Suddenly, a very happy day turned out to be not so happy.
It was my wife’s birthday yesterday, and she was celebrating a special birthday in Kolkata with her friends and family (we don’t call it extended family there — it’s just family). She doesn’t get such an opportunity: here in New York, it is a year-after-year routine visit to a restaurant of her choice between the small few of us, followed by watching a movie, only to rush back home in a terribly cold weather. Not much fun. Back there, it‘s always different. Her aunt cooked tons of food, and friends fed her with the ceremonial “payesh,” or rice pudding Bengali style.
Then, on the same day, I got the news of Supriya Chowdhury’s death. Or, Supriya Devi, as she was later known.
Even though it may seem far too sentimental and detached: like, why would I even care about the death of a film star I never knew, and only admired her acting on the silver screen? There is a reason. The two most important movies Supriya acted were “The Cloud-Capped Star” (Bengali: Meghe Dhaka Tara), and “E-Flat” (Bengali: Komol Gandhar), both directed by legendary filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak.
Note: If you want to know the riches of Bengali and Indian non-Bollywood (i.e., junk) movies, watch them. I can send you a list of such movies. They are subtitled.
These two movies, like some other movies by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Buddhadev Dasgupta, and such directors (Shyam Benegal, Ketan Mehta, Girish Kasaravalli, M. S. Sathyu are just a few others) made me what I am today — psychologically and intellectually. It made me what I am today — a progressive, democratic, socialist who believes in equality of all kinds.
The open, liberal, and progressive, intellectual Bengali consciousness I slowly got transformed to, from a closed-minded fanaticism and patriarchy that I originally had inherited — was possible because of honestly, Bengali literature, poetry, music, and yes, movies. Coupled with reading some history.
If Ritwik Ghatak was the writer of this script, Supriya was the personified conveyer of the message.
A picture tells a thousand words. Sure. A dark-skinned (and therefore not pretty by Indian and Bengali standards), tall, strong actress whose eyes and lips oozed sensuality (and therefore not acceptable within the prejudice of Bengali and Indian mediocrity) blew me away.
I just got some bad news from Calcutta. Noted filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh suddenly died this morning. He was 49.
In some ways, Ghosh reminded us of Fassbinder. In their separate social contexts and possibilities, they both challenged the “normal” society and the larger limitations of humanity. Both had a “libertine” lifestyle. Both probably died of strange, out-of-the-ordinary reasons — prematurely.
Both Fassbinder and Ghosh were exceptionally talented and extremely hard-working. Both cut a new genre of powerful, artistic movies.
Art critic, film professor Dilip Basu at University of California at Santa Cruz wrote me: “He was an idealist/realist, and an iconoclast.”
Prof. Basu is right. Ghosh carried forward the bright torch of Bengali liberal intelligentsia, a torch passed on by the likes of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Tapan Sinha and more recently, Buddhadev Dasgupta, Aparna Sen and Gautam Ghose. All these noted movie makers, Ray and Ghatak being the two globally-famous names, showed us how progressive thoughts and anti-status-quo intellectualism and politics can thrive — even in an extremely conservative and patriarchal society. Yes, they can survive an onslaught of MTV, Beyoncé, Spielberg, Titanic and Jolie.
The Bengali poets, artists, musicians and intellectuals have created an indelible path of free and futuristic thinking. Indian filmmakers and playwrights such as Ray, Ghatak and Ghosh as well as Badal Sarkar, Shyam Benegal, Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, M. S. Sathyu and Ketan Mehta vigorously put up a strong resistance against the quicksand kitsch of Bollywood. Millions of Indians and Bengalis are proud they have refused to be a part of the Bollywood imbecility. They drew inspiration from the vibrant, alternative, pro-real-life, anti-fantasy genre. They needed the inspiration now more urgently than ever before.
Ghosh’s sudden, untimely departure is thus truly difficult to grasp today.
Professor Basu wrote me: “A Bollywood friend told me once, ‘If you are looking for real innovation, you will not find it here as much as in Kolkata [Calcutta]. Where is a Rituparna Ghosh in Mumbai?'” For those who do not know, Bollywood movies are all made in Mumbai (previously Bombay — thus the name Bollywood: Bombay-Hollywood).
