These days, I am trying to keep my patience and save my energy as much as possible.
I keep telling my students, colleagues, family and friends that one of the biggest challenges in life has become how to keep calm in the face of the numerous reasons you could otherwise be angry. I keep telling them that this is one of the top lessons we need to teach our young generation and children — i.e., those who still want to learn from oldies like us and have some faith and confidence in our wisdom. Honestly, we the older generation is leaving behind a horribly messed-up world for them; its up to them to decide whether they want to clean it up or destroy it even further. If they want to clean it up — and I hope they do — they need to learn how to stay calm, composed and focused in spite of the many provocations and turmoils caused by the people in power. They need to learn how to be stoic, and sift through small, mundane things to deal with the real important ones.
Now, what the heck does it have to do with the title of this post: This is Brooklyn, New York. [This is] Not your United States? What does it really mean? I mean, look at the sentences: on the surface, together, don’t even make any sense!
It has a little, real-life story behind it — as a vast majority of my blogs have had some kind of real-life connection. What happened was that this morning, I went to do some small groceries at a locally-owned store here in Brooklyn. I picked up some fruits and vegetables and stood in the line that had perhaps three or four people in front of me, and no one behind. It is a small store and there is not much space to move around near the cashier’s check-out machine. This is a store run by a Hispanic owner; most workers, if not all, are also Latino women and men.
So, waiting in the line, I saw an old white woman pushing her cart full of stuff she bought and she was tentatively looking at me as if she was trying to find out if she could get in front of me, or behind, in the line. I would have no problems letting her come in front of me especially when I was the last person in the line; in fact, my deep-rooted Indian courtesy for older people often makes me do such little acts of benevolence. So, I said, “Would you like to come in here?” Or, maybe, I thought, she was trying to sneak by me into the isle for milk and dairy products.
And then the old woman said something that was quite out of the blue. She yelled at me, really yelled at me on top of her voice, “This is United States. We don’t do it around here. In the United States, we do not come that way. This is United States…here…”
Oh my Gosh, why did I even bother to be nice and polite to her, I thought! I was so taken aback (a mild way) that I even told the cashier girl about my feelings. Of course, she didn’t want to comment: after all, she wouldn’t want to remark on another customer’s behavior. Maybe, she was all too familiar with such incidents happening regularly in her workplace.
Obviously, this was an old woman who was probably quite a bit on the crazy side and didn’t know what she was talking about; it’s likely she was upset at something else and took it out on me at her first opportunity. It could be she thought she had reached that age where she thought she had the right to yell at anyone she met. Or, it could be that she thought I didn’t know the rules of “her” United States: obviously, with a brown skin, mustache and beard, and with a “non-mainstream” look, I definitely did not fit her traditional concept of someone who belonged in “her” United States, and she thought she could tell me that she was not happy that “we” invaded “her” United States.
I know I’m making a big deal out of it. Sure, I’m making a mountain out of a mole hill, so to speak. But I am doing it for a reason. I know that living in Brooklyn, New York, this is not a totally extraordinary incident; in fact, I have had such experiences — more memorable in nature — over the past few years. (No, I’m not talking about the post-9/11 anti-immigrant hate crimes and violence that I wrote about on this blog before; I’m only talking about small, personal, hard-to-deal-with experiences here in New York City, the so-called paradise of diversity and tolerance).
I know such things happen in life, and it was not in any way that bad or hurting. Living in a mega-city like New York, Calcutta or London has its pluses and minuses. We need to know how to deal with it and ignore the insignificant. But the incident still troubled me a little. I would not remember this morning’s experience for too long; but I would want to remember it for at least twenty-four hours before it slipped into oblivion.
I would not even want to say too much on it. But I would want to remind ourselves and our young generation about the absolute necessity to stay calm in the face of provocations — big or small.
Note: This is my last blog post before the November 6 elections.
Hurricane Sandy just left us.
The superstorm left behind a huge trail of devastation. Here in New York, millions of people are without power. Many homes and neighborhoods are flooded. Many people are spending nights in local shelters. Some forty people have perished in the storm.
I want to say a word of prayer for all those who suffered.
