To believe or not to believe…

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John Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

To be, or not to be, that is the question

— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1

 

To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.

As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.

The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.

Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!

I feel in most of the non-communist world,  disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.

However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?

I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?

The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were  anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?

The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.

Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975)  talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.

Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?

The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…

While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.

Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created  to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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In quest…

Vibrancy, warmth and colors are what Indophiles find in the India they love. Ruskin Bond, who went as far as to become an Indian, adds to it the love of the hills and the interactions he has with people in that region. He talks of tall swishing trees, hills that beckon and how he made a concerted efforts to return to the India where he spent his childhood from Jersey in the Channel islands, somewhere in between France and England, in his book, Rain in the Mountains:

“One night I was walking alone along the beach. There was a strong wind blowing, dashing the salt spray in my face, and the sea was crashing against the St Helier rocks. I told myself: I will go to London; I will take up a job; I will finish my book; I will find a publisher; I will save money and return to India, because I am happier there than here.”

Ruskin Bond’s own return to India was in quest of happiness much as Indian youth leave their country to adopt USA in their mythical search for a better life, and in that sense contentment. There was a time when those who dreamt big came to India for spiritual succor before conquering the world with the their humongous visions; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among these. I am not one to critique moves to different countries in search of happiness, for learning new things or just for survival. Think of it, if everyone stayed forever in the country where they were born, all the human race would have continued in central Africa forever with great to the power millions grandmother, Lucy, and her family…

Recently, I read an article in Hindu, which started with a blurb saying “Travelling in the 50s and 60s, Odia writer Chittaranjan Das realised that the only way to become an Indian was to first become an Asian and then a world citizen.” What a fantastic holistic thought from a writer who thrived in an era where mankind started to stumble under the narrow walls of partisanship and political nationalism!

The article on Chittaranjan Das makes me wonder what I, an Indian-born, consider to be the attributes of those populating the country of my birth.

The simple answer is I do not know.

With a cultural diversity that houses thousands of mother tongues (19,500 in 2018), India remains an enigma to me. Most cultures would have their own distinct rituals and beliefs and each one of them cannot be called anything other than Indian. A simple example would be the stories behind each festival. I know a few around the major Hindu festival of Diwali; some Ram centric, some Krishna centric, some Vishnu centric and, in Bengal, Kali centric — all these are different deities in Hinduism itself. Jainism and Sikhism have celebrations around the same period for different reasons. India hosts more than half-a-dozen major religions with myths and legends modifying the  rituals and customs by local needs. Indian cuisine too is of such a wide variety. It includes an IMG_0384indigenised interpretation of Chinese food, which can be had nowhere else in the world and is a favorite with many in India, a fusion of cuisine developed by Chinese who migrated during the Opium wars and Mao’s regime. Then how can one define food, values or a composite culture that is Indian?

When I read the travels of Marco Polo, I was struck by his mentioning Russians in India and how many races thrived within the region. Of course his concept of India has to be taken with a pinch of salt. We also need to understand his concept of the country could not be what was defined by Radcliffe five hundred years later and accepted by the billions living across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the rest of the world without a question. Polo probably felt all cultures outside that of Italian were novelties when he started travelling at the age of sixteen. However, having spent a long time in the Kublai Khan’s court before making it to India, he was more likely to be open than most, even if he is regarded as a bit of a charlatan. But one thing that I understood with my reading of Marco Polo was that India was the melting pot of diverse cultures and the geographical definition of India varied, thus making it more a concept than a national entity.

Nationalism as a concept started to develop only around the eighteenth century in England and Europe, after industrialization and French Revolution became a reality. When Marco Polo adventured into Asia from Europe, such travel was rare and long- drawn. With the onset of jet travel, time has ceased to be a constraint for crossing distances. Now it is borders drawn by nationalism. All the borders, of nations, cultures, religions and races are ones that are defined by man, by what twentieth century guru Yuval Noah Harari would probably call ‘orders‘ or ‘tribes’.

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Sphinx-like and griffin-like carvings in Ellora?

The other thing that struck me in my travels within India were sculptures of griffins and sphinx-like creatures introduced into the ancient frescoes of Ellora, an architectural marvel hewn into rocks between 600 to 1000 CE. In the midst of sculptures depicting Hindu mythological lore, a few odd looking creatures that resemble griffins and sphinxes blend into arrays of elephants. How and why did these get here? Did at some point a worker travel across to India from Africa or Europe, carrying with him the concept of a griffin or a sphinx and hew it into the rocks of Ellora? Was such travel to find work in multi- cultural India a norm in those days, when even Marco Polo had not set foot in China?