There was never a Satyajit Ray or Ritwik Ghatak in Mumbai Bollywood. There was never a Rituparno Ghosh or Aparna Sen in Bollywood Mumbai either. Especially if you think about the exquisite art Rituparno Ghosh held in his frames.
Especially, Ghosh was indeed an iconoclast. For India’s extreme, and often violent male chauvinistic society, his coming out as a gay/transgender was itself a revolutionary act. Some say, his sexual orientation and fiercely individualistic lifestyle made him a lonely man.
A Calcutta critic Yajnaseni Chakraborty wrote today: “…the jibes at the way he dressed and talked, the personal attacks on his films and those he acted in, the insensitivity of a society he was trying to change and educate, the seeming disloyalty of those he considered friends, and his inability to really, truly, trust anybody. Beneath his nonchalant facade, the hurt and the loneliness dug deep.”
I was not so much for his almost exhibitionist, somewhat bizarre lifestyle. In fact, as a movie enthusiast, I was not even one of his biggest fans. I never liked the way he filmed Tagore’s Chokher Bali (Eyesore) and cast Bollywood queen Aishwarya Rai as the lead, feminist character (Bollywood is polar opposite to women’s equality, in case you didn’t notice; and the Bachchan-Rai family has been one of the lead torchbearers of this anti-feminism street swear). I strongly disliked the way Ghosh distorted Tarashankar Banerjee’s novel Antar Mahal (Heart Quarters). I always thought Rituparno, in a zeal to break down any social norms, customs and traditions, took it too far too quickly, and did not do justice either to the original authors or to the core messages they wanted to pass on to us. His cinematography took over his body of work, not only from a film-language point of view, but also from a social message point of view. His much-pronounced individualism thus unfortunately alienated me from some of his otherwise memorable creations.
Indian Rituparno Ghosh, at the end, perhaps gave in to Western Ayn Rand’ism. Or, perhaps, to Fassbinder’ism.
But I still want to remember him as one of our greatest artists and filmmakers; Ghosh brought the Bengali-Indian audience back to Bengali-Indian cinema from kitschy-glitzy-variety Bollywood. I want to remember his movie Dahan (Crossfire), where Ghosh took on the rampant street violence on women in India as well as the cowardice of Bengali middle class failing to prevent it. He took it head-on. I want to remember how he used our beloved Tagore singer Suchitra Mitra as a major actress on the movie and brought the best out of her. I would want to remember Chokher Bali, not for the film interpretation as much, but for the celestial music Ghosh’s music director Debojyoti Mishra created for the movie. I would close my eyes and just listen to the music for its entire two hours — non-stop.
Again, I was not a major fan of Rituparno Ghosh the filmmaker. But even without blinking for once, I would rank him as one of the most important artists — a cultural icon — of our time, who defied kitsch-for-entertainment, and had opted for intelligence and humanism — the essence of Bengali-Indian identity.
Or, rather, the way I have always considered our Bengali-Indian identity. Or, for that matter, my present Bengali-Indian-American identity.
Rituparno Ghosh and his art are going to be dearly missed.
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.
Well, you might think I am using a metaphor or something.
Some of you might think, especially after you’re through with this article, that I’m actually using the magician metaphor for something else. Knowing me and having read my tons of blog posts so far, some others might think the E Train is actually a metaphor too: maybe, it means the Economy train, or perhaps, Employment train. Or, perhaps…Energy train. Something…or something else…imaginations could run wild.
But, believe me, I am not using any metaphor. I am actually talking about a little magician on the E subway train here in New York City. The only creative liberty I’m taking as the author is with the word “little,” only because, as they always say, ordinary people are little people.
This magician I’m going to talk about is a no-name magician, I’m sure; otherwise, he would not play his magic in front of a reluctant, tired New York subway audience, and jump from car to car to make a living. I tend to believe this is not even his primary job; who can live and feed mouths in Bloomberg’s only-for-rich New York on enchanting a few, sleepy subway commuters late in the evening — with their magic or music?
I’m only telling you this story because it was so exceptional. I’ve never seen anything like it in my un-magical life. I even gave him a dollar — an exceptional act of benevolence if you knew my miserly middle-class Indian-Bengali upbringing. My sense of charity and benevolence could easily match up Shylock of the Merchant of Venice!