New York’s mayor Bloomberg graciously toured the devastated areas in his God’ly helicopter. On the other hand, New Jersey’s governor and some other city mayors and elected council members worked with affected people and brave rescue workers, standing in knee-deep water, shoulder to shoulder. Thousands of construction workers, electrical workers, plumbers, pipe fitters, sanitation workers, subway workers, glass workers, carpenters, health care workers, doctors, nurses, paramedics, police officers, firefighters, National Guard volunteers, and numerous other professionals are working 24/7 to pull America out of this incredible mess.
I want to say a word of prayer for these brave souls too. These workers are our unsung heroes.
I wish Barack Obama left all his campaign stops over the next few days, and did just the same, round the clock. But who am I to say it? He has his privileged, elite professional aides to direct him. (I was happy to see he spent some time on the ground to help the victims; I wish he did much more. That is the real campaign: campaign to work for the poor and vulnerable.)
Some of my friends — a large majority of them Democrats — got upset at my prediction and sent me messages expressing their disapproval and anger. Some of them un-friended me from their Facebook. I am deeply sorry that I made them so unhappy. As someone who worked very hard and with high energy and hopes for Obama’s victory in 2008, a looming Obama defeat in 2012, and that too, at the hands of Mitt Romney — someone most Americans never heard of and a super-rich, elitist politician even his Republican Party was not excited about just three months ago — was not something I had envisioned. But it is now a real possibility.
In this post, I’m only quoting a few messages myself and some of my friends have wrote on my Facebook page over the past couple of days — since Hurricane Sandy hit the Eastern Seaboard. I hope some people notice and think about it. I have no money, no media power, and no pedigree. Even though some of my friends blame me (at least partially) for my so-called “anti-Obama” blogs for an Obama defeat next week, I really I have no such power to make or break anything — especially something of this grand magnitude.
I still want Obama to win over Romney. I shall never vote for Romney and Ryan.
You can be upset with me, but honestly, your blame is misplaced. You should have been upset with Obama, his administration and the Democratic Party that simply failed to deliver. Plus, you have the right-wing media such as Fox TV or Rush Limbaugh radio show who slandered Obama and punched him below the belt; on the other hand, the so-called liberal media neither exposed the real criminals behind the economic crisis on one hand (because of their own ties with some of them) nor did they chastise the Obama government on their terribly wrong moves and horrible choices of top executives who failed the ordinary, working Americans the second time over.
The American voters who were raped by the Bush administration for eight years were raped all over again by these sinister people and their policies over the past four years. And knowingly or not, Obama did not do much to stop them. Republicans took advantage of it.
Then came Obama’s disastrous first debate that tipped the election — so far on Obama’s side — to Romney’s favor. Obama squandered a golden opportunity the Mother Jones “47-percent” undercover exposé landed on his lap.
So, here’ the final few passages from my Facebook page — in the backdrop of Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath. Hope you read them once and perhaps, if you please, read them twice.
I wrote as my status update during and post-Hurricane Sandy:
1. WE ARE OKAY here in mid-Brooklyn. Thank God. New Jersey, Manhattan and Long Island were not so lucky. Many of my labor union colleagues and immigrant friends are having a hard time right now. This unprecedented late-October mega-storm off the Atlantic Ocean is big-time proof of drastic climate change and global warming. ALSO, I keep wondering how Americans still can’t see the important role of the government especially at such difficult times. Just think if there were no FEMA, OSHA or EPA (and private companies ran their jobs!). Government, in restraint, is a friend and not a foe. Ronald Reagan was wrong.
2. IF I WERE OBAMA. – I would just show the enormous, massive work American workers are doing right now to pull the country out of this huge environmental calamity. I would show the important role the [restrained] government is playing with help from FEMA, EPA or OSHA. I would just show the president providing leadership to the rescue operation. Not like Bloomberg flying on a helicopter, but standing in knee-deep water, shoulder to shoulder with the ordinary, suffering men and women. There would be no need for any more campaign blitz. (But who am I? They have all the power, and I don’t. They have their media and machinery and money, and they must be more intelligent than I am.)
