Immigrant Bengalis



Summary of Chapters 1-9:  In the early eighties I came to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a post-doctoral trainee at MIT after completing my Ph.D. at the Washington State University in Pullman, Washington. In Cambridge my wife, Swapna, and I lived in a rent-controlled high-rise building for people with meager income. There we lived among people of color, and surprisingly in the midst of a large number of Bengali post-doctoral trainees and students.  Life was hard, but not without its charms. Pullman in the state of Washington was a campus town in the middle of nowhere but close enough to be impacted significantly by the eruption of Mount Saint Helens, a sleeping volcano in the Western part of the state. Moving to Cambridge/Boston was like re-joining the rich cultural life that we left behind in Kolkata. 

It has never been clear to me why Bengalis have such a high regard for anything that smacks of culture of any kind, be it singing, dancing, finearts or writing.  It is pretty common to hear from fellow Indians: ‘Now that I know that you are a Bengali, you must be a musician or a poet or an artist’ or, ‘You must be a Bengali, ‘cause you are so steeped in culture.’  True to this notion, growing up in Kolkata, my two sisters and I were enrolled in various classes in music and fine arts, apart from our academic studies.  I still wonder how my parents could afford such luxuries. 

My father belonged to a family of landed gentries in Kolkata as well as in Jessore in the then East Bengal (now Bangladesh).  He lost all his Jessore assets as a result of the partition of Bengal (and India).  Soon after, he lost his residential property in South Kolkata also in a peculiar turn of events involving the premature demise of a ‘Swadeshi bank’.  He tried to pick up his life by setting up various small businesses ranging from retail sales of engineering machine parts to interior decoration.  Many of these businesses were unsuccessful and we went through a roller-coaster ride with each of his misadventures.  However, when times were good he hummed ‘Diner seshe ghumer deshe’ or ‘Ami kaan petey roi’ in a nasal style typical of Kundanlal Saigal or Pankaj Kumar Mullick, the ace singers of the day.  He was also a reader of English novels.  For a long time ‘The Moon and Sixpence’ by W. Somerset Maugham was a constant presence in his briefcase.  The bookcase in our flat in Grove Lane in South Calcutta was stuffed with books, Bengali and English.  I had the habit of reading anything and everything.  Thus, I chanced upon ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’ by D.H. Lawrence and ‘The Second Sex’ by Simone de Beauvoir in the book-case, as well as a Bengali translation of the complete works of Kalidasa published by Basumati Sahityamandir.  Through these books I was introduced to human sexuality at a fairly early age. 

My mother was a high school teacher, a social worker and a Communist Party activist.  With her meager salary she tried to bring some degree of stability to our family against all odds.  Yet belief in cultural sufficiency among her children was unshakable in her mind.  That was to be expected.  In her younger days she took lessons in drawing and painting from one of the students of Mr. Nandalal Bose.  She also played the sitar.  However, harsh realities of life forced her to give up those ‘luxuries’.  But, it was different for her children.

In the1970s, the salaries of school teachers in India were a pittance. However, every few years they used to get a lump sum of money as what was called ‘Dearness Allowance.’  On one such occasion, my mother received a significant chunk of money.  Everyone expected that she would buy some gold ornaments for my sisters' wedding and as a buffer against rainy days which were plentiful.  Instead, she bought a violin for me, an acoustic guitar for my elder sister and a piano for my younger sister and herself.  We used to live on the second floor of a two-story dingy building at the end of a narrow lane where even a small car had difficulty passing through.  We, the children in our early teens, watched in amazement as the piano-movers brought the upright piano into the house and snaked it through narrow and winding stairs to our tiny living-cum-dining room. 

We took music lessons from Professor Joseph Naskar at South Calcutta School of Music which was housed in his small bungalow at the end of a narrow lane in the Lake Gardens area. Prof. Naskar lived with his wife and four grown-up children in this neat house with an arbor of bougainvillea vines with a profusion of magenta flowers.  All of his children, like their father, were musicians. 

