The Moon in My Soup

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
The Moon in My Soup
By Susim Munshi

“Old nurses tales”, often called in many cultures and traditions, these tales, nursery rhymes, have warmed their way into the hearts of mothers and children across the world. “The Moon in My Soup”, or the moon in the bowl of milk, is one such age old song that I have experienced several times in my life. But it is impossible to explain why I clearly remember my grandmother singing this to me, lying in her lap, on a clear night in her home in the remote village of Galsi, Burdwan, West Bengal. A bright silver moon was playing hide and seek between some puffy, white cotton ball clouds, its reflection swimming in the milk my grandmother was feeding me from a silver bowl with a silver feeding spoon. I was an infant in the cradle of happiness and warmth, surrounded by the smooth folds of my grandmother’s white cotton sari, her sweet voice slowly lulling me to sleep after I had been well fed. She sang, “Oh Sweet Moon come down and place a light kiss on my love’s bright forehead,” repeatedly until the bowl of milk was all gone and my eyes fully closed as I went into a deep and sweet slumber.

These and many other dear memories brighten my life as I enter my own old age. The most comforting memories of my grandmother revolve around delicious dishes and delicacies as most meetings with my grandmother happened over breaks and vacations that we went to spend at my “mamarbari”. “Mamarbari” in Bengali stands for your maternal uncle’s home, which also happen to be our grandmother’s home.  Going to “mamarbari” is one of the fondest memories for most Bengalis, each trip recalled with minute details. For us it was indeed a vacation full of feasting, my grandmother being the best cook for preparing traditional Bengali dishes, appetizers, main courses and desserts, all from scratch. As I grew up into a teenager, sometimes I spend an entire month long vacation at my grandmother’s, so my uncle and aunt could get away from Galsi for a length of time. During those times not only did my grandmother prepare my favorite dishes, but she would spoil me further by insisting on hand feeding me, at least the dessert.

Then one day I grew old, got married, and, as fortune would have it, moved to America with my family. It took us seven years to save enough for our first trip back to India, accompanied by our seven year old daughter. Galsi, my “mamarbari”, and all of our family and relatives had featured in many of the colorful stories I recounted to our daughter to help her stay connected with her family, “seven seas away” (from a popular Bengali song “sath samudra parey.”) When we landed at Kolkata airport it felt like the whole city had turned up to welcome us home for the visit. It was still the early days of digital photography, the Internet and social media. What pictures we had been developed, printed and mailed home to the family. It was a very costly affair to do the same in India. What I am trying to say, is that we had very few recent photographs of our very large family of parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. I could see very well the change in appearance seven years can make. Yes my parents, uncles and aunts all looked much older. However, I could hardly recognize my nephews and nieces of whom the oldest was fourteen and the youngest three when we had left for America. My daughter showed remarkable patience as her cheeks were innumerably squeezed and kissed, and at times she was lifted high up into the air by a strong pair of hands. We must have been both the headlines and the spectacle at the airport that day, not forgoing that our family is also loud and boisterous, and not one from hiding their joy in public. It took no less than half hour of figuring out the combination about who should ride which car for the drive back home. Everyone especially wanted to crowd into the vehicle with my daughter but of course that wasn’t possible.

Invitations for lunches and dinners, parties and celebrations, continued in quick succession for the first days. There were gifts to be exchanged, stories of good and hard times to be shared, newborns to be introduced to, and quiet visits to elders who had passed on. Soon the days had rolled into two weeks and plans were made to visit my grandmother and “mamarbari” in Galsi.  Not sure of how we would fair in a Bengal village in the middle of summer after our seven years sojourn in America, and especially concerned about our daughter, we decided to make it a day trip to Galsi by car, planning to arrive there by noon and getting back to Kolkata by nine at night. We were accompanied by my parents only so that we would be comfortable for the three hour long trip to Galsi.  Once we left Kolkata and its suburbs the houses, stores, shops and traffic began to trail off and the road opened up to the lush green paddy fields of Bengal. Paddy fields reached up all the way to the highway; farmers could be seen bent over at their waist tending to their crop. Cows stood lazily under clusters of trees with cowherd boys resting in the shade. The smell of the earth, the paddy, the country all mingled in the breeze as the car steadily picked up speed on the open road. It was then that my mother chose to speak a little softly to share with us that my grandmother had really aged, that she had become weak and frail with age, that she had almost lost her hearing and her sight. She told us this so we could prepare ourselves and our daughter for what would probably turn out to be a not so happy visit.