3. MY FIVE POINTS FOR REAL CHANGE. — (1) A pro-working people coalition of moderate left and right that believes in true equal opportunity (class, race and gender-wise) for upward social mobility, (2) A Keynesian economic system that rewards labor, helps the poor, and regulates-restricts corporations (including war and prison corporations), (3) Refrain from too much power for the government ensuring rights, justice, liberty and freedom, (4) Find alternative environment, energy and peace policies, and (5) Do not promote or sustain a global, violent hegemonic power and economic aggression. For whatever its worth, this must be the future education for our children. It’s a start.
4. HURRICANE IN NEW YORK. — It was a new experience for us here in Brooklyn to go through this big storm. We survived, except for some power cuts, broken trees and small house damage. Yet, can’t help thinking how people all over the world — in Bangladesh, Orissa, Cuba, Haiti, Indonesia, etc. deal with it ALL THE TIME, and we take their lifelong suffering for granted. Maybe, we need to wake up. Or, will we, ever? I doubt it.
5. THIS ELECTION AND MY PREDICTION. — Who cares if predictions I made over two months ago turned out to be correct? Nobody is going to give me any money, fame or award (and some people are pretty upset at me, as if I am partially responsible for the outcome). Plus, I’d be terrified, petrified myself that fascists, racists and bigots came back to power, that Obama squandered an historic opportunity, and that the world is back on the doom and destruction track again. Don’t blame me. Blame them!
Think about it.
Sorry about the somewhat incoherent way to put it all together. But I hope you can find the underlying messages I tried to send across. I hope we can engage in an honest and sincere, urgently necessary conversation — NOW and also after the November 6 elections.
I still hope Obama wins and Romney loses. Just because I would NEVER want racists, sexists, war mongers, supremacists and bigots come back to power.
But our conversation and grassroots bridge-building will go on, regardless of the election outcome.
Brooklyn, New York
Obama didn’t deliver. But Republicans didn’t want him to deliver, either!
It took me a long time to decide on the title. I thought about it and thought it over.
I read it once. I read it twice. I paused and read it again. Finally, I decided. This is it. This is the title.
No, I don’t want to make it sound corny. That’s not the purpose. I truly feel that it could be one last time I get to live on the 25th of Baisakh — Tagore’s birthday — which normally falls on the 8th of May. This year, it’s the poet’s one hundred fifty-first birth anniversary. This year, just like any other year, much fanfare is happening in West Bengal and Bangladesh, various Bengali neighborhoods of India, as well as cities across the world wherever there is a community of Bengali people — big or small.
There will be Tagore’s songs. There will be Tagore’s plays. There will be Tagore’s poetry. There will be Tagore’s dances. There will be talks about the poet-philosopher’s poetry and philosophy. More resourceful Bengali communities in places such as Calcutta (Kolkata) and Dhaka and London and Toronto will put out special literary publications to observe the special day. Some will try experimental music — using Tagore’s songs. Some will stage Tagore’s famous plays — Post Office, Land of Cards or Red Oleanders from a new, refreshing point of view. Some will perhaps have an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings.
I know here in New York, a group of Bengali musicians and artists is putting together an audio book of Tagore’s short stories — the Man from Kabul, Return of the Little Boy, the Postmaster — with help from young-generation, college-age Bengali-American boys and girls. Kudos to them.
I have no doubt there’s going to be countless other events, programs and performances all over the world to celebrate this occasion. Especially, Tagore’s 150th birthday was particularly celebratory; it is likely this year many places are perhaps completing their year-long observance with special wrap-up celebrations.
I could not be a part of any of the numerous gatherings — either in America or Bengal. I am not a part of any of the numerous Bengali clubs, societies and organizations — either in America or Bengal. I do not live in India anymore. I live in a Brooklyn neighborhood where there is a small smattering of immigrants from West Bengal; I know once they had an association that held Durga Puja and therefore, perhaps, Tagore Jubilee as well. But I know the group slowly dwindled, some old inhabitants left this unsung corner of New York City and some others went back to India. In any case, we never hear from them.
There is a large Bangladeshi community within walking distance of where we live in Brooklyn. In fact, working as an immigrant rights activist especially among the South Asians, once I had made an estimate that only this community counted about 30,000 people. It is a large community that has associations from many known and unknown districts of Bangladesh; they frequently host their picnics, street fairs and Eid dinners. But I am not sure if they ever hosted any Tagore birthday celebration. I learned from various friends that most of them came from conservative-Muslim areas in Bangladesh where “Hindu-liberal” Rabindranath Tagore was not such a household name. That is not to say all conservative Muslims are anti-Tagore or anti-Hindu.