Again, I do not know… but I do love Chittaranjan Das’s perception that to be an Indian is to be a citizen of the world; Tagore’s perception of the mind being a fearless entity that would look for larger answers than just nationalism, being above narrow, parochial thought processes; Bhupen Hazarika’s concept of being a wanderer which he put to words in his well known song, Aami Ek Jajabar(I am a wanderer)

And in this spirit of openness and multi-culturalism, I celebrate my own humanness…

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam…

 

I would like to remember my father as a happy man, playing his mouth organ, sitting in the garden in Dehradun and savoring the snows ranges of the Himalayas that surround the Doon valley and the dream home he made for his retirement; the warmth of the winter sun would fill us to the brim as honey birds hopped and chirped among the lush flower beds and fruit trees…I would like to hear him call out to me in his warm cheerful voice so full of love, tenderness and kindness. I would like to think of him as a vibrant, content, kind human being who has lived his life to the full…

As I got off the plane in Delhi, I got a phone call urging me to ask the hospital to take my father off his life support. But I wanted my father to live. I did not want him dead. I wanted him to have every chance to come back to normal. I wanted him to call out to me, to touch me, to argue and fight with me, to scold me… I did not want to face the new reality that stared me in the face…

We halted to dump our luggage in my aunt’s house, use the washroom, have a cup of tea and rush to the ICCU (Intensive Cardiac Care Unit) where my father lay unconscious. My father was lying in a huge ward, plugged to all kinds of gadgets his enclosure curtained off like the dozens of others. This was not the dad I knew…his hands cold from having been in induced coma on a slab of ice. He was moved to a normal bed a few hours before we reached. I kissed his hand as it was the only visible part and his face was too far. The hand had blue dots and it was as cold as ice. My father breathed deeply, a troubled breath on the ventilator. A big ventilator pipe was thrust into his mouth. He occasionally bit the ventilator.

“We had to tie his hands as they tried to pull out the ventilator,” said the attendant nurse helpfully.

“Does that mean he is coming back to consciousness?” I asked against all odds.

“ No. This is reflex.”

I sat and prayed in the armchair near the bed. I thought he would come back. Now that I had reached his bedside, his only daughter, he would come to. I felt sad leaving him. Where was his mind? Where were his thoughts, his conscious will? Was it back in the garden soaring with the birds in the skies? Were they flitting into a new reality filled with light and sunshine? Or was it travelling a path of suffering and pain because he was in a place that he never wanted to be? Please help him get well, O God, I prayed.

My father, a man of compassion and kindness, one who had strong beliefs, a brilliant doctor who tried to demystify the medical profession and find ways of taking healthcare to less privileged masses in India, one who had been very against corporate hospitals which imported high cost medical technology into India to serve anyone who could pay, was now lying in an unconscious state in one such moneyed concern.

“ What will happen if he suddenly wakes up?” I had asked a doctor from his hospital. I asked the same question to the doctor in charge of the ICCU, the counseling doctor.

“ We would love to see that happen. I am waiting for him to wake up and argue with me, to fight with me,” said the counseling doctor.

We waited, leaving my father alone in that impersonal, cold ward where he was just another body to be kept alive.

I had thrown a few warm wears into my suitcase and flown into Delhi from Singapore within a day in the hope of reviving my father and having him back in his hospital, in a way my sibling, because this was a man who loved his ideology and work almost as much as he loved his own daughter. He had left his work and retired to Dehradun more than a decade ago because he believed the time had come for new blood to take over, for them to develop the same values and principles he had, for them to be fully convinced that all humans, rich or poor, deserve the right to medical care. I felt moving him out of his own hospital had been against his ideology, against his wishes. Was it right for a person to choose to what extent he wanted medical support to contain him in this life?

My father had looked for mokshya, a Hindu concept of freedom from birth. He wanted to go into samadhi, a state where a meditating mind is supposed to ascend to unite with the source of all creation or God. Had his mind gone into such a state? Was he talking to God?

I could never understand why people look for this state because life in itself is so beautiful and there is so much to do in this wonderful world. But that he could not achieve this state had been his pet peeve as he waited to die in Dehradun. He said his body hurt. He had a huge fibroid in his spine, his ankles were swollen, his foot was misshapen and my mother died. The last probably made his heart ache more as my parents had an idyllic retirement till she died.

I could never comprehend his move in his last years to a place where he knew very few in quest of God. I also could not understand why he forced retirement on himself till he died.

Yes. He died. With the finality of death, his life ended.

We had managed to move him back to his own hospital while he was still alive. Within a few hours, he passed on.

As I sit by my window and write, looking at the ripples in the river that flows by, I realize why life saddened my father.

He hated the growing divides that are ripping the fabric of healthcare, economy and religion in India. He was saddened by the media projection of the violence all over the world. The media rarely dwells on positive news in India. He was unhappy with how people focus only on their personal needs and development and not on the needs of mankind. He was frustrated that majority did not understand the need for human excellence, where man would through unstructured learning, find the best in himself to serve humanity. Human excellence, for him, combined spirituality, happiness, ancient learning, with unstructured and structured learning to create a concept of holistic compassionate health care affordable to masses. He wanted to write a book and create a center for human excellence, again in his dreamland of Dehradun.

But his declining health got in the way of what he wanted to do.

In his death, my father has convinced me that as his daughter I must continue to believe in human excellence and strive towards it in my own field…to show compassion to the aged and less privileged, to lead a life where I can share every word with the whole world.

And somewhere, in the distance, I still feel that enigmatic smile and twinkling eyes fill my heart with happiness to soar with the birds and fly into my own distant realms of imagination…

 

From a hospital bed…

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And then there was Su Yin.

I never saw her full face. I could only see the eyes and the penciled eyebrows etched above a mask that hid the lower part of her face as her straight thick hair swung while she swept and vigorously mopped the floor. One day she did take off her mask. A pretty young face with pale pink lips perhaps colored artificially, a cheerful face that greets me each morning wishing me good health and offering me a purple orchid as I grapple with post-operative pain.

