kolkata now, it seemed.
My friend, brother and director of the entire recording project Alak Roychoudhury took me inside Jupiter Studio — a few ground-floor rooms remodeled and insulated out of an old-fashioned, half-dilapidated house on Beniatola Street — and to our surprise, we found out that the lead composer of my music accompaniment was already waiting, along with his chief hands. Astonishing! (And they always complained that Kolkata was sloppy and Bengalis didn’t know professionalism!)
Rahul Chatterjee — the young lead composer and an eminent sitar player — and I had a phone conversation a couple of nights before on some of the ideas I had for my Tagore singing. I found his thoughts on arranging Tagore music to be overlapping with mine. I was brimming with confidence; I was settled down with reassurance.
In a few minutes, defying Kolkata’s infamous lack of punctuality, all the musicians showed up right on time: the keyboard, tabla, percussion, sarod, and the flutist who was probably a teeanger (at least he looked like one — the second day, another noted flutist took his place). Alak whispered to me that the kid was now one of the top three flutists even in this culturally light-years-ahead city where you could find at least one famous musician almost on every other block. The tabla and percussion players, they said, were regular accompaniments to celebrity singers like Swagata Lakshmi Dasgupta and Ajoy Chakraborty. The keyboard player frequently worked on major TV shows.
Now, I was feeling a little bit…like…you know…nervous.
And then, the bespectacled, young, modest, I-mean-business-looking owner of the studio and digital sound-recordist-cum-editor Mintoo Babu took his seat at the console, and after a small message of greetings to me, Alak and the group, turned on his complex equipment.
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…the 3×3-Dadra…at a 148-clocked-speed…the electronic click to keep the perfection rhythm set off, the humble esraj player put his head down, and pulled his wow-bow across the strings; then, Rahul Chatterjee immediately assumed his commanding position on the floor of the studio, and Alak flipped the pages of his Swara-Bitaan (Tagore’s own musical scores) because he would initially dub the songs along with the tracking of the arranged accompaniment. It was decided that I’d rest my voice for the actual dubbing when the tracking would be all done. (That was in itself celebrity status for me).
It was decided that the first song would be Tagore’s “Amar je gaan tomar parash pabe…” (the song of mine that touches you). Alak, Rahul and I pre-selected twenty Tagore songs, out of which four would be ad lib. The rest were more structured based on various talas (beats): three-three-beat Dadra, four-four-beat Kerwa, three-four-beat Tewra, or six-six-beat Sashthi. You could of course exercise a small latitude of poetic freedom even in his more structured songs (and eek out a few unscored voice modulations), according to liberal exponents like the famous maestro Debabrata Biswas…or…me; however, there is major controversy and debate on that. Ask anyone in this Tagore-loving city.
So, here it is one more time. Now, my Tagore recording really began, the esraj and flute and sitar and piano churned out the great poet’s music from paradise, and I couldn’t hold back my tears in front of some unknown people sitting in the studio.
I have heard and sung these songs many times…practically since my childhood. But sitting here in this studio, with these fantastic musicians going out of their way to arrange and play the accompaniment for …ME (!)… so that I could sing my best possible rendition of Tagore music…and that it would be a lifetime privilege for someone like me who lives twelve thousand miles away from this city of art, music, culture, society and friends…who would die for a reason to die for art, music, culture, society and friends…but there’s no reason to do it over there…at least not for Tagore or Bangla language…and therefore, now it’s a pressure-cooker emotion ready to “explode” any time…
So, it “exploded.” But it was restrained, subdued, subtle. Because we had already been simmered, cooked and softened in Tagore. We could not be wild, extravagant and loud. We were not Bollywood or Hollywood. We were civilized and progressive and humane. We refuse kitsch. We embrace the soul.
Tears flew freely. I took a dip in that sacred river of emotion.
And then, I was ready to interpret and express the celestial music and message of Tagore…musically…with love…with great care…with respect…and passion.
Here’s my first song…I hope it touches you…
Click…tick…tock…Click…tick…tock…there begins a deep, voluminous, heart-wrenching orchestra with the deep tabla and soft percussion…the vibrant vibe off the keyboard…the essential chord off the esraj…rising up and above from the studio floor…filling up the air…completely overwhelming mysenses…
Oh God…how can I thank you for this moment!
(Now in Kolkata — the city of Tagore, Vivekananda, Sister Nivedita, Ram Mohan Ray, Derozio and Satyajit Ray)
“Mystical Poet” Tagore wrote his non-mystical Bengali verse a hundred years ago:
“আনন্দময়ীর আগমনে আনন্দে গিয়েছে দেশ ছেয়ে
হেরো ওই ধনীর দুয়ারে দাঁড়াইয়া কাঙালিনী মেয়ে
বাজিতেছে উৎসবের বাঁশি, কানে তাই পশিতেছে আসি
ম্লান চোখে তাই ভাসিতেছে দুরাশার সুখের স্বপন…”
Bliss filled the mortal earth up and down below
Almighty Mother arrived: time for joyous psalm
But watch the poor, naked girl with nowhere else to go
Arrived at the rich’s door with an ever-extended palm.
Has anything changed since Tagore wrote it? Just look around.