In some other West Bengali and Bangladeshi communities in New York and New Jersey, there will be programs and performances. But these days, after working with and for especially the Bangladeshi community, it has dawned to me that inviting someone like me who is not from political Bangladesh is not a priority. After living in New York City for so many years, my family and I have accepted the fact that in spite of our desire to belong with a larger, undivided Bengali diaspora, we are not, in any real sense, part of either a “mainstream immigrant” Bangladesh or West Bengal. (Apologies for using an oxymoron.)
Chances are, we will not know if there were Tagore celebrations in New York or New Jersey where my long, post-9/11 activist experience once had an estimate of some two hundred thousand Bengalis — over eighty percent of whom were from Bangladesh. Practically all the weekend Bengali-language parochial schools and practically all of the two dozens of weekly Bengali-language newspapers and magazines operating and publishing out of New York are Bangladeshi.
For a long time, my family and I were actively involved with one of the weekend schools where I taught advanced-level Bengali to just-graduated students, and my family members participated in their cultural programs. For a number of years, especially after 9/11, as an important part of my immigrant rights activism, I wrote columns in a number of Bengali weekly newspapers and magazines — Thikana, Ekhon Samoy, Bangalee, Sangbad, Porshee.
With the schools and publications alike, I always did what I always do: educate the community about the difference between culture and kitsch, and speak and write about human rights and justice. When I worked professionally for two immigrant advocacy organizations — one in Jackson Heights, New York City and the other in New Jersey, I also worked with Bangladeshi immigrant families who bore the brunt of a terribly unjust and primitive immigration system here in the U.S. Among other activities, I worked with a few men and women who were in prison for a long time for minor immigration violations; I also worked with some others who were spared from prison detention or deportation because of our work.
I have many friends and acquaintances. I built precious connections with journalists, activists, writers, singers, playwrights and music teachers. I always felt proud to have thought I was a member of the larger immigrant Bengal and immigrant South Asia.
Yet, there is a strange disjunct — an insurmountable wall — between me and my family and the societies both in the Bangladeshi and West Bengali community. West Bengali immigrants do not know us well: we live in a not-affluent area in Brooklyn mostly inhabited by African-Americans, Jewish people, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis. Bangladeshi immigrants do not think we are one of them because we came from India — a country they do not know anymore. The conservative-Muslim Bangladeshis (the variety I mentioned above) do not like or understand a liberal-progressive, one-nation Bengal that Tagore and his predecessors from Bengal Renaissance envisioned. The young-generation, liberal-educated Bangladeshis do not know the common history and heritage of two Bengals shared over one thousand years before the British cut the land of Bengal in halves, erecting insurmountable, blood-soaked borders.
Yet, a very large section of Bangladeshi Bengalis (it’s a very strange term, in my opinion) — most are Muslims — are moderate in their religious and social views, avid music, theater and literature lovers, and are the biggest consumers of music and movies from Calcutta and West Bengal — even today. Strangely, however, some of them have a general apathy, indifference, ignorance and often anathema about political West Bengal and India. When they find out I am from India and not from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong, they talk to me differently. Again, I’m not generalizing. How can I, when I have so many special friends from Dhaka, Sylhet or Chittagong?
There are quite a few other Bengali immigrants both from Bangladesh and West Bengal — highly educated, scholarly and erudite — who are satisfied with the small society they have and therefore do not feel any particular urge to invite outsiders like us. New Jersey or Long Island — where most of these more affluent, educated West Bengalis live — is like a group of islands only connected by long-distance, car-driven highways, creating more distances between people. We do not have the time or desire to go out of New York City to see either a Durga Puja or a Tagore performance, and return more depressed that we never felt truly welcome.
All of the above — the entire, personal, true story I told here — is a slow but sure recipé for death. If I was not a high-energy, activist, never-say-die-type personality who would go out of his way to find new friends, colleagues and communities and stay involved with newer and ever-challenging, creative activities — immigrant movement or labor education or Brooklyn For Peace or Durga Puja or Bengali New Year celebration (or even the Tagore-150 we organized in Manhattan last year with help from New Yorker) — death would have come much faster. In my twenty-five-plus years of living in the U.S., I have seen a number of people — a few of them being highly talented but decidedly loners — falling victims of this extreme alienation followed by depression, dark diseases and death. I always, always carry that fear deep inside that one day, I’m going to be a victim of a similar alienation and die untimely.
