Archive for the ‘Gujarat’ Category

May
144

Rabindranath Wrap-Up

Just in time for the 150th birthday of Rabindranath Tagore, I moved all the way across the country from Kolkata–Tagore’s home–to Ahmedabad, Gujarat. This fits perfectly with my fractured relationship to the great writer.

During my five months in Kolkata, I had several conversations about Tagore’s oppressive grip on the literary heritage and imagination of Bengalis. My bookshelves are littered with translated Tagore volumes that endless aunts and cousins have gifted to me over the years, but I’ve never quite fallen into a Tagore poem (or story, or novel) and had it capture my heart and soul. Tagore has always represented my plight as a second-generation Bengali American. I feel shut out of truly understanding Tagore’s magic because of the elevated Bengali he uses in his poetry, because the translations of Tagore into English are sneered upon by any self-respecting Bengali, and because I lack the intense cultural memory of the 2000-plus Rabindra Sangeet songs that are such markers for most Bengalis.

My connection to Tagore has everything to do with my sense of Bengali-ness though. There is something that melts inside of me when, in the midst of a conversation, an elder looks off into the middle distance and starts reciting some Tagore poem in that deep, dirge-like poetry recitation voice that was in vogue in the 1940s. And though I don’t really know Rabindra Sangeet, I spent my childhood weekends learning the graceful, emotional folk dance that accompanies the music from my mother, who recently brought me to tears when she did an impromptu performance at a gathering of ladies in her hometown. The women sang and clapped and my mother, her own performer’s radiant smile wavering on her face, glided and swerved her way into a timeless moment. When I was 16, I starred as the butch Chitrangada in Tagore’s famous drama about a warrior-princess who is raised as a boy since her father did not have any sons, but then yearns for beauty and female grace when she meets Arjuna one day. It was the pinnacle of my performing arts career and I remember the rush fondly. And just before leaving Kolkata, I was mooning over Kolkata’s Tagore fetish at the Rabindra Sadan Metro Station, which is decorated by drawings and scribbled notes from Tagore’s notebooks. I rushed to copy down this fragment before the train rushed in: “The butterfly does not count years/ but moments / and therefore has enough time.”


This past week, I talked about Tagore to some 50 young people at a three-day summer camp for youth served by Manav Sadhna. I talked about Tagore’s genius, but then also told the classic Tagore ghost-story “The Hungry Stones,” which was inspired by Tagore’s four-month stint in Ahmedabad when he was 17 and staying in a old Mughal mansion not far from where our apartment is. In order to make the activity interactive and connect it to a tabla and nature lesson that Robin was doing — we assigned certain tabla bols for different elements in the story, like the train, the river, ghost footsteps and the wind. After a long day of activities and dinner, some of the younger kids fell asleep

during the story — which had to be translated from English to Gujarati — but what’s better than a ghost story right before bed at summer camp? It was especially scary at the climax of the story when all the elements rise to a crescendo.

I thought I’d do a little wrap-up of the best writing I’ve seen around the web celebrating, debunking and discussing Tagore:

• Here’s a great piece in The Guardian by Ian Jack really giving a sense of Tagore’s rise and fall in favor in the West, and a wry look into the Bengali attitude about him.

“More than anything, what Tagore stood for was a synthesis of east and west. He admired the European intellect and felt betrayed when Britain’s conduct in India let down the ideal.”

• A more personal identification from Salil Tripathi at LiveMint:

“Tagore was at home in the world. He believed in its beauty and aesthetic. And he enhanced my life, through his presence on my bookshelves in the homes I have lived in over the years. His ideas gave shape to many of my thoughts, impulses, responses and emotions. It was a Tagore poem, Ananta Prem (Unending Love) that I read out when I got married; it was to that poem that I turned nearly two decades later, at my wife’s funeral, and read aloud again, for Tagore sang “the songs of every poet past and forever”.”

• A piece by the always-hilarious Sandip Roy at the recently-launched First Post about why he just can’t get it up for Tagore.

“The Bengali diaspora has ruined Tagore. I think there should be a  moratorium on Rabindrasangeet sessions at Banga Sammelans in San Jose and Atlantic City. It’s Bengali culture by intravenous drip for the second generation.” Ouch.

• And here’s a link to “The Hungry Stones” and other stories by Tagore.

