When the morning came . . .

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman

When the morning came . . . .

Susim Munshi

And when the morning came, the house began to empty out. First the luggage went in the trunk. Shoes, wraps and jackets came on. Then followed the hugs and kisses. A traditional group hug. The car filled up and safety belts clicked. The garage door closed and the car backed out of the driveway. The nose turned towards the expressway. The forty five minute drive to the airport started. We tried the old ways of recapping the events of the last seven days together in happiness, feasting and sharing stories. But this time it never even got started. Just silence filled the car.

It was a cloudy, cold and blustery day. Typical of a winter storm preparing to unleash on Chicago. There was no bird of summer, a fleeting, flash of cardinal red, to cheer us up. I tried the radio but quietly turned it off as petulant expressions spread across the faces in the rearview window. Someone started on a list of the many delicious dishes over the last several days. Once again the disgruntled faces shut that down. All eyes stayed focused on the road the signs narrating the distance left to reach the airport. Still a half hour away, each minute would hang around for a lifetime.

Last night I had ventured again the idea that they all move back home. Had I forgotten that almost eight years had passed since the youngest had left home, the oldest almost fifteen. No one had moved back as jobs and livelihoods were elsewhere. Why go down that painful path again? Maybe it was time we picked up and settled closer to the children. But with the house was still underwater, was that a feasible alternative. Every aspect of every rejected solution hung around like an imposing gray cloud adding to the dreary atmosphere of a winter storm steadily drawing closer.

Through a shroud of cloud and mist the skyline of Chicago came into view and fell behind as the expressway swerved towards Midway airport. One of the girls asked if they had remembered to bring the money their mother had given them for breakfast at the airport. They each make enough and more but such a thoughtful gift from mother is received with much celebration. Fortunately one of them had. Suddenly all traffic got squeezed into one landed headed for the departure drop off. Amongst the press of vehicles, I got caught finding a safe place to pull in and park. No one was allowed to stop for long. So once the luggage came out of the trunk, more hugs and kisses were exchanged, and the final goodbyes. While the children waited in line to check in, we were signalled to pull out and begin and even quieter, therefore return trip home. Rain had started and a few flakes were mixed in too. There probably would be a thin coating waiting by the drive we pulled into the garage. By next day it will look more like Christmas but the light and joys of our lives were gone. Soon the text messages of cleared for boarding, takeoff and safe landing begun to arrive. We were grateful that they had made it safely back to their homes. By the time evening fell we would get accustomed to our lives and routines, the daily phone calls, texts and exchange of photos. It never feels the same as sharing the sofa, however tightly packed in, over a hot cup of cocoa.

A Face for the Mountains

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
A Face for the Mountains
Susim Munshi

My recent trip to Colorado and the Rocky Mountains has renewed my admiration and fascination with mountains. No, it is not a new Phase of the Mountains. Mountains and I have had a long love-hate relationship. Luckily, the mountains will always be older than me. Once for a summer vacation in Gulmarg, Kashmir, while staying in a camp style hotel, I had my first experience of snow on the Himalayas. My only brother, who passed away during the monsoons after a summer in the mountains, has a picture my parents and I have kept for his memory, squatting on a ledge by the Himalaya mountains of Kurseong, West Bengal. Couple of years laters while hiking in the Rajmahal Hills of Sahibganj, Bihar, I got caught in the middle of a rock avalanche. Luckily I got away with a few bruises. Then on a van ride through the mountains near Kathmandu, the passenger doors came open, and my father rolled out of the car and nearly got run over by the rear wheels. Despite all of this misfortunes, my love and adoration for mountains is unwavering. I will be older and wiser but the mountains will be older. So, when my daughters moved to Colorado, we keep going back again and again to the Rocky Mountains. I especially love to visit the Horsetooth Reservoir and neighboring mountains as there happens to be an alpaca ranch in the vicinity. The way alpacas first race to meet visitors is very significant with me. From their home in the mountains of distant Peru they may must have formed a special bonding with humans. On my last trip in November I began to notice that the men in Colorado sport a beard. Therefore I am working on a face for the mountains by letting by stubble grow out. Hopefully in the next few months, before my next visit to the Rockies, I will sport a reasonable mountain beard. In the meantime I have started sketching mountains in my BuJo journal with coloring pencils. I love to draw in my journals. My mountain models all come from Google images of mountain paintings for beginners. Writing and drawing in my journals gives me the feeling of watching my life from the outside looking in. I am also discovering that with a few colored pencils I can transfer my love and attachment to paper and this blog for posterity. Every time I start a new sketch I can smell the pines and feel a crisp breeze rustle brush through my hair. My favorite pastime is to imagine looking out of bay windows over a trail that rises over the ridges and falls away to valleys to softer green meadows. The smell of dark coffee swirling out of a blackened kettle warming over the wood fire in the hearth. The bleat of the alpacas rising out of the valley below shrouded in layers of mist. Then when the sun breaks through the cloud cover, a line of geese traveling south. I have also taken a liking to listening for long stretches to the ringing of Tibetan singing bowls. When my move to the mountains I want to own a singing bowl to make my own song. I hear internet signals on the mountains are not robust. So I must perfect my singing bowl. By then my painting mountains will not need a Google picture to copy. Already my youngest daughter who is quite the artist praised my rudimentary sketches.

