Golden Memories

Diary from Calcutta

Memories are extremely precious, and in my case, extremely haunting.

When I feel alone, very old memories take me back to those sunlit, golden days back in Calcutta. I have written a lot about it, both in English and Bengali. And I am going to write a lot more.

Memories are lovely, and memories are friends. What’s more: they are therapeutic.

Try this immigrant life in America. You’ll know.
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Here’s a picture of my little notebook I carried with me all the time when I was in my early twenties in Calcutta. We didn’t have means to buy new notebooks. This one was one from 1970, which I was using in 1980.

In fact, it is still with me. (But the bed sheet in the picture — the blue one I used all the time in that little half-room in our North Calcutta home — well, it was a part of my life.)

This page in Bengali is a description of a classical all-night music program I attended in one of the public auditoriums — if anybody remembers where it was, let me know.
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November 22, 1980. — The program started at 9 P.M. and went all the way through 6.30 A.M. the next morning.

Artists who performed:

1. Dinanath Mishra (vocal). sang Raga Jog, and a Bhairavi thumri

2. Buddhadev Dasgupta, accompanied on tabla by Swapan Chowdhury — played sarod. Raga Bagesree, and a Pilu thumri.

3. A dance recital by Mira Chatterjee — I have completely forgotten about it. Not a trace of memory on this.

4. Sunanda Patnaik (vocal) — Raga Bilaskhani Todi, and a famous Bhajan in Bhairon (Jagannath Swami…).

5. Sohan Lal Sharma on harmonium and Tarun Bhattacharya on santoor — Duet — Raga Hansadhwani.

6. End of the program soiree — Sitar by Manilal Nag, accompanied on table by Maha Purush Mishra. Raga Ahir Bhairon.
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I could write a hundred pages on this memory. But I am savoring it tonight. I will sleep with this tonight.

 

Immigrant in America,

Partha Banerjee

Long Island, New York

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Durga Puja in This So-called Land of Diversity

Durga-Puja-artisticIt is now raining here in New York.

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.

durga-puja

My Immigrant Life in America

This Friday, October 9 at 7 P.M., I am going to read a few pages of my memoir manuscript. Location: Park Slope Food Coop, Brooklyn. The event is free and open to all. I will also play a couple of songs off my Tagore CD album. I invite you to come and encourage and support my little effort. I am posting the flyer.

Hope you see you on Friday.

Partha

Brooklyn, New York

Memoir and Music. They have kept me alive in America.
Memoir and Music. They have kept me alive in America.

A Very Personal Story

My wife Mukti and me, on Long Island.
My wife Mukti and me, relaxing on Long Island.

This is a very personal story. But this is not just a personal story.

When we left India thirty years ago with a full scholarship to do a Ph.D. in America, some of our own friends and relatives thought it was a fluke. They said, “But they were never stellar students: look at their exam results. It sounds fishy.”

Some of them said, “Look, Partha did so poorly in college and university that he couldn’t even find a job in Calcutta. He ended up teaching in a God-forsaken place in a no-name college in the forests of Sundarbans.” They said, “And, suddenly, he is in America, to do a Ph.D. in science? Come on, gimme a break!”

So, when we were struggling as new immigrants in USA and going through poverty and extreme isolation, building a new life from scratch, practically nobody cared to know how we were. Then, our hard work and determination paid off: I did a Ph.D. in plant biology from Southern Illinois University, and my wife learned molecular biology and became an indispensable worker in her lab.

But these friends and relatives still didn’t care to know how we did it. So, when I switched career from science to humanities at the age of forty, and did a journalism masters from Columbia University, and my wife switched her career to start Mukti’s Kitchen here in New York City, they said, “See, I told you. They are not doing well, and therefore doing anything they can to make ends meet. See, in thirty years in USA, they should have been millionaires. But look where they are now.” And others who listened to them, nodded in agreement. Nobody even bothered to ask what our side of the story was.

Mukti's Kitchen was invited to teach at Union Square, New York.
Mukti’s Kitchen was invited to teach at Union Square, New York.

Even today, when we go to India perhaps once or twice a year, we see a look of rejection on their faces — look that tells us they have kept the same feeling of not trusting that the way we built and lived our lives in America — from zero — is worthy of anything. They don’t want to learn from us, because to them, success is only measured by how much money you’ve made, and nothing else.

This is not about our acceptance in America. This is about acceptance by some of our own people in India. We have worked hard, and made it a point to be accepted and recognized here in the U.S. My wife’s Indian cooking class has countless five-star reviews, and my students and followers have now put together a Wikipedia page on my work. Mukti is now a board member at Brooklyn For Peace.

We are both happy, and humbled.

And never I write anything only to tell my personal story, even though I title it in a way so that people actually read what I write. It is about new immigrants like me, and like my wife. And we are doing quite well in America, and we are privileged. Millions of other immigrants are going through a very difficult time, in spite of their talents, honesty and hard work. Mainstream media and the people in power do not know, and do not care to know about their poverty, isolation and misery.

