(A new, original series of articles — exclusively for Humanity College)
Part 1 ______________________________________
Hope you join us on this discussion. You can write in any language. _______________________________
Rabindranath Tagore (or, for a non-Indian audience, let’s make it simpler: Rabindra Nath Tagore) was born in the city of Calcutta (now called Kolkata) in 1861, and died in the same city in 1941.
A few years ago, many of us celebrated his 150th birthday. So, he is old. Very, very old.
Yet, he is new, modern, and contemporary. He is unbelievably relevant even today, in 2019. That is his brilliance. That is his genius.
I am not a big scholar, and do not know a lot of such names from various corners of the world — who can be put on the list of such rare personalities. With my limited knowledge and understanding, I can mention Charlie Chaplin, Picasso, Charles Dickens, Ernest Hemingway, Victor Hugo, Tolstoy, Sartre, Bertrand Russell, or Mark Twain — who would perhaps feature such a list of genius literary, philosophical and artistic creators whose work is equally alive and pertinent in this millennium.
But I don’t know — can we name only one person who would be called a genius literary figure, as well as a genius philosopher, and a genius social reformer?
Honestly, other than Chaplin, I have not studied the personalities I’ve mentioned above. And I am sure I have missed some names that I should have mentioned. But I have studied Tagore somewhat extensively. With my limited ability, I have translated some of his poetry and songs, spoke and wrote about him at various media and forums (including Humanity College blog), and even dared to record some of his songs on a CD.
My family and I grew up in Kolkata, Bengal and India in an artistic and intellectual environment that was greatly influenced by Tagore and his followers. I know for the fact that millions of people both in India and Bangladesh have grown up in that cultural tradition.
In case you are not aware of it, national anthems of both India and Bangladesh are Tagore’s songs. But this is only a tiny measure of his influence on us.
In America, Summer has its own smell. I can’t quite describe it.
But it is there. You need to have a special moment to your own to find it. Unless you have a little peace, and calm your nerves, your senses are too numb to appreciate its delicacies.
Summer is too short here in America. And that makes it so much more precious. Flowers bloom in a lightening speed. And they are gone before you know it. Yesterday, or was it the day before, I saw a bunch of Catalpa flowers down on the sidewalk in our Brooklyn neighborhood. I looked up the tree. It’s a tree I pay close attention to every summer: I know the flowers will come and go in a flash. I looked up the tree. And the tree was empty again. In a matter of days, all the flowers were gone.
As if the tree was smiling a mischievous smile down at me. As if it says to me, “Gosh…I tricked ya, didn’t I?”
When I lived in Calcutta, I did not understand what sunlight meant to me. I took it for granted. I read Tagore’s rhymes, and loved the pictures he painted with his words. But I really did not understand how much they went into my heart, and stayed with me forever, only to come back much, much later.
“Midday on a holiday Far out there on rooftop A little girl hangs a violet sari in the summer sun…”
Here in America, nobody hangs their clothes on the rooftop to dry. Here, nobody goes on the rooftop. Here, we don’t have a rooftop to go to. Here in America, we don’t have much of a summer. Here in America, we don’t have a holiday when we don’t do anything, but look out…far out…
On my work this morning, I got off the bus, and walked to my usual little shop run by a Chinese woman named Lydia, to buy my usual croissant and coffee. And I immediately noticed it. I found the smell. I can’t quite describe it. But it’s there. I know it is.
A dry, sunlit pavement with urban, uncared-for cracks. An unknown bunch of weeds raises its head through the cracks. I go back down memories, all the way to my botany excursion days, and desperately want to remember the look-alike plants I knew in India. Or, at least want to remember the family of the plant. Is it the sunflower family? Is it the ipecac family? Is it the nightshade? I look at the dry, paperish, unattractive leaves, and the beautiful yellowish white flowers that spring up from those bracts of leaves. Oh, only if I knew the name of the plant…only if I could identify it…
But just the same way I desperately try to identify a raga when I hear it, but can’t, not knowing the plant and its flowers also leaves me with a deep sigh of incompetence. I did not get my education. In this life, I could not learn much. I know I am an incomplete, half-educated man. I did not know India before I left for America. And I did not appreciate the summer in Bengal when I was there.
And now, after having lived in America for thirty years, I still don’t know what this country is like. I don’t know its plants. I don’t know its insects. I don’t know its men, women, and children. I don’t know its summer and fall. They go by too fast. I try hard to hold them back to me. But I fail.
