It’s May! School is out. It stays closed through the end of June. It’s too hot. We don’t have air-conditioning either at school nor at home, and our teachers don’t want to risk kids falling like flies to heatstrokes. As the temperature rises to 40oC (over 100oF) , we stay indoors with our windows shut and curtains drawn to keep the house cool. Everyone is napping. Well, we are all supposed to have a siesta to rest up before the cooler hours of the evenings to make whatever we all have to do a little easier. The heat is killing, but with this tremendous heat comes the most delicious fruit – fragrant, sweet and a little tart, and hundreds of species that are native to India – mangoes! Just like the cherry season here, the mango season, too, is very short and is about to reach it’s peak in June. But, so much has changed since I was that little girl sneaking out in the hottest hour of the day when I was supposed to nap to get some mangoes from the tree in our yard instead.
This year, I have to let go of that memory, because I am sure that the tree that gave me so many years of joy and deliciousness has been uprooted like so many others due to hurricane Amphan. This will be a bleak summer, as people shelter in place due to COVID19 and can’t even find solace in the deliciousness of that amazing fruit – that we eat, suck on, pickle, preserve and make innumerable things out of.
My heart is broken – just like those majestic tropical trees that are now strewn all over the ground.
I wanted to present an intimate portrait of a family during COVID19 and focus on that insidious killer, which no amount of handwashing or masks can destroy from ripping away our deep rooted need for human contact.
As we all shelter in place and wrestle against our distraught children, snippy spouses, simmering cabin fever and colossal uncertainty, I see spring’s riotous explosion of colors – it’s beauty, a ferocious and radical act of defiance against death and despair. It reminds me that our lives, too, will blossom back in technicolor, if we can seize little pleasures and completely embrace isolation.
Shefali scrambles through her day cooking and cleaning homes in Delhi. It’s backbreaking work that starts at the break of dawn and doesn’t end till well past sundown. But, she didn’t always live this life of a lowly paid, classless migrant worker struggling to make ends meet in a large confounding city. In fact, she and her husband owned land, a store and a fulfilling life in the Sundarbans. But one day, the hungry tide gobbled up their land – taking with it their home, their middle class life and worst of all – their dignity. Her heartbroken husband tried to find work in his beloved Sunderbans but was ultimately resigned to managing a tiny shop in a tiny scrap of land in the Sundarbans, despite the knowledge that this too shall be fodder for a now hostile sea.
But such is the magnetic draw of the Sundarbans, which I visited a few years ago. This unique region that is now ravenous for land is also great at stealing your heart. So profound is its tranquil beauty.
Shefali’s story of loss and displacement is just one out of numerous others who have been rendered homeless by the rising sea.
The Sundarbans Mangroves ecoregion on the coast is the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem, with 20,400 square kilometres (7,900 sq mi). Sundarban (সুন্দরবন) in Bengali means “beautiful forest”, named after the dominant mangrove species Heritiera fomes which is locally known as sundari (beautiful).
The Sundarbans are located in what used to be my beloved ancestral homeland of undivided Bengal that was partitioned into present day West Bengal and Bangladesh in 1947. Apart from having once been a sanctuary to the refugees of the bloody partition of India, the Sundarbans is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to the rare Royal Bengal Tigers, Gangetic and Irabati dolphins and other species unique to this region. But human development and climate change with its sea level and surface temperature rise, severe hurricanes and increased salinity could lead to the destruction of 75 percent of these mangroves as the sundari trees are exceptionally sensitive to salinity. This poses a threat not just for the survival of the indigenous flora and fauna but also for the protective biological shield the mangroves form against cyclones and tsunamis, putting the surrounding communities at a devastating risk. The submergence of land mass has already rendered up to 6,000 families homeless and around 70,000 people are now threatened with the same.
In an ironic twist of fate, the progeny of those who found refuge in this bucolic setting during the partition, are now becoming climate refugees with no place to call home. While we can’t stop the juggernaut of climate change from destroying life as we know it, policies within the GREEN NEW DEAL could potentially provide solutions to reduce the impact of climate change and restore a life of dignity for climate refugees.