Pictures from my BuJo


A Treasured Bhagavad Gita

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
A Treasured Bhagavad Gita
Susim Munshi

For many years now I have been reading the Bhagavad Gita religiously. My favorite edition is a slim, hundred and sixty two pages paperback by Bantam Classics, “The Bhagavad Gita – Krishna’s Counsel in Time of War,” translated by Barbara Stoler Miller. Of course as any Bhagavad Gita that is read and annotated often, it shows signs of being handled regularly. Then as I became more and more familiar with reading and understanding the Bhagavad Gita, I started to blog my reactions to the readings. I have tried to stay away from sounding interpretative or authoritative. I am too humble to even begin thinking in those terms. Instead I just blog my reflections on a verse that resonates with me.

I have also been quite regular with my BuJo, that is bullet journaling. One day I will write more at length about my BuJo. For now suffice it to say that one of the regular entries in my BuJo is the Bengali Alphabet and also, in Bengali, a prayer of thanks to my Guru, and to Sri Iswar Madan Mohan Tala, the family deity of my spouse’s family temple in Kolkata, built in 1761. My Bengali always needs improvement. This year my wife and I have set a goal of doing “Swedish death cleaning”, that is, disposing all the clutter in the house, so that loved ones do not have to sort and plough through our “junk” when we are gone. My wife found a tote bag full of my mother’s handy books stored in the attic. Amongst them my mother’s pocketbook Bengali edition of the Bhagavad Gita!

Not tattered. Frayed. Emanating the smell of incense sticks. Filled with inscriptions in my mother’s own hand. On some pages, where she uses a red ball point pen, the ink has diluted and colored the edges of the paper a lovely crimson red, a religious hue, often likened to the red “sindoor” of a Hindu bride. Where she had used a blue point pen, the letters bleed through the next page. Lots of underlying, and double underlying. And a key, that I have not been able to decipher. Mother oiled her hair heavily, and even though she read the Gita after bathing, it’s clear that some of the oil has rubbed onto pages and make them appear translucent. The pocketbook is handbound in red silk cloth with striking gold thread letters spelling Gita in Bengali. The letters “গীতা” almost as tall as the page.  She must have embroidered the letters within the last ten years when her hands had a nervous shaking evident from the wavy stitches. Since discovering the book, I have run my fingers over the gold stitched letters often. It is holy to the touch. God’s words, my mother’s words; God’s love, my mother’s love, and with it my father’s love – all right there to hold me up through life, always opening a window whenever a door closed. Preventing my life, and with it that of my family, from being lost on a conveyor belt. They believed thats what happened to many who came to America from India.