I try to love them all. India’s memories. And America’s present. But just like that smell of summer that I want to describe but can’t, I don’t quite figure out how to own it.
I haven’t quite figured out how to identify a way to love: love what is precious.
২৫শে এপ্রিল আমার জীবনের একটা বিশেষ দিন। এদিনটা আমার খুব প্রিয়। আমার মা যখন বেঁচে ছিল, তখন বন্ধুরা আর আত্মীয়রা সব আসত আমাদের বাড়ি সন্ধেবেলা, আর মা তাদের ভালো ভালো রান্না করে খাওয়াত। আমার পছন্দের জিনিষ রান্না করত সেদিন। এই যেমন, ঝিঙেপোস্ত, পোলাও, কাঁচা আমের অম্বল, পাঁঠার মাংস, কিসমিস দেওয়া পায়েস — এই সব। মার রান্নার খ্যাতি ছিল খুব। এখন আমার বউ এসব রান্না করে আমাকে খাওয়ায় এদিনে। অনেক কিছু জীবনে হারিয়েছি, আবার অনেক কিছু পেয়েওছি। এখন, এত বছর আমেরিকায় থাকার পরে, আমি আমার স্মৃতিকথা “ঘটিকাহিনী” লিখতে আরম্ভ করেছি কয়েকজন বিশেষ বন্ধু ও বান্ধবীর অনুরোধে-উপরোধে। এই সংখ্যায় আমার মায়ের মৃত্যুর কথা একটু লিখেছি, যতটা সম্ভব ভাবপ্রবণতা বা সেন্টিমেন্ট বর্জন করে। আশা করি আপনারা পড়বেন। “ঘটিকাহিনী”র প্রথম খন্ড — “প্রথম জন্ম” — ডিসেম্বর মাসের শেষ দিকে কলকাতায় প্রকাশিত হবার কথা হচ্ছে। যদি সত্যি সব কিছু ঠিকমত হয়, তাহলে অনুষ্ঠানে আপনাদের আসবার নিমন্ত্রণ থাকবে।
(English text below.)
25th April is a special day in my life. I am fond of this day. When my mother was alive, my friends and relatives would gather together at our home in the evening, and mother would cook delicious dishes to treat them. She cooked items that I liked. Indian and Bengali dishes such as khus khus paste with green luffa, spiced fried rice or Polao, a sweet sour watery chutney with green mango, goat meat curry, a milk dessert with raisins, etc. She was quite well known for her cooking abilities. Now, my wife Mukti cooks these items on this day.
I have lost many things in my life, yet, I have gained a lot of things too. Now, after having spent so many years in America, upon insistence of some friends, I’ve started writing my memoir. I titled it “Ghotikahini,” or the tale of a Ghoti (or a Bengali from West Bengal). In the episode just published, I have written about the death of my mother, with an effort not to make it too emotional or sentimental. I hope you read it.
The first volume of “Ghotikahini” — entitled “First Life” — is scheduled to be published from Calcutta in late December. If it really happens as planned, I shall invite you to attend the ceremony.
Frontal word is a phrase in my own little dictionary.
Over the years, I’ve created a number of words and phrases, and used them in my articles and blogs. Some of them have been nearly as meaningful as Orwell, Obamaspeak, Newspeak or New York Times. You can find them in my rabble, ramble and rubble.
Here’s a few examples out of my personal Thesaurus: (1) Flesh Dancing, (2) Synchronized Jump-laughing, (3) Journalism of Exclusion, (4) Undislike, (5) Wordorgasmilistics, and (6) Englishmatics. There are some more. Call me if you undislike them.
They’re like, Dr. Seuss. Or, Sukumar Ray. Weird, powerful, funny.
Frontal Word is much simpler. It means word to upfront. It means word to confront. Confront the past. Confront the present. Then, first confront and then upfront the future. It’s a word that finds its roots in old Latin, Hebrew, Arabic, Pali and Sanskrit…sorry…I mean…in old experience. My bad!
Old experience, then, is old memories. Lifelong memories. Sweet memories. Sour memories. Beautiful and bitter memories. Good memories, great memories. Frontal word upfronts and confronts life with use of these memories. Memories are good to memorize. And who doesn’t know Indians and Bengalis are good at memorizing? Just ask any Spelling Bee judge here in America!