When most Indians are celebrating Diwali and Rama’s return to Ayodhya after vanquishing the demon king Ravana, it is overshadowed by a lesser known festival, Kali Pujo when Kali, a more virulent form of Durga, is worshipped through the night with great fervor in Eastern India. As a Bengali, I was very much a part of this tradition, and we would go out late in the night, to pay our respect to beautifully decorated idols of Kali, resplendent in her garland of blood red hibiscus flowers and demonic heads. We would have bhog after midnight, the highlight of which was an oxymoron – the unusual vegetarian goat curry. If you think this curry is made out of trendy fake meat, you are very much mistaken. Kali Pujo, predates fake meat by centuries! What apparently makes this curry “vegetarian” is the lack of onions and garlic that are otherwise always used in a traditional Bengali goat curry. The goat for this curry is comes from a male goat that was sacrificed at midnight, a ritual I was witness to once as a little girl.
We were at my dida’s (maternal grandma’s) house in Purnia. My widowed grandmother, was a devotee of RamKrishna, a Bengali saint, who in turn was a devotee of Maa Kali. She would take us to the Purnia Kali Bari at least once during our stay with her. It was a trip that I enjoyed very much with its rhythmically bumping rickshaw ride as it snaked through tall palm trees that had little clay pots strung right around where their leaves ended. It looked as though the trees had necklaces around their neck. I enjoyed looking at the daring men who climbed way up high with minimal safety gear to collect the sweet sap from the pots. The sap has a nutty smoky flavor that tastes a bit like maple syrup. It is mildly processed to make yummy nolen gur that went into flavoring my favorite desserts. The sap of some other palms were used to make toddy. What that tastes like, I can’t tell, because I have never had any. Most of all I loved the serene setting of this little temple by the river amidst lush tropical greens.
This time we were in Purnia for Kali Pujo and yes, as usual, we were going to venerate Maa Kali – this time at the Purnia Kali Bari. Like before we jumped on to our parents laps, and bumped along the road as our parents hugged us tightly. Little did I know that this trip was going to be quite different, one that would be seared in my memory.
As, we disembarked on this new moon night that lay suspended between the end of Sharad and the start of Shishir, I was taken aback by the sound of prayers being offered to a male black goat. Oh, how handsome he looked with his garland of bright red hibiscus flowers shining brightly against his silky black fur as he was gently being guided towards the sacrificial altar. As the goat realized its ultimate fate, its joyful pride dissolved into trembling bleats which despite their softness, split right through this dark night. Oh, the poignancy of his bleats! I ran as far away as I could and shut my ears, waiting for that blissful serendipity of the place to return. A few short moments later, all went numbingly quiet, as the giant sword, swiftly decapitated this goat in one fell swoop. It was over – but not for me. I just couldn’t get those plaintive bleats out of my head. With my heart in shards, it became impossible to settle into the quietness of a Hemant new moon. The sight of that goat curry made me gag, and I couldn’t eat it. Even though it didn’t make me a vegetarian, and I continued to enjoy our Sunday goat curries for many years, I couldn’t forget this little goat – so happy in its veneration, so terrified of its ultimate end.
In the process of painting this, I came to realize that I had been so shaken by that event that I had forgotten what time of day this deadly ritual had taken place.
Much has changed since then. Activists have managed to highlight the cruelty of this practice and most temples now sacrifice a gourd instead of a goat.
But despite all their activism, eating meat and the number of brutal slaughterhouses have increased manifold in India. During the process of capturing this memory, I started to wonder is it really worse to occasionally eat a few small bites of meat of an animal that was raised with love, venerated, and killed with compassion and the belief that because of this great sacrifice, he shall be reborn as a human being than to stock up our freezers with mounds of beautifully butchered shapes of meat that bear no resemblance to the being that they came from?
