Back in New York. Hurt, sad, and reflecting on the experience I brought back.
It was a very different and difficult trip to Kolkata this time. Monsoon in Bengal, and the pollution-free, lush, green, wet trees and fragrant flowers calmed me down a little. It was not easy to realize my father would not wait for me anymore, with his loving, welcoming smile. He would not sit in the balcony chair looking down, when I’d return to USA.
He passed away on August 6. Yes, he was old. Very old. He was 93. But does it matter?
On August 16, I performed the Shraddha ritual for my departed father. Through this ritual, the deceased (Preta) was admitted into Pitri Loka, or the assembly of forefathers. He united with those men before me — ancestors who made me possible. I would also want to believe he reunited with my mother, who waited for him in heaven for many, many years.
The last hour on August 6, when we brought my father’s mortal remains from the hospital back home, and sang Tagore songs together. Very happy we could pay him respect one last time this way, with songs he loved so much. I hope people noticed this way to pay homage to him.
August 6, 2017, 7.40 A.M., Kolkata, India. — My father passed away. He left his uncompromising character, and a total renunciation of selfish pleasures. He lived for his ideology, and he lived for his patriotism. I am fatherless today, but I shall live his uprightness, his inimitable courage and determination. Regardless of politics, he will always be a lightning rod for me.
It is the peak time on the four-day Durga Puja celebration. We went to a Bangladeshi Hindu temple last night, and absorbed as much fun and music and spirituality as possible, being outsiders. They even invited me to sing a couple of songs.
But, on this morning, we are back to reality again. Not even a remote aura of any festivity in this capital city of the so-called American diversity. Dhaaks (drums) won’t be heard. No decorating lights will be seen anywhere. No Indians or Bengalis will be seen walking on the street in their festive dresses; in fact, we practically never buy anything special at this time. Not a single news item on CNN or New York Times or local media about this wonderful, colorful religious and cultural show.
I am not a “religious” person in the conservative sense: in fact, I am as anti-fundamentalist as possible. But Hinduism is a critically important part of my identity, and I am not anti-religion at all. Especially this immigrant life is so intense with alienation that religion often is essential to hang on to our identity. Just like Tagore, Ravi Shankar, Bengali poetry, Satyajit Ray, or even Hindi film songs.
Life in USA is impossibly bereft and empty, when it comes to mainstream compassion or understanding of our history, tradition, and culture. On these special days, watching on Indian TV channels the incredible, rich social gathering of millions of people of all religions, castes and classes, it feels like I am standing on an American street, homeless and naked.
I am shivering in this cold emptiness. Indian or American media won’t tell our real-life stories.
Not that anybody truly cares, and life goes on without thinking much about anything, anymore.
Yet, a sudden outburst of emotion happens deep inside, perhaps due to the fact that an immigrant Hindu Bengali Indian in America did not get to experience the beautiful, colorful, artistic, fun, and spiritual, autumn festivities — Durga Puja and Diwali — for more than once in his thirty years of exile.
He did not return. He could not return. He did not become a part of that incredible, joyful surroundings in his West-maligned city of Calcutta and devastated, destroyed, torn-apart land of Bengal — a land of artists, poets, musicians, and all such fast-disappearing subtle, humanity spirits.
Today, in spite of being a seasoned, hard-shelled, and perhaps enlightened American immigrant with some worthwhile work accomplished, an empty, crying heart goes back to the place that he left back, a place that built his consciousness, and taught him how to love, and be loved, in the midst of all the poverty, adversity, and violence.
Durga Puja. A beautiful, four-day human mingling happens next week — in India, in Bangladesh, in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto or London, wherever Bengalis and Indians are — but nobody knows, and nobody cares.
We Hindus are media-branded as the pagan religion riddled with castes and superstitions. We never belonged. We never contributed to human civilization. Our temple artistry and engineering that stood hundreds of years, perhaps thousands, do not exist. We never had any science, art, commerce, or anything that they told us the West had invented, and generously donated to us. We are a dark hole in human civilization — they say.
The Abrahamic religions get eulogy, appreciation, and even notoriety, but they do get mainstream mention. But we exist in a vacuum, in complete ignorance and apathy of the elite and educated.
