Immigrant Bengalis

Left to right: Sunanda, Ranjita, Bakul, and Bani at Unmesh Picnic 2018

A Fascinating Journey with Unmesh Literary Group of Chicago

Bakul Banerjee

On a rainy evening in November 1993, a group of Bengalis living in the Chicago area decided to form a Bengali book club. Drs. Basanti and Manatosh Banerji hosted the meeting at their home. Basanti thought nobody would participate, but many did. The seed germinated and grew up to become a mature literary club called Unmesh. It evolved organically into a well-established author group under the leadership of Anjali Bhattacharyya and Sunanda Bose. Early members chose the name Unmesh to signify the potential of each member as a writer. Many of the Unmesh members took that message seriously and became dedicated writers fulfilling its ambitious name.

Days fly by and children become adults, but monthly invitations to the gatherings of Unmesh have been appearing in my inbox predictably for all these years. The club meets every first Friday evening of the month at the home of one of the members. The readings begin at 9 pm and continue until the last author gets a chance to read. Usually, it goes on for two to two and a half hours. The last agenda item is always a scrumptious midnight meal. The number of readers in these gatherings vary depending on the holidays and weather. Aging of the core group is also a factor. New members are often busy taking care of their families. Although I do not have any hard data, I knew about a dozen authors who participated regularly in the face-to-face meetings.  Attendance has gone up at the online meetings.

Sometime in 2001, I found out about these gatherings by chance and started attending the meetings. At that time, I was searching for an avocation that I could practice during little gaps in my hectic life, both at work and at home. Although an engineer by profession, my father instilled in me the love of world literature. He encouraged me to read classical and modern literature in Bengali, Hindi, and English. He made sure to subscribe to a variety of magazines as well. Influenced by the Krittibas poetry group, I developed an interest in poetry during my teenage years. Being preoccupied with professional studies and work in the fields of science and engineering, I did not get a chance to write after I had arrived in the US. However, I always wanted to express my thoughts as stories and poems. When my children left home for college, I found the time. Despite my love for the Bengali language, I knew that typing in Bengali would be time-consuming. I decided to write in English. Sharing my poems and stories -- my collective immigrant experiences -- with my daughters was also important. Because of the circumstances of our family, they cannot read Bengali which I regret, but they appreciate Bengali culture very much. Their feedback to my writings was extremely important to me.

After attending several Unmesh sessions as an observer, I took my first poem “Lantana Field”, written in English, to one of the sessions. Like any new author, I was anxious about its reception since most people wrote in Bengali. It was after all a Bengali literary group. I was overjoyed by the warm reception. I continued to attend as many sessions as I could. It is easy to see that almost all regular members follow the ritual of writing something new for each session. Unmesh offers a unique sharing experience. It is not a critiquing group. When I read aloud at the meetings, my pieces speak to me. I can see possible improvements. Listening to others sparks new ideas. As an immigrant, it has been my privilege to be able to absorb the cultural treasures of both Bengali and English, two great languages. I can imagine the sound of incessant rain falling on the open verandah in Kolkata as I sit inside my car while watching flocks of Canadian geese skating on a frozen pond in the Chicago forest preserve.  Later on, I was invited to join other English language critiquing groups. Dedicated members of these groups helped me with their careful assistance in making my writing better. Over the years, I have published more than 300 pieces of stories, poems, and essays in magazines and anthologies across the US and India, thanks to the dedicated members of these groups. However, the Unmesh group feels like my home base.

