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A few years ago on January 4 — I think five or six years ago — I remember I walked into my college office early in the morning, turned on the computer, and went on to browse my routine newspapers. There was a news: Suchitra Mitra passed away.
For those who do not know, Suchitra Mitra was a legendary singer in Kolkata (Calcutta), who specialized in the songs of Rabindranath Tagore. She had a golden voice. Her enunciation was deep, meaningful, and flawless. Her dexterity in Tagore music was exemplary. She taught hundreds of students, and inspired millions more. She epitomized Tagore and his mastery of words, and inculcated it in the minds of us the intellectually disadvantaged youth.
For those who do not know, Rabindranath Tagore was a poet, philosopher, songwriter, novelist, and educationist. He got the first Nobel Prize ever in Asia — in any subjects. Tagore is an institution in the two Bengals and India.
For the musically oriented Bengalis such as myself, I grew up listening to diverse varieties of Indian and Bengali music. Classical Indian and Bengali, pre-Tagore oldies, devotional songs — Baul, Kirtan, and other genres, post-Tagore modern and contemporary, and also trashy and fantastic movie songs alike. But Tagore songs have always remained very special to us. And some Tagore exponents have remained in our hearts as our gurus, mentors, and teachers. As if they brought to us the Tagore whom we did not have an opportunity to see.
Suchitra Mitra was one such singer. Even my father, who had a Hindu fundamentalist upbringing and never understood Tagore that much (and regretted it in his later years), enjoyed listening to Suchitra Mitra. But he only liked her Tagore singing, and not her progressive political affiliation.
Suchitra Mitra was a lifelong believer in socialism. In her early years, she was a political activist, and in her later years, acted in a couple of socially-conscious movies. Her acting was wonderful. She was also a writer and poet.
Even though I have been at a number of Suchitra Mitra’s live performances over my years in Kolkata, I had only one chance to meet and talk to her. Students of the music school Rabi Tirtha (the Tagore Pilgrimage) that she founded gave her a lifetime achievement award, and I had a precious opportunity to be present on the occasion. She was gracious to grant me an informal conversation.
At the end of the conversation, I touched the feet of the legend. I was talking to her, and saying to myself, “Look Partha, you’re talking to someone who went to Tagore’s university, and spent her whole life mastering Tagore’s music. You’re talking to a legend who had once stopped a Hindu-Muslim communal riot by singing Tagore’s music of peace — in front thousands of arms-wielding people, about to kill each other.”
Suchitra Mitra also graciously gave me an autograph on that day.
I said to myself, “Partha, you are truly blessed.”
Nowadays nobody talks about these. Discussing religion or spirituality has become out of fashion. Yet the currently evolving events makes me broach the subject. In thirty years of my life in the U.S., only once I had the opportunity to visit home to celebrate the annual Durga Puja festivity, commonly known as “Pujo”. Thus only once I shared the unbound joy of the festivity, be part of that heartfelt intimacy and experienced the overwhelming joy of mingling in the sea of humanity. The remaining twenty-nine years, I spent abroad indifferently.
First few early years during the Pujo days, I would press the telephone hard on my ear to hear the sound of the drums from the Pujo ceremony held at my neighbour’s house in Kolkata. Not for long though. Ten minute call was worth a princely twenty-five American dollars that a poor student like me could ill afford. Those days there was neither the Internet nor Skype.
Later I had the opportunity to take active part in the Durga Pujo ceremony held at Albany, the capital of the New York state. Once I even became the President of the Bengali Club organizing the Pujo. A taste of home abroad, amidst the din and bustle of funfare, music and play, kedgeree and meat curry. Quenching thirst of milk by drinking shakes – a popular Bengali idiom!
The last fifteen years have seen a great influx of Pujos, advent of many temples, display of the best of opulence at the Pujos of immigrants from West Bengal, advance collection of contributions for hosting the occasion. Even breaking out in fistfight over mutton curry. Bangladeshi pujos are relatively peaceful. They continue to be solemn, respectful and courteous with subscriptions being voluntary.
Seemingly, Joe Stranger in the U.S. knows little about our religion, traditions, art, music or literature. Yet the common American knows a lot more about the Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith. The former two are respected and the media covers them well. Plentiful of TV shows, innumerable essays on newspapers and magazines. Christmas, Easter and Yom Kippur are public holidays. With Islamist fundamentalism, Muslims are disliked and falling prey to racial discrimination. Following the 9/11, many innocent Muslims have been tormented, imprisoned and even deported. Still, people are aware of these three Abrahamic faith. Most people know about the Eid and Ramadan. Liberals are tolerant of all three.