Every year, therefore, at this time when the rest of the world is celebrating the life and work of this incredible genius named Rabindranath Tagore, the question comes to my mind: am I going to live one more year to see the next Tagore birthday celebration? Which song would be the last Tagore song I hear before I die? Which Tagore poem would be the last one I read? Which short story would I translate the last before I perish — and perish prematurely?
I hope I didn’t make you too sad or perturbed and I certainly hope I didn’t make it sound too corny, as if I was trying to draw your sympathy — sympathy for a forlorn soul.
If you feel that way, I am sorry. I do not have anything to offer you to compensate for it — other than the two dozens of Tagore songs I recorded. I also have a few translations of these songs as well as translations of a few Tagore short stories.
I also have a YouTube of one of my talks on culture and Tagore — a talk I gave recently at an Indian university. And if I may say it, I have recently managed to compile a whole host of my essays on Tagore in relation to cultural erosion and globalized kitsch. I’m actually in the middle of writing a book on the above.
I hope you receive these gifts I leave for you, and forgive me for my personal, not-so-cheerful rambling.
Celebrate Tagore. He showed us an educated, modern, progressive way to live. He was not a perfect man. In fact, he had many flaws. I do not consider him a God. I consider him a very important, humanist philosopher-poet teacher who taught us human spirituality, universality and peace.
Tagore taught us the message of emancipation: in Bengali, the word is Mukti. It means inner freedom: liberation of the soul. Nandini showed us the way in Red Oleanders.
If this is the last Tagore birthday before my death, I want to remember him that way.
I was stuck on the G subway for an entire hour today. That was a full sixty minutes.
I felt shitty.
Nobody on the train knew what was going on. The almost-inaudible announcements — don’t you love to hear them — said words like “signal problem,” “stalled train ahead,” and “sorry for the inconvenience.” The voice said it five or six times over the one-hour period. I don’t know about the other “customers,” but I was hoping to hear some new information about the progress, or, what was being done, or like, how long it would approximately take to fix it. It was never disclosed.
I was truly inconvenienced. I was beyond inconvenienced. It was not good. In fact, it was bad.
The only “good” that came out of the entire ordeal was that I now had a subject to write about on my blog. Heck, what else could I do? There was not even a person at the station to bitch about it. Write a letter to the subway authorities? To MTA? Like, are you kiddin’ me?
So, I decided to write a blog. And I then realized Sex and the Shitty was not even a unique title. I felt shitty again. Like, not even profanity is untouched! How uncool!
See, I could’ve named it The Sexy and the Shitty. Or, because I’m also going to talk about clubs — different types of club — I could’ve named it Sexy Clubs and Shitty Clubs. Etc. But because Sex and the Shitty is more catchy and more sexy, I thought, what the heck! Let’s replay. Like, it’s not a trademark or anything, right? Nobody is gonna sue me for it, right? So what? If some people think I’m swearing too much these days and getting more profane, and clearly losing my once-vouched modesty, and then unsubscribe from my blog out of frustration, disappointment and disgust, so be it.
Adios, Sir. Apologies, Ma’m. Sorry for the inconvenience.
See, I came to terms with the hard fact that sex and shit are two important elements of my life. They’re like gem, and how could I not talk about them? How can I hide them — no pun intended — when they are so real? Food is real, money is real, my heartburn is real, that damn G-train ride today was real, and when I was stuck on it, getting claustrophobic on one hand and pissed off by the repeat stupid announcement, that was real too. I was also getting red in my face because I desperately wanted to pee, but could not. I was, like, getting sick.
That feeling is what I call feeling shitty.
Now, what does it have to do with sex? Or, for that matter, why the hell did I mention those clubs?
Pause for a moment.