Ah, well…getting back on with the story.
I was tired and trying hard not to doze off on the train — I became extra careful to stay alert since a few months ago, a bunch of kids tried to pull a prank on a sleepy me on the G-train. I taught myself about the necessity to stay up especially in these difficult times. Phone snatching, pickpocketing and other such untoward things here in Bloomberg’s only-for-rich New York has now become commonplace.
I was tired and trying hard not to doze off on the train, and contemplating on the mundane-ness of a commuter’s life…or something philosophical like it. Or, maybe, I was just thinking nothing. Something like it. Then, this guy got on the train and things changed in a few seconds…like magic!
He was a tallish, whitish, middle-age’ish guy who showed visible signs of lifelong strife and struggle. Maybe, he is a loner. Maybe, his wife and children left him and his inability to make a decent living. Seeing his manners and magic, I remembered Satyajit Ray’s short story on the little Bengali magician Mr. Tripura Mullick who said to his one-and-only student: “Look, I know all these tricks, but the only trick I don’t know is how to make money.” And that little magician in Ray’s magical story was also a loner, with nowhere to go and no place to live.
This little magician’s tricks — unthinkable and quite unbelievable — also reminded me of Ray’s little magician: they were all done without any use of pomp, grandeur or big stage or footlights, or without the help of any glittery woman assistant — or for that matter, without the typical, non-stop patters magicians often use to distract the viewers. He didn’t do any of the above. In fact, all the tricks this guy did were so right front of my eyes that unless I knew he was pulling tricks, I wouldn’t believe he was pulling tricks. That’s how magical they were!
His games were also not something I’ve never seen; in fact, I’ve seen them many times. I’ve seen the cut rope trick where the magician pulls out a piece of white rope, asks someone in the audience to hold the two ends tight spreading it apart, and cuts it in the middle. He then measures the two halves and shows that they are indeed much shorter than the original length. He then gives one half to a member of the audience and keeps the other half. He does an abracadabra on the half he has, rubs his fingers a little magically, and snaps it! Walla, suddenly the half length of the rope becomes a full length again!
(At this point, YOU — some of my longtime readers, now familiar with my way of pulling my own writing tricks, would say: “Okay, wait a minute, we know what you’re up to. You’re trying to say that these little, no-name people are the ones who are constantly pulling the broken pieces of the economy back together with their unsung heroism — acts like magic that nobody knows and nobody cares about: magical acts that behind the scene put the world back together especially in times of serious crisis — like the crisis the American society is now going through, or especially at this difficult time after Hurricane Sandy. You’re telling us to compare the incredible, magic-like work of these small, low-wage workers — electrical workers, plumbers, construction workers, subway workers and so many more — that New York Times or CNN would not talk about. Right?” — Well, I could easily have said that and used this whole article as a metaphor; but really, I’m not doing it because repeating something over and over again is the last thing an intelligent author would do because it drives even his ardent, admiring readers crazy and totally disinterested. You are welcome to judge using your own judgement. I leave that up to you.)
So, on with the story (I hope not to be interrupted again…please).
The little magician went on to show a few little tricks — the usual stuff we see on TV or in a theater — like changing the color of handkerchiefs and all. Remember, all of it is happening just over six or so minutes on an express stop between Forest Hills and Jackson Heights; he would hop on to the next car as soon as the train stops. Now, the final game — with some small amount of cheerful talk from a not-so-cheerful-looking magician: the card trick.
He pulls out a pack of cards and juggles with all fifty two of them in a way that I could only imagine in my dream! Up and down, side to side, inside out, and outside in. He takes the pack in his lifted right palm and throws them down on his left — in a never-ending chain with no cards misbehaving. He then obviously asks one of the subway commuters to pull a card of her choice — and the poor magician had a hard time finding a volunteer because everybody was so reluctant to do it for the fear that they’d probably have to show some gesture of charity which they would not want to do. He then turns his eye away from the woman who volunteered; she now put the card back in the pack the magician was holding out. The rest of the game we all know: he does some more abracadabra, walks his long, uncanny fingers on the pack of cards, and wallah, he pulls out the right card the woman chose!