Worse, our own elite and educated have decided to reject and refuse to know a few thousand years of history, because to them, calling yourself a Hindu is synonymous with being a Hindu fanatic. To them, eating beef is something to brag about: to show the world of their class how secular and non-religious they are. I am not a traditional religious, but I have no reason not to belong to Hinduism, because it is my home. I find the deepest comfort in it. I do not believe we deserve the West’s disdain, or that of the Westernized Indian.
This disdain and contempt keep creating more fanatics, just out of insults. Those who do not turn extreme, weep in pain. It’s happening in Islam, and it’s happening in Hinduism. It’s happening in the West too.
I know there is a way to be spiritual, proud of your social and religious identity, without being a zealot. I know there is a way to bring together all the religions and faiths under a common umbrella of humanity and equality. I do not have the power of the media, money or politics. Therefore, my way is my way of writing and speaking, hoping it is working somewhere, some way — one receptive mind at a time.
Are you that receptive mind, willing to hear? I hope you are. I do hope so.
No, not to big politicians or big media. They are too busy, and their priorities are too different.
I am making this humble request to you: my friends, colleagues, supporters and well wishers. I propose that we all celebrate Diwali — the Festival of Lights — here in USA, the Land of Diversity. Celebrate it as a secular, social festival. I invite everyone: Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, atheists, socialists, greens.
Light up. Lighten up. Have a party. This year, October 23 is the day. Mark your calendar.
Even though Diwali has a deep connection with Hinduism, and it always falls on the day after the auspicious Kali Puja or the worship of Goddess Kali the Demon Slayer, Diwali is now a pan-Indian festival, both in India and all over the world, wherever Indians are. And you can find us everywhere: America, Europe, Australia, Brazil, New Zealand, Zambia or Zanzibar. And people from all religions celebrate it with much fanfare. In fact, in my opinion, perhaps next to Christmas, Thanksgiving, Halloween, Eid, Kwanzaa and Yom Kippur, Diwali is a festival that many Americans are aware of.
Of course, thanks to a blanket exclusion by corporate media, even those who have heard about Diwali and know that it has something to do with India or Indians and Hindus or Hindi do not know what it is really all about. So, every time somebody asks me what is the occasion they saw fireworks over the Hudson next to Brooklyn Bridge, I take the time to explain to them that Diwali — the Festival of Lights — is an autumn festival when people all over India lighten up their houses with small or big lights, and celebrate with fireworks, followed by fabulous food and sumptuous sweets.
I then take the time to explain to them that it is a symbol for the victory of the good over evil, or for the more religious, triumph of good karma over bad karma.
Then everyone understands, and greets me, saying, “Happy Diwali.” And that makes me happy too.
Now, fireworks, followed by sweets are big in India. Here in America the so-called Land of Freedom, they have imposed so many restrictions on our lives that we don’t even know how restricted we are. We can’t blow our mandatory Hindu conch shells outside of the temples and designated schools or community halls where we’re having our celebrations. We can’t lighten up our pious, ceremonial, invocation firewood almost anywhere, let alone outside the designated areas. Fireworks, even the silent, small and beautiful ones, our children can’t play with without having special permission from the city administration. You can’t even buy fireworks in New York City for Diwali, unless you are a big business group, and have resources and connections and permissions to do it over the Hudson next to Brooklyn Bridge.
Truly, believe it or not, even for the less-religious like me, it’s mighty stifling.
But no, I’m not proposing that we be given permission to crack our fireworks anywhere we like. I’m not even proposing that we be given permission to light up our ceremonial, religious fire inside our wooden houses. I know how dangerous it can be. Just like any responsible New Yorker, I would be very reluctant to undermine the safety of me, my family, and my neighbors. We are responsible, enlightened citizens.
All I’m proposing that let us all celebrate Diwali — the Festival of Lights — in its true, secular, inclusive spirit, inviting everyone in America to be a part of it. Let us observe Diwali this year, and every year, to show our real spirit of inclusion and diversity, and make this colorful, social festival a known event in the American household.
And if not for the fireworks, approved or not by the government officials, let us rejoice Diwali at least for its food and sweets part.
If Yoga can be a popular, household practice for today’s America and especially its open-minded young generation, why can’t Diwali? Both are spiritual. Both are secular and inclusive. Both celebrate life. Both inspire health and happiness.
And if you are truly worried about your health and happiness due to the plentiful of Indian food and sweets, we shall make them low-calorie for you.
Heck, we could even make them totally fat- and sugar-free.
Read it one more time. The title. Secular. Liberal. Bengali. Hindu. Goddess. Durga. America.