But seriously, now that I am suddenly one whole eon older at this important juncture of my life — one year older by the traditional definition of a birthday and one eon older because of the upfronting, confronting, alarming health situation with transient memory loss, confusion and all, people who love me and care for me — such as my family, friends, colleagues, doctors, Facebookers and blog readers — strongly advised that I wrote only about pleasant, personal moments of life.
They said it would be good to upfront and confront my life: with happy thoughts. They said why do I not write about some of the most pleasant, memorable, happy thoughts that make me smile even in my darkest, creepy nightmare? And you know what: I thought they were absolutely right! After all, I want to live a little more…through a few more happy experiences.
So, taking advantage of this happy time — my birthday on the 25th of April — I write about some of my most pleasant memories. I wonder if you — my friends, colleagues and blog readers from various parts of the world — would be able to relate to all of those memories given the clothes they wear, looks they look, spirits they script, bricks they paint, foods they fodder, or drinks they fuel. But I do hope because the speaks they speak have some commonspeak as opposed to newspeak, and because in my upfrontal, confrontal personal dictionary, commonspeaks are first pages and newspeaks are appendices, some of you — the more caring, loving, empathizing and keeper-upper cheergivers — would manage to get at least the grist of it.
That is my hope. So, without further ado, I list a list (randomly un-ordered) to celebrate my birthday this year. Let me know if you need an expanded version. I shall provide. Just order it. I even have a half-finished memoir to circulate among my most ardent admirers.
The Randomly Unordered List
Memory 1. — I stood first in my class exam at Scottish Church School. My mother stood in the two foot by two foot mezzanine balcony to greet me when I walked back from school. I remember I was wearing a mischievous grin.
Memory 2. — I top scored in our school cricket match and won a nearly-lost game. Then my friends lifted me up on their shoulders and cheered: Hip Hip Hooray…(that was the only Scottish way of cheering we knew).
Memory 3. — Jumping forward. — Some of my students at a remote, rural college in South Bengal got distinction in their university exam. I was their first and only professor in biology and worked overtime to make sure they passed. We had no electricity. We used kerosene lanterns for extra evening classes I offered for free. I was twenty five at that time. It was my first job and my first experience to live away from home.
Memory 4. — Jumping backward. — At a handwriting competition at primary school, I got the first prize in Bengali script, beating my friend and arch-enemy Ananda. This kid wrote like calligraphy. I also got my first book as a prize: it was a famous Sukumar Ray book. Cherished it all my life. I still have it here in my little personal library in New York.
Memory 5. — Our first family train trip across North India. We went to Benaras, Lucknow and Bareilly. I was four, and believe me, I remember most of the trip. It was winter and Bareilly was unusually cold. Having raised in pleasant-weather Bengal, I never knew India could be so cold! My aunt’s family was quite well off (and poor Ma was totally in awe to see their riches); they had a big house, a garden with beautiful flowers, a swing where my sick mother would sit once in a while, and room heaters in every room. They even had a big European dog, and mother and I were both afraid of dogs, so they would keep him inside most of the time.
Memory 6. — Scored highest number of goals in neighborhood football (soccer) league two or three times in consecutive years. Even got prizes from our local city councilor or somebody important like him. Of course, we played with rubber ball: never had the money to buy a real football. But that was just okay. In fact, it was enormous fun.
Memory 7. — Got the best student scholarship for ranking top in class exams around the year. Mr. A. B. Roy, headmaster, would call me out of my class into his teaching room and gave me the scholarship in front of all the students. Oh, what a chest expander it was!
Memory 8. — Shift gear and move up a few more years, quickly. — I was making a half-hour speech at a political street-corner rally in the university area of Calcutta. Given how shy and introvert I was when I was a kid (not to say anything about my feminine voice that friends and elders mocked about), it was a remarkable achievement — let alone keeping the audience to actually listen to my ramble.
Memory 9. — Shift gear and fast forward a few more years. — I was teaching a full class of American students, this time in English. Believe me, it was not easy. I never spoke in English in my life. I came to America just a week ago, I was underfed, I was ten thousand miles away from my wife and family, I didn’t know a soul on the Western hemisphere, and I was shivering in my first Chicago wind chill.