When you reach Galsi the paved highway stops at the crossroad with the main village road. The car pulled off the highway and began to follow the red earth road that twisted and turned its way through the village and finally came to a stop in front of mamarbari. A crowd of children had been racing behind the car all the way. Their cheering must have alerted my uncle, because soon after the car came to a halt, my uncle opened the doors leading into the house and stood at the foyer, hands resting on his hip, his mouth open in the biggest look of surprise as we began to empty out of the car.  We had tried to phone him before our trip but the phone lines were out. My father mailed him a postcard but it must not have arrived either. He knew we were in Kolkata but had no idea of when we would visit Galsi. Once again my daughter endured all the hugging and kissing. Word went around the whole village that we had arrived and soon the house was overflowing with people. We must have spent almost all of an hour sitting or standing in the big living room adjacent to the foyer. Village people and village air have a special smell of country freshness around them. The sounds of cows mooing and goats bleating carried through above the din of meetings and greetings. Finally we were able to tear away from the throng of people pouring into the house and make our away across the courtyard to the living quarters.

When we entered my grandmother’s room she was lying down on her expansive bed. My grandmother used to be very heavy and big weighing close to two hundred pounds or more. But now she was reduced to a thin and frail body, her cotton blanket wrapped tightly around for warmth in the middle of a hot summer. She awoke and rose to a seating position in her bed, and my cousin quickly tucked some extra pillows to prop her up. The first words out of her mouth were, “Is that Susim? Come here my baby. Come and give your old grandmother a hug.  I have missed you all these years.” For someone who could not hear or see, how did she know we were there. Or had she been living out this moment in her mind all these years. I approached her bed, touched her feet for her blessings and sat down beside her careful not to hurt her frail limbs. We embraced in a hug that seemed to last for an eternity. It was my grandmother who loosened her grip on me and inquired if my daughter and wife were there. They approached my grandmother and also touched her feet for her blessings. Not having the benefit of sight, she ran her hands all over their faces and hands one at a time and planted kisses on their foreheads. Soon after she addressed my aunt and asked her to bring the box of jewelry she had been saving to give my daughter over the years since her birth. The box also contained a set of jewelry she wanted my daughter to have for her wedding for which she would surely not be around.

My daughter had never met such an old woman before. She sat mesmerized by her great grandmother’s side soaking in all the love and attention bestowed upon her.  She knew it was probably the most special occasion in her life. She let my cousin help her try on one jewelry after another with all of us admiring her extra specially aloud so great grandmother could have a sense of our excitement and joy. Gradually my grandmother became tired and worn out. My cousin gently removed the pillows from her back and helped her lie down on her bed. We each took turns giving her a kiss and a gentle hug and began to file out of her room.

The rest of the day passed quickly sharing photographs, stories and memories. My aunt had been preparing an elaborate meal for us which we thoroughly enjoyed. After the hot afternoon sun had begun to set in the horizon, we all accompanied my uncle on a tour of the grounds and the farms. My daughter was excited to be amongst the calves and baby goats and chickens. We all went to stand near the paddy fields and brushed our hands through the stalks of rice. On our way back home we stopped at our “Kalibari’, place of worship for the mamabari Kali diety. When we got back home the moon was beginning to rise. My aunt spread our several straw mats on the courtyard and we sat down under the open skies to recount more stories of both happy and sad times together. We imagined that my daughter was an infant and had her lie down with her head resting on her grandmother’s lap and we all sang the beautiful nursery rhyme, “The Moon is in My Soup”.

