The saint

mother_teresa-smaller.14704.articlefull.0Pope Francis announced that Mother Teresa is becoming a saint. She will be canonized next fall.

The pontiff attributed the miraculous healing of a Brazilian man with multiple brain tumors, which means the Albanian-born nun can now ascend to the most vaulted status in the Catholic church.

But for me, and millions in my hometown of Kolkata, Mother Teresa’s true miracles were on the streets of that city. She didn’t just save the life of a terminally ill Brazilian man; she saved the poorest of the poor.

Mother Teresa gave everything to make something of people who had nowhere to go. People who had no hope.

I saw this firsthand when I volunteered at an institution run by the Missionaries of Charity. Their main chapel was just down the street from my parents’ home in central Kolkata. I met Mother Teresa many years ago, before she was a Nobel laureate, before the world knew much about her.

She has been criticized in India from various corners. Some thought she was pushing a Catholic agenda in a mostly Hindu city. Others said she gained fame because she was a foreigner. I don’t pretend to know every truth about her. But I will say this: I know she helped care for desperate people who otherwise would have gone without help. I don’t know of anyone else who gave so tirelessly to the poor.

That makes her a saint in my book.

Satyajit Ray, or Manikmama

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A few weeks ago, I went to see “3 1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets,” a riveting documentary about the shooting death of Jordan Davis at a Jacksonville gas station. It’s well worth your time.

On the way out, I picked up a Midtown Art film calendar that had Apu’s face on the cover. Apu as in Satyajit Ray’s “The Apu Trilogy, the highly acclaimed series of films about a free-spirited Bengali boy who grows into a man of the world.

Ray was my mother’s cousin and I always knew him as Manikmama. Manik was his nickname; mama means mother’s brother.

Ray directed more than 30 films and went on to gain international fame. But he also wrote books and made movies aimed at children. I grew up with tales of Feluda, the sleuth, and Professor Shonku, the scientist who spoke 69 languages.

But it was film, and specifically, “The Apu Trilogy” that catapulted Ray to international fame.

satyajit-ray-003-at-work-in-his-study-at-bishop-lefroy-road-calcutta“Never having seen a Satyajit Ray film is like never having seen the sun or moon,” declared Japanese director Akira Kurusawa. That was a quote often recited in my hometown, Kolkata. Ray was such a point of pride, along with Mother Teresa and Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize-winning economist.

Bengalis hailed him as a hero for the fame he showered on his people but many shied away from his work. His films were too negative, someone once told me. They were too real.

Yes, too real for comfort in a country still struggling to lift all boats. Ray’s movies were the opposite of Bollywood and had little to offer to the masses who wanted to escape at the cinema, not see their own reality.

“Pather Panchali,” which means Song of the Path, tells the story of Apu as a boy from a poor family in rural West Bengal. “Aparajito” or “The Unvanquished” follows Apu through his formative years as the family faces crushing poverty. Finally, we see Apu as an adult who marries and faces tragedy in the last of the trilogy, “Apur Sanser,” or “The World of Apu.”

For many years, I told my Western friends to watch Ray’s films to gain a better understanding of the place I came from, for insight into what life was like in Bengal. But the film quality was always poor, especially when the only way to see these films was to rent videotapes from Blockbuster.
But now the films have been digitally restored and the subtitles are clear. If you live in Atlanta, I encourage you to go see the Ray trilogy at the Midtown Art Cinema, playing for a week starting August 14. Otherwise, you can always rent the DVDs or buy them online.
The last time I saw my uncle was in 1992 when I went to visit him at his residence on Bishop Lefroy Road in Kolkata. He was in his usual stance — in repose on a wicker lounger with a cigarette in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. A month later, he received an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to receive an Academy Award to date.
Audrey Hepburn presented the award to Ray, who by then had fallen gravely ill and was confined to his bed at a Kolkata hospital.
 I remember watching him on television that night, fighting tears of pride.He died shortly after, on April 23, 1992.
There are many Indians in the world of art who have now made a name for themselves outside their homeland. But Ray, like Rabindranath Tagore in the literary world, was a pioneer.
So many of my mother’s relatives were artistically inclined. They were painters, designers, poets and writers. I can’t help but feel that Ray had something to do with that. Or at least that his spirit guides me from within.

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.

Wonderwomen

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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.

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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.

Beam me up, Scotty

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Pani puris, known as phuchkas in Kolkata, can be found on many street corners. I can eat many, many, many of these. And I will. Soon.

 

Dreaming of warm, dry winter days, pishi, pani puris on the street, a wedding, speaking Bengali and dear friends.

Wishing today were Saturday.

Wishing I could be across the world in an instant. Beam me up, Scotty.

Panesar

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The etching Panesar took off a gallery wall and gave me.

A headline in my hometown newspaper brought me to tears this morning. B.P. Panesar had died.

He was a renowned artist. Water color. Oil. Etchings. He was also made a name as mentor to Shakila, a poor village woman who gained fame for her collages.

