Gardening in the Fall

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Gardening in the Fall
Susim Munshi

From July to September my garden bloomed, changing shapes, sizes and colors as summer progressed. Creating a Zen garden to replace an old and fraying stretch of hedges along the alley was very fulfilling. With every passing day it became a delight for neighbors, walkers, bikers, and joggers. Compliments were exchanged. Everyone worth retelling. A passerby saw us relaxing and taking in the view one evening. He asked if he may join us. I gave him a spare chair. Together we watched the tall grass sway, bees and butterflies savored the honey from carpet roses, pink and white cone flowers, and a bunny hopped across the grass. The water in the pond spiraled out of the fountain and fell back with a soft murmur. Above on some utility wires doves cooed. A cardinal sang from a sagging branch of the neighbors tree.

Time turned. Now it’s October. Fall is upon us. A brisk and chilly wind scatters the leaves. The sun sets earlier. Squirrels are gathering their winter stockpile. And I am putting the garden to bed. But first I decorated my Halloween patch. Out came the years old scarecrow. He replaced the upturned water pond container that went into safekeeping in the garage till next Spring. Old Jack has a swaying, green and purple witch to keep him company. By night a string of pumpkin lights adds to the attraction. I gather the dry leaves and make a huge pile, different sizes, multiple colors, crunchy to step on. A Wisconsin like fall in our own backyard.

Without a visual it’s hard to picture the various gardens in our wrap around 18,000 square feet yard. But a 30ft by 4ft plot we call our wild flower garden has really seen its best days for this season. It’s the space I use to house all the cut down bushes, flowers, and vegetables, I clear in the fall. All the left overs from the carpet roses, the bleeding hearts, the hydrangeas, the Russian sage, the globe amaranths, the lilies, the hostas, the clematis,  the Indian bitter melon, the tomatoes, the cucumber, the zinnias, the calla lilies. Sort of my natural mulch and compost bed.

My wife and I nearly cried the day I took down the pink globe amaranths. They started as two six inch potted plants in July and over the summer they completely filled up a 25 feet by 3 feet plot. Thousands of blooms,  always looking fresh. Waving and swaying in with the wind. It is the sunny side of the yard facing true south. I prepped the bed for our tulips and daffodils. First the amaranths came out, flowers, foliage and roots. I turned the soil around with a rake. Then I topped the entire area with two inches of enriched topsoil. Next was the back breaking work. I strapped on my knee protectors and on my hands and feet, I went back and forth the twenty five feet, first planting the tulips, roughly six inches apart, six inches deep,  staggered front and back, all fifty bulbs. Then I repeated the same with fifty daffodil bulbs. When I finally straightened up it was 1pm. I had started at 10 am after a hearty breakfast of eggos with maple syrup, topped with strawberries, and a scoop of my favorite scrambled eggs. Here I have to share a secret. For next I lit up a cigar, stretched out in a lounging chair, and enjoyed a few puffs, saving the cigar for when the job was done. I hauled out a new fifty pound bag of black munch and evenly spread it out to cover and hide the newly planted bulbs. Now all there is left to do is wait for next spring.  

It’s not yet winter. It’s a little nippy in the mornings.  But I still go out for a walk before breakfast. Squirrels are darting around collecting the nuts. I hope they will find them when they are buried under three feet of snow. Sometimes my front yard looks like a slab of iceberg ready to break away. Hopely that can wait another month. I want the kids to have a safe Thanksgiving trip home. I checked out the Christmas decorations in the garage. Our Christmas tree is one that stores away every year. Yet, it does look handsome and pretty. Fills out the living room.

Before then there will be Diwali, the Festival of Lights. My Halloween decorations will come down. The outdoor lighted trees will go up. They all make a garden of sorts from Fall, through Winter, and next Spring.

 

Do Somethings to Improve the World

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Do Somethings to Improve the World
Susim Munshi

Learn to live a life of courage and purpose. Don’t let fear or inhibition hold you back. Your actions, however small and insignificant, count. It all adds up. Lets say, like me you believe in the power of prayer. There is an ancient Sanskrit prayer you can recite to bring peace, joy and happiness to everyone, especially for the poor and distressed. The prayer also inspires you to use your own words, thoughts and actions to help to bring about that peace, joy and happiness. Have the courage to recite the prayer and teach it to the next person you meet and convince them to practice the prayer regularly. Here is the text of that Sanskrit prayer – “Lokah samastha sukhenu bhabantu.” (I pray for peace, joy and happiness for all the people all over the world. I pray that my words, thoughts and actions contribute towards that peace, joy and  happiness.)