Since I came upon my mother’s Bhagavad Gita, my Bengali has improved significantly. It takes me much longer to read and understand the Gita in Bengali. I read one to two verses during the time I would have normally read a whole page of Barbara Stoler Miller’s Bhagavad Gita in English. I reach for the Samsad Bengali that English Dictionary often now I have a better reason to use it frequently. Since I have regularly practiced the Bengali alphabet in my BuJo, my fluency in finding words in the Bengali dictionary is quite good. For those of you who know Bengali, one needs to be quite skilled and fluent with the Bengali alphabet to easily find a word in the Bengali dictionary. I copy the verse I read from the Gita in my BuJo. My children will never be able to read it. So I also copy the corresponding verse in English from Barbara Stoler Miller’s Bhagavad Gita. Yes, isn’t it for children that we keep diaries and journals. I discover my mother, and myself, from her Gita. The pagemark she used is a magnetic “hold your place on the page” bookmark that was given to my older daughter at the Illinois Junior Academy of Science State Exposition. My daughter was flattered and thrilled beyond belief that her grandmother had been using her bookmark in her Gita. You see, magnetic bookmarks, in addition to holding your place in a book, can also hold a family together.

Now that I read, write (in English, on my blog) and reflect using my mother’s Bengali Bhagavad Gita, my reading the Gita has slowed down considerably. With the Bantam paperback I can read the entire Gita in three hours, provided I am not interrupted. My mother’s Gita make take a lifetime. That does not bother me because I have read it in the English several times and will probably do so again. Those of us who make the Gita their book to read on life’s journey will be happy that we have really, really read it once and used it over, and over again to find the way home. I couldn’t tell you how happy and fortunate I am that I have my mother’s Bengali Gita to shine the way home.

My workspace with my mother’s Gita and my BuJo

Yes I Am

Yes I Am

by Susim Munshi

But I am Made in Bengal

Like Made in India

Or Made in Bangladesh

Like the 100% cotton shirts

Made in that multistory

Shirt factory that came tumbling down

But I don’t remember making a donation

It is the World Cup Soccer I watch

Cheer, cheer, cheer for my favorite Brazil

While a despot, a fascist comes to power

The favelas welcome a baby

Whose birth is as sure as its death

In the shifting squalor of squators

While Neymar scores a goal again

And I pay $49 for a

Premium subscription channel

20% of India’s diseases are water related

For 1 Billion people safe water is scarce

My Durga Puja contribution was $180

For Chicken malai curry

And a overpriced Bollywood star

But I am a Made in Kolkata of Bengal

At St. Xavier’s they turned away Chhatra Parishad

I showed I cared, loved, understood

The plight of the poor and oppressed

Joined in 14K walk from Dharmatala to DumDum

And donated blood at Mother Teresa’s Nirmalya

I challenge you all the Made in Bengal of Chicagoland

My brothers and sisters

Say “Yes We Are”

Against bigotry, oppression and suppression

No one will leave our shores or those of Bangladesh

We will forego our festivities at Durga Puja 2019 and beyond

Buy bottles of water, save the children from cholera, stop rape

Embrace a Rohingya

An Alpaca for Life

Essays and Poems  from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
An Alpaca for Life
Susim Munshi

It’s November. Once again I find myself in the midst of the Colorado Rockies. Invariably we took a ride out from Ft. Collins to visit the Horsetooth Reservoir and mountains and see my favorite alpacas. You take Harmony West out of the town and facing straight west is the Horsetooth mountain named so for their likeness to horse teeth. Within minutes the homes that line the road taper off. There is nothing but the front ranges stretching north and south. As far west as you can see the steadily rising Rocky Mountains. The road takes a sharp turn north and loops back south climbing steadily up a sheer rock face. Then another climbing turn north and the town of Ft. Collins is completely hidden from view. Nothing but the mountains climbing and rolling west. The road rises and dips, twists and turns, clouds thin and thicken, the sun breaks through intermittently. The deep silence and the soft whirr of the car’s engines. We should soon be approaching the farm that raises alpacas and my heart starts to skip. Today we have made plans to pull off the road, step out and walk along the fence that separates the farm from the road. The mountain tops here are lined with pines and the rock faces are a little bit rounded unlike the razor sharp rock faces alongside the Thompson Canyon. When we step out of the car, the air is crispy and rich with the smell of ponderosa pines. The herd of alpacas have spotted us and curiosity pulls them closer to the road. A white sheep dog is also running with them. A couple of male alpacas have their own separate pen edging up to the road. They are alarmed and flustered perceiving me as a competition to their harem. One male in particular is kicking back dirt with his feet and forcing air through his nostril to ward me off. Luckily there is the barbed wire fence separating us. The adult females and their calves are only an arm distance away sniffing the air curiously. The guard dog does not perceive us as a threat and comes all the way up to the fence for a friendly pat. The calves find this encouraging and are ready to snuggle up to us. Still they are alert as shown by their flipping ears straight up and then relaxing down. Their eyes dart back and forth from our faces and back to the flock. The guard dog weaves in and out of the flock. For now I have had my fill of alpacas, curious calves and flattering adults. So we return to the road easing slowly back to town. On the way a family of deer start crossing the road. We stop and turn of the engine. Roll down the windows to get clearer pictures. The Alpha male with antlers is alternating between keeping an eye on the car and herding his family safely across. But each deer wants to stop and take a hard look at us. Finally they are all safely across. We start back and along the way everyone recounts their favorite alpaca moment. Some of us are daring to put on an alpaca expression on our faces to retell a lasting flashback. Surprise! There is a flock of wild turkeys alongside the road. Cameras come out. The conversations stop for a while. Shutters are clicking. The birds remain obviously of us, feeding as they bob their heads down and up. Then they vanish under some bushes. We pick up speed and return to the hotel to catch the closing minutes of happy hour. At night, in my sleep, baby alpacas and deer feed right out of my hands. The next morning when we returned to the market square I popped into the many novelty stores looking for an alpaca puppet. Sure enough there was one. Made from real alpaca wool. The smell of the mountains, pines, wilderness still lingering. A companion for life.

