Lord Krishna, Save Yourself!
Dr Biswamay Ray
We have never been apart. I have traveled all over the world, and we were always together. I never thought there could be any problem in this togetherness. But who could predict the future? This time our travel turned out to be an appalling experience, one etched in my mind forever.
A very simple “Altar”
In the master-bedroom, on the double dresser, and the five-drawer chest top, there are images and sculptures of several deities, along with the pictures of my parents. The sculptures are mostly one piece, small to medium size wood carvings, some in sandalwood, acquired during my trips back to India. There was only one exception though -- a heavy, solid brass sculpture of Sri Krishna and Radha. A long time ago, in 1964, when I left India, I brought the sculpture, the only idols, with me to America. Over the years they have become an integral part of my life. When I look at them, I smile lovingly, and once in a while remind myself of the story, about where I found the “Radha-Krishna” statue. In a make-shift stall, on the streets of Calcutta. On a street? Yes, Bengalis love street shopping. It has become a part of their tradition. It was in the late 1950s, as a medical student at the R.G. Kar Medical college, when I used to commute between Taltola (Entally) and Shyambazaar (five - point crossing), usually by bus. In Shyambazaar, there were vendors displaying their wares on the foot path. One vendor had many brass items - vases, lamps, candle- and incense holders, and sculptures of many popular deities - wood carvings or made of solid brass from the castings. Some of them were quite attractive, and beautiful.
One day, most probably in 1958, while returning from college, and walking on the side-walk in the Shyambazaar area, one such brass statue caught my eye - a beautiful “Jugal-Murti” (Jugal in Bengali means a pair) of Radha - Krishna. I could not resist taking a closer look: about seven inches tall, the idol was so impressive, and appealing, I instantly fell in love with Krishna. In an upright position crossing His right leg with the toes pointing down over the left, holding a flute in the raised right hand. His left arm lovingly wrapped around Sri Radha’s shoulder, reciprocated by Radha with her right arm. Radha’s left hand down with palm facing forward, a position symbolic of “Gift giving.” Both were adorned with crowns, necklaces and waist-long garlands. Krishna’s crown on the forehead was further embellished with a triangular shaped peacock feather adornment placed on his head above the crown. He had a beautiful scarf flowing from the shoulders all way down to the knees on both sides, of course all in brass. Lovely smile in both their faces. A beautiful statue, so loving, and graceful.
The price of the statue was only a few rupees. I brought the idol home and the first thing I did was to show the Jugal Murti to my “Ma” and “Didima” (maternal grandmother). They were very pleased, and offered their “Pranam” to Radha- Krishna by touching their feet. “Always keep the ‘Murti’ with you,” they told me, “Never leave them.”
When I left India in late 1964, I packed the statue in the suitcase along with my clothes and stethoscope. I had only eight dollars in my pocket, (quite a heavy load), the amount allowed by the Indian Reserve Bank at that time. In a sense we were almost penniless, and had it not been for a pre-secured job (internship), life would have been a struggle. Since then, Radha-Krishna have been with me, both physically (as the idol), and I believe, also spiritually. I took them with me wherever I traveled. But now-a-days they stay home, the reasons soon to unfold.
A visit to India
In the decade of the 1980s, I visited India to see my parents and other relatives. Those were the days of exhaustive flights to Calcutta, as there was no direct flight. I used to fly the Lufthansa Airlines. Leaving Chicago in the evening and arriving at Frankfurt early in the morning. Even in those early hours, I found it amazing to see people sitting at the bar, busy with drinking. “It is safer to drink beer in Germany than water,” I used to hear from my friends. An excuse to drink? Later in the day I would take another flight and arrive in Delhi at night. The Calcutta bound passengers would then go to the Domestic Airport, a very short distance away.
Another wait, almost all night, until the next morning to catch the flight to Calcutta. The silent and somber night would wake up to a vibrant and noisy morning. The store owners or employees opening the doors, the voices, the announcements… The din was at a pleasant level. A cup of coffee with cream and sugar tasted great.
