When you save a life, you save the world

Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.
Aditi Raychoudhury. My father readied for cremation as I bid my last goodbye. 2019 . Watercolors and Goauche.

Dear Baba,

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!

Vasant Panchami Part Two: Stealing Kul

Aditi Raychoudhury. My sister and I stealing kul. 2021. Colored version to come some day. #pencildrawing

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).

Vasant Panchami. 2017. Watercolor and Ink.
Vasant Panchami. 2017. Watercolor and Ink.
Sal leaf plates: Stitched together with small sticks. It is a cottage industry mostly run by women.
Sal Leaf Bowls

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.

Back to School, Then and Now

Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then and now. Watercolor and gouache. 2018.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then and now. Watercolor and gouache. 2018.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then and now. Watercolor and gouache. 2018.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then and now. Watercolor and gouache. 2018.

The most exciting part of going back to school during my childhood in India was getting new text books, skimming through them and sitting with my father covering and labeling them late into the night. A continent and a generation away, things couldn’t be more different with he focus on what to wear instead of what to read! 

Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then. 2018. Pencil on paper
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school then. 2018. Pencil on paper
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school now. 2018. Pencil on paper
Aditi Raychoudhury. Back to school now. 2018. Pencil on paper

For Better or Worse

Aditi Raychoudhury. Through Thick and Thin. 2019. Gouache and Watercolors.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Through Thick and Thin. 2019. Gouache and Watercolors.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Through Thick and Thin. 2019. Gouache and Watercolors.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Through Thick and Thin. 2019. Pencil on Paper.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Through Thick and Thin. 2019. Pencil on Paper.

Pandemic Thanksgiving

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing. November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

Aditi Raychoudhury. You are missing (Detail). November, 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
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..”

~ Bruce Springsteen

Bishorjon

Aditi Raychoudhury. Bishorjon. 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Bishorjon. 2020. Watercolor and Gouache.

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.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Bishorjon. 2020. Pencil on tracing paper.

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.

Shubho Bijoya

Aditi Raychoudhury. Snagging a Mango. Watercolors and Gouche on BFK Rives. 2017.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Snagging a Mango. Watercolors and Gouche on BFK Rives. 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Crazy Rickshaw Ride. Watercolors and Gouche on BFK Rives. 2017.

Aditi Raychoudhury. Crazy Rickshaw Ride. Pencil on Tracing Paper. 2017.
Aditi Raychoudhury. Crazy Rickshaw Ride. Pencil on Tracing Paper. 2017.

Maa has returned to her heavenly abode, as did mine, almost 20 years ago.

When we were little, the joy of pujo lay in waking up at the crack of dawn to Birendro Kishore Bhodro’s rendition of Mohaloya broadcast over All India Radio. It lay in the anticipation of more than a week off from school, wearing new clothes, eating bhog, and most of all meeting friends and family.

After I had moved to Delhi, pujo was a time to be with my parents, who had moved to Kolkata by then. Kolkata was a big change from the small town I had grown up in. The pandals of Raurkela were neither as creative as Kolkata, nor were they as crowded. The madness that grips Kolkata during pujo is not something anyone outside of Kolkata can understand or imagine.

This night was pujo’s biggest night – Ashtami. After offering our morning Anjali in the paaraar pandal, we decided not to venture out in the evening.

“Knock, knock, knock!!!” It was Monoronjon, our local rickshaw puller.

Those who are familiar with Kolkata, know that rickshaw pullers are our solution to getting to various modes of an otherwise efficient public transit system. Within every few blocks is a “rickshaw stand” marked only by a huddle of rickshaws. If you live in that neighborhood, you start using the same rickshaw puller to take you places, or to run errands. In our case, that man was Monoronjon.

“Ki Boudi, pujo dekhbeyn naa?” (Brother’s wife, don’t you want to go and see pujo?)
“Naa, eyi bheedeyr moddhey aar beyrotey bhaal laagey naa.” (No, its too crowded to be enjoyable)
“Sheyki??? Oshtomir din, protimaa dekhtey jaabeyn naa. Ey ki kothaa? Cholun. Aajkey keyu baadi boshey neyi. Cholteyi hobey.” (How can that be? Its Ashtami, Pujo’s big night. How can you not want to see Mother Goddess. No one stays home on Ashtami. I will take you through the backlanes. You have to come.)

And, so we did. Through the narrow back lanes of Selimpur to all the pujos in Jodhpur Park, Jadavpur park and even as far as Santoshpur. My sister and I hung on to our mother for dear life as Monoronjon expertly swerved his way through the winding streets and impenetrable crowds. A good three hours later – we were home.

“Eyyi jey, Monoronjon. Eyto ghoraaley. Koto holo?”(you took us around quite a bit. How much?)
“Sheyki baudi? Pujor din. Aami aapnedeyr ghora tey niyey gaychhi. Aapni to amaakey daakeyn ni.” (How can you even ask me that? Its pujo. I asked you to come with me. You didn’t ask me to take you.)
And with that, Monoronjon, our illiterate, dirt-poor rickshaw puller reminded us that pujo is so much more than new clothes, food or commerce. It is about sharing joy.