Memory 10. — Shift gear again and move up a few more years, more quickly. — I was giving a major speech at a political rally on Wall Street, to protest the domestic repression after 9/11 and particularly to protest against the visit of Bush’s attorney general Ashcroft. New York Civil Liberties Union organized the rally with help from grassroots organizations such as ours. I was the post-9/11 community organizer working against hate crimes on immigrants. I do believe it was one of the most important speeches I’ve ever made in my life, and in English too!
Memory 11. — Marriage at a rather young age just a few months after getting the college lecturer job. Just a couple of years later, I left the job and family and friends and India behind for a very uncertain future in the U.S. It was a bitter-sweet memory given the permanent departure from a place I loved so much. Yet, the adventure of jumping into a completely unknown side of life with just a few dollars in my pocket — to show to the rest of the world that even someone like I could do it, and that too, not to be rich but to be someone with extraordinary desire to do something different and exceptional in life — was absolutely, positively special. In retrospect, with all the pluses and minuses and joys and sorrows, I would do it again.
Memory 11(a). — Birth of a child. Unbelievable experience to hold the little bouquet of joy!!
Memory 12. — 2004. Getting first-page coverage in major American media including the New York Times of our immigrant rights and justice work. It happened a number of times over the years, and together with all my colleagues in the organizations I worked for, the recognition of our work and spreading the news across the country and world made it special. Very special, indeed!
Memory 13. — First book published in 1998. Ajanta Publishers in Delhi put out my autobiographical book on the RSS and BJP, Hindu fundamentalist organizations that I was once deeply involved in and went up the ladder fast. But I was definitely not a fundamentalist type, ever. I was with them for more than fifteen years mainly because my father took me there. At one point, I had to come out. So, I came out and wrote about my insider experience with the far right groups. It was not easy; the book made my father heartbroken. But for me, it was a major accomplishment: I grew up both politically and intellectually.
Memory 14. — In 2012, I recorded twenty songs of Rabindranath Tagore. It was my little contribution to the world of poetry and music lovers on the occasion of Tagore’s 150th birth anniversary. The total experience over the week of studio recording, first with the noted instrumentalists and then the voice recording for a few more days, was simply extraordinary, unforgettable.
Memory 15. — Going back again, a whole bunch of years back to my adolescence, at my Holy Thread ceremony when I was fourteen years old, a few colleagues from my father’s factory Usha Sewing Machine Works gave me a beautiful gift: a small, Agfa box camera. It was one of my most cherished possessions. It stayed with me for many years until it disappeared into oblivion, just like many other beautiful, prized possessions I lost forever. But even though I lost the physical possession of it, I never lost the precious, beautiful memories I had with it. Nobody could take the memories away. Especially, that social ceremony left a permanent, pleasant impression on me forever.
Memory 16. — Rewinding one more time, my father threw a small, family party to celebrate my fifth birthday. I still remember, our mezzanine apartment in North Calcutta was decorated with colorful balloons. A whole bunch of friends and relatives came. My mother cooked some of her phenomenal dishes, just the same way she would cook for all my friends over the years for all my birthday parties. I remember many of my birthday celebrations in Calcutta — my special friends and my mother’s special food made them ever so special.
Memory 17. — I was stuck like glue to neighborhood Tagore birthday celebrations: legends such as Debabrata Biswas, Suchitra Mitra and Hemanta Mukherjee are singing the poet’s celestial songs — for hours. It was my first experience to be with God.
Going back a few more years, yes, going back to when I was two and a half perhaps, I would walk with my mother or aunt to our neighborhood pre-K school Shishu Niketan (which in Bengali means the house of the child), where I would learn how to sing Tagore, read the alphabet, do the elementary arithmetic, sew simple thread and needle, and play fun games a lot. The teachers would even put us to sleep in the dark and quiet sleep room for an hour or so in the middle of the day. I even had my own stitch-cloth comforter which my mother sewed my name on — a cuddly, soft comforter my sister used when she went to the same school about eight or nine years later. I was in middle school by that time; I’d drop her off at ten, go to Scottish Church, and pick her up at four in the afternoon on my walk back from school.
Pleasant memories…so many…so many of them! It would take a lifetime to talk about only a fragment of it. I only managed to tell a few stories, and left the many others for later. There are so many beautiful stories I want to tell you. Only if you have time for me.
But for now, it makes me so happy to remember some. I hope they made you a little happy too.