It takes only a little bit of courage when you are convinced about the purpose of your actions. At one time I was working out regularly trying to participate in the Chicago Marathon to raise money for a charitable organization, Asha For Education, that sponsors free schools for the poor and oppressed in India. I needed to find friends who would sponsor me to run in the marathon; $1 for every one of the twenty six miles. Rather than talk to friends at work or social gatherings, I decided to host a wine and cheese open house at my home with the express purpose of sharing the work of Asha For Education and asking for sponsors. It would be easy to fit fifty people in my home spread out between the living room, the eat in kitchen, the den, and my wife’s home office. I sent out the evites with some apprehension. I didn’t have to wait long before the acceptances started showing up in my inbox. The gathering was a success in many ways. I had invited the leadership of the local chapter to make the Asha For Education presentation. They were overwhelmed by the response from my friends and colleagues and had  a whole list of folks they could persuade to join the race. I was able to reach my sponsorship goal very comfortably.

Some years later when my daughter was going to high school she decided to join a club that was part of a not-for-profit charity group Expanding Learning who were raising money to support a summer exchange program for girls in Africa. The girls were given the opportunity to attend a summer camp in the US where they learnt the foundations of launching an indigenous business. They also learnt about women’s health and hygiene, and contraceptives, all topics that were taboo back in their home countries. In exchange the girls ran similar workshops when they returned home and with help from American sponsors launched indigenous businesses. One year my daughter and her high school club decided to host a garage sale to raise money for the exchange program. They needed a family willing to give up their garage to store the donations from all their friends and their families. They also needed a family willing to host the garage sale. We opened our hearts, the garage doors and the driveway and front yard. For the next month we parked on the street. Everyday we had people drop off their donations, big and small. I created and updated a spreadsheet for the inventory. My wife, daughter, her friends, and I labelled items with red, yellow, green, brown stickers denoting their asking price. On the day of the garage sale we passed out cookies and lemonade. By the end of the day the girls had grossed $400!

I was lucky to have parents who could afford to send me to St. Xavier’s School, Sahibganj. Eventually my parents made a choice to move to and work as volunteers at the school.  The prestigious English medium school decided to launch a Hindi medium school for the economically challenged and socially marginalized families in and around Sahibganj. Students could attend a St. Xavier’s School almost for free. SOXA, the alumni association of St. Xavier’s English medium school, began to raise funds to support the families and students of St. Xavier’s Hindi medium school. When my parents passed away, I started to fund a scholarship in their memory to support students of the Hindi medium school. Now when every US dollar is worth nearly Indian Rs. 74, my donation of US $1,000 translates to roughly Rs. 75,000. At an average expense of Rs. 5,000 per student per year, fifteen students will go to school and a brighter future in the memory of my loving parents.

Prayer and action can go along way to make a difference to our world. Don’t let your inhibitions hold you back. Take the first tiny steps to making the world a better place. It will make you feel a whole lot better and BIGGER! Just because you cannot change the world, don’t let it stop you from showing some courage to work to change your friends and family. There are always somethings you can do, however inconspicuous, to change our world.

 

Next Year Will Be Different

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Next Year Will Be Different!
Susim Munshi

Vijaya Dashami marks the end of ten days of Durga Puja celebrations in many Hindu homes across India. It is the time for new beginnings. Mother Durga has conquered and subdued the evil, Asura. Rama has vanquished Ravan. I am laying my garden to bed for the winter. I am preparing for next year. Next year, starting today, will be different.

This year I heard the best interpretation of Mother Durga’s slaying Asura, the elusive buffalo demon. At the end  of leading the gathering through the prayer offered to Mother Durga, the priest stated – “I am not sure if the story retold in our homes of Mother slaying the buffalo demon is true or not, but this much I know – Mother is driving the demon out of our hearts.” The message resonated with me. With every passing day after Vijaya Dashami I will try first not to let the devil into my heart. But, as the myth goes, Asura disguises himself in many forms, beguiles us and slips into our hearts and minds. I know I will recognize him when I fill his evil ways choke my heart and blind my reasoning. Then, I will make a superhuman effort to drive him out. Restore Mother’s special place in my heart, soul and life.