Man of the Mountain

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
Man of the Mountain
Susim Munshi

I came upon the splendid idea of giving myself a nickname after our second trip to the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. Our older daughter had moved to Colorado from New York. Our biannual trips switched from the glass and stone of the Big Apple to the heights and natural wonders of the Colorado Rockies. I have a long love and hate history with the mountains from an early age.

At age eight I had travelled with my parents to the dizzying but glamorous heights of the Kashmir Valley in the Himalayas. One weekend we moved out of the valley town of Srinagar to the snowbound camping grounds of Gulmarg, famous for its remote tent hotels. Motorable road tapered off about five miles before the campsite. From then it was travel by foot, horseback, donkey ride or palanquin for the ladies, like my mother. The locals managing our travels had arranged for a horse for our father, and donkeys for my brother and I. I don’t remember all the details, but somewhere along the trek we stopped to give the men a break and I took off on the horse. Race off like Zorro on Silver. I tore away through the fresh snow. Not for long. The horse veered towards a line of trees. I got entangled with some branches, jerked off the horse, and fell with a dull thud on the snow. The handlers gave chase on another horse and caught up with my runaway mare. Pretty soon I was helped on to a donkey and walked to where the rest of the party was resting. My parents were overjoyed to have me back in one whole piece. The rest of the way I rode my donkey an arm’s distance from my mother’s palanquin. At night when Dad tucked me into bed he gave a spoonful of medicinal  brandy to tide me over the tribulations of the day.

My first outing to the Rockies in Colorado was in the coming awake of Spring in April. Sprague Lake was still frozen stiff and the ice brightly reflected the blue spruce and green pines climbing steadily up the high ridges. Gurgling pure mountain springs trickled down the rock lined cold riverbeds. Elks were slowly making their way down from the tundras to the fresh blooms in the meadows. Blue smoke spiralled out of the chimneys of the bed and breakfast cabins laced with the smell of bacon and eggs. Round the bend and beyond were sheer mountains rising out of the low lying clouds. From breaks in the clouds columns of sunlight shimmered down to the snow covered peaks. Several tunes played in my head, filled with love and adoration for mighty nature. I followed a line of geese weaving their way north. The red earth trek climbed up a ridge and tumbled down the next descent. I reached for a cracker and box of juice in my knapsack, selected a flat rock to rest upon and stared down the descending valley all the way to the undulating Moraine Park where new born elks were trying out the tasty sagebrush whose aromatic smell tantalized their warm, wet snouts.

