Rangakaka: Remembering a colorful life

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

Rangakaka and me in New York, 2011.

The film “Aradhana” had just made its big splash in 1969 when my family returned once again from a soujourn in America to India. As we settled back to a middle-class existence that back then meant ration cards and standing in line for water, the songs of “Aradhana” blared on speakers at street stalls. We had a radio at home but half the time we didn’t have electricity. So there were two ways to hear music for someone like me in Kolkata: go see the movie over and over again at a cheap matinee or listen to the street speakers.

The movie starred Sharmila Tagore, a Bengali actress who was hugely popular in Kolkata, and Rajesh Khanna, perhaps the biggest star in Bollywood at the time. The songs were all number one hits and I went to see the movie many times with Shantidi, the woman who worked for us as a housekeeper.

That summer, we went to Delhi to visit my father’s brother. I called him Rangakaka.

My uncle’s name was Tapan Kumar Basu. In my culture, younger people never address an elder person by their first name. Kaka is the word for a father’s younger brother. My father had four brothers so the family gave them all terms of endearment. Ranga was the name given to this uncle. It means color in Bengali, a fitting name for a man with so much joie de vivre.

Rangakaka was the most outgoing, the most gregarious of all my father’s brothers, I thought. He gave new meaning to “eat, drink and be merry.”

On that trip to Delhi, I was only 7 years old and did not know my uncle well then, though my parents were very close to him.

When he was a college student, he had lived with my mother and father in north Kolkata for a while. One of the stories that was often circulated in the family was of the time when my parents were out and burglars broke into the house, gagged and tied Rangakaka up and shoved him under the bed. My father always told me Rangakaka was a lucky man that day.

Instantly, I took a liking to Rangakaka. One big reason was that he knew all the lyrics to my favorite “Aradhana” songs. Another reason was that Rangakaka drove us everywhere in his Fiat when few people in my family even owned cars. Those who did hired chauffeurs to take them around. But not Rangakaka. He told me he loved to drive. In the early 1970s, the streets of Delhi were wide open and it was easy to navigate traffic. Unimaginable today.

Rangakaka drove us around and all the while regaled us with song. “Roop tera, Mustana. Pyar mera, diwana. Bhuul koi hamse naa ho jaaye.” Your beauty is intoxicating. My love is crazy. Let’s not make any mistakes.

I loved that I had such a hip uncle who knew the songs that were dear to me. My parents did not care for popular Hindi songs. They listened to far more intellectual Bengali music, which I did not understand well then and therefore, was not interested. It was sort of like having a mom and dad who listened to Beethoven and then visiting an uncle who sang the Beatles. Yay.

Rangakaka sported sideburns, drank whisky and smoked cigarettes. He liked to dance and get loud. Everything my father was not.

He was an architectural engineer and in his long career, he worked on several important projects in India, including the Vidyasagar Setu, the longest cable-stayed bridge in India that carries traffic over the Hooghly River in Kolkata. A lot of his work was in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir and when the insurgency raged in the late 1980s and 1990s, I listened to my uncle lament the destruction of one of the most beautiful places in India. Later, when I went to Srinagar to cover the war, Rangakaka set me up with his contacts and friends. I felt a modicum of security knowing that I could run to my uncle’s friend’s house if I were in danger. They would have done anything for me because I was Tapan’s niece. That’s how much my uncle’s friends respected him.

I wish I had spoken more with my uncle about his work, especially in Kashmir. I wish I had spent more time with him when he still confronted life full on. For many years, when my parents were still alive, I did not go to Delhi much so that I could spend more of my precious few vacation days at home in Kolkata. It was only in recent years that I spent considerable time in India’s capital, reporting stories for CNN and visiting family.

My uncle and aunt were always generous with their hospitality. The house that they built in the 1970s always had guests in the downstairs room. We referred to it solely by its street number — J1815. I have so many fond memories of Rangakaka there.

On my last two trips, Rangakaka was weak and had trouble going up and down the stairs. Everyone gathered in the evenings in his upstairs bedroom, where we’d munch on snacks, sip wine and talk. Often it was about his adventures or about my childhood. My uncle and I both loved a syrupy Bengali dessert delicacy called Chom Chom. Rangakaka was famed for the number of Chom Choms he could eat at one sitting. He told me once that I was as sweet as a Chom Chom and from then on, that’s what he called me. I was 51 the last time I saw him and he was still calling me by that name.

“Mone aachhe, Chom Chom?” he said. “Do you remember, Chom Chom?” And then he launched into a childhood story.