Laying the garden to bed for the winter is a laborious and tedious process. There are no new blooms to reward my painstaking, back breaking work. Not for another seven months. This I know because of the harsh winter in Chicago. What if the squirrels find my carefully planted daffodil and tulip bulbs? No regrets. I provided them with a much needed meal and in their place I will fill in some seasonal spring flowers. A happy thought already radiated through me. My generous work of volunteering at the Chicago Botanical Gardens has rewarded me all summer long with the most spectacular blooms of globe amaranths. You see when you volunteer at the gardens, pulling weeds, on your hands and feet, getting in between the cracks in the brick paving, deadheading lilies and hostas, sometimes you get to bring home a few saplings of seasonal flowers. On that hot June day I brought home two six inch potted globe amaranths. And the two grew and grew and grew, with love and care to fill a three feet by twenty feet rectangular bed in my yard. Pink globe amaranths, hundreds, perhaps, thousands,  charming the entire neighborhood.

We are making a dent in our garage, clearing away years of accumulated wealth, now junk. There’s an important reason to keep the home clear of clutter. To ensure that someone else doesn’t have to do the job later on, what the Swedish call “death cleaning”. The garage is a beginning. There is also the attic and the crawl space. The bookcases and the filing cabinets in the office. More bookcases in the den. Next year will be different. We will be able to call ourselves minimalistic. Time and effort are a given, especially when you have to keep the appointment you made with the Salvation Army or the American Vets to haul away your “junk” that we must place outside the front door by 7am.

No garage sale this year. We did that about three years ago when we opened our garage to a not-for-profit group Expanding Lives that my daughter is a part of. For weeks we let families and friends bring and store their “junk”in our garage. Everyday we labeled red, yellow, orange, brown stickers to denote their resale values.  I even kept an inventory in a spreadsheet. When we hosted the garage sale Expanding Lives grossed $400. It was the first summer of our retirement. When you open your heart, the devil runs away. Mother Durga thrives.

We have not started in the attic. Yet we knew of a bag full of books that belonged to my mother from the time when she came to live with us. There we found a beautiful treasure. My mother’s Bhagavad Gita in Bengali. It is a small pocket book size, easy to carry everywhere. My mother made her own red silk cloth cover for it. She embroidered the word “Gita”, in Bengali “গীতা”, with a golden thread. It will replace the smartphone in my trouser pocket. One more step towards independence from social media, which somewhat like Asura, keeps creeping back into our lives. Now when I sit to wonder about the theo-philosophical questions – Why do we exist? What is life’s purpose? What comes after death? – the Bhagavad Gita and the sacred words of Lord Krishna will be nearby to enlighten my journey to Brahman, the ultimate realty, knowledge pure and simple. Simplicity, clarity, singleness.

Next year there will be no Facebook. I am reclaiming my independence from social media. That also means, no Twitter, Instagram or Google Circles. In 2016 when Trump won and Hillary lost, I got my independence from CNN. This year will be a bigger celebration. More books and magazines to read. More music to listen to. And that Nutcracker ballet I have been meaning to see for a long time.

In the meantime, after spending an afternoon taking down the priceless globe amaranths, there are fresh leaves a falling from the neighbors trees. Somehow my maples have all shed and have been mulched into the grass. I must find a away from keeping my Halloween witch from wrapping herself around my Halloween scarecrow. Luckily the pumpkin lights are on timer. They come on at dusk, and shut off at dawn (when there is one.) I just read a wonderful article in the National Geographic travel magazine about a climate buff who takes bicycle trips through climate change threatened locations in Colorado, Tennessee, New England and more. Next year the bicycle hanging from the garage ceiling will come down. I will ride to the Chicago Botanic on my volunteer days and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Yes, next year will be different!

 

Um . . . What do you tell a pumpkin?

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Um . . . What do you tell a pumpkin?
Susim Munshi

For three days during the BAGC Durga Puja 2018, I worked at a booth to promote the property development and management venture of a distant cousin in Kolkata. Being so close to Halloween I brought along bags of candy that I put out in a large pumpkin bowl. I knew the children would love it. Pretty soon the word went around that a funny man was passing out free candy at his booth. In addition to asking to take a piece or two of candy (very polite children) they also asked me the questions I was play acting with them.