Thanks for staying with me. Thanks for smiling together with me.
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.
THE MASTER AS I SAW HIM. — “He believed that the one thing to be renounced was any idea of birth as the charter of leadership. He believed that the whole of India was about to be thrown into the melting pot, and that no man could say what new forms of power and greatness would be the result.” — Written by Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita (aka Margaret Noble).
For us who grew up knowing him, reading him, idolizing him — it’s a very special day.
For those of us who grew up in Calcutta, India, and that too, within half a mile of his residence, within quarter of a mile of the college he studied — it gives us goosebumps to imagine how this young monk who passed away at the age of thirty nine, turned Bengal and India upside down, by his rousing call to young India — to get rid of superstitions, castes, and all forms of social and religious dogmas.
Swami Vivekananda, a Ramakrishna-ordained Hindu saint who relinquished mortal pleasures to work to uplift the Hindu religion, used the religion to uplift the morality and soul of Indians. He dared to say: It’s better to play football than to study the Vedas. Indian revolutionaries who fought back against the British colonial tyranny idolized him, emulated him.
No wonder he was often fondly called the Socialist Saint.
Vivekananda’s disciple Sister Nivedita (aka Margaret Noble, an Irish woman) followed his footsteps, and worked among the poorest in Calcutta until her death at the age of forty four. She was also responsible for co-founding a major socialist movement in India — a “crime” for which Ramakrishna Mission (a nationwide, now international, organization her guru created) ostracized her.
India, unfortunately, did not follow the religion-based morality-upliftment lessons Vivekananda and Nivedita preached. Social patriarchs — including missions and monasteries — took their religion part and forgot about the upliftment part. Media selectively glorified some of their “innocuous” teaching and conveniently excluded the “controversial” ones. As a result, Vivekananda’s India is now one of the most corrupt, violent and immoral places on earth. The recent developments in the land of Tagore, Gandhi, Vivekananda and Ramakrishna are truly catastrophic, calamitous, ominous.
I want to say more about this great man whose life and teaching we can perhaps compare with those of Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. Both used spirituality to teach the downtrodden how to rise up and walk straight and tall. Both died at the age of thirty nine.
I’m including a famous poem Swami Vivekananda wrote and Sister Nivedita used in her writings on the guru. It may bring some special reflection on this dark and depressing time. At least, I hope it does.
Let us invoke the Holy Mother. Come, Mother, come!
NEW UPDATE. As of June 12, 2013. — She did NOT die of a heart attack. At least, that was not the primary reason for her sudden death. Recently, I found out through talking to Sandipta’s family members and friends that she died of a preventable health crisis, that she was not looked after properly by people who should have looked after her, and on the day of her death there was major negligence by a very small number of people who surrounded her. Plus, the shabby nursing home where she was taken for treatment was a major scam. Sandipta died of all the above reasons. I keep thinking and writing about her not only to remember her, but also to warn others like her who could fall victims of such a horrific social situation and massive medical malpractice. I hope you join me on this awareness mission. Save many more Sandiptas by spreading the word. Thank you. -Partha Banerjee, New York.
On a Calcutta cable channel we follow from here in New York, I heard a few minutes ago that its news anchor Sandipta Chatterjee suddenly passed away.
She was only 34 years old. She died of a heart attack, according to ABP-Ananda where she worked since 2005.
I knew Sandipta. The absolutely unexpected news of her death shook me to the core.
Some deaths are expected. Some are not. Some are too close. Some are a little distant.
How do I describe this emotion right now? I don’t have much. I don’t know what to say, and how to say it. The scrolling lines at the bottom of the TV screen when they were airing news of some other politics, violence or cricket match were simply too unreal. They said one Sandipta’s body would be taken tomorrow morning at nine to Calcutta’s crematorium.
I read the lines a second time. And then a third time. Who is Sandipta and why is her body being taken to the crematorium? Why is ABP-Ananda airing the news, and why is the Sandipta I knew absent on the news screen tonight?
What is going on here? — I restlessly asked myself.
Then at a half-minute break between news segments, they showed her picture. It was Sandipta I knew. Sandipta Chatterjee. She suddenly died of a heart attack on Sunday.
Sandipta died of a heart attack on Sunday??
I knew her. I came to know her through sharing some common interests on Facebook about five years ago. One interest was Tagore: she was a graduate from Tagore’s university Vishva Bharati. The second common interest was Satyajit Ray: on Facebook, we shared notes about our love for Ray and his movies and short stories.
