13UP-14DWN

13Up-14Dwn in Indian Railways is the Upper India Express that ran between Sealdah station in Kolkata and New Delhi. The overnight journey to Sahibganj from Kolkata took nine hours. The train departed at 8:55 pm. I have an intimate relationship with the 13Up-14Dwn. At thirteen my life started spiraling down, but then at fourteen things began to look up.

My very first ride on the train was January 13, 1960, two days after my brother, Sujat’s birthday January 11. I was five and a half, Sujat had just turned seven. We were the two youngest recruits to St. Xavier’s School Sahibganj boarding school. My mother prepared her darling boys for life in a boarding school in just under thirty days. Between December 15 and January 13 our lives were completely transformed. Mother and Father worked lovingly and diligently to help us become skilled at living independently as boarding school students. Suddenly two dear Bengali boys could dress themselves, knot their own ties, not clip-on, tie and untie shoes, wash and hang their under garments, etc. But especially turnover quilts and dress them up with their covers. The different steps need elaboration. We stood up on our beds, swished the quilts up and down to spread the warm cotton fillings evenly. Spread the entire length out on the bed. Laid the quilt cover on top. Slipped our hands through the front slits until we reached the furthest opposite corners. Then pulled our arms back out through the entire length of the cover, so the cover became reversed, turned inside-out.  With our hands still inside the cover, grabbed the corners of the quilt, stood up again on the bed and let the cover with quilt inside drop to the floor. Finally, with further careful swishing the quilt and cover were both ready. Night time temperatures in Sahibganj can drop to nine degrees Celsius. Sujat had been going to full day school for almost two years. Sujat’s first school was a fifteen minute ride by rickshaw from our home in Uttarpara to the next town Makhla.  Our loyal and long time rickshaw driver and family man-servant Ramji drove us there. Yes, both of us. That is, I went for the ride. Too young to go to school. Probably true for Sahibganj too. But when Fr. Ghirlando, Principal, asked me in his broken Bengali, if I was going to cry at school in Sahibganj, I had bravely said no, with a lot of head shaking in the likelihood he did not fully understand my response in Bengali. I had tears in my eye only at the thought of my brother going away to boarding school. So started the rush to get us all ready to go to Sahibganj for that year and the next thirteen or so.

Sahibganj is a scenic town in Jharkand, India. In 1960 Sahibganj was a very important railway junction, especially for Bengalis from Kolkata travelling for “change” to the hill stations of Darjeeling and Kalimpong, escaping the sultry, muggy and oppressive heat of long city summers. The Jesuits who built a new boarding school in Sahibganj knew the location would attract many families from Kolkata who were already sending their children to boarding schools in Kalimpong and Darjeeling in Bengal and Ranchi and Hazaribag in Bihar.  In January of 1960 there were six boarders all from Kolkata and by the time school let out for the summer break the number had climbed to fifty four. On January 14, when the Upper India Express pulled in to the Sahibganj junction it was 4:00 am of a very cold winter morning.

My Tree My Bench – Marking The Passage of Time

It was a splendid fall last week in the park across my house. Yes, I sat there on the bench for many hours, my tree keeping me company. The leaves fell steadily and travelled across the street to my yard. The next day I raked the yard for several hours and piled them high on the street. The village trucks swept them up and carried them off for mulching. Next spring I will visit the garden store, buy mulch for my kitchen garden and grow some wonderful tomatoes, hot peppers, Indian bitter melon, eggplants, cilantro and herbs. My wife will cook tasty curries for lunch. The tree will be a beautiful green. After, I will sit on the bench with a Steinbeck or Amartya Sen, soak up the sun before winter visits again. My tree is good at marking time. It feeds and nourishes my body and my mind. With my tree standing there in the spring, summer, fall and winter, I breathe easy. Its not a fruit tree, but its is a giving tree.