It all started when the little girl at my neighbors sari and jewelry booth got bored straightening the ear rings on the display stand at her grandmother’s booth and began to inch towards the smiling face of the man next door with the pumpkin candy bowl. Needless to say that having been a school teacher all my life there is a tone to my voice which reassures children that I adore and respect children of all ages. Little M found it inviting to approach me, and after a few moments of pondering, her guard was down when I asked her to look for the missing tongue of the pumpkin bowl. Yes, I said, I had just seen it lick its lips clean. What do you mean? And I went, Like This, and made an elaborate imitation of the pumpkin sticking his tongue out to lick the bowl. Little M was taken in by my performance and little as she is, she believed me and looked all around the bowl searching for the tongue. Yes, it must have slipped it below all the candy in the bowl. And was waiting to take a big sloppy lick when nobody was looking. Are you sure? Of course I am. I am a teacher. I wouldn’t lie to you. Little M did not protest and was about to stick her hands in to the candy bowl. I cautioned her that the pumpkin was tempting her to do so, so he could bite of her fingers. Soon enough Little M and I both found out we needed a new game to keep up our friendship.

Just then I asked her, What do you tell a pumpkin? Little M wondered for a few minutes and drew a blank. Why M you say, Olla Jack-O-Lantern. Surprisingly the next cue came from M. She piped in, What do you tell a witch? I made my eyes light up, imagined my hair standing on end, curled my fingers viciously, willed my fingernails to grow three inches, and waving my arms in the air, I let out a subdued but shrill, OoooooOOOOH! Down the hallway a classroom had decorated their doorway in the Halloween theme. Their spider webs swayed with my shrill cry, the cat jumped the fence, and ghosts encircled the rickety house. Little M was thrilled as she played along.

The candy bowl was not emptying fast enough. I didn’t wish to drive back with an unopened two pounds bag of tootsie lollipops. So I asked Little M to extend the pumpkin bowl to passing children and adults and ask them to help themselves to the candy. While children were standing around, M asked, What do you tell a wizard? Children and adults looked on as I became a slim and really tall wizard with a flowing white beard, and sticking my old skinny hands out of the colorful robe, I said whistling through uneven teeth, Gilly Gilly Hocus Pocus, waved by hands in a large swooosh and vanished in thin air.

Hardly had the act ended, when one of the gathered children asked, What do you tell a green monster? I became tall and big, squared up my shoulders, puffed out my chest, rounded my fists, pulled my arms in front of my chest and shook them furiously, my wrist watch chain jingling, steam blowing out of my ears, I said in a rough and tough voice, one loud, roaring word, RRRRUUUUNNN!

The rest of the evening became interspersed with children and adults making return visits to get more candy and request second acts. In between I talked to some clients about developing, buying and selling property. All the candy and all my business cards were gone. Little M and I had become an instant success, my little pumpkin and I.

 

Is it true there are Alpaca Mountains?

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Is it true there are Alpaca Mountains?
Susim Munshi

My favorite place to sit and wonder is by the bay window on the Rising-from-the-Fire-Phoenix covered winged chairs. It helps my heart and my mind to take flight. As if I owned an Aladdin’s carpet. Magic is a lovely thing. You know you can make magic with your heart and mind. Especially when you look at a cumulus cloud slowly pass by and change into many forms – now a wild charging bull elephant, now some sweet bunnies, now some alpacas. Or a girl holding a bouquet of flowers.

A fire burning in the fireplace, an iron kettle keeping the water hot, a cup of your favorite tea. The path outside my window rolling up and down the mountains. When you get to the bottom of the valley, an alpacas farm. I lean back in my chair and will the clouds into my image. At this time the tree lined park opposite by bay window is turning into the rich colors of autumn.  There is one tree in particular whose leaves turn bronze and never shed in the winter. Like some Indian lady decked in many pairs of golden earrings shaped like leaves and petals. When I go to Horsetooth Mountain, Colorado, I can walk out the front door and watch the peaks and valleys change colors with the passing clouds. As a kid we hung white sheets in a dark room and used a flashlight to cast curious shadows. Once we were able to create a line of camels tracing a slim line up and down sand dunes. The music was the wind whistling through the sand. Some sand gritting between our teeth. Up here at Horsetooth the wind sings as it rustles through the pines and aspens, intermittently the alpacas bleat. Outside my Skokie bay window a fresh snowfall has covered the tracks of neighbors who like to go cross country skiing around the small snow hills in the park. Hiding in the shadows of the pines, there are alpacas.  

