Last year on this day, my father passed away. He lived a long, fulfilling life.
We were lucky to have been able to be by his bedside, a few days before his final departure. And, even though it was a very difficult time for me and my family, it was also peaceful for two reasons.
One, it was mid-monsoon in Bengal. Torrential rain, thunderstorm, and then relentless rain all day…the crows getting drenched perched on that big Ficus tree right in front of our house…the streets are making noise with the pattering of the rain, wheeling of the rubber tires of Calcutta taxis…and the indescribable sound people make with their feet when they walk across rain-soaked alleys…occasionally leaping over the puddles…
And then, after a hard burst of rain, the sky gets crystal clear. The trees show their real lush green foliage. Pollution disappears. That’s how it has always been. That’s how it will always be.
And the second reason, of course, is that we could make it on time. Being in America, ten thousand miles away from there, we always had anxieties that when the time finally comes for him to go, we wouldn’t be there. This apprehension exacerbated after my wife could not arrive before the death of her parents. The news came too suddenly.
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.
Sitar virtuoso, Indian music legend Ravi Shankar is no more. Pandit, Guru Ravi Shankar passed away in his California home on Tuesday. He was 92.
Many Indians, particularly the pre-kitsch, non-Bollywood-type Indians, and surprisingly a large number of Westerners know about Ravi Shankar and some of his remarkable achievements. They know of Shankar’s close association with Beatles’ George Harrison in the “psychedelic” sixties when Harrison took sitar lessons from Shankar, and promoted both the instrument and Indian classical music to the West. Some of know of Shankar’s memorable music direction to Satyajit Ray’s watershed movie Pather Panchali. Many others know that Ravi Shankar had a daughter out of a short-lived marriage, and the daughter is now a world-famous pop singer Norah Jones. Some others perhaps also know that Shankar had another marriage later which gave birth to Anoushka, who is now a well-known sitar player herself and has often played with her genius father at concerts all over the world. In fact, a simple Google or YouTube search would instantly find you thousands of stories and video clips on the legendary father and his two famous musician daughters.
It is common perception that George Harrison brought Ravi Shankar to the West. That may be true and Harrison did a rare act of recognition and appreciation for the Eastern culture; he also brought out the suffering of Bangladesh to the West during its 1971 Liberation War. But untrue is the nuance that Ravi Shankar became Ravi Shankar — the world-renowned musician — because of George Harrison. A genius like Shankar did not need any particular push to become a genius.
In fact, I have said it elsewhere that “Had he been born a Westerner, he might have been a household name like Beethoven or Mozart.” What I meant is that had he been an American or European, and not a Bengali-Indian musician from a West-undermined Bengal and India, his genius would be much more readily acclaimed at educated American and European living rooms. He would not have to find fame at select, elite liberal homes and even more select, elite university music departments — especially through identification with George Harrison or the so-called psychedelic sixties. Americans today have only remembered the marijuana smokescreen of the sixties and sadly forgotten all about its revolutionary search of peace and soul.
About that often-misplaced association, Shankar said “he was happy to have contributed to bringing the music of India to the West… The music he played, he said, was sacred.”
In fact, the music he played all his life was about soul and shanti. It was about humanity. It was about an ancient, thousand years of Indian civilization that taught the world how art and music can transcend the boundaries of man-made silos. Shankar and his co-disciples such as Ali Akbar Khan and their percussion accompanist Alla Rakha, as well as the more recent tabla prodigy Zakir Hussain all showed how the school of music they grew up in could take both the player and the listener from the world of mortality to immortality. To a Western aficionado, it might sound rather abstract, but in India, music is a way of worshiping Saraswati the goddess of learning. Music is a well-accepted spiritual yoga. One does not have to belong to a certain religious school or denomination to attain supreme religiosity.
Of course, some might say it’s not really that different in the West. They might say, other non-Harrison virtuosos Ravi Shankar played with: violinist Yehudi Menuhin, saxophonist John Coltrane, composer Phillip Glass or conductor Andre Previn — all touched God through their music. But as someone who grew up in the tradition of Indian classical school, I would not be able to tell exactly what these legendary personalities thought about soul-searching through their music; I can only assume that all of them found their God when they performed. I know I can look at Menuhin pulling his bow on the violin, his eyes closed, and I know that he transcended from our lowly, mundane, fractious world to a blissful, divine height. We can definitely say that about Ray Charles too: his side-to-side sways while singing gave it all away. I know he had found his God.