As we ramp up to Thanksgiving, I question our activism that results in hiding from sight what we can’t stand to bear. As we gather around any festive table, perhaps what we should be most thankful for is the being that gave its life to bind us together around the table to cherish our friends and families, and nourish our bodies and souls.
When I was growing up, shashti was my most exciting day. We wore our first set of pujo clothes, and I couldn’t wait for dusk to fall, so that I could see bodhon , the unveiling of Maa Durga ’s face , as she is invited to spend time on our earth (Amantran and Adhibash ) On mahasaptami, the statue icomes alive as she steps into our mortal world to start her epic battle against evil Mahisasur who she vanquishes on Ashtami. She isn’t just brave and strong. Before vanquishing Mahisasura, she promises that despite his misdeeds, he too shall be worshipped along with her and her children. And, so, Durga pujo is not merely prayers for her, but for her children and even the misguided demon. That’s what makes Durga Pujo an epic story and makes Bengalis go crazy during this festival. Here I am with my mother and sister during the Big Reveal !
Reposting with a new image. This post is from 2014
When my father died last summer, so did my childhood. Pouf! Just like that! UNEXPECTEDLY, in that very moment as I stared at the slowly forming words, ” Your father passed away”. To this, and, with this one person in the world, I was, and, could always be, a child – not just middle-aged progeny, whose achievements (or lack there of) one could gloat or bemoan about. And his very last birthday wish to me said just as much.
It recalled an incident from nearly forty years ago. I was around 2 years old, hovering around my brother, who had just started kindergarten, struggling to write his lower case ‘a’ in cursive. Fluttering about him, I boasted that it was so easy that even I could do it. Surprised, my parents asked, “How so?” “An ‘a’ is nothing (Yes, kids can be insensitive!). During my last birthday, this incident was still fresh in his mind.
And, just like that 2-year-old, who hadn’t transcended the plasticity of time inside his mind, I continued to make demands long after I had left home. In the US, it was for the things that were almost impossible to find outside of Bengal – Gobindo Bhog Chaal (an incredibly fine-grained fragrant rice), Shona Moongeyr Daal (fine grained gold colored mung bean lentils), Moori (Bengali puffed rice), Mukhorochok (a sweet, salty, and sour snack mix) and Mokaibari tea. I knew that despite his failing health, and limited mobility, he would never fail me. And, sure as ever, he would arrive, with these common Bengali treats, packed in (and sometimes, disastrously strewn all over) his suitcase. Along with them, would also arrive a few banal trinkets that weren’t special to anybody, but me.
When he died last year, 16 years after my mother did, not only did I become a middle-aged orphan – but, I also lost that last refuge where I could always be a child.
That child who led a simple life, in a simple town, in a simpler time. That child who spent most of her afternoons reading, drawing, chasing butterflies, climbing trees, eating guavas, and, running around the neighborhood sucking nectar out of wild flowers. That child, who stared, with wondrous rapture at the birds flying across a bright fuschia sky, and, knew that it was time to wander her way back home from the hills behind her house, where she had just whiled away many happy hours. That child whose heart burnt just as brightly as that spotless evening sky.
As a parent to a pre-schooler, I know that it may be many years before I can shrug-off the self-generated urge to stress over school, organize my space to mimic an IKEA display, and make my meals look like they had just jumped out of the pages of Vegetarian Times, and release my heart instead, to long afternoons amidst the wild flowers of California, and, sink my feet into the wet ocean sand.
On the other hand, as a parent to a pre-schooler, it might just be more possible than ever to relive those childhood wonders of peering through grass, looking for snails, squeezing my eyes as the ocean surf hits my face, and dissolving into laughter at the first lick of ice-cream on a hot day.
While I no longer draw with the passion and freedom that I did as a child, my daughter’s free forms lead me to where I want to be.
Here are some of the things she drew when she was a little over two years old.
Picasso had said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” May be by the time she is my age, I will learn to draw and laugh like her again.