Once I followed a lone coyote slipping in and out of the shadows until it pounced on an adventurous bunny. A harsh winter had drawn the coyote out of the nearby forest preserve to forage in the neighborhood. That night big and dirty monster fangs tore me into shreds and I groped desperately at my throat for air. Baby alpacas dashed about for safety. The farm dogs tore off to their rescue. The lights came on in the barn. A gunshot rang out in the night. Then it was silent and safe. I filled  the cup with hot water from the kettle swinging on the hearth and settled down on the sofa with the alpaca wool wrap pulled tightly round my shoulders. It was many hours before dawn. Yet in the deep silence came the thud thud of an axe splitting wood. Someone was kindling a fire long before breakfast. A sickle of a moon cast a pale silver line swaying with the pine tops. The sled tracks outside my window were frozen stiff. What looked like antlers were pointing accusing fingers at the heavens. The tea was reassuring. The golden leaves were still.

 

The Power of Suggestion – A Bicycle Without Handlebars

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
The Power of Suggestion – A Bicycle Without Handlebars
Susim Munshi

What a bicycle without handlebars? No, not the uni-wheel at a circus. That’s right a two wheeler without handle bars, the rider and four passengers. Only in a fantastic dream. This is one ghost of a dream I don’t wish to banish. It plays out occasionally which helps me recall colorful details. I don’t believe my uncle, Kaka, the rider, ever owned a bicycle in the first place. Though I heard it been told that when the family, seeking desperately to eek out an existence, started a home soap making operation, Kaka sometimes drove the three wheeled box cart they used for making deliveries. But that’s a story for another time. By the way, I ought to tell you that the dreams I write about, visit in the waking hours of the night, which makes recalling them easier. As if I just lived in one.

That morning Kaka as usual, which is entirely untrue, started out on his bicycle for the ride to the train station, where he intended to catch a train for the ride into the city where he worked. He was going to escort my three cousins and I up to the city railway hub and see us safely onto a bus that would take us the rest of the way to yet another cousin’s home to join in the “bhai phota” festivities. Bengalis girls celebrate an additional tradition like Rakhee to wish long life and prosperity for their brothers. That’s quite a challenge and task; five of us on a bicycle, what a feat. I have heard and seen upto three folks on a bicycle quite regularly. But five? Yes, at the annual ruckus of a visit to the circus. Most of our family outings were large, loud, boisterous, and eventful.

I remember every detail of the riding arrangements. My two leanest cousins on the back carriage rest. I hope the reader is familiar with the design of a common bicycle. My stouter cousin on the center bar between the rider and the handlebars. And, myself balanced acrobatically, my tush resting tentatively on the handlebar, my feet astride across the front wheel, with the heels of my feet resting on the ends of the front axle. PHEW ! No, not because I am out of breath; only that I finished giving you a detailed description of the seating arrangements.

Kaka pushed off and pedaled with little effort. The first surprise came when the road became suddenly steep. The familiar route to the station was flat. What was happening? Kaka had not made a wrong turn. Actually no turns at all on the route. A little winding, but positively no turns. Soon loose stones replaced the concrete surface. The ride became bumpy and risky. Still Kaka pedaled on with most of the complaining coming from my cousins on the rear seat. Bicycles don’t have great shock absorbers. Sweat broke out and drenched his back. My heels struggled to keep their hold on the axle nuts. At one point I lurched right and knocked the bell off. My stout cousin gently smacked my head. She was not one given to inflicting harsh punishment. Now the stoney road was definitely a very, very steep rise, not possible for a bicycle to surmount. Looking up to the top we noticed the train tracks at the summit. How was that possible! Were we supposed to climb the rising embankment to avail the train.

Kaka, the bicycle, and all of us began to free wheel downwards, the front wheel having entered a deep rut heading downhill. The strangest thing was yet to happen. Suddenly the handlebars broke off, sending me spiraling down the slope. How was Kaka still free wheeling down hill with no handle bars for steering? My cousin’s were glancing backwards looking at me come charging down the slope, after I had gotten up and began to give them chase. High above a coal locomotive was chugging along, traveling east, in the direction of the city hub. But the only trains that run on our tracks where electric trains. With the only train station way above us up the steep embankment, there was absolutely no chance for us to board it. There in plain view, we saw the steaming engine now riding away on the cantilever bridge that spanned the river that lay ahead of us. Exactly at that time I feel the water from the river splashing my face. I am awake.

It’s all been the power of suggestion as I had recently taken off the training wheels from my daughter’s bicycle, and then given her a shove off to start her down the path, All On Her Own!

 

Love October, Monster BoooJo!