Su Yin is from Myanmar as are May and My Shine. May and My Shine are nurses. The names are like twittering birds and bring to my mind what I imagine Myanmar would be… green and yellow fields and muddy lanes below the vibrant blue skies. There must be so much sunshine there, enough to light up the whole wide world; only if the Rohingyas did not cry in pain, this time not post operative but of losing their homes and lands again and again.

I always imagine that the rivers in Myanmar will be thick and yellow because once, long before I started flitting in and out of hospitals, I went for a ride along the River Kwai (Mae Klong river) in Kanchenburi, Thailand. The river there ran thick and yellow. The boatman told us that on the other bank of the river was Burma… I like to dream of the people of the two countries meeting and greeting along the river as they do in the wards of Singapore.

There are nurses and caregivers from different countries in Asia, helping heal patients from all over the world. What a multi-cultural exchange it is when a young nurse from Phillipines takes my blog details and discusses Harry Potter with me, or a Malaysian nurse chats with me about travel in India or an Indian one, newly arrived out of her country, takes down the details of the shop selling goat meat in the local Tekka market. I even heard a strange retelling of the Rohingya crisis!

Then there are young girls who cheer one up by their sunshiny smiles and call the older nurses ‘ ate’ (elder sister in Tagalog), exuding a charm of old world courtesy and graciousness in an age where children have started to address their parents by first name, a thing that always bothers me. Some of the ates are so gracious, friendly and yet professional. Each time, you achieve a small target, they make you feel like you have won a Nobel Prize and urge you to take the next step towards total healing. There are some who you feel could have been a friend, especially the ones who are moms and have children in teens and twenties. There is so much you find in common and not in common, things you can talk about. Just having this friendly and optimistic atmosphere around helps lift ones spirits and take one towards feeling well and whole again.

The most important thing is that these women, these unsung heroines, did for me what I would not trust anyone to do and, most of the time, with a smile! They sponge, shower, change and give you endless care, without making you feel belittled, till you are able to totter on your own legs and walk back home. The lady from the pantry found ways of appeasing my appetite when mashed and pureed food were my sole diet! Each day, she found a way that I could eat. And that was definitely a challenge!

The biggest thing I noticed was the cheerful optimism that exuded from the women on a daily basis. As I stepped out of my drowsy stupor and started experiencing extreme pain and, subsequently, lesser pain, I had a word of encouragement from each of these ladies till I was ready to walk out of the hospital.

Sometimes, I wonder what drives these women to their profession, often in a distant land, away from their homes and families? They do for absolute strangers what the patients would not trust their own families to do for them. Could it be only money? I think not and, yet, there is a phobia about foreigners worldwide now!

In the wards of the hospital, you find patients and nurses of varied nationalities and faith, including upbeat, optimistic local Singaporean nurses, weaving an ambience of friendship and harmony to heal the patients back to health.

Perhaps, those who build walls between humans could take a page of these ladies’ book and try to see the world in a more global perspective. There is a world beyond making wealth. There is a world of hope, happiness, twittering birds (not tweets and oil and coal), a world in harmony, where as humans we help each other live.

 

 

Pages from the Past

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Somya was researching Partition stories with the hope of writing a book. Her fascination with the subject escalated as she delved deeper. One day, a friend, Paulomi Sen, invited her home to meet a lady whose grandmother had suffered from the throes of Partition, the great divide that ripped the Indian subcontinent into multiple nations. The ripping, like all acts of violence, was characterized by brutality and angst. The lacerated wounds refused to heal over generations. And all this happened in a land that had earlier, for multiple centuries, witnessed syncretization of different cultures, creeds and religions.

Paulomi introduced Somya to the grand daughter of the Partition victim, Mona. Mona was a PhD student in her mid-twenties. She had been born and brought up in Singapore. She spoke with a Singlish twang at times with a mild smattering of ‘lahs’ but by and large she stuck to Queen’s English, quite different from the expat Indians who flocked to Singapore in the new millenia.

Somya belonged to the expat category. Singapore had been a difficult country for her to fathom. People had seemed cold and distant when she moved to Singapore in 1991. But what she eventually realized that people just did not know enough about all of India. They were mostly focused on the Southern Indians who were very different from the Northern, Eastern or Western culturally and in appearance. The consciousness had started creeping into the Singapore mindset as the number of expats increased. Somya herself was from Eastern India, West Bengal. That complicated things further as they associated Bengali, her mother tongue, with Bangladesh and Bangladeshi workers. Culturally, she was closer to a Bangladeshi than to a person from Southern India as their food and habits were more similar. A little more than two hundred years ago, when the lines had not been drawn, her ancestors had been chased out of Dhaka by a ruler who historians have described as ‘depraved’ and ‘ cruel’. Her ancestors had made a home in the Dutch colony of Chinsura that fell into the portion of India when the country was sliced. Somya’s family continued Indians and others became East Pakistanis in 1947 and subsequently Bangladeshis in 1971.

Mona was a person of Indian ethnicity but a Singaporean. She valued a past, she said, because the country was young compared to the antiquity of India or China.

As they talked, Somya learnt that Mona’s mother had migrated to Singapore long before she was born. The story grew more and more complex and interesting.

She said, “My mother was a child of the Partition, born in 1948. Actually, my grandmother’s past had forced the family to move out of Calcutta and eventually many of us moved out of India… you know lah… how it is for some families…”

Somya waited for her to continue but Mona was clearly struggling to explain things that may have been unpalatable to her or her family. She was also fumbling with her bag and pulled out a diary from it.