My Tree My Bench Fall 2016
My Tree My Bench – Fall 2016
My Tree My Bench - Winter 2015
My Tree My Bench – Winter 2015

Zen and the Art of Bullet Journaling – BUJO

Just when the whole world is going digital, here comes the revival of analog journal writing. The free and fluid form of bullet journaling is very engaging for the author. You can use the models that developer Ryder Carroll offers at the website http://bulletjournal.com or branch of in ways that pleases your style and taste. What stood out the most for myself was creating and keeping an index. I suggest strongly that you have an index. Of course since it is a journal you are going to have daily entries (I present my sample in the picture.) So here is the skeleton you should probably adhere to. Index pages(s); Month in Preview – your own monthly calendar with the events, appointments you anticipate; Daily journal entries; Year in Preview – the most important events for each month. Ryder suggests a bullet system of hollowed bullets O for events such as birthdays, a solid bullet for tasks, using forward arrows > to migrate an unfinished task to the next day, next month, next year (eventually), using an X through solid bullets when task are completed, using alerts like ! ? * for further research, review, etc., and – for notes, entries. My experience has elevated my bullet journaling to an entirely new level. The reason I call it Zen and the Art of Bullet Journaling. Taking off from other examples I found on the web, I fell in love with trackers. A tracker is essentially a table of rows and columns for you to keep track for daily goals, landmarks, milestone. I have a daily tracker to check off my daughters’ phone calls, writing in my bujo, daily exercise, daily prayer and ‘dhyan’, drinking a special ayurvedic health tonic concoction. I have another daily tracker for recoding the meals and foods I consume as I work towards my staying healthy goals. As my bullet journaling grew with me and my Zenism became evident, I began to do pen sketches of the view from the various windows in my home. They change daily with the seasons. I began to practice drawing emojis that I could use with my daily entries. (You can see samples in the picture.) I introduced a page for entering blog topic ideas and keeping a calendar of the ones I post/publish. I created a list of books I want to read. I created a page to write my Bengali and Hindi alphabets and numbers. I can find everything by just scanning my detailed index. Therefore keep one. And number your pages. Get creative! May Zen inspire you to explore the depth and breadth of this unchartered ocean of knowledge. I assure you, your bullet journal will become your best friend.

Why my BUJO works for me? Like all things in life it takes practice and discipline. I am completing my 90 days at BUJO. I make it my very own EXPRESSION!! Now I don’t have to look for emojis. I am becoming brave at creating my very own graphics. Its my Mindful Breathing. Do you dare to BUJO!

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Bengali Alphabets
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Emoji Practice Spread in my Bujo
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Wow its November and Thanksgiving!

Krishna – Night of a Thousand Lights

September is a special month for all Bengalis. The night sky is set aflame with a thousands stars, especially after the rains have washed it clear. “A night of a thousand lights.” That’s how I best remember the night of Krishna’s birth. The phrase was used by my father. It shows the literary influence a life time of reading had on him. It turned my Uncle Alok’s disappointment into joy.

Krishna was the sixth and final child born to my uncle and aunt, Alok and Binapani. Alok and Bina were already proud parents of four girls and a boy. They had hoped this last would be a boy too. Krishna was born in the wee hours of the night. The year of her birth is uncertain. Births at home by a midwife where not recorded in those day. Our house, in the tradition of its day had very high ceilings. Only one uncased electric light bulb swung from a sooty black wire, casting most of Bina’s room in shadows. A ceiling fan spun around slowly, gyrating, complaining with a loud whine. The midwife teased the baby out; when it did, it let out a feeble cry. Bina was a small, petite women. All her children had been a little under weight at birth. As the order of the day called, the sex of the new born was checked first, before all fingers and toes were accounted for. They had another girl.

When the news first reached next door where Alok was waiting with the other male members of the family, his pacing of the room became more rapid. Tall, lean and dark he was handsome in his own way. His face always had a stern look. Perhaps because he was the eldest in his family and carried a heavy burden. It made him at times quite unapproachable. With the exception of my father, Sisir, and much later in her life, my mother, Arati, very few in the family could brave telling him anything. Another added inconvenience was that he was already becoming hard of hearing; but you could not raise your voice to him, especially in dissension. Sisir knew exactly how is elder brother was taking the news. He pushed back the chair from the card table where they had been waiting out the night and joined his oldest brother. Alok’s pacing slowed down and he accepted to sit on the chair Sisir offered. Around the table sat his other brothers, Ranjit and Sunil. A deck of cards lay scattered. They had been playing to help pass the time of night. All knew what had conspired between Sisir and Alok as they had paced together. Assurances had been given that everyone would lend their shoulders to welcome the new born girl, standby by Alok when she came to a marriageable age and further beyond. It was time to move on to the important task of visiting the baby and mother; naming the new boy.