Our total flying time was more than 18 hours; the total travel time was much longer. Naturally the trip was quite tiring and exhausting. But we did not have many choices; only a few airlines served Calcutta. The city was not in those days an international destination, nor was it a favorite tourist spot. That would happen much later.
Time to board the plane. I was tired but excited in anticipation of seeing my parents pretty soon. I was fortunate to get a window seat, it was always fascinating to look out at the view from the sky, of Dum Dum airport (now named after Netaji), a few miles Northwest of downtown Calcutta. The green scenery dazzled the eyes; Calcutta looked so beautiful. I was going home, sweet home.
A shocking experience
The plane landed smoothly. I walked to the terminal, and after preliminary clearance picked up my luggage and entered the final check point - the Customs checking. I was in for a big surprise. ”Deshi” visitors (originally from India) coming from America, the land of the rich and abundance, were quite often envied and many-a-time targeted for extortion and harassment. Knowing that, I brought gifts within the prescribed limits, and thought there was nothing to worry about.
Not until I reached the “Customs Check.” The Customs Officer, a Bengali in his early thirties asked me if I had anything to declare. “Yes, I have a few gift items,” I said. He already had the previously completed list of the gifts. He looked at it, and asked me to open all my luggage.
He inspected everything, item by item, and found the gifts, checked them and asked me their prices. I repeated the prices that I had already declared. By this time, I sensed that the officer was not quite satisfied, as if he wanted something else. Bribe? Soon after, he found the statue of Sri Radha Krishna. He picked up the statue, obviously knew what it was and told me harshly, “You did not declare this.” I was baffled. I have visited India many a times before and there was never a problem bringing the statue with me.
“There was nothing to declare about the statue, I bought it here, and took it to America,” I said, “I always take the Idol with me wherever I travel.” I explained. Instead of being satisfied, he became agitated, or pretended to be so, as if I have done something wrong. “The statue is very valuable, it is made of ‘Astadhatu’ which has gold in it,” he said. I had heard of “Astadhatu” (alloy of eight metals) before, but I was not aware that gold was one of the components. I told him the nominal price I paid so many years ago. He could care less. “There is gold inside,” he said, with a crooked smile. I tried to explain there was no gold in the statue, all in vain. His ulterior motive was becoming clearer.
His harsh words, body language, heralded an ominous situation. I was not sure what he was going to say or do next. “We have to cut it into half to find gold,” he said. I could not believe my ears. At first he said, the statue was made of “Astadhatu”, gold being one of the ingredients. Now he was saying, there was gold inside. Implying, as the brass statue was quite heavy, there might be a lot of gold. As if I was trafficking gold. I was doubly shocked.
He took the statue inside, after telling me that they were going to further examine it. Anxiously, I kept waiting. After a while he came back, and told me they would keep the Idol. No proper reasons given. I tried to speak to other officers, they just ignored me. I could not believe a Hindu would treat the ‘Murti’ in such a horrible way.
The Customs Officer kept the idol. I realized further arguments would be counter-productive. I wrote down his name. Feeling very sad, being separated from Krishna, I collected my luggage and proceeded towards the exit door. There was only one thought in my mind: how to retrieve my Krishna, snatched away from me by that utterly corrupt officer without any justification. It was obvious he wanted bribe. I could have given him whatever money he wanted, but then, I would be aiding and abetting the corruption, so rampant in India. My principles would not allow me to do that.
But more than that I had a deeper feeling that Krishna would not allow such an injustice to take place, He would not leave me; we have been together for all these years. I prayed, “God, I could not save you, you have to save yourself.” There was a firm belief in my mind that Krishna would find a way to return. As if I was expecting a miracle to happen. One may call it ‘faith’, or laugh at such silly thoughts, sneaking at my naiveté. But I could never forget the pain and indignation this event brought me.
As I was approaching the exit door, suddenly I heard someone shouting from behind - “Dada, Dada.” Unable to determine who was calling whom, I looked back and saw the same officer, with Krishna in his right hand, running amidst the thick crowd to catch up with me. A few unbelievable moments! Another shocking surprise! What was he going to do? I started to walk towards him. Finally, we faced each other.