“This is the diary of a tenant who stayed in our ancestral home in Calcutta for some time. There are only a few entries. I have book marked them for you. Most of it is just appointments and meetings. Perhaps, it is best you read it yourself… But please don’t tell anyone that the story is about our family lah. You know how people are lah… “

Somya assured her that her book was fictitious and the diary would only help her recreate a fictional character.

“It was brave of you to come forward with the story in any case,” she concluded.

“ No lah. I came forward because I think that people need to understand that holding on to anger and shame is destructive. One needs to let go of the angst and move forward towards the creation of a better world… you know lah… You can return the diary to me when you finish. There is no hurry. But my family should not be mentioned… please lah…”

“That is a promise,” Somya reassured her.

Somya returned home with the diary and started reading. The diary belonged to Mr Debnath Mukherjee. There were a few written entries only… it was mostly filled with cryptic time schedules for meetings, appointments and deadlines, as Mona had said, except for the entries made on particular dates.

The first entry was located in the middle… on the date of 25 th April, 1973.

Calcutta, 25 th April, 1973

I have decided to write down these strange occurrences in this diary to maintain a record. I have never experienced anything this weird.

I was praying in the prayer room upstairs today when I felt someone had entered. I turned around and stared in surprise.

Before me, stood a woman who looked like the Goddess Durga herself. She was of an indeterminate age; anywhere between twenty-eight and forty-five I would say, clad in a white saree with a red border. Her parting was filled with sindoor. On her forehead was a big bindi and her lips were reddened with betel juice. Hip length hair fell in dark ripples down her back. Her feet were defined by the alta on it. Her head was partially covered with the pallu of her saree. Strangely, her clothes seemed a bit damp though I never touched them. In her hands, she held a copperplate of offerings for prayers with flowers, sweets, a small brass or copper container with water and a lamp. She smiled at me and beckoned…

I felt compelled to follow. I followed the mysterious woman.

She led me to the courtyard. It seemed to have changed completely… what had happened? I moved as if in a trance behind her.

A huge bonfire burnt in the middle of the courtyard. And a sturdy Brahmin priest in a traditional dhoti was feeding the flames with papers and books and shouting, “Om Agni swaha! Om Agni swaha!”He seemed to be in a tremendous rage. He seemed larger than life with his pent up anger and violence. I could sense it…feel his bloodshot eyes and angst. Some women sitting and wailing added to the tragic and frightening effect. A woman dressed in bridal finery lay on the floor in a faint. She looked exquisitely beautiful too, so young and so innocent.

I turned towards my strange guide seeking an explanation. My guide had disappeared from my side…

Where was she? Was she among the wailers?

I looked around. Suddenly, I saw her.

There she was … by the side of the old brahmin…

I could not move or call out… what was happening?

The flames from the bonfire leapt higher and higher. Everything was covered in a haze of smoke and the chanting filled my head till I felt myself ready to swoon…

Suddenly, everything was back to normal. I could move. There were our potted plants and the swing and my birdbath. I could hear my wife’s voice from the kitchen calling out to check if I was ready for tea. My wife had obviously not seen or experienced anything different. I did not alarm her by telling her about my strange ‘encounter’.

I was intrigued and shaken by the whole incident. I decided to write to my landlord and ask him if he knew what was it that I had witnessed. Did this house have an unholy mystery concealed seething in the superficial calm of its ambience? Was it safe for my family and me? Or should we move house?

My landlord, Mr Avinash Bhattacharya, lived in New Delhi. He wrote back quickly, urging me to continue, saying there was nothing dangerous in the house and he would describe the incident to me when we met.

I decided to give him a chance to explain himself and agreed not to move out if there were no recurrence of such events.

New Delhi, 23 rd June, 1973

Thankfully, there was no repetition of the weird experience I had this April in the house I rent in Calcutta.

We are in Delhi for my children’s summer holidays. We are staying with my elder brother, Manibhushan Mukherjee, and his family, comprising of three sons and his wife. Today, I went to visit my landlord. My twenty-six year old nephew who works for a law firm in New Delhi came with me. He took me to the landlord’s house in Chittaranjan Park after lunch.

Avinash Bhattacharya seems to be a kind man. He had a strange story to tell.

It seems in 1947, his parents from Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh) took shelter in his home during the Partition, leaving behind their eighteen-year-old daughter, Gouri, to the mercy of ruthless kidnappers who raided and razed their home and their tol (village school, mostly religious). His father was the pundit (learned teacher) who ran the tol. Gouri had been married for four years but was childless. She had been visiting her parents during Durga Puja that year. As the flames of hatred and violence devoured the village and burnt their home, some of the Islamic hooligans picked up the beautiful Gouri and carried her off. The helpless parents were forced to flee holding on just to their lives. The father and mother managed to evade the fire, blood and fury and make it to the safety of their son’s home in Calcutta.

Avinash had just bought the home he had been renting. By then, he had a son and daughter. His twenty-two year old brother also lived with him. He himself was just touching thirty. His other sister was twenty-seven and safely living with her in-laws in Jamshedpur, Bihar. Only Gouri remained unaccounted for.