Prof. Naskar was a devout catholic and a very strict teacher.  He wouldn’t let us play anything but western classical music and Christian hymns for Christmas time.  In later years he relented and let us play Rabindrasangeet as the only allowed non-classical music.  He imposed his strictures on his children too.  On some occasions he would smile and declare that he did not allow his children to go to a cinema. ‘Wouldn’t they have immense joy watching a movie with their spouses as grown-ups!’, he would trumpet proudly.   

Later on Nirmalendu-da, Professor Naskar’s youngest son, came to our house every so often to give piano lessons to Maa and Khuku, my younger sister.  I still fondly remember Nirmalendu-da playing some of the old English classics such as ‘Won’t you buy my pretty flowers’ on the piano.  There was something sad about him.  He was a short and skinny man, and very shy to a point that he barely spoke.  When asked a question he would lift his sad eyes and speak in a melancholy and almost inaudible voice.  Somehow this sad song about a little girl, standing underneath gas-light glitters in the seedy streets of London, and trying to peddle her flowers to passers-by touched the right chord in his personality.  Among the four of us who started taking lessons with Prof. Naskar, only I continued to stay with music.       

My wife, Swapna, came from a family in Howrah that was also steeped in culture.  Her uncle was a Dadabhai Phalke award-winning film producer.  Her father, a chemist, practiced homeopathic medicine, and managed to write poetry and acted in amateur plays.  Poetry-reading was a rage in Bengal those days.  Swapna was coached by her father to recite poetry, particularly that of Rabindranath and Kaji Nazrul, from a very early age.  Her father would carry her in his lap to various competitions devoted to poetry-reading.  By the time Swapna reached the age of six, she had won one hundred prizes in recitation in various competitions.  

These were pre-TV days and entertainment was provided by radio, dubbed as Akash Bani. Various radio-programs, namely Galpodadur Ashor, Sishu Mahal, Anurodher Ashor, Mahila Mahal, daily news bulletins, and annual reading of Mahishasuramardini by Mr. Birendrakrishna Bhadra provided entertainment and information to people in all spheres of life.  Swapna was a regular participant in Galpodadur Ashor and Sishu Mahal where Mr. Partha Ghosh and Ms. Indira Debi, respectively, along with their child-participants, provided nourishing entertainment for scores of children.  Later on, when TV came along, Swapna was one of the first ones to recite poetry on live TV. 

Swapna was also coached by her aunts and others in vocal music, particularly Rabindrasangeet.  She participated in music competitions also.   On one such occasion she sang a Rabindrasangeet in front of the late Ms. Suchitra Mitra, a doyen of Rabindrasangeet.  Ms. Mitra was so impressed that she asked Swapna to join her school, Rabi-tirha.  Thus Swapna began her journey with Rabindrasangeet, first as a student in Rabi-tirtha, and then as a special student with Ms. Mitra. Swapna has continued on with her ‘Rabindranath-affliction’ to this day, by teaching Rabindrasangeet to children and adults through Swaralipi Academy of Music -- a school she founded eight years ago in Wayland, MA.  Over the years approximately sixty students, young and mature, have learned to sing Rabindrasangeet under Swapna’s guidance.  Many of her students have also performed at various events in the New England area.

The time we met these stalwarts of Bengali literature we were not exactly literary types.  We casually read Bengali prose and poetry, butnever thought of writing anything of substance, apart from technical writing that is an integral part of our existence as scientists.  But, something most definitely got triggered inside us through these meetings.  Both Swapna and I started writing poetry and prose at a steady pace and publishing them mostly in Sangbad Bichitra, the venerable news and literature magazine published by Cultural Association of Bengal of New York.  Later on both of us joined Lekhani in Newton, MA, a Bengali writers group founded and headed by Dr. Gouri Datta, mentioned earlier.  We have never looked back since and have been steadfastly writing and publishing in various journals and magazines in the US and India. 