Very few people perhaps know about the source of that spirituality Ravi Shankar brought from India to the West. It was his mentor Baba Alauddin Khan, a Bengali Muslim who identified a young Ravi’s talent when the Baba (or father) toured with the ballet troupe of Ravi’s illustrious dancer brother Uday Shankar, and took the teenager sitarist boy in for an in-house disciple. Alauddin Khan taught young Ravi how to play the sitar and tabla, sing, and understand the ocean-deep treasures of the Hindustani ragas — the many musical moods and structures. Just the same way the Baba showed him the countless improvisations and varieties, flexibilities and nuances and departures from the raga — properties that are primarily different from a rigorously structured Western classical — the Homer of modern-era Indian classical music, who lived through the age of 110, also trained Ravi on the lessons of a sacred, yet completely secular lifestyle — a lifestyle of humility, spirituality and peace. Muslim Alauddin Khan named his daughter Annapurna, a Hindu goddess, who some say was an even more talented sitar player than Ravi, and she became Ravi’s first wife.
When I talk about Ravi Shankar’s music transcending the boundaries of race and religion, I talk about humanity. I talk about peace. I talk about a progressive, futuristic way of life. That is life’s way our Eastern mentors taught us through centuries. Whether it’s the ancient saints or medieval-era Sri Chaitanya, or whether it’s the more recent Godly personalities like Rabindranath Tagore or Ramakrishna Paramhansa, this value is what streams through our blood streams.
Baba Alauddin inculcated that forward-looking lifestyle on all his students: his children. Ravi Shankar carried that mission forward when he played his sitar and built bridges between the East and the West.
Through his music, Ravi Shankar touched his God: humanity.
In the wake of 9/11, media found frenzy interviewing families who lost their loved ones in the terrorist attacks. Media printed stories and aired interviews with 9/11 mothers, wives, sisters, fathers and brothers. They described heartbreaking accounts of a newly wed wife, or a soon-to-be wed fiancé, or an expectant mother. All were necessary stories: people in America and people all over the world came to know the harrowing details of the impacts of this grotesque barbarism.
Then, media moved on and began telling stories of some 9/11 family members who took up on a mass-manufactured political angle of the tragedies: they were vociferous for their support for revenge and the so-called war on terror. They expressed strong support for domestic repression and round-up of hundreds of thousands of innocent people who had absolutely nothing to do with violence or terror. Ashcroft’s USA PATRIOT Act came in handy; the phony Weapons of Mass Destruction story mass-cloned by Judith Miller and colonized media gave Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld much-needed ammunition to justify mass murder thousands of miles away.
In the middle of this melee, a small, new organization started their work that nobody noticed. They named their new, under-resourced group September Eleventh Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Through our activist work with New York Civil Liberties Union, I came to know some of these mothers, sisters and wives. I was blown away to see the unknown side of America.
I met Adele Welty, I met Valerie Lucznikowska, and I met Talat Hamdani. I came to know a whole new world. I came to know an America — one that nobody talks about, and nobody knows about.
Adele Welty’s son Timothy was one of the firefighters who responded to the SOS from the burning World Trade Center on that fateful day. He and his colleagues went up Tower Two to save lives. City officials misdirected them, as they’d misdirected many others, and told them it would be okay to walk up the stairs of the burning building. Tim and hundreds of New York’s brave firefighters went in to pull the panic-stricken people out. In a few minutes, Tower Two crumbled to the ground like a pack of cards. I heard that Tim’s body was never recovered.
I met Adele the first time when I was speaking across New York City against post-9/11 hate crimes. At one such mid-Winter meeting at Columbia University compound, New York Civil Liberties Union’s Udi Ofer and South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow’s Deepa Iyer — both activist lawyers — introduced me to a frail woman, still in mourning, perhaps in her sixties. Adele came to speak at that meeting, to show her support for peace and opposition against hate. I was overwhelmed to see her strength, courage and resilience. She spoke about her beloved son who gave his life to save others. She did not seek revenge. She didn’t believe in arrogant America’s “tooth for a tooth, eye for an eye” doctrine. Instead, with a few other 9/11 parents and widows, she joined the grassroots, progressive group.