Of course, Bengal and India were undivided back in those days. A British colonial rule was in place. People like me or my parents or grandparents didn’t have political freedom. There was famine. There was rule of the jungle. There was huge rich and poor disparity – with the Indian rich with their British masters exploiting and whipping their Indian servants, womanizing their Indian women, and shooting and hanging “terrorist” revolutionaries (they did it for a hundred years before Gandhi and his Congress Party were brought from South Africa, and put in power).
There was extreme poverty; a once-rich and prosperous civilization was force-transformed very quickly into a pauper nation. Beggars would mob affluent Desi landlords and their ladies (i.e., Rajas and Ranis spending millions on their cat’s wedding) visiting the Kali temple in Kalighat. Prostitutes and their pimps would line up the same streets after dark. There would be huge charity at the Durga Puja festivities organized by powerful community leaders known for their unquestionable allegiance to the most powerful people in their version of White House or 10 Downing Street…
But wait a minute! I just read the above lines the second time over…what am I talking about? Have I gone insane? It seems I’m talking about 2011, and not 1911 — two years before Tagore got his first-ever-Asian’s Nobel Prize and exactly the same year when the British moved the Indian capital from Calcutta to Delhi!
I just realized I was describing today, when I was thinking about a century before. What nonsense!
So, now…I promised my readers that I would not write in a long-winded, complicated way; I promised I would keep it simple. So, my point is this.
Nothing seriously has changed in India. Even after sixty-some years of the British-donated independence and transfer of power to a bunch of feudal, racist, patriarchal, corrupt and violent people that ruled the subcontinent and its three, partition-created countries, out of the estimated 1.2 billion people (i.e., a fifth of the world’s population), nearly eighty percent still live in either abject poverty or some variety of poverty. Women are systematically subjugated, bride burning and dowry deaths are rampant, children don’t get enough to eat and can’t go to school, corruption, police brutality and violence are sky high, and a large number of people are extremely superstitious, illiterate without the ability to think or analyze, and those who can afford to spend money would not spend money for any social justice or even a liberal-philanthropic cause. But they would not blink for a moment before spending millions on their cat’s wedding (or else, cat walks). The poor and the minority are considered untouchable.
If you need an even longer list of failures of a failed Indian (or Pakistani) state, read my little article Sixty Years of Fake Freedom. [Well, now it’s seventy years.]
Hey, nothing personal, really. This is what it is. You don’t believe me? Let’s have a debate.
So, what does it all have to do with religion? Well, the ongoing Durga Puja across India and the Indian-Bengali diaspora is an example of that fakeness.
The high-excitement community Durga Puja has taken an extremely degenerate form where corporate money flows like Hudson River’s polluted water (I was tempted to say Ganges’ filthy water — then decided not to because of religious sentiments, even though Holy Mother Ganges is perhaps the most polluted river in the world now). Billions of dollars are spent to erect makeshift community puja temples with their blaring-deafening microphones that would all come down in just four days; another few billions are spent on making the clay idols that would also dissolve in the same Ganges or her sister rivers in four days. The other few billions are spent by the upper class and middle class Indians and Bengalis on expensive saris, kurtas, ornaments and sundry expenses. And oh yes, how can I forget…Bengalis would spend like crazy to eat out…no fun and festivity would be complete for Bengali-Indians without fancy feasts and fabulous fish curry.
But they would not spare even a paltry ten or fifteen percent of the unthinkably-outrageous amount to feed, clothe, heal or educate the poor and the destitute, even in the name of the goddess. Swami Vivekananda called this ignorance-apathy “a crime.” But he died a hundred years ago, and his teachings died soon after.
Tagore observed the un-Godly inequality a century ago. He wrote about it all his life (media feel real uncomfortable talking about it; the “mystic” thing works nice). Nothing changed ever since. Poor people are still poor, the hungry and the sick are still hungry and sick, anemic women are still fetching water from two miles away from home, beggars are still begging at the temple courtyard waiting for the rich to dole out alms (for the “pious,” that would be a holy, religious act for a sure no-return birth to heaven — no reincarnation required at all), and slaves and virtual slaves are still serving their masters — in urban and rural India and Bengal.
In the midst of fun-holiday-decorated, highly charged, electrifying, gold- and silver-ornamented Durga Puja, Eid, Diwali and Christmas festivities, the have Indians don’t have much time to think about the have-nots — the poor and dispossessed that Tagore, Vivekananda and Sister Nivedita talked about. In fact, using terminology such as haves and have-nots would automatically qualify me to be a communist…radical…at least, too political. India don’t do political no more! That “sin” too died a hundred years ago.
The conscience of the haves, perhaps, still pricks once in a while. Then, to absolve themselves from the committed sins and possibly-committed sins, they offer more pujas, salats and salts to their gods and goddesses, and offer more alms to the beggars mobbing them at the temple courtyard. (Hey, you know, that’s safe too — just get rid of ’em ASAP — or you could get either bedbugs or badmouths.)
A great, ancient civilization — along with her great, ancient religions — moves on. That poor, naked, hungry, sick girl Tagore wrote about waits for her dream reincarnation to be a film star, or at least to be the wife of a politician, business magnet or cricket player.