Finally, in the last thirty seconds or so, the magician shows us something I’ve never seen before in my life. He pulls out a number of cards from the pack and starts spinning them horizontally in the air — halfway between the train floor and ceiling, and the cards floated and danced and circled around in an incredibly synchronous movement, and it appeared they would never stop, as if they were all held together by an invisible string.
Again, it reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s little magician Mullick who trained a coin to come out of his wallet, walk to another coin on the floor, and walk it back together into the wallet. Our little, no-name magician on the E-train also instructed his cards to stop their wild dance and come together quietly into the pack. It was time for him to pack up and hop on to the next car on the E-train. Jackson Heights had arrived and the train had stopped. He collected a few dollar bills — one from a totally inspired and woke-up me, without saying even a word of thanks.
He was not one of the talkative, patterful magicians. He was not David Copperfield of America or P. C. Sircar of Calcutta. He didn’t know the tricks to make a decent living. He never learned that magic.
I hope to see him again some day — on my way back from work on the E Train. He certainly deserves an extra dollar from me…or two.
Dr. Seuss, Dr. Seuss, have you any wool? Yes Sir, yes Sir, three bags full. One for my jelly, and one for my jam And one for the Subway Sam who won’t eat no ham.
Do you know what I’m trying to say here? You don’t? Good. Because if you do, you would be as crazy as I am. This is my crazy day. I feel like writing crazy verse. Crazy song. Crazy verse turned into crazy song.
Crazy, crazy, crazy song.
Join me. Together, we can celebrate this crazy day.
In fact, Dr. Seuss inspired me this evening. I owe this entire post to him. And friends who love him and quote him. Dr. Seuss made my day. I’m sure, it made theirs too.
Where did that jam and jelly thing come from? A friend posted on Facebook:
Tan I Am — I ain’t no yam. If you like Jelly, you’ll LOVE my Jam! Tan is IN! It’s HIP to be This Tan if you’ve got a Big Belt Buckle like ME!
Immediately, it inspired me to react with something (well-wishers insist that I do not react) — as if in an electrical chain bulb. The Facebook’er was talking about color and asking us what color were we feeling today? One person said, tan. I felt like I was, like, olive — you know, North Indians sorta wear an olive tinge on their skin? Never heard of it? Good…now you did.
Isn’t that cool?
So, I wrote back (with Dr. Seuss the crazy inspiration in mind):
Olive me — I chuckle O’ leave me — I buckle Crazy rhyme or reason Red ‘n Blue — or treason Sweet ‘n sour dough E-motion high or low.
Not bad…eh? Tell me about it! Even my friend who started the what-color-do-you-feel-like today was impressed. And she was so impressed, she pulled out another piece of crazy verse from her third floor attic. Now, that’s super cool!
Olive me. – Why not take Olive me. Can’t you see, – I’m just Drab without you Take brown pants, – I want to lose them Khaki too, – I’ll never use them. Your good-bye – leaving with Swarthy sighs …
How can I – get bronzed now without you? You took the part- that once was my heart. So why not – why not take Olive me!
Very, very nice. That verse is nice and crazy. The rhyme is nice and crazy. The rhythm, the beat — that you can easily turn into a crazy song with some serious heat — is nice and crazy. Dr. Seuss is having a field day.
So many rhymes, so many hard-hitting words. So many songs could’ve been with those words. So many rhythms, so many beats. So many starlit nights would make so much treats. One, two, three…and go…two, three, and four. One, two, three, four…you go…two-three-four-five-six. Get it? Now try again.
1, 2, 3 go
2, 3 and 4
1, 2, 3, 4
2, 3, 4, 5, 6
5, 6, 7, 8, 9
ya know simply super fine!
What color are you baby?
What color you in?
Olive, tan or green?
Red or blue — or treason
(Sure ya got a grin — right?
Sure ya got a grin.)
Life is but a dream
But life’s like ice cream
You hold it on and lick it up
When fullest, sexy brim.
E-motion high or low. Couldn’t make’em think. They refused to think. Friends punched a blow.
Face, book or slow
You could make it fun
You could wait or run
You could dabble ‘n draw
You could rabble ‘n raw
Idea sin or crazy
Super-clean or hazy
Pick it up and run
Like juicy Seuss had done.
“Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW! It is fun to have fun But you have to know how.”
WOW. You just made my day, old man. Thank you.