Four weeks later the whole family came to bid us goodbye at the airport for our flight back to America. My father pulled me aside and handed me an envelope with a letter and the request not to open to read the contents before our flight had taken off. Even though it was a farewell gathering we were all smiles and laughs, once again the loudest group at the airport. Finally we began to proceed to pass through the security lines to the passengers only waiting area were we no longer could see the family. Once boarding was announced we found our seats and got comfortable for the long flight back. After the plane took off, I reached for the letter in my pocket and shared with my wife that my father had expressed the wish that we not read the letter before we were airborne. My father has a most distinctive, legible and steady hand in writing letters. Even the lines on a blank page where evenly spaced and straight. It goes without saying that he never made any spelling errors or crossed out any words. His letters flowed smoothly, from the beginning to the very end, the last goodbye and warm best wishes. It was always a pleasure to read and share his letters.

He had written that the day before our departure he had received word from my uncle in Galsi that my grandmother had passed. Everyone was asked to keep it quiet for our sake because the hassle of rearranging the trip would be too much of a challenge at such a short notice. He continued to write that after we were safely off, they were headed to Galsi to participate in grandmother’s last rites. He also asked to forgive him for withholding the information.  However, he wrote, he knew that her blessings, and all of theirs, would keep us safe and well, and that one day they all hoped to see my daughter at her wedding day adorned in the jewelry gifted her by her great grandmother, one of the finest persons he himself had ever known.

I looked out of the window.  Night had descended. My daughter was fast asleep, exhausted from all the attention she had received during the entire trip. A thin moon swam in and out of the clouds. Her head rested on her mother’s lap and her feet were on mine. Together we softly sang to her, “The Moon is in My Soup.” She stirred a little as if she could hear us but her eyes remained tightly shut and her breath came softly as she continued in her sweet sleep.

An Evening Like No Other

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman

An Evening Like No Other

By Susin Munshi

So many things combine to make a memorable evening remembered and recalled for ever and ever. I was a senior in college when I befriended Dipankar, a chance acquaintance, which led to my being present one evening in his apartment. Why Dipankar had an apartment all to himself while the rest of us lived in our family homes, or, like myself, in a student hostel is no mystery? You see, Dipankar’s father had a transfer job, that is, he travelled frequently to different cities and towns where he was given living quarters for himself and Dipankar’s mother. The apartment was there for their visits during vacations and breaks. An arrangement that perfectly suited one of Dipankar’s pastimes, a band that met to practice at the apartment. The apartment was on the top fourth floor of a new and upcoming construction of apartment style living complexes in Park Circus, a swiftly developing residential area of Calcutta, now Kolkata. Their proximity to the cities business hubs in Dharmatala and Dalhousie made them attractive for up and rising executive types. They were also fairly close to the city’s shopping hubs at New Market, Chowringhee and Gariahat, Ballygunge. Finally they were really close to Park Street, the city’s strip for classy restaurants and nightclubs.

Each floor had two adjoining apartments with access from a common elevator and stairwell. Each apartment had a long balcony that overlooked the street and faced the other apartments across the street. Unless you were really from the neighborhood you couldn’t tell one apartment building from the others. The developers had decided to whitewash all the apartments in sunflower yellow with green doorways, so they all appeared the same to a first time visitor. However, they were clearly numbered and one could easily locate a friend’s residence. Dipankar’s next door neighbors were Rekha and Dolly, two college going sisters that lived with their parents. Rekha who was going to Rabindra Bharati University was getting a master’s degree in performing arts. Rekha was two years older than Dipankar, myself, and Dipankar’s other close friend at that time, Ragish. Dolly was a freshie at college.