The family lodged a report in Calcutta. But the police could do nothing. Six months passed. The Bengali New Year was limping its way towards their home as the bereft parents tried to adjust to life in Calcutta. Mr Bhattacharya’s father could not stop looking for his sister, Gouri, on his own. Her in-laws, who had also fled to the safety of India, visited them. They assumed Gouri was dead. They praised her to the skies but were certain she was no more. Only, her own father could not stop feeling that she would return.

And then, one day, she did.

It was the 5th of April, 1948. The cold nip in the air had given way to flowers and blooms all around. But, the pundit, instead of visiting the gardens in Calcutta visited police stations and the railway stations in the hope of gathering news about his youngest daughter, Gouri. How could she just disappear?

That day, he found her at the railway station. It seemed that she was being sent to West Pakistan by her kidnappers along with two more girls. They were all made to wear burkhas. Despite that, Gouri’s father recognized her walk and managed to rescue her with the help of the police and crowds. The kidnappers were handcuffed and taken away. Avinash was a bit fuzzy about the whole episode, probably because he was not present.

Gouri had become shrivelled and dark with manhandling. Many men had handled her. But she was regaining her strength and looks under the loving care of her family. They rejoiced at her recovery. Her father decided to invite her in-laws so that they could take her back to her own home.

The Bengali New Year on 15th April was one filled with hope and happiness for the Bhattacharya family.

On twenty fifth April, Gouri’s husband, Mukund, and her father-in-law were invited to lunch. They lived in Vardhaman now. They took a train to Calcutta and it was only after resting and lunch that the pundit had sprung the joyous surprise on them. Only they did not find it joyous, they left without so much as wishing her well. Her father-in-law declared her to be ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ for having survived the trial. Her husband, his father’s obedient son, left his wife for life in a lurch for good and followed in his father’s footsteps… except he had tears in his eyes when he left. Again Mr Bhattacharya was at work and he could not describe the scene exactly.

But when he returned from work a little early, around 3.45pm in the afternoon, he found the scene I described being enacted. The enraged pundit, who had tried to justify the ‘purity’ of his daughter by calling her heart untouched and clean, was burning all his religious books, which condemned the abused girl as ‘impure’. His sister was lying in dead faint dressed in bridal finery. She had been decked up for her husband and in-laws as she would be starting her life anew… but now… now there could be no fresh start.

Mr Bhattacharya saw the chaos and his heart wept for his young sister. He rushed himself to get a doctor.

The doctor had the girl carried to the bed and examined her with care. At the end of the examination, he congratulated her parents for their daughter’s pregnancy.

Gouri had been impregnated by the unholy seeds of a rapist!

Her mother passed out clutching her heart. The doctor stood there. He could do nothing. By the time he reached out  to her, she was no more… that was 25 th April, 1948, twenty-five years ago.

However, today, the biggest shock I had today was seeing the girl who had been decked in bridal finery and one of the wailing women, enter the room with tea and snacks!   They had aged but I could recognize them. Gouri was still alive as was her sister-in-law who had helped dress her. She was Avinash’s wife.

After Gouri came in, nothing more was said. The story had been related while the women were preparing tea. Gouri’s daughter joined them a little later. She had been watering the garden. She was really beautiful with fair skin and black hair and tawny eyes. I could see my nephew gape at her!

I was dying to know the rest of the story. After the women served us tea and joined us, there was no possibility of finding out anything. The conversation moved to generalities like the weather and how beautiful a city Delhi was.

I looked at my watch and indicated it was time for us to go. Mr Bhattacharya smiled and accompanied us down the drive to the gate. He lived in a bungalow with a garden. My nephew had parked his car outside the main gate. As we walked out, I could not help ask Mr Bhattacharya, “Was that not Gouri, girl in a faint decked in bridal finery?”

“ Yes,” he replied, “and her daughter. You mean you recognized her from your vision?”

“ Yes,” I responded. “How are they now? What is it they do?” I blurted out.

“ To conclude my telling… You will find all your answers there. We were forced to leave Calcutta because of the scandal. I took a transfer to Delhi and my younger brother to Bombay. My father died before we left Calcutta, before the child was born. We do not really go there anymore. I use my home as an investment. Here, we pass Gouri off as a widow and her daughter, Mala, has grown up believing her father was killed during the Partition… but there will be a time we will have to tell the child the real story…”

Calcutta,10th August, 1975

My elder brother is very upset. My nephew, Nikhilesh, the one who drove me to Mr Bhattacharya’s house, has eloped with Gouri’s illegitimate daughter, Mala. Mala was doing her PhD in History from Delhi University. It seems Nikhilesh had been smitten by her the first day he saw her! He met her again and now he has married her.

My brother is very angry, especially now that he knows the girl’s background, which has been explained to him by his son in a letter. My brother has sent me a photocopy of the letter asking me for an explanation if I have one. I am gluing the letter to the diary.

The letter

Dear Father,

By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore.

I am marrying the girl I love, Mala, and we are leaving for Singapore tonight. By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore. I have taken a posting here. I told you that I will be going on tour and left.

Mala is the love of my life. I cannot live without her. Yet, you are both so against a love marriage that I cannot even mention her to you. That is why I rejected all the matches you suggested.

I also need to tell you that Mala’s mother was a victim of abuse faced during Partition. Hence, Mala’s father is an unknown factor. Her mother passes herself off as a widow. Mala, as of now, still thinks her father died during the Partition, killed by Muslim mobsters.