In comparison, Hindu faith is pariah. Well, not even pariah. Simply not present. For most non-Hindus, Hinduism is about discrimination, casteism and Brahminical oppression of the untouchables. Hindus are taken as principally ritualistic or rather superstition ridden. The contribution of Hinduism to the world is hardly known. Only the experts and historians know about the Kailash, Khajuraho, Konark or Minakhshipuram. As if the present day India is built through British colonialism only. The Indian heritage is irrelevant and ignored. The western media do not carry any news about this four days long celebration of religion, art and music at the shores of the sea of humanity. From New York to Los Angles, from Chicago to Houston, the organizers of the Pujo too have no interest in presenting to the world the glory of our festivity. It is not told that this celebration is not a narrow religious practice but almost a way of life. They immerse themselves into nostalgia and the melancholy of their missed pleasure back home.
Another trouble prevails among the new generation of Hindu emigrants. As serious discourse on spirituality or religion isn’t “hip”, this generation, in void of true religious interest, has vastly become ultra-orthodox, racist and particularly, anti-Muslim. Neither they have heard of the liberal philosophy of Hinduism nor are they interested to engage. If this is the general trend, there is also a liberal strain who are busy establishing their secular identity by disowning Hinduism altogether. Consequently, Hinduism is squeezed in between the two, earning the undesirable tag of being a backward creed. Yet, there never was any organized form of Hinduism or anything like Hindu fundamentalism. The battle cry and the negativism of the BJP, Shiv Sena, Bajrang Dal, VHP, ABVP and the other members of India’s rightwing establishment – collectively known as the Sangh Family, isn’t the only identity of Hinduism.
The number of people to put across the notion that a Hindu can be tolerant and a secular citizen; who believes in independence of women; doesn’t have to agree with the caste-based divisions is reducing in alarming proportion. The Hindu religion that invites everyone else to be of one’s own; that tells the world to be a family; says “as many faith, that many ways”, is being gradually wiped out to oblivion. Who recognizes that the Hindu religion had been and is still the core faith of India that assimilated and absorbed effortlessly the Aryans, the Dravidians, the Chinese, the Sakas and the Huns, the Pathans and the Moghuls into one nation? Who knows that Saraswati, the goddess of learning, scripted the Vedas or the goddesses Durga, Kali and Jagatdhatri are the most powerful among all gods and the annihilators of evil forces? How many champions of even hardcore feminism know about this faith that places women power higher than all the rest?
While visiting the United States in the early twentieth century, Swami Vivekananda declared that “the Hindu religion does not consist in struggles and attempts to believe in a certain doctrine or dogma, but in realizing – not in believing, but in being and becoming.” Today we are made to forget these words of this socialist ascetic by fundamentalists who believe that he belongs to them and those on the other hand, who see him as a fundamentalist. Today the pluralism of Gandhi and Nehru only champions liberal values. As if liberalism is not inherent in Hinduism. As if Hindu religion and liberal values are perpetually contradictory. To believe in liberal Hindu values one doesn’t have to become a socialist or communist and yet one can be all of these.
During Durga Pujo, we must remind ourselves and the others about the liberal and humane traditions of Hinduism. We need to liberate Hinduism from the violent and hateful clutches of extremists. The facet of Hinduism must be promoted that makes Brahmin and the others share meals together; that congregates the Muslim and the Christian neighbours in spontaneous enthusiasm to celebrate Pujo. There we do not engage in the mayhem of destructing bridges but in building them to connect humanity through understanding each other.
If this bridge can be preserved and the World is made aware of it only then the way out of fundamentalism and extremism can be found. It is the responsibility of the centrist Hindus – in between the traders of hatred and politics of hate in the name of religion and the protagonists against religion and the non-believers. Indeed, my Hinduism is my identity. Similarly, it is my urgent duty to recognize and propagate the Hindu religion where there is no place for greed, hate, jealousy and animosity.
As a follower of that eternally liberal tradition of Hindu religion what other time than the Durga Pujo can be better to talk about it?
A Peaceful, Joyful and All-inclusive Vijaya Dashami to All. May Mother Durga bless us, and help us to go beyond today. Let us usher in a universal, progressive tomorrow.
Recently, a few special friends have asked me, am I slowly returning to BJP?
These are longtime friends. They all know that I was deeply involved with RSS and BJP, was once the West Bengal province secretary of RSS’ student wing Vidyarthi Parishad, worked as an underground grassroots organizer during the anti-Indira Gandhi anti-emergency rule, earned reputation as an organizer, and finally came out of RSS and BJP because of ideological disillusionment.
These friends all know that I then wrote a book called In the Belly of the Beast: Hindu Supremacist RSS and BJP of India — An Insider’s Story, based on my many years of active involvement with them, and the book got some notoriety. Courtesy this book, I was invited by various organizations in USA, India and Great Britain to speak and write about the politics and philosophy of BJP-RSS.