Which brings me back to Ragish. His name means “the man of song” but the slightest hint of femininity ended right there. Because besides being a Ragish, Ragish was in every way a true Rajeshwar, the Raja of good looks and masculinity. Now I have never been attracted to men though I do admire the fine looks of several movie stars, sportsmen and athletes. I found Ragish especially admirable and attractive, especially his singing, specifically Rabindra Sangeet, and one song in particular, “Eki labonye purno praano,” which translates to the English – “O Lord of all Beings / What grace and beauty /Pervades my whole body / In so glorious a spring” ( From Rabindranath Tagore’s, “Geetanjali”, Puja, Song # 539). No wonder both Rekha and Dolly would regularly swoon over him. Even Dipankar and I felt attracted to him in a Platonic way. Perhaps because of Ragish, and Rekha, Dolly and Dipankar that one evening has remained permanently etched in my memory. Dipankar had warned me that once I entered the apartment complex to be aware of the many cricket, football and badminton games and matches that were all going on at the same time on the long streets that wound up and down the apartment complex. It was so important to use up all the available acreage to construct the apartment buildings, for which there was an increasing demand, that the developers didn’t think about playgrounds. No problems. In short time the residents, even if there were playgrounds, would use up all the streets for the different matches, true to the age old tradition of Calcuttawallas. Any ways, I was able to maneuver through all the activity and arrive at Dipankar’s address without upsetting anyone.  

That evening the band was off. Instead we listened to duets and solos. Rekha and Dolly were fine singers too. Dipankar sang, played the keyboard and sometimes a soft rhythm on his drum set. I had never been blessed with a singing voice or singing lessons.  But over the years listening to my mother and cousins singing Rabindra Sangeet and performing Rabindra dance dramas in our home I had developed a keen appreciation for his songs and plays. The real magic that evening was in Ragish. With every song he lived up to his name, “The man of song.”  I could also sense that there was a special attraction between Ragish and Rekha. They sang for each other. They sang to each other. Dolly, Dipankar and I were invisible to them or they had relegated us to the shadows. Indeed there were shadows. As so often happened in those days, people in Calcutta lived through long evenings of power shortage called load shedding. Entire neighborhoods went dark. Citizens restored to candles and kerosene hurricanes. If the breeze was silent, hand fans came out. None of this mattered to Ragish and Rekha as they sang one song after another, echoing their love and longing. The evening belonged just to the two of them. Rabindranath echoed what was in their hearts – “My heart is secured with yours my love with a musical garland.” (Bengali, Aami tomaro songey bendhechi amaro pran.)

I too was not above falling in love with a Rekha myself that evening. The songs were too heady and the jui flowers she adorned her hair with cast their own spell. Fortunately, Rekha was all eyes and ears for Ragish only. When night approached, I made my excuses and headed back to my dorm. The power came back and street lights came on.  Several badminton enthusiasts began to set up their gear for a night time game. I avoided them deftly, made my way out of the development and headed for the bus stand to catch my return ride to Park Street. A few strains from a favorite Rabindra Sangeet filled my heart and soul –

“Oh, how you sing

All I can do is hear in awe

Your melodious glow pervades the world

I cannot say why my heart cries out.”

(Bengali – Tumi kemon korey gaan koro he guni, Geetabitan, Puja, #4)

Will Santa Get it Right This Year

Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
Will Santa Get it Right This Year
By Susim Munshi

If you are on the Internet, probably on Facebook, or Twitter, you have come across this gwaff. Someone is writing their seasonal letter to Santa. It states, “Dear Santa, This year for Christmas, I would like lots of money and a thin body. Hope you get it right this year.” Of course I laughed. Then I stopped to ponder if I have ever written a letter to Santa. I remember helping my daughters write to Santa and mailing them to the North Pole, Zip Code, NP 1. One year I wrote my younger daughter a reply from Santa and sent it in the mail to her. I think I might have written a similar letter to my older daughter too. You see whenever a parent, or sibling, passes away, in my culture we observe a year of abstinence. We do not attend weddings, birthday parties, Durga Puja, or celebrate Christmas. So when my mother passed in October we did not celebrate Durga Puja. Yet Christmas was three months down the road. We were back to our usual routines. How could I explain not having a tree and presents, especially because we were so into celebrating Christmas every year.