Mala’s family will have already received the note that she would have left for them two days ago. I posted my letter on the way out as I wanted to take no chances.

If you find it in your heart to accept Mala and me, please write to us at my office address in India and they will forward it to me in Singapore.

We would love to live with your blessings, love and goodwill.

Regards, love and best wishes,

Nikhilesh

After that the entries ended.

Somya was left thirsting with curiosity to know what happened in the aftermath in Singapore.

The next Saturday, she contacted Paulomi again saying she was through with the diary and would like to return it to Mona.

This time Paulomi asked Somya to meet them in her office in the NUS campus. She was a professor at NUS and Mona was her student.

Somya reached there just as Mona entered for her discussion with Paulomi. Mona was surprised to see Somya, who returned the diary to her and asked, “ Would you like to share the rest with me?”

“ There is nothing more to share. My parents lived happily here. No one from both the sides contacted my parents. My mother did write to her mother and send her the address. In response, my grandmother sent her blessings by post, and died in 1980. My father received a letter from his uncle, blessing him but making it clear that the family was upset. My father’s family never contacted him.”

“Does your mother know her past?”

“ She does now. Her mother wrote to her all the details when she sent her blessings and said it was better that she stayed where she did, making a fresh start. By what I figured out she had not been much of a mother to mine… always caught up in her own world of angst and anger. My mother did not have a very happy childhood but she gave me a fabulous one… The outcome of the revelation, I have heard from my father, made my mother sad for a few days. I have only had love and support from my parents as far as I can remember. It was a wonderful childhood for me. I think my parents had too much happiness between them to let the past destroy the present.”

And the cow jumped over the moon…

IMG_0214

 

One of the things Preeti discovered early in her childhood is that cows that wear bells were rarer on streets as they belonged to someone. It was always the cows without bells that were an issue. They were the ones who stood munching on the open rubbish heaps and gazed menacingly at her when she walked past. One day as she gingerly skirted behind their flanks, one of them turned around and chased her! She ran screaming, “ bachao, bachao(save me, save me)… guy(cow in Hindi) guy…” but there was no one on the vacant street. A cyclist zoomed past looking amused and the cow, realizing probably that Preeti was not a competitor for the trash heap, went back to munching stale banana skins and vegetable trash… maybe paper, cloth and what not…

Unfortunately, when Preeti recounted the story to her family and friends they could not stop laughing. She added, the white cow had a hump and horns. By googling one can see such a species of cow exists… perhaps the Brahman cow. But her descriptions held everyone in throes of humor. A friend even punned on the word ‘guy’, saying no doubt the ‘guy’ found her very attractive and therefore chased her!

Preeti even googled the cow to prove to her friend that a cow could have humps and horns. She found the Brahman cow was exported from India to USA and mated with various species and is noted for it’s presence on dinner tables as a premier steak! Could it be that they found their way back to India… or was it an unlisted species? Preeti could not fathom. Cows were mysterious for her. Ironically, the Brahman cow, she found was named after the Hindu Brahmins. Perhaps, not unjustifiably as in the fourteenth century Marco Polo noted that in the kingdom of Bengal, people drank milk and ate flesh and rice and had bulls the size of elephants. Vedic lore also gives out…

 

“Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare,

And I devour the fat thereof: they fill my belly full with food. Supreme is Indra over all.”

— Rig Veda X. 86.14.

 

And there are many more hymns that talk of Hindus of all creeds and castes devouring meat and beef. Her friend, a ‘pure’ vegetarian, still persisted in humoring Preeti. Preeti often indulged in silent cogitations on bovine creatures for her abject fear of them and of being seen as a disbeliever in their divinity that put them beyond the reach of the dinner table. She often wondered and researched on these matters as she lived in an area where the fight for bovine rights consumes not only pages of print but also occasionally, human lives. By and large, she tried to give all bovine issues a wide berth, including the creatures themselves.

Her next encounter with a cow drove it literally to the doorstep of her grandparents’ home. She was visiting and volunteered to open the gate for her grandfather who had driven her in his car to buy some groceries. What she did not notice in her hurry to get to the gate was that there was another cow ruminating near the entrance to the garden. The minute the gate was open, the cow rushed in and Preeti rushed out screaming,” Bachao, bachao..guy guy…” .

This time her grandmother and the housekeeper chased the cow… but not before the divine bovine had managed to snack on a rare flower that bloomed once every three years to indulge it’s taste for gourmet fare!

Cows manifest themselves all over India, on roads, in homes, between traffic, near rubbish heaps, off dinner plates and on the plates as steak or the Keralite delicious spicy beef ularthiyathu or beef vindaloo. People worship them, people chase them out of their gardens, get chased by them as did Preeti. They occasionally block traffic by planting themselves in the middle of a congested or uncongested roads as do elephants and their calves in Kruger Park (South Africa) but the elephant is protected from the culinary designs of mankind by laws and the cow is not!

Oops! In India it is… by howling hordes… when they feel it infringes on their religious sentiments. They have such a penchant for saving the divine bovine that they can easily kill a boy or a girl or a child for it. After all they are not cannibals but merely passionate protesters who go scot-free by being a part of a maniacal mob.

Perhaps, cow protection by law will soon come into effect in India.