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Love October, Monster BoooJo!
Susim Munshi

My favorite holiday is Halloween. My favorite month is October. I fell in love with both when I went to teach at St. Hedwig’s, Chicago. My first teaching job in the U.S.  Tough assignment teaching a split 7th and 8th grade. Individual class sizes were not large enough to warrant two classrooms, two teachers. School, as it does in the US, began the week before Labor Day. Suddenly I came face to face with many challenges. The eight graders made it known loud and clear that as it was their last year in grade school they were looking for a fun filled year and wanted their teacher solely to cater to their various demands. The seventh graders were more amiable perhaps because they knew that moving onto eighth grade was still held in balance and I would be writing their recommendations for high school. But they didn’t at all appreciate the sassiness of the eighth graders and promised to do everything within their means to upset them. I was walking a fine line all the time, trying never to be perceived as sitting on the fence. I really welcomed the Labor Day break and spent it recouping and revitalizing with my wife and three years old daughter. Eating, sleeping, playing a lot. And praying!

Not my first time in US schools though. A year before I had interned as an assistant principal. Then, for a short time I did a stint as the part time computer lab teacher at a private school. Yet, coming from India teaching at St. Hedwig was a culture shock. No, not the children. Fortunately they are the same all over the world. Ready to work hard for the teacher who genuinely takes a personal interest in them and respects them individually. Over the three years I taught at St. Hedwig’s I formed lasting relationships with my students many of whom are my Facebook friends to this day. Students here are candid and forthcoming and open to conversations on any topic. Coming from India I held somethings as taboo but my students here opened my eyes and ears to new horizons and new possibilities.

After the short Labor Day break I returned to school with renewed enthusiasm and determination to be the best teacher to both groups in my homeroom. During the time I spent at home I was reading my daughters’ copy of the October issue of the Highlights Magazine. I had noticed that many of my students subscribed to the magazine too. They were fascinated by its highly graphics driven content, art and science projects they could complete successfully on their own, and rich splattering of poems and stories that were special to the month. The October issue was creating quite a stir. It was focused on the upcoming Halloween Holiday. Suddenly students were reaching across the two-grade barrier and making plans for the school’s own Haunted House. I had never experienced anything close to a Halloween Holiday but I realised it was my opportunity to learn everything I could about it soon and become the teacher both groups of students wanted. We were going to have the best Haunted House ever. And we did.

Since that eventful October, Halloween has remained my favorite holiday. Every year I buy a new costume to wear on Halloween and wait to welcome the children in my neighborhood who come trick or treating to my home. When my children were of trick or treat age I accompanied them on their forage through the neighborhood helping them haul their treasure of candy. One year their older cousins from India were visiting during the Halloween Holiday. Their first time. India is very warm in October. Here in Chicago most October 31s are cold and wet. Very cold for visitors from India. The cold and rain did not keep them away as they marched around the neighborhood with my daughters. They were awed with all the candy they collected and rolled with laughter recounting the tricks neighbors pulled on them. They were older boys of 12 and 14  

Its October again.  I began the month with a strained back, a chronic arthritis of the sacroiliac joint. As soon as it began to ease off, I pulled out the old scarecrow from the garage, my pumpkin lights, other odds and ends we have accumulated over the years, and went about the task of decorating the Halloween patch in my yard. My love for Halloween spills in to my BuJo. I decorate the top of every page with a Halloween theme and draw monsters all over my BuJo entries. I love it, my kids love it and my wife loves it. She says she can still recognize the little boy in me. What a compliment!

 

Cocked, Locked and Ready to Rock

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Cocked, Locked and Ready to Rock
Susim Munshi

