75 years ago, on August 15th, 1947, “at the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world slept, India awoke to life and freedom” and promised to bring equal opportunity, justice and fullness of life to everyone who lived in India.
As a child of the 70s, I saw my country steady itself towards this north star every time the billowing waves of religious turmoil rocked it to its very core. Not a day went by when we didn’t take pride in its religions, languages, cultures and communities that were so diverse and yet so uniquely and equally Indian. In fact, my non-Indian often ask me, “You all speak different languages, eat different foods, produce different textiles, yet I don’t know of any community who identify so strongly with their country of birth and strive to go back to there as often. I fail to understand what, despite all these differences, makes you feel so Indian?” I have no answer because it has always been this way. Each Indian community takes pride in its language, foods, faith, and culture, and yet knows we are all connected through our shared history.
Today, as that country of my childhood steers far far away from fulfilling that pledge of equality made some 75 years ago, are we brave enough and wise enough to yet again realize that quintessential trait that is at the heart of our Indian identity – that despite all our differences we are much stronger when we embrace our Unity in Diversity?
Its been eight years since we lost you and not a day goes by when I don’t think of you. Like most children, there are so many special memories boundd with a parent – but what ties all our memories together is your unbridled and overwhelming kindness – an overarching trait that everyone best remembers you for.
You raised your voice only once with each of your children – Amber, Pratiti and me. When we got married you embraced our spouses as your own. It’s a pity that my sister-in-law and our children missed out on creating those loving memories with you.
Every time I raise my voice and more, I reflect on how can I be just a tiny bit more like you? How can I transcend my impatience, anger, intolerance and transform those emotions into a stream of kindness like you did? When Ma became too ill to take care of herself you took care of her. Unlike so many men of your generation, you were never too squeamish to change our soiled nappies or wipe her soiled bottom. No act of care was beneath you. You and Ma had not met till your wedding day, yet it is the best marriage that I know of.
While Ma toiled away to raise us, you were that gentle cloud that protected us from the heat of anger. Every weekend you took us to the market and kept us out of Ma’s hair, because you knew she needed a break from being a parent. You understood, that like Satyajit Ray’s protagonist Charulata, she needed to be her own woman – in her case, that meant continuing her long daily riyaaz on the sitar. She never had to ask that of you. In fact, no one ever had to ask what they needed from you – such was your empathy.
Once when my cocky teenage self had asked you “Baba, why do you keep helping others, even though you know that they will never pay you back?” You said, ever so gently, “I know. I know that they won’t pay me back, but the day we lose our humanity, we cease to be human.” Its something I have never forgotten. While I am not you, and can never be you, extending random acts of kindness is something I try to do to honor you.
How surreal to live in a time when I feel relieved that you went out like a candle that was extinguished in a sudden whiff of wind. We had spoken with you just the night before to plan our trip to Alaska in the Fall. The next call from Kolkata the following morning was of your passing – a massive heart attack.
But, we could at least get on a plane within a day of you passing away and perform your last rites. Today I feel a deep dark ocean of sadness for every person who has lost a loved one to COVID. I can think of almost no greater tragedy than to have to grieve in isolation without being able to participate in the rites that every religion has in place to bring closure. All of you, who have lost someone during this pandemic, please know that I am thinking of you, just as I am thinking of my father today and everyday. As I am pummeled with news of COVID deaths in India from friends and family, I implore anyone who has been reading this to donate to https://affirm.giveindia.org – a COVID relief fundraiser organized by Aniruddh and other southasians at Affirm. No amount is too small.
“When you save a life, you save the world”. Thank you!
Id is a time of celebration after a long period of fasting. In a typical year, millions would travel to their hometowns to celebrate the end of the fasting month of #Ramzan ( #ramadan) with their families, and crowd into markets and malls sharing greetings and sweets. However, this year, celebrations are more personal and less communal – due to a dreaded pandemic.
India is home to the second largest muslim population in the world. Surprised? So, when I was growing up, we saw Id celebrations everywhere and my grandfather’s best friend would present him with a #raan (leg of goat). In India, almost every Muslim stops to rejoice for a few minutes following the adhan. Muslims break their fasts with family and friends, with most Mosques also arranging free ‘iftar’. Preparations for #iftar commence hours before, in homes and at roadside stalls – may be even buy a lovely new umbrella to prepare for the impending monsoons a couple of months later. Iftar begins by eating dates or drinking water, but this is only the opening of a rich meal. The spread of ‘iftar’ can be grand, with both vegetarian to non-vegetarian dishes and a variety of juices and sherbets. Iftar usually is a heavy meal and is followed by a second, lighter dinner eaten before the night (isha) prayers and the taraweeh prayers.
Since India is a diverse country, there are variations in how Id is celebrated as well. In Hyderabad and nearby areas, people often break their fast with #Haleem because it has a rich taste and is quite filling. In other southern states (Tamil Nadu and Kerala), Muslims break their fast with nonbu kanji, a rich, filling rice dish of porridge consistency, cooked for hours with meat and vegetables. This is often served with bonda, bajji, and vadai. Vegetarians break their fast with a dish called surkumba, which is prepared from milk, and this is particularly popular in certain parts of Karnataka. In northern states like Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal, the fast is typically ended with fresh dates, cut fresh fruits (sometimes served as chaat) and fruit juice along with fried dishes like samosas, pakodas etc.
Given that I was witness to these joyous celebrations, and looked forward to the muezzin’s call to prayer, I am utterly ashamed of the anti-muslim rhetoric growing in strength in India today. Let’s not forget the true message of ANY religion or festivities which is to serve others and bring communities together, and at no time is this more important to remember than now as we are still in the middle of a pandemic.
