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

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