Do we care how some people back in India or some friends here in America treat us? Hell, no! Then, why am I writing about it? So that others like me and my wife can relate to it, and form a wavelength of togetherness. That is really my goal: to reach out and touch as many like-minded men and women as possible. To tell them that we are all in this together. We are members of the same family.

We know each other. We care for each other.

My story is not only my story. I give up my ownership on it. Now, it’s your story too.

Sincerely Yours,

Partha Banerjee

Brooklyn, New York

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Just this weekend, they video recorded my entire labor workshop.
Just this weekend, they video recorded my entire labor workshop.

Photographic Memory

Photographic Memory 1. -- A Chicago home, far away from home. I saw my first snowfall here. I learned how to cook in its kitchen. I got to know how to acculturate the American immigrant way.
Photographic Memory 1. — A Chicago home, far away from home. I saw my first snowfall here. I learned how to cook in its kitchen. I got to know how to acculturate the American immigrant way.


I often write about my memories. Some say, I have a photographic memory.

I’m not so sure about it.

Of course, I did have a better memory when I was a school kid. In fact, I remember, when I was in tenth grade, I went to a summer camp for a month where I met a bunch of kids of more or less my age — kids whom I’d never seen before. On our first meeting, the instructors lined us up and asked us to say our names. In our group, there were about twenty kids. At the end of saying our names out loud, the instructors asked for a volunteer who would be willing to say a few names and identify the names with the faces.

You guessed it right: I volunteered myself. And yeah, you guessed it right again: I repeated all the twenty names and put the names with the faces correctly, only after hearing the names once — for the first time in my life. Everyone was surprised; I was of course very happy that my pride balloon got full of that gratification gas.

Ah well…those were the days…way back when…

But I don’t have that kind of photographic memory no more. In fact, these gray-hair days, I often need photographs of memories to remember my memorable moments.

So, without further ado, here’s a bunch of photos for you. These people and these places have stuck with me forever because of some special moments they’ve shared with me and I’ve shared with them. I hope you have a few minutes of your valuable time to look at the photos and read the descriptions I put together for them. You might find them worth…remembering.

Dear Calcutta, Bengal, India, with Love. -Partha
Dear Calcutta, Bengal, India, with Love. Yours, Partha

Each photo is a pleasant reflection of some of my precious moments here in America. Each littlest detail on these photos takes me back — instantly — to the uncertain, unnerving, shaky first days of my coming to the U.S. — as a twenty-some year-old foreign student, a “non-resident alien” as the Immigration and Naturalization Service used to call our type. I made $380 per month (yes, per month!) at Illinois State University to teach biology labs to undergrad students, pay for rent and food and buy other items to live such as laundry and airmail letters, and also pay 10 percent of it as income tax to the U.S. government. Yes, 10 percent income tax squeezed out of a dirt-poor foreign graduate student like me, who came to America empty-handed.

Ah, well…not to distract no more.

Each detail on these photos reminds me how my life took an unimaginable turn — within a matter of weeks — since getting out of Calcutta and getting in to Chicago. From a society I knew all my life to a country where society was practically non-existent.

These people and places found me a new society of my own in this then nonresident alien land. They took care of my trembling, about-to-explode heart, and re-settled it.

Jhumpa Lahiri, Mira Nair and their “Namesake” could have easily borrowed a few frames from my personal album. It’s a pity they decided to bypass it.

Sincerely Writing,

Partha

(Back in Brooklyn, New York)

Photographic Memory 2. -- The maple tree here in Chicago was two decades younger back then. Sitting under it, I wrote a number of long letters to the loved ones I left behind in Calcutta.
Photographic Memory 2. — The maple tree here in Chicago was two decades younger back then. Sitting under it, I wrote a number of long letters to the loved ones I left behind in Calcutta. It sounds sentimental, but really, this tree heard a lot of my heart beats up close.
"Bob" Uncle, as they called him. He and his family gave me a home here in America, far, far away from home.
Photographic Memory 3. — “Bob” Uncle, as they fondly called Mr. Nath. A totally selfless, unassuming man, a big brother, he and his family gave me a home here in America, far, far away from home. Bob Uncle gave me my first cooking lesson. He also gave me my first driving lesson. He taught me the rules of baseball and American football. Acculturation — they call it.
Photographic Memory 4. -- Photograph and memory merge together. Two out of these six people were not here at that time when I first came to America. They joined us later. The others -- a Bengali housewife and mother and two Gujarati sisters -- they were much younger back then -- gave me love and smiles that held my heart in its place. The kitchen, the dining room, even that turn-up-turn-down little dinner-table light were precious. I shared countless joys and tears with them.
Photographic Memory 4. — Photograph and memory merge. Two out of these six people were not here at that time when I first came to America. They joined us later. The others — a Bengali housewife and mother and two Gujarati sisters — they were much younger back then — gave me love and smiles that held my heart in its place. The kitchen, the dining room, even that turn-up-turn-down little dinner-table light carry stories. I shared countless joys and tears with them.