Preeti eventually moved out of India and lived in various lands where cows are only seen as part of dairy or edible products on supermarket shelves or in farms. They do not really roam streets or temple grounds anywhere else. She did once see tigers roaming temple grounds in Thailand but never cows. Their freedom is much curbed.

However, whenever Preeti visits India, she has a special encounter with them. The last she saw of them was in Lucknow, not just amidst crowds and cars but also from her five star hotel room. They seemed to drift out of a fog on the grounds of a temple near the hotel. Were they real…she wondered initially. But then, what she witnessed convinced her that they were not a figment of her imagination. She saw a cow chase from her room. Only this time she enjoyed it, as she was not the butt of the joke…

As the cows ambled on the temple grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who could be dubbed the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh…

It was like an episode from a silent film, as she could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. She did not know if the ambling bovines were trying to call out to their galloping friend in different harmonies of cow song… But, this time, she enjoyed and laughed out loud at the cow chase.

Despite the smile that was brought to Preeti’s lips by the frolicsome cow, she has not been drawn back to her homeland but continues to roam the world where bovines are not worshipped and treated as divines but rather as veal cutlets and beef. She has friends from all over the world who indulge their palate with meats of the divine. Despite the sacrilege, she tolerates them, like the government of India, which is the largest exporter of beef (even if they are said to be mainly water buffaloes) and unlike the maniacal mobs who are intolerant of atrocities on cows but not on buffaloes, women, children and men. They can kill their own kind for desecrating cows! But do cows cry for the loss of their male counterparts? A difficult question to answer, I guess, seeing how their devotees adore and adorn them…

Meanwhile, while Nostradamus projected the future of all races, he left one page unturned, untouched… the development of bovine intelligence. The Greatest of Holies, Holycowbaba, has predicted that as the years move towards the annihilation of the universe, in the land of cow worshippers, the devout will have taken to defending the divine bovine with their lives and laws and the cows will dwell in peace and prosperity with their followers. Then, the prediction continues, the bovines will be so well looked after and protected that they will decide to repay man by taking take a leap of faith and trying to make true the projections in Mother Goose’s poem, Hey diddle, diddle. They will compete to create a world record and be the first cows to jump over the moon!

And when that happens, cows can be ridden to the moon. The race of cow worshippers will be the first settlers on moon.

 

Waiting for the revolution…

 

 

It was the year 1989, a month after the Tianamen Square protests rocked the world.

Moyna’s uncle was angry.

“Does your father know that you are going to a mafia infested area to do your report?” Boro Pishe asked.

“It is a newspaper report,” Moyna explained for the umpteenth time. “My father knows I am doing the report. The Socialist will pay for the car I hire to go to the coal workers’ settlement and all other costs. You don’t need to worry!”

The Socialist was a major national newspaper. Moyna worked in the Delhi office as a reporter. She was taking a break to visit her aunt and uncle in Dhanbad. When Shyam Nagra, the assistant editor, heard she was going to Dhanbad, he asked her to do a follow-up story on a documentary that had focused on how a Harijan coal slurry worker had overcome the corrupt security forces to help improve the remuneration given to them.

Moyna was excited about it. But her uncle was not.

Boro Pishe said, “Nothing doing young lady. I will go with you to meet B. L. Sen. I am responsible for your safety while you are in Dhanbad. There is a whole mafia around this area that can finish you up. I will come with you this evening.”

Moyna and Boro Pishe went to BL Sen’s office. BL Sen was the local Marxist MP. The office was crowded but BL Sen made room for them.

“You see, the film was made a few years ago. The situation has reverted,” BLSen said. “The workers have again been subdued by the security forces. Not just that the mafia has become stronger and now takes a larger part of their income. The security also takes a share. So, the miners are left with less than one third of their daily wages.”

Moyna asked, “Is it possible for me to visit the settlement?”

“We will take you to where the workers live and the trade Union office. But be warned young lady, you can visit them only once for an hour or two and never return there again. You must collect all the information you need within that time. You can never go back because once the mafia knows; they will finish you, your camera and tape recorder. Also you must dress simply to blend in,” concluded BL Sen. He arranged to have Moyna escorted by one of his men two days later. They arranged a lunch for her with the trade union leaders.

Boro Pishe was dissatisfied with the development. He said, “You will not hire a car. I will use a rickshaw that day to go to work and my driver will take you and BL Sen’s men to the site.”

Moyna had no choice. She went with Mukund, the driver, and BL Sen’s escort, Babulal.

Moyna got off at the settlement from the car. Both Mukund and Babulal came with her. Boro Pishe had instructed Mukund not to leave her side for a minute.

Moyna  stared spellbound at the diorama that unfolded before her eyes.

Everything was black with coal dust, even the puddles and ponds of water around. Mal-nourished children with potbellies and scanty, torn clothing seemed to solidify out of the coal dust. They stared at her as she approached the settlement. Moyna was wearing a simple cotton saree and rubber slippers. But she felt overdressed. People here were in tatters and rags of the indistinct color of poverty. There were no voices or sounds in the settlement, only the eerie silence of spineless, abject sub-human existence. People lived only to breath, and eat if fortunate…

Babulal allowed her to pause and take pictures of a man taking out coal slurry from a black pond. She looked at her surroundings. She had never in her life seen anything like this.

Everything was black and shades of black, coloured by the fine grains of coal from deep within the bowels of Earth. People had no houses. They lived in shelters made with tarpaulin stretched on sticks. There were not even thatched huts. Children stared at her, as did men and women.