He gave away his earnings as an artist to charity. He never married and lived for many years in one room at the YMCA in central Kolkata. He died in an old people’s home, still holding paint and brush.

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Uncle Panesar and me when I was about a year old.

I knew him as Uncle Panesar. My father taught at the Indian Statistical Institute, where Panesar worked, and from the instant they met, they became fast friends. My father became an advcate for Panesar’s art. In time, he became a part of our family, especially in the years we spent living on campus in north Kolkata.

He loved to listen to my mother sing Rabindrasangeet and spend hours with my brother and me.

He held me as a baby, played with me when I was a child, encouraged me to paint as a teenager and inspired my creativity as an adult.

From early on, I found Uncle Panesar to be a calming force in my life. I’d peer into his eyes, under his thick bushy eyebrows and try to imagine what was swirling inside his head. What genius, I thought, to be able to produce such visual feasts.

I was especially enamored with Panesar’s collages made with magazine and newspaper cuttings, old pictures, bus tickets and other things people tossed in the trash. Panesar gave up his own collages to train Shakila. He was so taken with her talent. I was sorry at first until I went to visit Shakila and saw for the first time the mastery within that Panesar had helped awakened.

In the late 1980s, I visited Uncle Panesar at the Y. He had moved onto etchings by then and showed me his small studio. He invited me to go see his show at the Birla Academy. I was so taken with an etching of Mother Teresa — I’d volunteered at one of her organizations many years before — that when his show was over, Uncle Panesar took it off the gallery wall and presented it to me. It hangs by my dresser. I look at it as I begin each day. And think of all the good in the world.

I had hoped to see you in a few days in Kolkata. But you did not wait. You have flown away to a better place.

I will miss you, Uncle Panesar. Always.

Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).
One reason I miss India terribly: my pishi (aunt).

“When did you get home?” a friend asked me yesterday.

“Last night,” I replied.

“It must feel good to be back,” she said.

The pause on the phone was long enough to be awkward.

“Yes,” I said. I wanted the conversation to end.

But what was home? That word has always been problematic for me. I have always straddled two continents, two cultures, a feat that becomes hard at times like this.

My closest friend Eugene in Kolkata and I used to discuss for long hours what being home meant. Was it in Atlanta, where I have lived for 23 years, where I work, where I laugh and love? Or is it in my native India, where I am not an “other” or a minority, where I can bask in my Indianness, where I am in my element like I can never be in America?

After my parents died in 2001, going “home” to India became emotionally exhausting. Kolkata was not the same without my Ma and Baba waiting for me at our flat on Ballygunj Circular Road. Some of my trips after that were short — I was but a tourist on a fleeting journey. Others were punctuated by weddings and funerals and other events that made them extraordinary.

This time, it was different.

Another reason I miss home: the incredible food.
Another reason I miss home: the incredible food. This is Sunday lunch at my aunt’s house in Delhi.

I spent a lot of time with my father’s sister, my pishi, in Kolkata and his brother and his wife in Delhi. My uncle and aunt are the only two of my father’s seven siblings who are still living. Three of my aunts and uncles died in painfully rapid succession in the last year and a half.

I felt a need to soak up my family as much as I could.

I was also on assignment for CNN for part of the time I was home. I found it refreshing to report on my own people for a change and to work alongside Indian journalists.

Now, I am back at my desk at CNN Center in Atlanta. I look at the sun and think that it also shone over India today, many hours earlier. I smell India in my notebooks and clothes and long to make that long plane journey back.

I am an American by nationality and in many ways, by identity. Yet my heart remains Indian. Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani. 

Happy Birthday

My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.
My mother and me at the Acropolis in Greece. June 23, 1964.

My mother would have turned 82 today. I would have picked up the phone and called her. 011-91-33-2247-6600.

I would have said: Ma! Happy Birthday. I would have asked her what she was doing to celebrate.

She would have said that my pishi (aunt) was coming over for lunch. Nothing special was planned.

I wold have asked about what else was going on. She would have given me family updates — she kept in touch with everyone. She was the glue. She would have caught me up with gossip about the neighbors in our flat building.

She would have hurried through the conversation to get to the most important part. When will you come to Kolkata?

I would have said: In mid-September, Ma. I will be there soon.

I would have imagined her smile. She would have told me how she couldn’t wait to see me.

I will get on a plane to go home next week but she won’t be there waiting for me.

Happy Birthday, beautiful Ma. I miss you every waking moment.

Reach for the Sky

Last weekend, I went to a trunk show of jewelry crafted by my friend Anubha Jayaswal. She’s a friend from my hometown, Kolkata; her husband Vishal loves Bengali food more than I do. That’s true homage to the cuisine of my culture.

Anubha works in the frenzied world of finance but when she has spare time, she makes jewelry. Check out her stuff on her Sky Jewelry page on Facebook.

I bought a couple of pieces and enjoyed the afternoon talking with desi girls who, like me, are not big fans of the ornate gold stuff you see in Indian wedding photos.