A small circle of Aunts hovered over the new born swaddled in bright and colorful baby clothes that Aunt Sabita had hastily sown together. Sabita had the rare talent of making a little appear like a lot. The midwife was still attending to Bina when  Alok got his first glimpse of the baby. He remarked how dark she was; and soon after what big, bright, beautiful eyes. Instantly, Sisir named her Krishna, the girl who had been born on the night of a thousand lights. She would shine as their guiding star for all of their lives, for her siblings and cousins, and one day for their children. Krishna made her rounds between her aunts Sabita and Arati, and uncles Ranjit, Sunil, and Sisir before she came to rest at her mother’s breast. Now it came time to invite all her siblings and cousins in to peek at the new baby. Bina was fast asleep, exhausted from a long night of labor. She slept through the din of dhol, dhak, kashar, ghanta, and sakh beginning to ring out from next door Chatterji Bari where celebrations for Nabami, the fourth day of Durga Puja, had just begun. It was as if a celestial band had taken up to announce the arrival of  Krishna.

Good Girls Marry Good Boys

Destiny is strong and swift. Even if you do not seek it today, in time it will find you.

My name is Sagar, as in ocean. It is said that when a river flows into the ocean it loses its name. When I married Piyali, we reversed that story. I immersed myself fully in her, without hesitation. At the end I did not lose my name.

There was much to gain from the match. Mostly everyone said I won a princess and half the kingdom. It suited all our purposes. I did sweep Piyali off her feet; and she, likewise, mine. By most standards we were both older and mature. I was. Living in a crowded household of seven siblings, sisters-in-laws, nephews and nieces. Providing for elderly and aging parents. I did not see any chance for remedy or redemption. My ocean was drying up. Until a new river flowed in.

The circumstances of our wedding came awkwardly from a listing I ran in the matrimonial section of a popular daily newspaper. It lay buried in small print crowded with several others, squeezed in under other half and quarter page ads of promising matches that made you reach for the moon and stars. The first phone call from an aunt came at a time when the whole household was in an epic uproar over all the report cards that had come home that afternoon with all of the school age nephews and nieces. Though I was spared my battle being single, I was dragged into it by loud brothers and sisters-in-laws on one side, and whimpering nephews and nieces on the other. Being Sagar I could weather the storm that was raging that night. I was not all prepared for the matrimonial inquiry.

“Yes,” I said hurriedly, “I am Sagar, but can I call you back tomorrow.” I noted her number and the match making ended there. My hopes were dashed. Besides, what could I offer a girl, more a lady, that married into this household. I decided to drop the matter. Two days later she called again.

“Sagar, are things more favorable today,” she inquired politely. I caught the sympathy and concern in her  voice. I slipped out into the small balcony of the room I shared with my two nephews and quietly closed the shutters behind me. The balcony overlooked an ally that separated our house from the neighbors. As usual in the receding light of the pale setting sun  my nephews and other neighborhood boys were playing a game of cricket. It was the most quiet and privacy I could wish for.

In between loud appeals for outs and roars for sixes, I heard the beginnings of a marriage invitation. The aunt was straightforward and forth coming. Would I be interested in marrying her niece who was somewhat immature? She said she was being honest from the start. That Ratna was slow. That she had stopped going to school in the tenth grade after her family concluded to put the academic challenges behind them. That she more than made up for her slowness with an unforgiving love and devotion to her parents, sister and family. That she was beautiful and wholesome, quiet charming, when you could hold your patience with her in a conversation. Would I be interested in meeting her?

That was it. She never asked a word about me. I wondered if she had used other means to check up on me before the phone calls. Probably. Even though we lived in a city of millions, acquaintances were not difficult to discover if you made a few subtle inquiries. I would on the other hand not use such devices. I gave her my word I would meet Piyali at a time and place convenient to them. No questions asked.  I was not surprised when she asked if the next afternoon would be ok. Nor, when she asked me to come to her home. I have known that many arranged marriages begin with a first meeting at a relatives place. Why would anything appear contrived?