Two things happened today that prompted me to select such a title for an essay. A weekend drive to Ganges, Michigan to attend a Vedanta Retreat aggravated my chronic age related arthritis in my left sacroiliac joint and rendered me nearly immobile. Every time I change my posture or position, my hip feels like it is going to snap in two. It feels like a shotgun is cocked, locked and ready to fire. As a young boy I watched a lot of pistol slinging cowboys, get off their horses and walk with bowed legs to a duel where they deftly pulled out their pistols and somebody died at the first crack. What if my hip cracks! I want to rock with laughter at the funny thought but its strikingly close to what my discomfort resembles. Something else makes me want to laugh harder but I can’t afford to do that. The doctor whose help I sought to make sure my hip was not going to snap, compared my walking to pregnant ladies who as they get heavier bow at the knees and hang their bottoms down. The doctor imitated the walk for comic relief to my suffering and I wanted to burst out laughing at being called pregnant. But, as I said I couldn’t do that and risk my hip snapping in two. It’s really very difficult when you must suppress a hearty laugh that’s about to rock your whole body with some good old humor.
Well, there is one advantage to increasing my exercise routines for increasing the strength of my core muscles to compensate for the arthritis pain riddled and stiffened sacroiliac joint. Several of the exercises require me to lie on my back and breathe deeply in and out as I work through routines designed to build my core. I practice Mindful Breathing religiously for twenty minutes every day. Now I can do more deep breathing as I workout to relieve my pain. Mindful Breathing relieves my cocked, locked and ready to rock feelings. So from the daily twenty minutes of practice I am upto thirty minutes twice a day. That means I have also prayed for upto an hour for peace, joy and happiness for all mankind, especially those in hardship and distress. That is such a comfort that I don’t feel uptight about my stiff back. Really, for upto an hour I can sympathize in spirit with all those who suffer in the world and wish for their well being. There is an old Sanskrit prayer that epitomizes the caring and bonding with all women and men. It should be understood and recited by everyone. Here is the prayer in Sanskrit, “Lokah Samasta Sukhenu Bhabantu”.  Sounds like bullets from a sharp shooter. In English it is, “I pray for the wellbeing, peace and joy of all women and men, especially the distressed. I pray that my own thoughts, words and action work for that universal wellbeing.” Words as always are mightier than the sword, or in this case a machine gun.

Bhakti, Prem and Puja #2 – Children Learn by Imitation

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Bhakti, Prem and Puja #2 – Children Learn by Imitation

I remember writing an email to you on the same topic where I described how Prem, Love, is the main ingredient that binds us close together. That Prem is also the love for God and Guru Maharaj Ji as exemplified in our lives, and that Prem inspires our Puja, which is Bhakti, also love, for Guru Maharaj Ji.

For a long time now Guru Maharaj Ji has been the driving force in our lives. He is also the rock in our lives. Like the rock on which Jesus built his church through the love and service of St. Peter. Do you at any wonder why humans feel both joy and sorrow? Was there a time when there was joy only? Then, how did we come into sorrow? These questions make us feel ignorant about the origin of man, the world, the universe, the present and the future. I wonder what you do to renew joy and rise out of sorrow. For it is when we can renew our joy and rise out of our sorrow that we can help others. That is the knowledge that helps us the ultimate reality of life.

In the quest for this knowledge humans turn to books, history, religion, politics, philosophy, science, adventure and even common sense. Some will argue they have found the definite answer and welcome us to walk their path. That faith and belief will help us walk the narrow path and some light will surely guide us home. Yet again and again humans find themselves at the beginning of the journey too tired to embark on a new quest.

Yes, in my own personal quest I have pondered on these inquiries. Again and again I have seen, known and felt that Guru Maharaj Ji has been there to urge me on. If life is a discovery, a journey, there will be pitfalls natural and man made. Everyone in their own way will seek an answer and assert their success. But for most of us, we want to simply renew our joy and rise out of our sorrow. I carefully chose to say “rise out of our sorrow” because I am uncertain if there is an end to sorrow or should there be such an Utopia.

My Bhakti, Prem and Puja for Guru Maharaj Ji gives me the courage to love all of you and continue to be in peace, happiness and joy. I write and share so that if you stop and wonder, you can imitate us. For Children Learn by Imitation.

 

Bhakti, Prem and Puja #1 – The Guiding Light

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman –
Bhakti, Prem and Puja – The Guiding Light

In a conversation with your mother, we came to the sad but true conclusion that we hadn’t done very well to inspire your dedication to “Bhakti, Prem and Puja” of our Guru Maharaj, Shri Shri Mohanananda Brahmachari. I began to doubt the old adage, “Actions speak louder than words.” For the longest time I can remember since we began to visit Maharaj on our annual visits to Du Quoin, Il, to his more recent visit and stay in our house, we saw you participate in our daily Arati where we sang “Om Jai Jagadish O Hare”. Then when you received your “dikshas” from Guru Maharaj and we accompanied you in your daily recitations of your “Guru Mantra”. Even as we each left home to go to school or work or play, we said “Joy Guru” and “Dugga, Dugga” to each each other invoking the watchful blessings of Guru Maharaj. To college both of you brought along images of Saraswati, Goddess of Learning. When you were home for “Satyanarayan Puja” you sat through the recitation of “Satyanaryan’s Katha”. Of course eating, or should I say devouring of “sinni”, the offering of a mixture of flour, milk, honey with nuts and raisins, has remained your favorite part of “Satyanarayan Puja”.