Does it mean anything to you? I’m especially asking my American and non-Indian friends.
Well, for that matter, I’m also asking my Indian friends. Especially the Hindu fundamentalist type.
It’s not easy to answer. It’s actually complex. But let me make it simple for you.
Yes, there is such a thing called secular and liberal Hindu. I am one. And I know of quite a few more that would fit this phrase. In fact, I know of a few million people — living in India and outside of India — that would feel proud to be called as secular and liberal Hindu.
Now, who are they? Men with three legs and one tail? Women with five ears and six fingers?
No, none of that sort. We are just like anybody else. One, thinking, objective, calm, patient, informed head on our shoulders. We do not believe that religion stands in the way of secularism and liberalism. We do not believe in order to be lifelong followers of Hinduism, or any other religion, you have to be a fanatic or fundamentalist, going to the temple frequently, and offering prayers to God or money to the priest.
We are very happy and content to belong to our religion, without getting too emotional about it, and hating-undermining other ways of life. We feel completely at ease having dinner with a Muslim, Christian, Jewish or Buddhist friend. Better yet, we do not mind going to a three-day outing with a bunch of agnostic-atheist friends.
Yet, someone like me who grew up in this secular-liberal-Hindu-ecumenical-socialist way of life, or took major pains to become one through intellectual and emotional struggles, finds it quite disturbing that in a so-called liberal and secular and diverse country like the U.S., nobody knows about Hinduism, and outside of an elite or academic group of people, nobody ever heard about Diwali or Durga or Dusserah or Dol. In fact, in my twenty-five-plus years here in America, I have NEVER seen any news coverage on some of our fascinating religious and social celebrations.
In fact, if anything, I’ve only seen and heard belittling, ridiculing and often disparaging observations about Hinduism on mainstream media. And believe me, even a non-religious man like me gets mighty irked at those observations.
One reason behind it is that U.S. media, and Western establishments in general, have created this mass-manufactured idea that “their” religions and faiths and lifestyles are superior than “ours.” There is no debate, discussion or dialogue about the true diversity of faiths. Most ordinary Americans either do not know, or do not care to know about anything outside of their Eurocentric way of life. Most do not believe anything outside of Judeo-Christianity is civilization.
Most do not know or do not care to know about history of human civilization in the first place.
The other reason behind this ignorance is that elite, academic and affluent Hindus have done practically nothing to let mainstream America know about it. They have lived a happy and content, isolated, alienated life, happy and content with their professional and personal lives, high-paid GE, IBM or Monsanto jobs, high university degrees, palatial suburban residences complete with swimming pools and Mercedes and Lexus and BMW, lush-green backyards and Ivy-League-bound children. They have decided this would be the best-safest and least-disturbance-prone life away from India. And they have decided that getting into anything political or even remotely controversial would be in their way of making more affluence and wealthy.
Yet, these are the people who could have made a big difference in their own, elite world, had they made an effort to educate and inform the American society about their history and heritage and Hinduism.
I went back and read the last paragraph. And I realized that I almost sounded like India’s Hindu fundamentalist prime minister Narendra Modi and his gang of chest-thumping, ignorant, angry men.
Didn’t I say it would be complicated to explain? Now you know what I mean.
It’s not easy. On one hand, I do want to keep my sanity and objectivity by keeping my secularism and liberalism and Bengali progressiveness and total egalitarianism. And I got it from Hinduism, Buddhism and Vaishnavism and Brahmoism and yes, socialism too. At the same time, I do not believe talking about my birthright religion in a proud way makes me one of the Modi chest-thumpers. I do not carry hate. I do not believe in hate. I am not one of them.
I am a product of Sri Chaitanya’s school of inclusion and love. I am product of Rabindranath Tagore’s liberalism. I am a product of the Bengali Language Movement and socialist political struggles that shaped my consciousness.
At the same time, I am a product of Swami Vivekananda’s proud-to-be-called-Hindu school of thought, and it does not matter to me if I am rich or penniless. My Hinduism is my proud consciousness, just like my secular-liberal Bengali identity.
Of course, it is not easy to understand. But at least, I tried to explain it to you. As simply as I could.
Now only if the American establishment and media cared to know what I was talking about.
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!
Last year, on this Diwali night, I wrote a reminiscence from my beautiful days in Calcutta — with memories of my childhood friends, firecrackers, clay lamps and all. It was a little on the sentimental side, however real and raw the emotion was. I guess, I was missing Diwali and our worship of Mother Kali the Demon Slayer — quite a bit.