When I was waiting on the stuck G train, red-faced, clasping with my hands the invisible chair handles and with my thighs my desperate urge to pee, I looked out to see Mademoiselle Liberty standing across the Brooklyn Bay. If you know the G train, you know it goes above ground for a couple of stations before it goes back underground again. From the above-ground stations, you can see the sun or snow, the mega Manhattan skyline on one side and minnow Jersey skyline on the other. You also get to see the statue and Liberty Island on the New Jersey side. It’s a pretty picture — almost phony-perfect like a post card.
So, I was looking out the train window and enjoying the post card, with hope that in that ordeal that would be my last-gasp refuge. Then, I also noticed a bunch of helicopters flying over the Liberty Island — crisscrossing New York and Jersey. I suddenly remembered I saw a number of helipads right next to Wall Street, on the bank of West River. I remembered many of those helicopters were actually transit copters, carrying big Wall Street executives to their New Jersey homes — homes they built in Jersey because of close proximity to the big casino (I mean…stock exchange and Goldman Sachs and stuff), lower taxes and higher privacy than Manhattan, and cheaper real estate for their palaces.
Did I say privacy? Yeah, man, that’s kinda important…especially for them air-commuting New York and Jersey. You need a lot of privacy…especially if you got to hide a lot. America is big on privacy. New York is even bigger. It don’t matter what Supreme Court says about searching your genitalia. It’s not gonna be their genitalia. You can bet on it.
In that one-hour window, in the midst of that claustrophobia, repeated inaudible announcements and my persistent effort to resist a bad-timed nature’s call, a number of things zoomed past my mind — like a fast-forward cinema. I thought, those private helicopters and the privileged customers they carry — they don’t have to get stuck on a subway train and wait helplessly. Some of those privileged customers might be flying to their golf clubs. I could never afford to be a member of a golf club. I heard they were not cheap. I thought, those privately-flown executives might be flying over some place else — I recently saw in a new movie how some of them spent lavishly on sex clubs and drug clubs — doing cocaine and concubines. I could never afford to be a member of a sex club. I heard they were not cheap either. Even if I wanted, I simply could not buy it.
Then you have cricket clubs, croquet clubs, fine wine clubs, dance ‘n dine clubs, fashion cat clubs, Russian pony clubs, poker clubs. You got your broker clubs. You then got your like…Congress clubs. Senate clubs. Business Deans clubs. Democracy clubs. Aristocracy clubs. Fun clubs. Gun clubs. And God knows what other clubs. Elite clubs. D Litt clubs.
I kept thinking. I could never be on any of those clubs. I won’t be on any of those clubs.
I felt shitty again.
In that one frozen hour, a realization newly developed in my mind. I said to myself, New York has so much to offer…literally…in the same city…I mean, just look out the other side of the G train…here’s the dilapidated, forlorn Third Avenue and Smith Street and 9th Street…that desolate corner is a bunch of shuttered-down shops and failed restaurants…in the wee hours, who knows, you might even find a few men and women standing in the corner buying and selling sex…but by no means you can call these New Yorkers privileged members of those uppity sex clubs. Some of them do drugs too, but their habits are not nearly as savvy as those Wall Street executives the new movie showed so vividly.
They do clubs. They fly on their choppers. They are blessed. They’re highly connected too. They never get busted by cops. In fact, they have their own cops.
They are like, sexy.
I felt shitty again. (I know. I’ve repeated my stupid announcements.)
Post Script. — The G train finally walked again. After I walked off and out of it, the first thing that came to my mind was to look for a rest room where I could release my bladder. Then it was time to release a little bit of steam.
NOTE: I am re-blogging this post on this sad, one-month observance of Trayvon Martin’s death. A seventeen-year-old’s life was suddenly taken away from his parents, family and friends. I strongly feel he could be my kid, and I mourn his loss. I hope we all come together and fight back against this all-pervasive wrong. Let us save our kids from guns, violence and injustice.
“Trayvon Martin, 17, was walking home from a 7-Eleven in Sanford, Fla. on Feb. 26 when he was shot dead by a neighborhood watch volunteer who had called police and reported a “real suspicious guy” wearing a hoodie.
Martin was found dead, unarmed, with a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.
The neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, claims he acted in self-defense and has not been arrested.”
This is NBC news today. I therefore put it in quotes.
What is so special about the news? Which part is the one you don’t understand?
If you ask me, I understand all of it. Here’s how I understand it — point by point.