Or, really, it’s Floccinaucinihilipilification. In fact, it’s more like Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.
I’m now writing a brief, made-easy guide on the subject of thinking.
Yes, you’ve heard it right. But, don’t think too much about it…just yet. Please read what I have to say, and then think.
And no, it’s definitely not a condescending sermon. Rather, it’s a collective process of understanding, sharing and co-stimulation.
I could have titled this post: “You think you know how to think? Think so? Well, think again!” But that would’ve been too long for a title, and given people’s very short attention span these days, chances are, I would’ve lost a number of my precious readers. So, I used a simpler title. At least I thought I did. You think about it, and let me know. This is really about life’s multifaceted experiences.
So, the title is, “How To Think In 101 Ways.”
See, I already thought a few times over on this topic and how to use the best possible, attractive title so that readers who are now visiting my blog from all possible and impossible, incredible, wonderful corners of the world (believe me!) would actually take their precious time to read it. Not only that: I also cleverly imposed some task on you — to think along with me! But because you’re clever too, you’re not going to fall for my subtle imposition. I know you won’t. I only hope that you do it because you want to do it.
On a lighter note, just think: so much of my thinking went into writing the above, carefully crafted comment! It’s hard, man! Thinking is not easy.
(Like, Diane Chambers said about Sam Malone in Cheers, “He can’t think anymore today. He has already thought twice!”)
But more seriously, unlike Sam Malone who couldn’t think more than twice a day — if we gave the Harvard dropout Diane Chambers the benefit of the doubt (yet, if you knew Ms. Chambers, you ought to take her statements with a crazy grain of salt) — we the ordinary people think, have to think, or would like to think more than twice. In fact, we think quite often and frequently — just like the elite, rich, powerful and famous do.
Now, here is the problem. Sometimes, we even think without knowing we’re thinking. Sometimes, nothing concrete comes out of the thinking process. Sometimes, we get even more confused thinking! Because, in many cases, we are not thinking in an organized and planned way. That is where we could perhaps use some help: how to organize and refine our thinking.
I shall use the game of chess to explain my thoughts to you — in this brief time and space of a blog. Stay with me: you might find the next 1,200 or so words useful. At least, you could tell me that after thinking about what I said, you thought it was not useful. Like, you might say, my (i.e., yours truly’s) thinking was useless. Or, you might say, you had already thought what I thought: there’s nothing new. Either way, some organized and refined thinking would be involved, and, that would be good.
Now, without further ado, on with some chess.
In this movie (see poster here) called “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (The Chess Players, 1977), a story written by the great Hindi-Urdu writer Munshi Prem Chand, Satyajit Ray the genius film director used a number of layers of themes, sub-themes, imagery, symbolism and metaphors to tell the story. I won’t bother you with the intricate details of the movie here: you can click on the link I provided above and look it up. Very briefly, the story talks about social problems and political problems using the backdrop of a slow and laid-back, pre-British feudal, Muslim-ruled India; it also talks about personal issues and national issues. The various layers in the story intertwine and blend. And the master filmmaker takes high artistic liberty to create one of his best creations; a political story easily turns into a personal story, and vice versa. The game of chess and two chess-addict patriarchs become the unifying thread throughout the length of the movie.
You watch the movie, and then you come back and watch it again…and again. Why? Because the movie makes you think. It makes you think more. And it makes you think harder. You need to take the time — a lot of time — to peel away the layers of the story line, one layer at a time.
You think about the people in it. You think about the places in it. You think about the politics in it. You think about the society in it. You think about the issues and problems in it. You think about the short-term problems. You think about the mid-term problems. And then you think about the long-term problems.
And then you think about all the consequences of these people’s deeds, actions, mis-actions and inactions. You put yourself in the movie — as if you are a character in it too — and you try to find perhaps alternative solutions to the problems the movie poses — both on the personal and collective and social fronts. Would you do things differently? Could you do things differently? Do you feel any urge to do anything at all?
At the end of the day, that’s really the essence of the thinking process: to get into some action. Then, in order to get into and on with an action, you need an action plan.
If you think in an organized way, and make plans while thinking, your action is bound to be effective and meaningful — to produce positive results. That’s the beauty of organized and refined thinking process.
It’s like eventually trapping or checkmating your opponent’s king in that little game of chess.
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.