We shared other interests too: we were both from Calcutta, and that too, from North Calcutta. Her Facebook pictures showed that she came from an average, middle class family. In fact, photos she posted on her Facebook from before her marriage reminded me of the neighborhood where I grew up: dark, dingy, dusty, crowded. Her premarital home was just as middle-class North Calcuttan as the home where I grew up. Her friends looked like my friends.
I told her a number of times she reminded me of one of the sisters I left behind in Calcutta.
In early 2012, after I recorded my Tagore songs, I called her up and went to meet her at her workplace. That was the only time we met. She came out of her first-floor studio and we greeted each other with a warm smile. She was very busy. Still, she found time to sit down in the studio’s lounge and took time to talk to me for about half an hour. I gave her a copy of my Tagore album “Aro Ektu Bosho.”
We shared some ideas about how to work with like-minded Bengalis — especially those who love Tagore and Satyajit Ray — on the rapidly-engulfing quicksand on the cultural front. We thought it would be good if we put up a pragmatic plan to work together in the coming days. Sandipta was not nearly as political as me; being a news anchor at a very demanding, private cable channel, she probably didn’t have any time to spare on anything else except for her work and family. And I told her she worked too hard, way too hard. I would see her anchoring news at every possible hour — practically every single day.
A thirty year-old, beautiful, young, married woman, she obviously gave up a lot of her personal time — to satisfy her workplace demands. Yet, she did find a little bit of time to talk on and off Facebook about shared interests, shared passion: especially Tagore and Bengali language and culture.
Did she take care of her health? Did she find time to have medical check-ups regularly? Was there time for her to look after herself? Did she eat well, rest well, or exercise? Did she know she had a life-threatening heart condition?
At 34, Sandipta worked through December 1 for seven years at ABP-Ananda, until recently known as Star-Ananda. She did not come back to work on December 2. News broke that Sandipta had a massive heart attack, and died at a North Calcutta hospital.
Sandipta died of a heart attack??
I am still not sure how to react to this news. It has not sunk in.
But she is gone.
I am going to miss her. She was like a dear sister. A young, vibrant, beautiful, hard-working, art-loving, music-loving, Tagore-loving, Ray-loving, Calcutta-loving sister.
Well, you might think I am using a metaphor or something.
Some of you might think, especially after you’re through with this article, that I’m actually using the magician metaphor for something else. Knowing me and having read my tons of blog posts so far, some others might think the E Train is actually a metaphor too: maybe, it means the Economy train, or perhaps, Employment train. Or, perhaps…Energy train. Something…or something else…imaginations could run wild.
But, believe me, I am not using any metaphor. I am actually talking about a little magician on the E subway train here in New York City. The only creative liberty I’m taking as the author is with the word “little,” only because, as they always say, ordinary people are little people.
This magician I’m going to talk about is a no-name magician, I’m sure; otherwise, he would not play his magic in front of a reluctant, tired New York subway audience, and jump from car to car to make a living. I tend to believe this is not even his primary job; who can live and feed mouths in Bloomberg’s only-for-rich New York on enchanting a few, sleepy subway commuters late in the evening — with their magic or music?
I’m only telling you this story because it was so exceptional. I’ve never seen anything like it in my un-magical life. I even gave him a dollar — an exceptional act of benevolence if you knew my miserly middle-class Indian-Bengali upbringing. My sense of charity and benevolence could easily match up Shylock of the Merchant of Venice!
Ah, well…getting back on with the story.
I was tired and trying hard not to doze off on the train — I became extra careful to stay alert since a few months ago, a bunch of kids tried to pull a prank on a sleepy me on the G-train. I taught myself about the necessity to stay up especially in these difficult times. Phone snatching, pickpocketing and other such untoward things here in Bloomberg’s only-for-rich New York has now become commonplace.
I was tired and trying hard not to doze off on the train, and contemplating on the mundane-ness of a commuter’s life…or something philosophical like it. Or, maybe, I was just thinking nothing. Something like it. Then, this guy got on the train and things changed in a few seconds…like magic!