Some of these friends have mildly admonished me. And then, some others gave up on me, unfriended me, and are spreading the news that it’s now just a matter of time before I returned to my “old home” RSS. This second group of friends are a little too far on the left. A few of them have found my recent, post-election commentaries on BJP and RSS as soft and indulging. According to them, the “progressive and Marxist” stance they found in the post-In the Belly of the Beast me has now all but disappeared. Since my father Jitendra Nath Banerjee is still alive, and keeping touch with old-time RSS and erstwhile Jan Sangh leaders, these friends believe that with his recommendations, these leaders who have known me since my childhood would eventually forgive me for my straying off the RSS path, and rehabilitate me.
In fact, if I wanted it, they actually could. My father happens to be well known to big personalities like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L. K. Advani; in fact, they were old RSS colleagues. Top RSS and Jan Sangh leaders would frequently visit our Calcutta home, and some of them have kept me in their minds. Every time I went to India for a visit, they would call. They don’t do it much these days.
Now, a couple of words about myself. One of the big similarities between me and father is that we’d never ask for anybody’s recommendation for personal benefits, no matter if we died out of starvation. Had I believed in the usual Indian way of insider recommendations, I would take advantage of it long ago after I worked as a professor in a remote, Sundarbans Delta college, to get a transfer to a Calcutta college, with help from ruling CPI(M) — Marxist Communist Party — leaders whom I came to know at that time. I did not go that route. Rather, I decided to chart the course of my life on my own, and in the absence of any other way, decided to quit my professor’s job, and leave a very familiar and cherished society and surrounding in India — as a prince (professor with a good salary) turned pauper — to come to USA as a penniless student. I’ve written about it in various places; there is no reason to repeat it here.
The thing I do want to talk about now is this. After having been in biology for twenty-five years, going through difficult hoops, I decided to quit science and go back to school at the age of forty: to fulfill my life’s mission to work in human rights and social justice. I can swear that 99% of new immigrants of my type with a humble background would never take such a risk. I did. Then, after graduating from Columbia University Journalism School, I started a new, money-less career with a huge loan on my head. I began working to protect the lives and dignity of Muslim, Sikh and other immigrants during the post-9/11 hate crime and persecution days. The lessons I learned during my fifteen years of RSS and Vidyarthi Parishad days all came in handy. Different ideology, but similar grassroots mobilization. With a similar, high enthusiasm and zeal to stand up against the wrong committed against the vulnerable.
I don’t want to brag too much about it, but my colleagues and friends who saw me working those days could attest to the amount of time and energy I spent. To work with the many, about-to-be-deported, innocent Muslim Bangladeshi and Pakistani immigrants with no papers. To visit poor immigrants in jails, including a number of visits to the notorious Elizabeth Detention Center in New Jersey. To visit family members of detained or deported Muslim immigrants. Visit family of a Belarusian immigrant killed in a hate crime. Visit Sikh immigrants after they’ve been beaten by racist men on the street. Work with poor but bright Latino and Bangladesh students on DREAM Act. Immigration reform work. Work with peace groups. There are so many names of immigrants and activists that come to my mind; you can ask my then-colleagues about some of these names. I’m blessed to have worked with them.
When New York Civil Liberties Union brought a high-profile lawsuit to challenge the unconstitutional NYPD subway bag search after 9/11, I was the only immigrant member out of the five-member plaintiff team. I took a lot of risk to expose myself to that potentially dangerous lawsuit and its aftermath, because I thought it was the right thing to do. I have always done it in my life: taking risks to put myself and my family in danger. I’ve done it in India, and I’ve done it all these years here in the U.S. I got this quality from my RSS-father. I gave up on his ideology, but did not give up on the justice and rights lessons he taught me.
Now I work as a labor educator. I teach global economics, media, diversity, writing and such subjects — all from an equality and justice points of view — to seasoned, American labor leaders and young apprentices alike who belong to various labor unions. I feel humble, but I also feel proud to sometimes wonder what point I’ve come to in one life, and that too, from where. People who see me after a long gap look at me with total disbelief.
I haven’t studied much, and my inspiration, therefore, are old-time poets and philosophers and social reformers: Rabindranath Tagore, Swami Vivekananda, Raja Ram Mohan Ray, Vidyasagar. Maybe, a little of MLK and Nelson Mandela. I espouse bridge building across the moderate left and right working class people and families. I know this is where the strength of the 99% is. I know this is the right thing for us all to do.
I don’t need to justify to anyone what I am doing. Deep in my heart, I know the difference between the right and the wrong.
I am not truly a huge believer in God. My conscience is my god.