Let’s remember to love and protect each other by following all the protocols necessary to stop this virus in its tracks, so that by next year, we can all celebrate as we have for centuries.
Its the fifth (panchami) day of Spring (Basant) in Bengal and with it comes this festival dedicated to the Goddess of Knowledge, Saraswati. I used to love everything about this festival. It’s a day of freedom from learning as we surrender our books, instruments, ghungrus (dancing bells), pens and pencils in front of the Goddess of learning, so that she can bless each one of these tokens of learning and make us fruitful in our pursuit of knowledge and wisdom. It is often very intimate in scale and for us, it was always held at one of my favorite family’s home – the Chatterjis.
Chatterji Jethu* was sprightly, a great gardener and just an overall gentle and affectionate person to be with, especially because he would always invite us when the lychees in his yard were ready for our raiding. Chatterji Jethima* was known for her cooking skills through out the neighborhood – especially her aachaars** and ghughni*** and luchi***. The neighborhood adult community came together to cook giant vats of food as we ran around playing with our friends. We would sit down in batches to eat the bhog****, served on plates made with the shaal pata (Shorea_robusta).
But the most exciting part was that we could finally eat the forbidden fruit – Kul (Indian Jujube).. but only after the prayers had been offered. But, really wait for prayers before we could eat Kul?? We have waited long enough for the fruit to be just ripe and ready to eat.
Here I am with my sister Pratiti Raychoudhury throwing caution to the wind and creeping in to steal some kul after everything has been beautifully arranged for the Goddess to eat and bless but before prayers have been offered and blessings have been completed. Will eating kul before the eager Goddess make her petulant enough to dump a bunch of Math problems we can’t solve? Are we going to get failing grades? Who cares, eating this fruit before the ceremony has taken place is worth every drop in grades.
*Terms for your parents’ friends when they are older than your father **Aachaar : Indian preserves *** Whole yellow peas curry with about 4″ diameter fried bread ****Food that has been blessed by Gods/ Goddesses.
Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
Having lost my mother to cancer at 26, and my father to a heart attack 16 years later, I am no stranger to losing those we hold dear. While I still miss them after all these years, I was able to hug them and kiss them as I said my final goodbye.. a privilege that so many families across the world have not had as their loved one fell victim to this deadly virus. I can’t imagine the heartbreak of not being able to hold your loved one and say that final good bye.
As you struggle through this festival dedicated to gratitude and love of family, I can’t say that you will stop missing those you have lost. But as the years go by, may that empty chair that you are can barely look at through your tears today, fill up with love and cherished memories that you share with generations around the table, just like I share the memories of the grandparents my daughter couldn’t meet.
Much love to all Americans during this difficult Thanksgiving. Cherish love, and have a safe Thanksgiving.
“Pictures on the nightstand, TV’s in the den, Your house is waiting, your house is waiting, For you to walk in, for you to walk in, But you are missing, you’re missing..”
The victory of good over evil as Durga vanquishes Mahisasura in an epic battle, is celebrated as Bijoya or victory. We wear new clothes and visit our friends and family to eat, eat and eat some more of our wonderful delicacies that are specific to the season. However, the joyous Bijoya is not complete without Bishorjon, the act of immersing the clay idols into bodies of life giving water. It’s a day when the streets are lined with people waiting to catch a last glimpse of Ma Durga as she leaves her maternal home amongst us to go back to her home in Mount Kailash.
I remember waiting for this poignant moment, eagerly waiting to catch a glimpse of Durga for the very last time as the sounds of cymbals and dhaaks got louder and louder. My heart pounding, “She is coming! She is coming!” And then finally, you see her emerging from round the corner, the majestic statue of Durga flanked by her children, slowly getting larger and larger til she is right in front of us for a brief moment before passing us by as we bid our sad silent goodbyes. Our eyes well up with soft tears, as we assure ourselves, “Aashbey! Maa abate aashbey!” (She will be back again), as the crowd slowly disperses.
Even though, in reality the entire giant statue of Durga and her children are immersed into the river amidst loud clamor, I wanted to capture the intimate moment of gently letting go as a priest cradles Ganesha, one of Durga’s children, before he gently drops him into the water. As we feast for days, even after Durga has left us, Bishorjon is a gentle reminder of learning to letting go. It is a reminder that sadness and happiness are welded together in hope that this short-lived season of celebration as the monsoons ease up and summer gives way to early autumn will be back with festivals in spring and then finally the days of celebration all over India in the early autumn months.. a season for reasons unbeknownst to me has always felt bittersweet – happy for the crisp sun and grand festivals to come and yet sad as the year is definitely coming to an end.
Ya devi sarva bhuteshu, shakti rupena sangsthita, Namastasyai, namastasyai, namastasyai, namo namaha
[To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Power, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations again and again]
Long gone are those days when we would fall into expectant sleep knowing we would be up at the crack of dawn to this chant welcoming the arrival of Goddess Durga who would slay the demon Mahisasura Most Bengalis of my generation and generations before me did this. I am not sure if that still happens – certainly not in my US household and its a travesty. My daughter knows nothing about the uncontrollable excitement over Ma Durga’s arrival (with her children in tow), school closure, and going out every day in brand new clothes to eat delicious bhog with our friends and just soak in the indescribable atmosphere. What a loss for my daughter and everyone who has never experienced it. Here is @sandip.rc capturing my experience in his podcast https://www.kalw.org/post/sandip-roy-happy-durga-puja-2016