Diwali (or Deepavali, in original Sanskrit) and Kali Puja are inseparable; they fall on the same day. In case you’re not familiar with it, Diwali or Festival of Lights is the cultural celebration of the harvest season. Kali Puja, or worshiping Goddess Kali of course is the religious celebration.
This year, I’m posting a short story I translated from the original Bengali. The author Sharat Chandra Chatterjee was a preeminent writer who left a mark in the world of Bengali literature with his passionate, humanitarian writing, especially his novels and short stories championing the often-forgotten place of women in the society. He was also famous for his writing against feudalism and other vile forms of social and religious orthodoxy and superstitions.
I hope you’ll like the story here, a story he wrote with a young audience in mind, and find out more about this great writer. Google Sharat Chandra Chatterjee, the Bengali novelist. Animal rights activists might read it too.
His nickname was Lalu. He must’ve had a formal name, but I couldn’t remember it now. You’d perhaps know that in Hindi, the word Lal meant the dear, the beloved. I couldn’t tell you who gave him the name; however, it was indeed the best-matching name for his character. Everybody loved him.
After graduating from high school, we entered college; Lalu said he’d get into business instead. He borrowed ten rupees from his mother and started a small contractor agency. We said to him, “Lalu, but you got ten rupees only.” Lalu said, “How much more do you need? This is enough.”
Everyone liked him; he found jobs quickly. On our way to college, we often saw Lalu with the sun umbrella on his head fixing street potholes employing a few laborers. He’d poke fun at us, “Run on now, scoot – don’t miss the attendance check.”
Even earlier, when we were in middle school, Lalu used to be the repairman for us all. In his school bag, he’d always carry a mortar and a pestle, an open razor, a broken knife, a little hand drill, a horseshoe, and such items. Nobody knew how he managed to collect it all, but with those trivial articles, there was practically nothing that he couldn’t do. He’d fix our broken umbrellas, put back the handheld slate board together, and even sew up our uniforms right away during a game. He’d never say no to any requests; he’d actually do a fine job. Once on some festivity, he bought some colored paper and natural foam, and worked nice-looking toys out of it; he even sold them at the riverbanks and bought us all peanut snacks with the money he made.
Gradually, we all grew up. Lalu became the best wrestler on the pit. His strength was extraordinary, and his courage was incredible. He never knew what fear was. He’d be ready for anybody’s call; he’d be present at anybody’s needs. Yet, he had a deadly flaw: he couldn’t resist himself from scaring someone. He’d do it equally to the young and old. We could never figure out where in the world did he find so many tricks to panic people. Could I tell you one such story?
In our neighborhood, Manohar Chatujje worshipped Goddess Kali in his house. One year, at the very late night hours, he must sacrifice an animal to the goddess. However, the slaughter man didn’t show up at the auspicious time. People rushed to get him out of his bed, but came back with bad news: the man was completely bedridden with a terrible stomachache. The news froze the worshippers; without an experienced slaughter man, there would be no sacrifice, and the entire process would be turned upside down, causing the gravest sin.
Someone in the assembled crowd said, “Why, Lalu can slaughter the goat; he’d done it many times before.” So, people ran again to get him.
However, Lalu woke up and said, “No.”
“What do you mean no? It’d be a terrible disaster if there’s no sacrifice.”
Lalu said, “Let it be. I done it when I was young, but won’t do it no more.”
People who came to get him started crying, “Lalu, there’s very little time left before the auspicious hour is over. Then the curse of the Goddess will kill us all.”
Finally, Lalu’s father came to the rescue. He ordered him to do it. He said, “These elderly men came to you because they had no other choice. You must do it.” Lalu yielded: he couldn’t say no to his father.
Manohar Chatujje was relieved to see Lalu. But there was no more time left. In a great hurry, the priest did the necessary ritual on the animal – he put the red vermillion and red marigold garland on it. The animal was fastened on the slaughter pin, hundreds of people in the puja compound cried out, “Holy Mother, Holy Mother,” and the enormous noise drowned out the hapless creature’s final scream. The semicircular, glittering scythe in Lalu’s hand went up and whacked down, and then blood sprang out of the severed neck of the poor animal, drenching the black soil red.