Kolkata is not only a very big city. It is also very difficult to navigate even for the diehards who lived there all their lives. I had a few challenges finding the right address and arrived about an half hour late. I could tell from the crest fallen look of the maid who greeted me at the door that there had been a lot of disappointment in the mind of other household members, especially Piyali. She sat on the edge of a velvet upholstered couch between two of her aunts. Even though the home was very large you couldn’t tell how much wealth it held from the outside. Older homes were rapidly becoming a non entity in Kolkata, crushed between the rising demand for real estate and the high rise flats that sprouted everywhere. Still the very rich held on to their affluence often camouflaged by the neighborhood. That I was seating in one such wealthy drawing room was evident from the array of richly dressed sofas and divans before me and the ornate ceiling fan cooling the room.

The Power of Suggestion

What a bike 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 ontoh 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 arrangement. 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 handle bars. And myself balanced acrobatically, my tush resting tentatively on the handle bar, my feet astride across the front wheel, with the heels of my feet resting on the ends of the front axel. PHEW ! No, not because I am out of breadth; 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 definetly 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 wheel downards, the front wheel having entered a deep rut heading downhill. The strangest thing was yet to happen. Suddenly the handle bars 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.

To Believe is to Know

I have been debating the title for this post. I started with “To Know is to Believe”. At that moment I thought that if I knew something about an object, person, emotion, or possible miracle, then I should be able to recognize its origin and believe its source. Teacher says in his “The Miracle of Mindfulness” that nothing exists that is not an object, person, or feeling which helps your mind to know its inter-connectedness and therefore its rightful place in the universe. When practicing mindfulness using the breathing technique, every thought that enters your conscious stream then is related to something that already exists and you can take your time to acknowledge that specific thought and stay with it for as long as it lingers without feeling interrupted in your practice. Finally I made the choice that the title should be “To Believe is to Know”. My object here is to present the quiet moments of our lives that are touched and blessed by the miracles of Guru MaharajJi and how he reassures us again and again that he is there for us, for those we love, for those we pray for, those dear and near and far, and for all the peoples. Blessings are signs that we must recognize and trust! They protect us, they ground our faith, make it deeper, and give us the courage to continue in the face of austerity. What comes first, the knowledge or the belief, is a mystery, but there is no doubt of the perception that a miracle has occurred! Sometimes you think it is a mere coincidence but the signs are numerous and you feel the presence! They are matters of simple faith. Last week I was sick and alone at home. My head was reeling and I kept throwing up. Finally at around 11:00 am, I decided that the symptoms felt very suspicious, contacted of my wife at work and told her I was getting ready to call 911. I found the strength and courage to make my way down to the first floor living room, keyed the alarm off, opened the door and left it ajar, went down to the family room and brought up a spare garbage can, came back up to the living room, sat down on the sofa so I could keep my eye on the door and the street, called 911 and waited. All the time I kept retching and throwing up, now just water into the garbage can. Within minutes the paramedics were there and I was being driven away in the ambulance. The hospital is on Gross Point and Golf, only minutes away from home. Before we arrived, the paramedic had already got an intravenous drip going with some medication to ease the severe nausea. They reassured me my vital signs looked very good and told me not to worry. Within minutes I was in the emergency room and being fully supported by the expert crew of doctor, nurse and technicians. I felt reassured that even if I was having another heart attack I was in good hands. My wife had already arrived at the hospital and I saw her come in to the room. My nausea began to remiss but was replaced by an intense headache that was splitting my forehead. The probing and pricking continued for the first twenty minutes as the nurse and technician drew blood, changed the drip, attached an oxygen tube, and ran the EKG. That report was good. I knew the danger had passed. An hour later the doctor was back with more reports that confirmed that I was truly out of danger. We talked about things and it became clearer that the cough syrup I had been prescribed had not suited me at all. After about two hours I was given some water and was able to hold it in. My headache was slackening and I began to doze off. An hour later of dozing on and off, I had some more water and crackers and it was determined I was ready to be discharged and go back home. The ER doctor stopped by for last minute words and counseling and we were on our way back home. I settled down on the couch in the living room for the rest of the afternoon. My wife checked the mail. The Durga Puja publication of Guru MaharajJi’s periodical “Guru Bandana” (The Sacred Word of the Guru) had just arrived. As she touched the beautiful picture of Guru MaharajJi to my forehead as a blessing, we both knew that once again a miracle had occurred!!