“As I sat down again, thinking it to be an illusion, I heard many footfalls, as if a large number of persons were rushing down the steps. A strange thrill of delight, slightly tinged with fear, passed through my frame, and though there was not a figure before my eyes, methought I saw a bevy of joyous maidens coming down the steps to bathe in the Susta in that summer evening. Not a sound was in the valley, in the river, or in the palace, to break the silence, but I distinctly heard the maidens’ gay and mirthful laugh, like the gurgle of a spring gushing forth in a hundred cascades, as they ran past me, in quick playful pursuit of each other, towards the river, without noticing me at all. As they were invisible to me, so I was, as it were, invisible to them. The river was perfectly calm, but I felt that its still, shallow, and clear waters were stirred suddenly by the splash of many an arm jingling with bracelets, that the girls laughed and dashed and spattered water at one another, that the feet of the fair swimmers tossed the tiny waves up in showers of pearl.”

Dec
139

Kem Cho?


I’ve traded the yellowing colonial balustrades of Kolkata for the crumbling stone darwajas, or gates, of Ahmedabad for ten days. Robin’s Ranchod Mama (Uncle) and his family (wife, sons, daughter-in-law, grandson, dog, mice, chipmunks) live in a wonderfully ramshackle old collection of rooms and ladders in the Old City, a neighborhood full of old mansions and blue doorways.

Gujarat is supposedly one of the richest states in the Indian nation due to infamous Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s support for industrialization. In fact, the Tata Nano (India’s Smart car) factory, that was originally going to be not far from my family’s ancestral village in West Bengal, was relocated to Ahmedabad after Leftist strikes supporting displaced farmers made it impossible for the deal to move forward.

I’m not sure if I thought, then, that the streets would be lined with gold, but perhaps I thought that the streets would be paved a little smoother, that the city would have more of a shine of newness and industry, but perhaps India can’t pull off that look. Ahmedabad’s streets are chaotic, nothing of the colonial grid-making of Delhi and Kolkata here, and there are cows and camels — but mostly cows — sharing the narrow streets with auto-rickshaws and bicycles and scooters and wedding processions, etc. Though, I did see the concrete signs of industrialization when driving out of the city — a row of smart looking factories with awards of excellence on wooden plaques outside abutted a river thick with the bright pink and gray foam of industrial waste.

The lack of colonization also means that English has less of a stronghold here and I am reduced to a lot of smiling, nodding and pantomiming. Gujarati is two steps removed from Bengali — certain words exactly the same and others seemingly from an entirely different root language. I realize how much of my personality is trapped in language: sarcasm, witticisms, idiom. In Bengali, my personality shifts again and I become someone new — less cynical perhaps, more innocent, still learning the spaces in the language for lewd jokes and poetry. In Gujarat, I have both the burden and privilege of not knowing 75 percent of what is going on at any given time.

My time here continues to be filled to the brim with people and experiences. I fell ill a week ago — the India special — and am only just feeling back to normal, which has made everything that much harder to process. The dehydration sapping my brain cells from any efforts to process things rationally, but my body also appreciated the two afternoons that were spent in dark, quiet rooms. I realize that I’ve been in perpetual motion for over a month and I think the illness was as much a result of that as it was whatever bacteria I ingested.

The most exciting part of this trip is connecting with the NGO Manav Sadhna, where Robin has spent years volunteering and his cousin-brother Jagat Bhai runs an amazing vocational arts program with youth from the nearby slums. Manav Sadhna is housed directly next to, and on the principles of, the Gandhi Ashram here on the Sabramati River. You can see Gandhi’s room where he spent many years writing and organizing for what would become the brunt of his work on the Independence Movement.

Robin will be working closely with a group of youth — 10-12 year olds — who are mounting a large scale dance drama production about one-ness, led by Nimish (Nimo) Patel, who some of you might remember from here. Nimo has been working closely with the young people for nearly a year and was hosting an overnight (18 kids!) at his house for the group when we first arrived in Ahmedabad. We were able to visit a dance practice and also accompany the group to a Mother Theresa home for the destitute and dying, where the children handed out biscuits and a sweet-faced nun named Sister Mary Joseph led me upstairs past the destitute to sit for a few moments with the dying. In these few meetings, I am already so inspired by Nimo’s process with the young people, which is about a wholistic improvement in their lives through creativity (and so much more that I am not ready to articulate yet). It reminds me very much of Raj Jayadev’s work with Silicon Valley De-Bug, in that it is about building community and process and not about product. [Not that product-based youth work doesn't also have it's own pluses ... having space from my work is helping me think things through for the first time in a long time and hope everyone will allow my ramblings here.]