So here I am left wondering how to re-instill our Hindu values, sentiments and practices to return you to the path of “Bhakti, Prem and Puja”. “Prem” will be the logical starting place since you know it stands for love which we happily have enough of and then some more. The entry for “prem” in the “Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary” reads – n. love, amour, universal love, affection, attachment, friendliness, amiability, cordiality, devotion. The entry for “love” in the Merriam Webster’s reads – n 1 a (1) strong affection for another rising out of kinship or personal ties, and so forth. Then in 2, warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion. And in 4 a: unselfish, loyal and benevolent concern for the good of another; and in 4 b: a person’s adoration of God. When I started writing this message, I naturally picked on love as the starting point to somehow use our love to convince you about the love of God, aka Guru Maharaj. Luckily both dictionaries came to my help.

Our family foundation rests on love; love of parents, love of children, love of family, love of friends, love for the unfortunates, AND LOVE OF GOD. Love is so deeply entwined with God that even two languages two worlds apart when trying to explain a simple, everyday word as “love” turn to devotion and adoration of God. Our deep love for you is concerned that God may not have a place in your love. It is difficult to feel and know God’s love because he is not somebody like mother, father, sister, or husband whom you can hug and kiss or rest a tired head upon. Yet God is by your side picking up where you left of loving him. In the Bhagavad Gita Arjuna wonders if men or women are lost when they turn away from God, aka Lord Krishna. It is nice that Arjuna is on the lookout for everybody, friend, family and foe. Lord Krishna understanding Arjuna’s love of mankind reassures him so – “Arjuna, know that no one devoted to me is lost. If they rely on me, Arjuna, women, commoners, men of low rank, even men born in the womb of evil, reach the highest way.” You probably know that your mother and I are devout followers of Shri Krishna and have been reading the Bhagavad Gita several years. My retirement has allowed me the luxury of reading, reflecting and writing commentaries in my edition of the Bhagavad Gita. I read Barbara Stoler Miller’s edition of “The Bhagavad Gita”. Recently when your mother handed me the copy of my mother’s Bengali edition of the Bhagavad Gita I started reading that too.  It helps with my quest to master Bengali.

In one of my recent commentaries I wrote this – Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 4, Gayna Yoga, Verse 11, “As they seek refuge in me, I devote myself to them; Arjuna, men retrace my path in every way.”(Barbara Stoler Miller, The Bhagavad Gita: Krishna’s Counsel in the Time of War). Lord Krishna stands by the wayside waiting for me to seek refuge in him. It’s so amazing and wonderful that when I do seek his refuge, he, Lord Krishna, devotes himself to me. What a loving and caring God! I only wish and pray that I remember and recall him always, all the time, with every living breath. Not ONLY when I am down and needy. I have a whole lifetime to work on making myself worthy of Lord Krishna. Rabindranath Tagore writes in his song, “Hey Moro Debota”, – “I am his vessel. He pours his nectar in me, so he can drink, celebrate and rejoice with his creation.” (Gitabitan, Puja, #85)

I hope and pray that love which you have for each other, for us, for mankind, especially those in distress, will also embrace and return God’s love through “bhakti” and devotion to our Guru Maharaj.

“Prem” leads to “Bhakti”, devotion, which is manifested in “Puja”, worship. I turn again to the Bhagavad Gita again for help. Bhagavad Gita, Chapter 3, Karma Yoga, Verse 10 – “When creating living beings and sacrifice, Prajapati, the primordial creator said: ‘By sacrifice will you procreate! Let it be your wish-granting cow!’”
“Puja” as you have seen it in our household is always accompanied by offerings, or “prasad”. We do not sacrifice in the old sense of the word or practice anymore, such as Abraham’s sacrifice of a lamb. Our sacrifice is giving our best effort in the worship of God which is service to mankind. I know how you are committed to serving mankind, especially the oppressed and the distressed. Let your love and service for others also be filled with love and service for God that he may in turn join your efforts to bring peace, happiness and joy to everyone.

In this context I will bring up an ancient Sanskrit prayer. “Lokah Samasta Sukhenu Bhabantu.”  In English the prayer means – “I pray for the peace, happiness and joy of all men and women, especially those in distress. And I pray that my words, thoughts and actions contribute to that peace, happiness and joy.” There couldn’t be a better sacrifice or service. Let “Bhakti, Prem and Puja” be your guiding light.