“Here is your Krishna”, he said, and grudgingly handed over Krishna to me. I took back my beloved Radha-Krishna with both hands and touched their feet with my forehead. The officer did not say he was sorry for what he did. I did not expect that either. I was so happy to be reunited with Krishna. I thanked the officer. There was a twisted smile on his face. He started to walk back towards the Customs Checking area. Coming back to me, Krishna and Radha took their place in my carry-on bag, again wrapped in the comforts of a soft cloth. The taxi driver brought me home. Ma and Didima were waiting for me. I was so happy to be with them again. The word “reunited” rang a bell deep in my heart, and its meaning stirred my soul.
Trip to South America
I went to South America for the first time in 2002 along with my son, Sujit. We visited Peru, Chile, Patagonia, Argentina (all the way south to Ushuaia), and Brazil. The two-and-a-half weeklong trip was a fascinating and memorable one. We must go back again, I thought. But there are many other places waiting to be visited.
That opportunity came in October, 2013. The trip, eighteen-day long, was an ambitious one. We would revisit Argentina, have a more extensive tour of Patagonia, board a three-day cruise from Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world, also known as the “Land’s End “) to Cape Horn in Chile (the “End of the World’), with the most inhospitable and unpredictable weather. Cape Horn is situated in one of the most dangerous waters in the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, and is known as the “ Sailors’ Graveyard.” And from Chile to satisfy my life-long dream from childhood, to make acquaintance with the mysterious “Moai”s in the most distant island in the world, the Easter Island.
My plate was indeed full; it was like a “Mahabhoj” (a great feast). My only concern was my age. I wondered whether I was ready for this backbreaking, adventurous travel. I was going to be 74 in a few months; my mental strength was great, but my physical strength? Ebbing away every day with age. Moreover, I am very prone to sea sickness. I wish Sujit were with me. I could have depended on him for help if needed. But he was busy, and could not join me. Enough of drifting away from the main story.
To follow what I am about to describe, I would have to give our itinerary that relates to the event. I would fly from Chicago to Atlanta to join the rest of our group of six couples, almost all physicians. From Atlanta we would fly to Buenos Aires, and after a short stop-over, spending the day touring the city again, we would fly out of that city towards our other destinations. And we would not come back to Buenos Aires on this trip again.
After touring the city, specially the famous Recoleta Cemetery where Tagore’s muse, Victoria O’Campo, lies buried (a favorite spot of mine, this would be my second time around to pay homage to her), we came back to the airport to continue our journey. As usual we were led to where our luggage had been brought before and stored together near the conveyor belt.
Our responsibility was to identify our individual luggage, and to make sure nothing was missing. The rest would be taken care of by the airport staff. With any group, there are always some chances of chaos; inevitably someone is missing this or that. After those problems were solved, which was a little time-consuming and did cut into our boarding time, we got our boarding passes and stood in line for the security check.
It was a long line, and I was standing somewhere in the middle. I looked for Mr. Masey, our Tour Director and owner of the ‘Travel Company’, who as usual was the last one at the end, in case someone needed his help. Quite tall for an Indian, and by nature calm and quiet, his presence was always comforting. One could always depend on him, especially if there was any emergency situation.
Another terror-filled experience
After being checked (passport, etc.) by the Security Officer, and as instructed by the Security Guards, on and off shouting what to put on the conveyor belt, I put my carry-on bag, the garment bag and other personal items on the conveyor belt.
I had no problem passing through the X-ray (body scanner) check point. But when my other items came through, I was asked to open my carry-on bag. After I did that, the security guard told me not to touch anything, and to step aside. I wondered why. Everything in that bag was usually what I always pack wherever I travel.
The Security Guard searched thoroughly and found what he was looking for. He brought out the statue of Krishna, in between the other items. After unwrapping, he looked at the small brass statue, held it on his palm trying to estimate its weight and then felt it with his hand, especially the sharp edges of the heavy base, the sharp tip of the Krishna’s triangular crown and other sharp features, such as the flute.