I spoke with one of the founders of Manav Sadhna today about my own experiences working with young people over the past few years and how to connect when I am back in Ahmedabad in April. In the next few days, I hope to visit a street school program, a blind school and a leper colony to see where I can fit in my own ideas of how to empower these young people. I was also told about how to connect to the adult prisons and the juvenile justice centers here, where the rehabilitation is very much focused on yoga and meditation. I am especially excited to work towards bringing out my dear friend Josue Rojas to collaborate with Jagat Bhai and bring some of the graffiti and mural skills he has been spreading throughout the Americas to India. Robin or Nimo said today that Manav Sadhna was an incredibly fertile place where if you plant a seed, everyone will shower it will love and power and it will grow bigger than you ever imagined.


When we weren’t in Ahmedabad, we were visiting Robin’s parents’ ancestral homes, both sprawling extended family homes anchored on sweet shops. In his father’s home, we witnessed a special ritual aarthi, or candle lighting prayer ceremony for the goddess Kali Ma in a small temple his family has taken care of for years. It was a family reunion of sorts and as some 75 people gathered outside, Robin and I — along with some high-ranking family and children and the priest — squeezed into the small wrought-iron encased temple where literally hundreds of cotton candles soaked in oil and ghee were lit. Then, when the bhajans and drumming and bell-clanging and fires were at their peak, one of Robin’s aunts channeled the spirit of the goddess and went into a kind-of spiritual trance, during which she spit up blood-red kum-kum powder from her mouth and conjured a handkerchief from her throat, all while dancing and waving her hands in the fire. I’d never seen anything like it, (except for a recent yoga retreat I went to with my mother in Centerville, Ohio during which a former burlesque dancer embodied Kali Ma — but that was much more playful and this was much more … Pentecostal.) It was amazing spectacle though and Robin captured it beautifully on film. My own spiritual ardor either increased or dissipated — I haven’t quite decided yet — when burning oil from one of the flaming candles being swung around  dripped onto my leggings and burned a holy hole into my thigh.


Otherwise, we endured the joys and the trauma of interacting with family that are removed by continents and oceans and years and missed births and deaths, but who are suddenly up close and personal — the dust of their feet smeared across our foreheads in order to make it all up. Robin has had less time with his family in India than I have with mine, so the legions of cousins are more like strangers, but mostly sweet strangers who give up their beds for you. The Indian concept of hospitality continues to humble me and I owe much of my survival this last week to a long list of Aunties who cooked for me and fretted over me in the universal tones of love.


Today, we spent the afternoon walking through the slum that Manav Sadhna works closely with — a hot, dusty, powerful experience. When we first walked in, we crossed over a river of open sewage and Nimo pointed out some kids — maybe seven years old — who were wading through it in shorts with no shoes. He explained to me how if they have a cut on their leg that it would immediately become septic. But everyone greeted us with smiles, invited us in to sit in their tin-roofed shelters and the children all ran to greet me and shake my hands with smiles and hellos. I am so thankful that I have the opportunity to do some work here in whatever way it will shape up.


For our last few days in Ahmedabad, we are staying in Nimo’s spartan apartment not far from Manav Sadhna and I’ve been writing this while Robin and Nimo and the kids are at dance practice. It is the first time I have truly been alone, with the doors closed, for a week. Outside, a wedding band was blaring horns and melodies and then an arsenal of fireworks was set off, now the sounds have mellowed to the usual honks and hawker cries and construction. Dusk is falling and in a little while I’ll go meet up with Robin and Nimo at the Seva Cafe, where we’ll volunteer our time to feed people who will pay it forward.

The culture of service here is infectious and I know it will change the way I think about the world, but sometimes it seems at odds with the selfishness of creativity. I could only finish writing this by coming into this locked room. I came to India to find such a room and spend as much time as I could locked up in it. Yet, I know that service and especially youth work is about time and consistency and giving … Ahhh, the contradictions of India are pretty much the only thing you can count on to be truly consistent.

P.S. ‘Kem cho?’ is Gujarati for ‘How are you?’