It may not be a total surprise that we took such an interest in creative writing.  We are products of pre-TV, pre-internet/ email/ Facebook/Twitter era. Through the 70s, 80s and a large part of the 90s, the dominant modes of our communication with our families ‘back home’ were via telephone and air-mail letters.  Those days we could afford to call ‘home’ only once or twice a month.  Even then the connections were terrible, and we had to shout at the top of our lungs to be audible on the other side.  Often it felt like the voice was literally wafting and waving through oceans and mountains to reach the other side.  So, regular mail was almost the only mode of communication. 

News from home came regularly in the form of sky-blue colored "aerograms". My mother filled these envelopes with her even and dainty hand-writing.  Swapna’s father, on the other hand filled all the pages of the envelopes with his scrawny handwriting about goings-on in the family, and repeatedly insisting on our returning home to India.  His letters often consisted of long verses that he wrote on various occasions as well.  In these letters he literally used up all the available space including front and back, and even the flaps.  Therefore, while opening these envelopes we had to take extra care not to destroy any part, even the glued flap, for fear of deleting any messages. These precious envelopes stopped coming after he suddenly succumbed to a massive heart attack. 

Swapna was beside herself in grief. She also bitterly missed messages and verses from her father that filled those air mail letters.  Somehow her sorrow reached the distant shores.  My father never wrote a line before, but started writing to Swapna, first in English and then in Bengali. My mother never indulged in writing poetry.  Surprisingly, she rose to the occasion and consoled Swapna by penning down short verses in her letters.

For the past several years my mother has been living with us in our Wayland home.  She has continued to write poetry even in her very old age.

(Posted August 1, 2015)

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Comment received from Shipra Sangupta on August 2: "Just finished reading "Culture Vulture" by Rahul Ray. It reminded me of the good old days of Kolkata."

Comment received from Subhas Nandy on August 6, 2015: " I think Rahul and Swapna Ray deserve kudos for working hard to preserve Bengali culture in North America.  I wish them the very best in their cultural endeavors!"

Days and Nights in Cambridge, Massachusetts:
Culture Vultures

Rahul Ray

 One day, Suman, a student at nearby Brandeis University. asked me, “Rahul-da, will you be kind enough to give a ride to my friend’s motherfrom the airport?”

“Where is she going to?” I asked.

“I am not sure.  She needs to stay in the Boston area for a couple of days or so.  But my friend's dorm room is too small for both, even for a short time.  Actually, if you agree, could she stay with you?”

At this point Swapna intervened: “Who is your friend’s mother that you have taken the task of finding an accommodation for?”

Suman scratched his head and replied meekly: “Well, she is a writer and a poet.  Her name is Nabaneeta Deb Sen.”

I wasn’t a reader of contemporary Bengali literature those days and didn’t know her well.  I was about to say indignantly ‘I don’t have time,’ when Swapna intervened and commanded that I do whatever Suman was requesting. This is how our long association with Nabaneeta-di commenced.  Since our first meeting she has stayed with us in Cambridge, then in Billerica and now in our current residence in Wayland. 

One year Nabaneeta-di was with us on Mother’s Day.  Arjun and Karna, my two sons who are trained classical musicians, serenaded her for almost two hours on violin and cello. She was pleased beyond imagination, and later wrote about her experience.  She also dedicated one of her books to us.  Once she gave us a book authored by her and humorously wrote in the front page in long hand, ‘Tumpa-ke dilum naa/ Jani porrbe naa/ Seta toder dilum/ Jani porrbi.’

One day I requested her to ‘take a look at’ one of my fictions.  She was about to leave, but kindly agreed to take the manuscript with her.  Within a week or so the manuscript came back to me with her hand-written notes on the margin beginning with   ‘Bhai Rahul, airport-e bosay tomaar lekha dekkchhi………..’   I have saved that manuscript as a prized memento. 

Later on I needed a famous someone to write a preface for my first book of fiction entitled ‘Fallen Comrade’. Knowing her mercurial temperament I approached Nabaneeta-di with measured trepidation, “Didi, would you be kind enough to write a preface for my book?”  I did not expect a positive reply from a busy person like her.  But she surprised me with “Theek achhe, boiyer kichhu golpo amai email koray pathiye dey.”  I was overjoyed.  But the real surprise came later.  I expected a few lines, or maximum a paragraph.  But, she wrote a two-page long preface for my book!