“What is this “, the guard asked. “This is one of our Hindu Deities, known as “Krishna,” I explained, “I always take the idol with me when I travel.” He understood the idol’s importance to me, like a Christian carrying a small statue of Jesus Christ.
Then came the bombshell. “You cannot take this with you on the plane.” “What?” I was stunned, “Why?”, I asked. With a stern face he said, “This can be used as a lethal weapon,” -- a short but firm answer -- pointing out the solid, quite heavy statue, and a base with sharp edges, just to make sure I understood.
“A blow using this will instantly break a skull,” he said. He was absolutely correct. Although shocked by his statement, as a practicing surgeon, I was quite well aware of that, but anyone would or could even intend to use it as a weapon never crossed my mind until then. 9/11 was fresh in everyone’s mind; terrorist activities had taken over the world. There was no sense in arguing about this “lethal weapon” issue; I would be wasting valuable time. Boarding time was getting nearer by the minute. I would have to find a way to keep Krishna safe and not lose Him. The prospect was forbidding, and the chance of success very slim.
At least the guard understood my religious sentiments, and my helplessness to keep the idol with me. The very thought, that I might have to give up my Krishna and Radha, shook me to the core. A seismic thought! Reminded me of the long-ago incidence in Calcutta. Lord Krishna saved Himself then along with Radha. Could He do that again?
“What do you suggest?” I asked him, “How can I keep my Idol?” “There is only one way,” he said, “Have you checked in your suitcase?” “Yes, all of us have done that, quite a while ago,” I said, not quite grasping what he meant by that, as my mind was occupied with Krishna. “Have the luggage already been put on the conveyor belt,” he asked. Meaning, whether the luggage was already gone or still there waiting to be transported. “Why?” I asked. “If not, you can put your idol in that luggage, except for the airport employees, nobody will have access to that.” To his credit, he never showed any disrespect for the idol. The conversation was fast, taking less time than the time it took for me to write this. I was like a drowning man holding on to a straw. I had no idea if my luggage was still there or not. A faint hope flickered in my mind. Storing it in the airport was out of consideration; we would not return there. We would go home after we completed our trip to Easter Island via Santiago, Chile.
Run, run, run!
I quickly collected everything, the carry-on bag, the garment bag and all the other items, and ran out of the security checking area and ran towards the area where I last saw our luggage. On the way I met Mr. Masey, still standing at the end but now very close to the security check point.
He was alarmed. “What happened?” he asked, “Where are you going”? I told him, very briefly, what happened, and ran again. Finally, I could see our luggage being put on the conveyor belt. I shouted “Hold, hold!” The guy heard me, surprised, looked at me. I motioned with my hands ‘wait’. He stopped. I could now see my luggage, behind a couple of bags. Finally, I was there, seeing my luggage ready to be put on the conveyor belt. I almost shouted, “Please hold. I have to put one more item in my suitcase.” Confused, he confirmed what I said by contacting the Security Guard. I unlocked the suitcase, placed Radha- Krishna inside, and handed it over to him. Slowly the conveyor belt moved forward and soon the suitcase with the “Jugal Murti” was out of my sight.
I ran back, with all my other bags and took my place in the line, again for the security check, now behind Mr. Masey. Much relieved and joyous, I prayed silently to Krishna: “Lord Krishna, You have saved Yourself again,” and thanked Him.
Those two dreadful incidentss, years apart, and the ever-present threat of worldwide terrorism were enough for me to realize the world has changed, and to decide not to take Sri Krishna along with me any more during my travels. We have had plenty of traveling together.
After a long whirl-wind trip, upon my arrival back to Chicago, after collecting my luggage from the carousel, I made sure Radha - Krishna was still with me. Customs checking was a breeze. The Customs Officer did not claim the brass idol was loaded with gold!
Returning home, I placed the “Jugal- Murti” on my make-shift altar, on the top of the dresser, along with the other deities.
There they stay - Lord Krishna and Radha in a loving embrace, with a beautiful smile, and in eternal ‘Bliss’. They are much safer at home. Omnipresent, they don’t have to wander around with me all over the world.
(Posted October 1, 2022)
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