For nearly ten years, Adele and her group became an important and active part of America’s humanity, working tirelessly to promote peace and oppose violence and war of any kind. Adele traveled to Afghanistan and Iraq many times when the war was in full swing, and spoke to government officials and peace organizations. Then she spent years crisscrossing the USA and, along with colleagues from Peaceful Tomorrows and other groups, met with senior politicians in Washington, D.C. Her group worked with us on the issue of human rights for immigrant workers and their children. On one trip to Washington (as the executive director of New Jersey Immigration Policy Network), I went with her to lobby U.S. congress members to support the DREAM Act, a pending law that would provide tuition benefits to children of undocumented immigrants – children who came to the USA with their parents at a young age, went through the American school system, passed high school, but now couldn’t attend college because of their immigration status. They didn’t know any other country; most of them didn’t speak any language other than English; they had been in America their entire life. Now their dreams and aspirations to go to college were dashed, and they didn’t have a clue about it beforehand; nobody had warned them. At that round of meetings in Washington’s Capitol Hill, I had a precious opportunity to interact with Senator Edward Kennedy briefly. We had a long meeting with his immigration staff. Senator Kennedy was one of the prime sponsors of the DREAM Act. His sudden death seriously pushed back the nationwide effort to pass the law.
I live in America not because of leaders like Clinton, Obama or Bush. I live here because of leaders like Adele Welty.
No, I was not present in America when the anti-war movement peaked in the sixties. No, I was not around when Dr. King marched in Selma, Montgomery, or Atlanta during the glorious days of civil rights struggle.
But I was a part of that glory, when millions of Americans again descended on the streets of New York, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. For months and for years, they marched and rallied in New York, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Boston, San Francisco and Houston, and all the big cities and small towns across this vast land. I was a part of it. My wife was there with me. Our daughter, who saw the destruction of the World Trade Center from less than a hundred yards away, came with us with her high school friends. They witnessed barbarism by a gang of fanatic terrorists; from their school building, they saw the burning towers collapsing and desperate people jumping to their death. They saw their school used as a temporary triage center where they started bringing in the gravely wounded.
Now we were all gathered for a purpose. We were protesting against terrorism – of any kind, whether by religious fanatics, or by a state. We were protesting against the new war on Iraq and Afghanistan, the blanket bombing and destruction of two ancient civilizations to rubbles, and the establishment media’s glorification of it. We were protesting against the new violation of human rights in the name of fighting a war on terror, right here in the USA.
Brooklyn For Peace
I first met Brooklyn For Peace members immediately after the tragedies of 9/11, when the wound of the attacks was raw and tender in the minds of New Yorkers, when people were looking for an answer to the causes of the tragedies, when even a city of tolerance and diversity was getting restive. Brooklyn For Peace was one of the first grassroots community-based organizations that rallied people for peace and tolerance. It was a very difficult time: Muslims, Sikhs, and people who “looked like Arabs” were falling victims to violent hate crimes. Moreover, the federal government, immigration agents and the FBI were entering Muslim neighborhoods, and taking away hundreds of innocent Pakistani, Arab and Bangladeshi immigrants on suspected terrorism charges. Local activist Mo Razvi and Bobby Khan told me that least twenty thousand Pakistani people from Brooklyn’s Midwood area – all ordinary, hardworking families – had decided to leave America once and for all. Street violence on one hand, and government repression on the other, made their lives unbearable; they couldn’t take it anymore.
NICE (No, it’s not in France!)
I became involved with these immigrants and their predicaments because of my new job as a community organizer at a small, grassroots organization called New Immigrant Community Empowerment. My organizing experience from the long-forgotten India days now came in handy, although for a completely different purpose; NICE’s founder-director young activist-lawyer Bryan Pu-Folkes and I found great colleagues in each other. We had a whole bunch of young, energetic activists on our team. Very soon, NICE became a household name to New Yorkers for its round-the-clock activity as the only de facto community task force working against the many hate crimes shattering lives. There was a spree of violence taking place against working class immigrants – all immigrants. We worked with a Belarus family; the man was beaten to death when he was coming out of a bodega late at night. He lived alone; his wife and children were in Belarus when he was murdered. We went, along with members of the Russian-Belarus community, to meet and console the family when they came for the man’s funeral, and brought them over to a community meeting to meet with politicians and press. I was surprised that the poor widow, in mourning, actually attended the meeting despite her devastating loss.
I met Amanda, a Latina woman from Colombia. Her husband was an Arab. One morning, armed FBI agents stormed Amanda’s Sunset Park, Brooklyn house when she was away at work, shackled her husband, and took him away at gunpoint. They kept him in various jails for over a year; frightened his wife to death and made her run around—and then the immigration department deported him back to his native country. The man’s only crime was that he looked like an Arab, and immediately after 9/11, he was playing a “violent” video game at a parlor and some “patriotic” onlookers noticed that the game showed tall towers burning down. They called the police.
Amanda and her husband did not see each other ever since. At least, that was when I spoke with her the last time.