 

Burdwan Station – Unfinished Business

Burdwan, a railway station, is the beginning, middle and end of many of my train journeys. Not unusual for a boy who went to boarding school to have many, many train journeys. Sahibganj, the town of my boarding school, was reached from Kolkata, my home, by train. I made the trip six times a year from age six to seventeen, when I left school. Then because my parents had made Sahibganj home, my trips continued but less frequently. The trains to Sahibganj pass through Burdwan, an important junction. Burdwan is also the stop from where I change to a bus or car for the trip to my mother’s home in the village called Galsi. Between Kolkata and Burdwan, is a small suburb of Kolkata, Uttarpara, the town of my ancestral home. After so many trips, for so many journeys, for so many reasons, Burdwan is one open window in my life.

For all of my travels from, to and through Burdwan, the longest time I have spent their is probably half an hour waiting to board a train. Yet the windowlogues are endless. Obviously some more worth recounting than others. There is one common memory and life long impression. Burdwan is also home of the very famous Bengali desert mihidana. Now many people travel through Burdwan. During a short stop, you can make a mad dash to get off your train, exit the station, weave your way through rickshaws, autos, cars, taxis, push carts, and passengers, get in the line at a sweet stall, bag your precious cargo of mihidana, and hopefully resume your journey. 

Burdwan, Galsi and Sahibganj featured prominently in my life. Galsi, my grandmother’s home, was an idyllic Bengali village. It fits the bill like a shoe. Travels through Burdwan to Galsi featured a  local or express bus trip in my childhood, a private car in adulthood. The early years also included a trip by rickshaw during dry months or by bullock cart during the monsoon to my grandmother’s doorstep. The house gained stature and size over years. The entrance way remained the same and served a clear purpose. From the street level you climbed about eight steps to reach a concrete platform about ten feet long before you knocked on the door. The platform leveled off with a bullock cart base; so you could hop off the cart onto the platform while the cart driver held his bullocks and cart steady in the ever sinking mud. I wouldn’t dare to step into the street, sometimes a river of mud. Once through the doors, a small hallway and then the beautiful courtyard opened into the vista of a lush green country, sometimes swaying with paddy, at others a golden brown with wheat, whatever the farmers saw fit to grow.

Once passing through Burdwan, my father performed an extra-ordinary feat. In the mid 70’s I was in the second year of my college at St. Xavier’s Kolkata. Having consumed many tasty meals at a local dhaba, I came down with a bought of malaria and finally severe jaundice. My cousins in Uttarpara took me home, while my parents came up from Sahibganj. All the conveniences of our small but adequate living quarters in Sahibganj beckoned us to rush back even though I was far from recovery. That would take my absence from college and Kolkata for three months. We boarded the train at Howrah, Kolkata. The train makes its first stop at Burdwan some two hours later, before chugging on to other stops and reaching Sahibganj after nine hours. A fever started and burnt my body. My parents conferred that Father would get off at Burdwan and make a dash for the pharmacy located by the sweet stalls to buy a stronger fever reducer. I was quiet layed out by the fever to be aware of their daring plan.

Old Man of the Mountains

Old Man of the Mountains

Flora and Fauna. These are the wonders of the Rocky Mountains alpine tundra. The tundra is a type of biome above the tree line. Low temperatures and short growing seasons hinder the growth of trees. Vegetation of dwarf shrubs, sedges, grasses, mosses and tiny brilliant flowers. My introduction to new wonders came with expert guidance from an esteemed naturalist. At 12,000 ft the Trail Ridge Road of the Rocky Mountain National Park brought me to the land above the trees. A heaven of sorts. Had I taken care to tread carefully, stayed on the designated path, not dislodged the exposed soil? Recovery takes hundred of years. My respect for the fragile ecosystem, my regard for my expert guide grew with every moment. Together we spied a line of elks grazing their way steadily up from Moraine Park. Some 300 millions of years ago tectonic activity had formed the natural wonders of the Rocky Mountains.