The summer of 1967 found us again in the lush mountains of Darjeeling and Kurseong in West Bengal, India. The summers were our longest break from the boarding school in Sahibganj, at the foothills of the Rajmahal Range, Bihar, India. That summer we chose a tea estate near the Tista River, Kurseong for our summer break. The Tista is a silver line between the rising, rolling hills of Kurseong. Tea bushes in long terraces climb up both sides of the Tista. Our serene tea estate cottage sat on a big flat ledge looking down the valley to the silver line of the river. Our days were spent climbing up and down the valley, taking swigs of coffee from our flasks and devouring peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Mother stayed back in the cottage knitting a new sweater. Dad, my brother and I found a local restaurant for a spot of lunch which was the distinctive bowl of momo soup and hot tea. One evening we were invited for dinner to the tea estate manager’s residence. It was a short walk up from our cottage. When we left it was still daylight but the shadows of night falls fast once the sun disappears behind the high peaks. On our way back Mother lost her stepping on some loose gravel. The evening dew caused Mother to slip and fall. She managed to limp back to the safety of the cottage for the night. She downed some pain abating pills but we heard her pine all night. Next day at the local hospital an X-ray revealed a small crack at the ankle joint where her foot had twisted. She spend the rest of the vacation in a cast her damaged foot resting on a stool. The rest of us tried to make the best of the remaining stay, but along with Mother’s broken ankle our spirits were broken too.

The next time we were in the Rockies it was Labor Day in September. We had driven up to Fort Collins from Chicago to move in our younger daughter for school and work. After the hard work was done it was time for a couple of days in Estes Park surrounded by the high peaks of the Rockies. We also took a drive up the Trail Ridge Road all the way up to 12,000 feet where the Tundra starts, the land above the trees. The tall pines and slim aspens receded and gave away to the tiny, dwarf shrubs, plants and moss of the tundras. At a location marked specially for cars to pull off the road, we stopped and walked a designated path amongst the tundras. Tread carefully read the sign. Loosening the soil would cause it to blow away which took years to recover. The air was thin and cold. The mountains climbed steadily up to the snow covered peaks. At a lookout point we could see the peaks climbing over each other’s shoulders. At this vantage point one side fell sharply way all the way down to Moraine Valley. This time the elks were making their way steadily up the mountains to the vegetation of the tundras for the winter. Their thick fur had begun to fill out for the long winter ahead. There was not much hope for shelter up here from the snow and wind. But their strong hooves provided a firm grip as they burrowed under the snow for the nutritious moss. I still recall every minute of that amazing afternoon in the tundras. On the drive back I packed away the memories into tiny parcels to one day pen down the wonderful experiences.

Hiking up the Rajmahal Range was one of our favorite weekend activities while in school. Our destination was the Moti Jharna a cascading waterfalls after a gradual uphill climb of seven kilometers. To reach the top of the waterfalls we climbed some fifty or sixty feet up a rock face laid like a stairway to heaven. The rocks were wet and slippery from the sprays of the tumbling waterfalls. From the top you could look down at several splash pools at the very bottom of the falls. Most trips went smoothly, climbing to the top, swimming in the pools, gathering wood for the fire to cook lunch, a sumptuous meal of hot rice and spicy chicken curry late afternoon, and the trek back to school in the cool of the evening, and a cup of hot chocolate on return. Then the one out of the ordinary incident that sways my relationship with mountains between love and hate. I was sitting on some rocks to the side of the splash pools when a loud rumble alerted us to a rock fall. Before I could stand up and run away from the path of danger, a huge boulder landed on a rock behind me, bounced up and clear above my head, and splashed into the pool. Other than myself all around other students and adults stood now in a sudden spellbound silence. No one could quite belief that I had been spared a pounding. After a minute everybody recovered slowly from the shock and began to gather around to exchange hugs. The group of boys who had started the rock fall safely made their way down.  We settled down to our usual lunch of rice and chicken curry but this time the peels of laughter and other voices of joy were subdued. Earlier than usual we gathered our belongings, cleared up the site and began the trek back to school. Once back the hot cup of chocolate was very comforting.

We will return to the Rockies often, each time adding to our growing treasure of experiences and the ever enlarging album of pictures. The memories of sights, sound, and smells safely tucked away in various compartments of our brain cells. On one visit we sighted many Indian Paintbrushes, a flower of the wild Rockies, that grows in the shape of a paint brush with an amazing red tint on their leaves. Growing alongside the yellow Alpine Sunflowers they look like a moment captured forever on a Monet canvas.