I had planned to visit Delhi in January but for many reasons, I postponed my trip. Now I am full of regret.

Rangakaka died on April 9. He was 77.

I was on assignment for CNN  when I received the sad news in a text from Rangakaka’s eldest son, my cousin Jayanta. My heart grew heavy. It was as though I had lost my father all over again.

At the Charlotte airport, I plugged in my ear buds, went to my Hindi playlist and selected “Aradhana.” I could hear Rangakaka singing, and it made me smile.

Anne Frank’s cousin dies

Buddy and Gerti Elias in Atlanta in 2011.

Buddy and Gerti Elias in Atlanta in 2011.

I hadn’t heard the sad news until my friend Lee sent me an email this morning with the New York Times obituary. Immediately, I went to the Anne Frank Foundation website and read the announcement . Her cousin, Buddy Elias, died March 16 shortly before his 90th birthday at his home in Basel, Switzerland.

The reason Lee sent me the obit was because the New York Times cited a story I wrote on Elias in 2012.

I met Elias and his wife, Gerti, at an uptown Atlanta hotel. He was touring the United States to promote a book, “Anne Frank’s Family,” which told the story of the entire Frank family. Many of the details in the book were not known until an amazing discovery more than a decade ago. You’ll have to read the story on CNN.com to find out what that was.

I felt a sadness come over me this morning when I learned of Elias’ death.

Like millions of others, I was deeply influenced by “The Diary of Anne Frank.” I was in the seventh grade in India when my father bought me the book. It was fascinating to hear Elias talk about his days with Anne. I felt I got to know her all over again, in happier days,

My CNN story begins like this:

If the curves of Buddy Elias’ 86-year-old face look familiar, it’s because he is the closest surviving relative of the girl whose diary gave an early glimpse into the Holocaust. It’s not difficult to see that Elias is Anne Frank’s first cousin. He has the same soulful eyes and smile in the photographs that accompanied Anne’s famous diary, written while hiding from the Nazis. 

He was my closest personal encounter with a girl who opened my eyes to the cruelty of this world. It was the goodness of Anne that amazes every reader of her diary, despite it all.

In Elias, I had seen that same goodness.

Rest in peace.

Wonderwomen

IMG_1552

Practicing for a performance in the courtyard of Kolkata Sanved.

On a bright December afternoon in Kolkata, I watched a handful of young women throw their arms in the air, swirl the scarves of their salwar kameez and leap from one end of the courtyard to the other. They danced their cares away. Literally.

The women had all been forced into prostitution or into abusive relationships. Dance was their therapy. For some, it was their only joy in life.

IMG_1540

Sohini goes over steps with a star dancer who was abducted as a girl and forced into prostitution.

Their leader is Sohini Chakraborty, a sociologist and dancer, who launched Kolkata Sanved after experimenting with rehabilitation for sexual violence survivors through dance. A poster she saw once at Kolkata’s massive book fair steered her in that direction. Under a photograph of a girl  were these words: “They sell me, my own blood for gold and silver, I rinse and rinse my mouth but the treachery remains,’ printed underneath.”

Chakraborty says she went inside the book stall to learn more about that girl and “embarked on a new journey.”

I spent many hours with the women and girls at Kolkata Sanved. It was amazing how uplifting it was to watch them come alive through music and movement. I even danced with them on my last day.

Today, on International Women’s Day, I salute Sohini, her staff and all the women who have rediscovered themselves through Kolkata Sanved. And all the other brave women I have met through the years on my travels around the world. We have a long way to go. But we have also come a long way.

Read more about Kolkata Sanved.

Hindus to NYC: Why Eid, but not Diwali?

diwali-pictures-hd-wallpaper-19

Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha are like Christmas and Yom Kippur now for New York City schools. Mayor Bill Blasio announced the city will recognize the two important Muslim holidays. It’s a landmark decision.

New York is the first major metropolis to reach out to its Muslim residents — a handful of smaller cities have already done so.

It’s a great move, a show of tolerance and acceptance at a time when Islam is under fire in many corners of America.

But it also means that other religions deserve consideration. That call came from Asian Americans who are urging recognition of the Chinese Lunar New Year and the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali.

“While the addition of two Muslim holidays is commendable, the mayor’s decision to exclude Diwali, a festival that is celebrated by thousands of Hindu, Jain, and Sikhs in NYC is beyond disappointing,” said Sheetal Shah, senior director of the Hindu American Foundation.