There was a very fortunate starting point in the letter. You see when my mother passed, in the culture and tradition of my family, I shaved my head clean.  My younger daughter decided to cut off her waist length hair and donate it to a charity organization that made wigs for children of cancer. She would continue to repeat that kindness every time she had foot long hair to donate.

So I wrote – “Dear Mona, We are very busy in the North Pole. This year we have had an exceptional crop of donated hair. Amongst everything else, the elves are very busy weaving wigs for our little friends suffering from cancer. It is good hearted children like you who help to bring a smile on their faces during the holiday season. By the way, I hear that your grandmother recently passed away. I am very sorry for your loss. We miss her a lot too. Especially her lovely knitting. Every year she knit many woolen garments and scarves for all the needy around the world. I understand you have several sweaters and scarves your grandmother knitted for you. Treasure them all your life. Even when they are old and frayed. Like so many other things, they will help to keep the memory of your grandmother alive.”  Then came the hard part but Santa surely had a way with his words. “Dear Mona,” he continued, “I know it is going to be hard not to have a tree and presents this year on account of your grandmother passing. But I want to assure you that I have a special gift for you. Actually, it is a prayer. Because only God has control over such things. My prayer for you is to wish that your lovely hair grows fast and strong, so you can continue giving all year. By next Christmas your picture and name will be on the Christmas greeting card we send out to all the families whose children have been so lucky to have received your wonderful and generous gifts. God Bless you Mona. With love from Mrs. Claus, and all the elves, your loving, Santa Claus.” The letter arrived promptly before Christmas Day. I saved it for the next day.

We have a fireplace in our living room. But that year there was no decorated and lighted Christmas tree or presents. The annual arrivals of greeting cards had continued.  It is the tradition in our family to stack them up to open and share after we are through with the presents on Christmas day. I presented my daughter with the greeting card from the North Pole, Zip Code, NP 1. Santa had got it right.

 

Surprise

Surprise

By Susim Munshi

I am surprised

At myself

What are these thoughts that rise in my mind?

What are these pictures that float in front of my eyes?

They are not real

What is real

The name of my Guru that I chant all the time

The prayer in my heart and mind

So

How do they steal through

These distractions

These attractions

These apparitions

Better they were flowers I can use for worship

Better they were hymns I can sing in praise

Better they were fruits I could offer for a feast

Even my attempt

To repeat vigorously

The name and prayer for my Guru

Will not keep them at bay

I am surprised

I find them attractive

To dwell upon

But there is no time for that

When there all these people

I must pray for

The poor and the distressed and the sick

May my words, thoughts and actions

Work for their good, their safety

Their peace, happiness and joy

Lokha samasta sukhenu bhabantu.”

Hobby Night

Hobby Night

By Susim Munshi

You and some friends got together
Friday night
To do something different
You all did water colors
And posed for pictures
With your Labor of Love
How Interesting
Yours was a mountains scene
Just like the ones in my BuJo
I liked them all
Because each was special to each

I tried to look for meanings and messages

The Inspiration

I recognized your muse

As I see them everywhere

In the spaces in my BuJo

Because I have run out

Of memories and events to record

I fill them with mountains

Trees, mountains, lakes

Are all fairly easy to draw

Even for an amatuer like me

And the mountains

Have been here forever

Like Friday night with friends

Compasion

Compasion

By Susim Munshi

You sent me a song

And asked me to listen to it

Listen to the words, you said

Yes, listen to the words

I wrote you back

And thanked you for keeping me in your thoughts

When you came across

Something so meaningful as this song

But I didn’t click the line

Saving it for a more opportune time

Instead I wrote you were all in my thoughts

That I had remembered you in my prayers

I also want to tell you that I was preoccupied

Thinking of the mountains I want to draw

Yes, I haven’t told you

I have taken a liking to drawing mountains

Simple colored pencil sketches in

Spaces in my BuJo

So I will not send you a song

I will send you this poem

And a picture of mountains

One of many from my BuJo

What is a BuJo, you will ask

It’s my journal

To record my prayers, my moments,

My memories, and, my mountains

Hope you will understand

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.