Lalu remained closed-eyed for a while. Slowly, the huge noise of drums, bells and conch shells died down. But then, it went back up again. The other goat that stood shivering in fear was brought in, smeared with vermillion and flower garland, tied on the slaughter pin, the devotees started screaming again with their “Holy Mother” chants, and the goat desperately, miserably appealed for its life to be spared. Again, Lalu’s blood-soaked scythe went up fast in the sky, and came down on the animal’s neck even faster. The severed body of the goat writhed and quivered for a few last moments, as if in complain against this terrible injustice, and lay still; the blood poured out of its neck soaked the already-stained soil of the puja ground.
The drummers insanely beat away their drums; devotees crowded up the puja courtyard, danced, and made a huge commotion. Manohar Chatujje sat on his special quilt, silently chanting his prayers.
Suddenly, Lalu made a terrifying howl. All the noise came to a screeching halt, and everyone froze in astonishment: what’s going on? They found Lalu in a trance, with his incredibly wide-open eyes rotating. Lalu screamed out, “Where’s the other goat?”
Someone from the Chatujje family replied in fear, “But we got no more goats. We always have only two goats to slaughter.”
Lalu swung his bloodstained scythe way up in the wind and roared, “No more goats? No more goats? Hell, that’s no good. I’m here to kill – bring me more goats, or I’ll kill all of you one by one. Holy Mother, Glory to Goddess Kali.” Then he made a big jump over and across the slaughter pin, with his scythe swinging around.
What happened next was indescribable. Everybody ran to the main door to escape together, lest Lalu had caught them up. It was a huge chaos. People started pushing, shoving and jostling in terror: some fell on each other, some tried to crawl on their hands underneath others’ legs, and some others got suffocated by the pressure of strangers’ arms and torsos around their necks. It all happened for a few minutes only; after that, it was all emptied – not a single soul was to be seen in the entire house.
Lalu roared again, “Where’s Manohar Chatujje? Where’s the priest?”
The priest was a scrawny man; he left early and hid behind the idol. Manohar Chatujje’s family guru was chanting from the Chandi the holy Sanskrit scripture; he quickly got up and went behind a big pillar on the courtyard. However, Manohar himself couldn’t run away with his big, bulky body. Lalu went straight up to him, held him by his hand and said, “Come on, put your neck out on the slaughter pin.”
With one hand, he held him like a death trap; his other hand wildly waved the scythe. Chatujje was out of control in fear. He wept and begged for his life, “Lalu, my son, look, I’m not a goat, I’m a man. I happen to be like your big uncle. Your father is like my younger brother.”
“I don’t care. I must sacrifice more to the Goddess. I’ll sacrifice you; Mother asked me to do it. Come on.”
Chatujje now cried out loud, “No my son, Mother could never ask for it, never. She’s the Mother of the Universe.”
Lalu said, “Mother of the Universe! You mean that? Will you ever sacrifice animals? Will you ever call me up for slaughters? Tell me now, or else.”
Chatujje cried out, “No more, my son, never. I promise here in front of the Mother – from today, animal sacrifice will stop in my house.”
“Yes my son, I swear. No more slaughter, never. Please let me go now son. I must go the bathroom.”
Lalu let him off and said, “Alright, I let you go. But what happened to the priest? Where’s that guru? Where’s he?” He then gave a howl again and jumped forward to the idol. Suddenly, two men, one from behind the goddess and one from behind the pillars simultaneously shrieked out, which created a strange, bizarre sound. It was so bizarre and hilarious that Lalu couldn’t restrain himself anymore. “Ha, ha, ha,” he broke out in loud laughter, dropped the hatched on the ground with a bang, and darted away.
Everybody now realized that he was pretending all along; his must-kill trance and everything was pure fake. Lalu was fooling around all this time. Everybody whomever had left came back in five minutes. The ritual of worship was still not fully done, it was greatly hampered already, and it made Chatujje terribly upset. In the midst of the pandemonium, he yelled, “I’ll show that rascal what I can do. Tomorrow I’m gonna make his dad whip that scoundrel a hundred times, I swear to God.”
But it didn’t really happen. The next morning, very early before dawn, Lalu ran away from home, not to return in the next week or so. When he did return, he slipped into Manohar Chatujje’s house after dark, touched his feet and apologized, to save himself from the wrath of his father.
However, because of the pledge Chatujje had made in front of Goddess Kali, from that day on, animal sacrifice was forever abolished in his home.