“These communities are a vibrant and integral part of this city and deserve to be able to celebrate their festivals,” Shah said. “In excluding Diwali, the mayor is falling short on his responsibility to equally represent all New Yorkers.”

It’s certainly something to think about considering the hefty Indian population in the United States, especially in urban areas that are home to many Hindus. The education board in Glenn Rock, New Jersey, for instance, voted last month to add Diwali to its list of school holidays.

Diwali is the largest festival of India and is celebrated in the fall. It signifies a victory of light over darkness.

This year, Diwali falls on Wednesday, November 11. I think I will ask for that day off.

Missing plane tragedy, one year later

Screen Shot 2015-03-01 at 1.17.04 PM

I have been corresponding with K.S. Narendran for almost a year now. His wife, Chandrika Sharma, was one of the passengers on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 when it vanished from the skies on March 8, 2014.

He recently shared with me how he has been coping. He spoke  with me by email, phone and Skype from his home in Chennai, India. The story was published today on CNN.com.

I feel honored that he shared so much of himself. I think all of us could learn from his fortitude.

Click here to read.

They own nothing. ZERO.

kol

A woman sleeps on a sidewalk in central Kolkata. Extreme poverty afflicts millions in India.

 

A few weeks ago, when President Barack Obama visited India, I wrote a piece for CNN about how my homeland was poised to become a global power in the next few decades. The most recent World Bank forecast says growth in India is likely to outdo China’s.

But then came a sobering reminder of the widespread poverty in India.

The latest Census data says that 43 million households have zero assets to their name. That means about 215 million people own nothing. The Census listed cars, computers and televisions. But it also listed simple things like radios, bicycles and cell phones. Nothing. Zero.

As such, these people are largely excluded from society, marginalized by extreme poverty.

India’s extreme poor are often left out of the discussion on growth and a more fruitful future. But any measure of progress has to be diminished by these shameful numbers.

Recently, the Aam Admi  (Common Man) Party won a surprising and resounding victory in the Delhi elections, putting anti-corruption champion Arvind Kejriwal back in the chief minister’s slot. Aam Admi’s core support comes from the urban poor.

Whether or not you agree with Aam Admi, the win in Delhi, though largely symbolic, is a strong indicator that “inclusion: might just be the “it” concept in Indian politics in the years ahead. Politicians who forget about the millions without assets, the millions without clout, may have disappointments in store. India has to lift all boats. A global power cannot be a nation in which so many people own absolutely nothing.

Read my story about Obama and India on CNN.com.

Farewell, Sgt. Denny

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

Denny and me in southwest Baghdad. March 2006. Curtis Compton took this photo.

I first met the boys of Charlie Company, 1/121 Infantry, in December 2005. I was an embedded reporter, a lost soul among the rough and tumble men of the Georgia Army National Guard. What did I know about the military, about the U.S. Army? Very little.

I arrived with trepidation in my heart. But the soldiers of Company C welcomed me. One of them was Sgt. Thomas Denny.

He was known by his last name, as is standard in the Army. Denny. He worked in the main office of Charlie Company, the admin guy. For that, he took hell from other soldiers who went out on patrol after patrol. Denny. Yeah. He’s the guy who sits at the desk. But that wasn’t true.

Denny told me about how he felt bad that he was the lucky one who got to spend so much time on base while his buddies went outside the wire, on the menacing streets of southwest Baghdad at the height of the Sunni-Shia wars. He talked to me for hours. About how he grew up in Ohio and moved to Georgia in high school. About how he loved the outdoors—hunting and fishing.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

Denny in the Charlie Company TOC at Camp Liberty. March 2006.

He told me he wanted to go out on every patrol. “But, I’ll be honest, Miss Moni,” he said. “Every guy who goes out there… well… you just never know. You just never know if you’ll make it.”

I wrote down Denny’s words on December 18, 2005, in my Iraq journal. It was among the many conversations I had with him.

One morning, before I flew south to Tallil, he gave me a cross made out of steel hung on a leather chain. “Wear it,” he said. “And think of us poor f—s. Think of me. Be safe.”

I looked at that cross today when I got home from a trip out West to Alaska. Maj. Will Phillips informed me two days ago that Denny had died. He survived Iraq. But he did not survive cancer.

Denny didn’t always sit at the desk. He went out on missions. He put himself out there. He told me he was devastated that some of his Army comrades thought him a coward.

I stand testament that he was not.

The photograph of me in Iraq that has been publicized the most is the one on this post. Of me with Denny. Of me, protected by Denny.

Farewell, brother. Rest in peace.