After Dr. Amartya Sen received the Nobel Prize, Swapna called Nabaneeta-di to congratulate her.  Didi, feisty as she is, told her, “I am really in a quandary.  If I am too effusive, people will say, after all he is only your ex-husband.  What should it matter to you?  On the other hand, if I don’t say much, the same people will say, I am envious and keeping quiet.”  Didi wrote about this dilemma in her column ‘Dakhiner Baranda’ in the magazine, Aajkaal. 

During our visits to Kolkata three places used to be our ‘must visits’ – Suchitra-di’s flat in Gariahat, Sunilda-Swatidi’s place in Mandeville Gardens and ‘Valo-basa’, Nabaneeta-di’s ancestral house in Hindusthan Park.  During one such visit, Didi introduced me to a lady sitting in her drawing room: “E hochhe Rahul, America-y thake.  Lekha-lekhi koray, aar valo gaan gai.’  Then she turned towards me and went on, “Er naam Suchitra Bhattacharya. Tui er lekha novel porrechhish hoyto.”  Then Didi made me sing a Rabindrasangeet for my new acquaintance. 


 For Swapna and me, coming to Boston from Pullman was like re-kindling a cultural torch inside us.  Within a very short time after our arrival in Boston, we became deeply involved with local Bengali organizations. Before long, Swapna started singing Rabindrasangeet on various occasions, directed children’s plays, and both of us took major singing and acting roles in Chandalika, the venerable Tagore ballet. 

It was the summer of 1985. Arjun, our first son, was about one year old and I was still a post-doc at MIT when someone told us that an Indian poetry reading conference was to be held that weekend at Harvard University.  There we met Mr. Sunil Gangopadhyay, the famous Bengali poet, who soon became our much beloved "Sunil-da". We hadn’t ventured into the world of Bengali literature before but jumped into the new-found opportunity to do so with much enthusiasm.  Thus, we were pleasantly surprised when Sunil-da agreed to stay in our apartment that night instead of going back to New Jersey.  However, he insisted that three persons in his entourage, all named Gautam (Dutta, Roy and ?) also stay with him at our place.  We gladly obliged.  Dr. Gouri Dutta, a Boston area poet and a psychiatrist by trade, also joined in.  After a sumptuous meal and good deal of vodka we had an all-night poetry reading session led by Sunil-da.  An audio cassette recording of that session remains one of our proud possessions.  We also became good friends with Gautam Dutta (Texas) and Gautam (Kalyan) Roy, aforesaid companions of Sunil-da.  Since our meeting Kalyan, then a professor of English, has become a veteran of the Bengali screen. 

This is how our life-long acquaintance with Sunil-da, and later on Swati-di (his wife) and Souvik, Chandreyee and Oyon (his son, daughter-in-law and grandson respectively) began.  Sunil-da and Swati-di came to our place many times afterward and Oyon took lessons in Rabindrasangeet from Swapna.  During one such visit, when we were celebrating Indian Independence Day with the students of Swaralipi, Sunil-da and Swati-di joined in singing with full throttle.  On another occasion we invited them as the guests of honor to the annual recital of Swaralipi.  Sunil-da was not feeling well, and we did not expect them to show up.  But he came, along with Swati-di, signed the certificate for each student, and charmed everyone in the audience by belting out one Rabindrasangeet after another.  When Swapna told him that she had not expected him to stay very long, he replied in his characteristic manner, “I stayed because I enjoyed the program very much, particularly by those young ones.” – pointing towards the young students of Swaralipi.

Sunil-da also encouraged us to submit poems penned by Swapna and me to Krittibas, the esteemed Bengali magazine devoted to poetry and edited by him.  Some of our poems did find their places on the printed pages of Krittibas, denoting a proud achievement for both of us.  Sunil-da also wrote the preface for a book of verses entitled ‘Kobitara Jokhon Jhnake Jhnake Ashe’, jointly penned by Swapna and me.  Sunil-da’s untimely death two years ago was a huge blow to Indian literature and a deep personal loss for us.