“Is this how the workers live?”

“Yes. They come from a number of villages to work here.” responded Babulal.

“Do they have electricity and water?”

Babulal looked at her amused.

“No. They do not have water and electricity where they stay. They lead a hand to mouth existence.”

“Then what do they drink?”

“There is a tube well a little further on.”

“Do they not fall sick?”

“Yes, they do and they die also but they have no alternative.”

“What is their average life expectancy?”

“We have never done a survey… but most of them die before they turn thirty because of the coal dust they inhale. Come let us move forward to the trade union office.”

The three intruders moved ahead.

Moyna wanted to help but had no idea how and dared not ask. “My god, how lucky am I,” she thought. “And how sad that people had to live like this in the twentieth century! How can people tolerate others living like this?”

The trade union office was a shabby brick building. They sat on the floor and ate half cooked lamb with Moyna. She was the VIP visitor and they showered their warmth on her. Moyna was touched.

She interviewed the people identified by BLSen’s workers and recorded their statements. She had to leave within an hour and a half as Babulal pointed out that the mafia or security forces would soon be coming around.

As Moyna lay down in the air-conditioned comfort of her uncle’s guest room that night, she was thinking that today she had seen another world, a world perhaps that she would never had known existed…Her Boro Pishe had been very solicitous towards her welfare, she knew. But the reality remained that the India of the coal slurry workers was different from any other India she knew…

Their protest had been subdued. They had been quenched to become subservient commodities for their masters, thought Moyna ruefully. Their life expectancy continued at less than thirty years as opposed to India’s 57.47 years in 1989. And people just accepted it! Most of the workers were illiterate. Educated Indians spoke of the need for freedom of speech in her world and protested everything possible but in the settlement, where a revolution might have helped them survive decently, the workers’ voices had been silenced, their spines broken. Some of them did not even want to speak.

Perhaps, it was the year of quenched protests… Tianamen and then these coal workers,  Moyna cogitated as she turned off her bedside lamp. She wondered how many of these workers understood independence and freedom and had benefitted by it…yet they voted? Could they even think about freedom as they were driven to battle for survival on a daily basis? Was living like these workers better than dying? Why did the workers not protest? Why did people tolerate the mafia? Why did the government give in? Moyna slowly drifted off to sleep thinking on these issues.

It was 2017, the year when China had surged ahead. The Tianamen incident had been forgotten and forgiven. It had drifted to an insignificant corner of the past…

Moyna woke from her afternoon siesta and her housekeeper asked, “Tea, madam?”

Moyna nodded in affirmation.

Moyna lived in Singapore now. She was over fifty and had two children. Her sons had seen more of the rest of the world and less of India…

Her younger son came and said, “ Mamma do you have a spare earphone? I ripped mine again today.”

Moyna went inside to rummage her desk for an earphone. Her old portfolio got dislodged and fell out. The article on the coal mine workers fell to the floor. Moyna picked it up and looked at it. She showed it to her son. She told him how this article had won her kudos and a scholarship to a postgraduate course in a European university. The university had kept the article as part of their resource material in their library.

“Mamma why did the university keep it as their resource material?” asked her thirteen-year-old son.

Moyna said, “I don’t know… I wonder too.” She replaced the article in her portfolio. Her son wanted to read her old articles. She gave him her portfolio and walked to her balcony and sat down as her housekeeper brought in her tea. Moyna took a sip and started thinking of what had been.

She recalled how she had found it difficult to stomach the attitude of the professor at the European university. He insisted that their way was the best for third world countries to step out of poverty. Moyna had not agreed. Firstly, she hated the term third world. They were developing countries…there were so many differences she had… Moyna felt the best way to move forward was defined by the indigenous people themselves and their needs and not by the needs defined by other people. The need to move forward had to come from within. That could only come when the basic needs hunger, shelter and education were resolved…

Moyna had returned after she completed her course on Economic Development Studies and continued working for the newspaper till she fell in love, tied the knot with her husband and moved out of India.

Today as she stood watching the waves ripple across the water body in front of her home, she wondered, had she done the right thing submitting that report for her scholarship? Why did the university need a resource material like that…? She had never understood the reason…

She wondered did the settlement still exist? What were the worker’s living conditions? She googled the name of the settlement on  her mobile but drew a blank…

The needs of those workers were so different from hers. She remembered that

Moyna could not bear to look at beggars and poverty but what was she doing about it?

Moyna fell into a reverie.

Could she ever do anything for the poor? Could anyone do anything for them? Why did most people in India accept the state of things, including poverty and lack of education, as they were? Why is it all people did not still have access to housing, food, clean water, electricity and good roads?

What was this apathy?

Why were the basic needs so hard to meet for some countries and so easy for others?

Her husband’s voice jerked her back to the present reality. “A penny for your thoughts. What are you thinking?”

“I was thinking of the past… wondering what good did I do by going to the coal mines and writing about it…?” Moyna replied.

“The exposure taught you many things and you have brought up compassionate children… is that a small thing?”

“But I could do nothing to help improve their lot….”

“How do you know your article did not help the people who were trying to bring a positive change in the condition of the workers? At least it raised awareness about the plight of the workers among the readers…”

Moyna smiled. “You are trying to placate me. Come let us eat dinner.”