He was a tallish, whitish, middle-age’ish guy who showed visible signs of lifelong strife and struggle. Maybe, he is a loner. Maybe, his wife and children left him and his inability to make a decent living. Seeing his manners and magic, I remembered Satyajit Ray’s short story on the little Bengali magician Mr. Tripura Mullick who said to his one-and-only student: “Look, I know all these tricks, but the only trick I don’t know is how to make money.” And that little magician in Ray’s magical story was also a loner, with nowhere to go and no place to live.
This little magician’s tricks — unthinkable and quite unbelievable — also reminded me of Ray’s little magician: they were all done without any use of pomp, grandeur or big stage or footlights, or without the help of any glittery woman assistant — or for that matter, without the typical, non-stop patters magicians often use to distract the viewers. He didn’t do any of the above. In fact, all the tricks this guy did were so right front of my eyes that unless I knew he was pulling tricks, I wouldn’t believe he was pulling tricks. That’s how magical they were!
His games were also not something I’ve never seen; in fact, I’ve seen them many times. I’ve seen the cut rope trick where the magician pulls out a piece of white rope, asks someone in the audience to hold the two ends tight spreading it apart, and cuts it in the middle. He then measures the two halves and shows that they are indeed much shorter than the original length. He then gives one half to a member of the audience and keeps the other half. He does an abracadabra on the half he has, rubs his fingers a little magically, and snaps it! Walla, suddenly the half length of the rope becomes a full length again!
(At this point, YOU — some of my longtime readers, now familiar with my way of pulling my own writing tricks, would say: “Okay, wait a minute, we know what you’re up to. You’re trying to say that these little, no-name people are the ones who are constantly pulling the broken pieces of the economy back together with their unsung heroism — acts like magic that nobody knows and nobody cares about: magical acts that behind the scene put the world back together especially in times of serious crisis — like the crisis the American society is now going through, or especially at this difficult time after Hurricane Sandy. You’re telling us to compare the incredible, magic-like work of these small, low-wage workers — electrical workers, plumbers, construction workers, subway workers and so many more — that New York Times or CNN would not talk about. Right?” — Well, I could easily have said that and used this whole article as a metaphor; but really, I’m not doing it because repeating something over and over again is the last thing an intelligent author would do because it drives even his ardent, admiring readers crazy and totally disinterested. You are welcome to judge using your own judgement. I leave that up to you.)
So, on with the story (I hope not to be interrupted again…please).
The little magician went on to show a few little tricks — the usual stuff we see on TV or in a theater — like changing the color of handkerchiefs and all. Remember, all of it is happening just over six or so minutes on an express stop between Forest Hills and Jackson Heights; he would hop on to the next car as soon as the train stops. Now, the final game — with some small amount of cheerful talk from a not-so-cheerful-looking magician: the card trick.
He pulls out a pack of cards and juggles with all fifty two of them in a way that I could only imagine in my dream! Up and down, side to side, inside out, and outside in. He takes the pack in his lifted right palm and throws them down on his left — in a never-ending chain with no cards misbehaving. He then obviously asks one of the subway commuters to pull a card of her choice — and the poor magician had a hard time finding a volunteer because everybody was so reluctant to do it for the fear that they’d probably have to show some gesture of charity which they would not want to do. He then turns his eye away from the woman who volunteered; she now put the card back in the pack the magician was holding out. The rest of the game we all know: he does some more abracadabra, walks his long, uncanny fingers on the pack of cards, and wallah, he pulls out the right card the woman chose!
Finally, in the last thirty seconds or so, the magician shows us something I’ve never seen before in my life. He pulls out a number of cards from the pack and starts spinning them horizontally in the air — halfway between the train floor and ceiling, and the cards floated and danced and circled around in an incredibly synchronous movement, and it appeared they would never stop, as if they were all held together by an invisible string.
Again, it reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s little magician Mullick who trained a coin to come out of his wallet, walk to another coin on the floor, and walk it back together into the wallet. Our little, no-name magician on the E-train also instructed his cards to stop their wild dance and come together quietly into the pack. It was time for him to pack up and hop on to the next car on the E-train. Jackson Heights had arrived and the train had stopped. He collected a few dollar bills — one from a totally inspired and woke-up me, without saying even a word of thanks.
He was not one of the talkative, patterful magicians. He was not David Copperfield of America or P. C. Sircar of Calcutta. He didn’t know the tricks to make a decent living. He never learned that magic.
I hope to see him again some day — on my way back from work on the E Train. He certainly deserves an extra dollar from me…or two.
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?