As with most long-running successful groups, two Unmesh leaders, Anjali and Sunanda, both experienced professors, developed a winning format for conducting the meeting and auxiliary activities. Skillfully, they implement the ten-minute reading rule so that everybody can get a chance to present their materials. Other senior members helped with the reinforcement of the established rules also. I remember how our Ananta Ghosh insisted on paying attention when others were reading. He was an ardent supporter of Unmesh -- attending almost all meetings despite his failing health. He passed away recently. The opportunity to listen to well-crafted stories and poems from people I know relatively well is the most rewarding aspect of attending these meetings. Where else would I hear stories of authentic Bengali ghosts visiting Chicago, or a poem about the comfort of cocooning oneself in her mother’s old shawl on a snowy day, or a Bengali scientist being abducted during an Italian business trip? I marvel at the articulating capabilities of some of these authors, using the inherent strength built into the Bengali language over many centuries. There is much to learn from such individual talents of people I have known for years. I can read novels, essays, or poems in Bengali, English, or Hindi whenever I want to. I also spend significant time studying scriptures in Sanskrit. However, the experience of listening to original writings at Unmesh meetings is immersive. I am usually unhappy when people read from the works of already established authors or poets at these meetings.

Apart from the regular meetings, Unmesh also hosted several key Bengali writers and poets. Sunil Gangopadhyay, the master poet, author, and winner of many literary awards with more than two hundred books, spent a long evening in conversation with us reflecting on his entire body of work. For the gathered crowd of wannabe writers and poets, his achievements in Bengali, perhaps in the world literature, were something of a dream. In classical Bengali style of ‘Adda’ or a loosely woven conversation, he told us the fascinating story of his evolution from a poet to a novelist, ultimately to an author of memoirs, often wrapped around his fictional muse named Neera. Some of us, long-time admirers of Sunil Gangopadhyay, stuffed his books in our two allowable suitcases to bring back to the US.  We could only get a glimpse of his creative mind. I am sure it would have been impossible for me to spend any time with him in my hometown and his, Kolkata. We were mesmerized.

Unmesh members are fortunate that Chicago is close to Iowa City. Srijato Bandopadhyay and Binayak Banerjee graced us with their readings when they visited Iowa City as resident artists with the International Writing Programs at the University of Iowa.  The last time Srijato visited Chicago, he was in the middle of a legal controversy related to his poem Abhisaap (The Curse). After he read the poem, a complex one with a subtle message of criticism against the Indian ruling party,  other Unmesh members began an animated discussion of the poem.  Although I keep up with the general awareness of Bengali literature, I wouldn’t have known about the points of view of the author or other group members who followed the issue. Personally, my favorite will remain the fiction writing tip given by Shirshendu Mukhopadhya, a popular author. He said that an author can make his story tastier by marinating the basic plot with different life experiences, letting it rest inside the author’s brain for a while.

During more than twenty-five years of its existence, most longtime members kept the Unmesh group entertained by writing and sharing their delightful and passionate art forms. The group publishes its annual anthology during the Durgapuja celebration. A few shorter anthologies have been published to celebrate the birthdays of Rabindranath Tagore. Additional memorial issues are also published to honor members who passed on. To prepare for this essay, I went through my collection of nineteen anthologies since 2001, sometimes laughing out loud and other times feeling sad. After reading at a meeting, authors would usually submit their pieces to these anthologies. Many of us do publish our writings elsewhere as well. I was impressed by the improvements in the quality of our writings. It was a pleasure to notice that we have been evolving continuously. Our pieces are also longer  A core group of authors and poets contributed to each issue. It has been their annual ritual. Senior members welcomed authors from the more recent generation of immigrants with their newer styles and techniques of writing. They told us about emerging Bengali authors in India and Bangla Desh. They told us how the formalities of the Bengali language of the 20th century are giving way to the informalities of the 21st century. We also said goodbye to older patrons of Unmesh. I remember Shabeb Latif, a multi-talented and gentle individual, always arriving with his stereo equipment, fifteen minutes before the beginning of the meetings. I appreciated it very much because I could never carry my voice well. Most of the Unmesh members would remember the humor and talents of Kalyan Maitra. Once he read a long story holding a piece of paper in front just the way all of us would read our pieces. I was mesmerized by his storytelling technique. Only at the end, I understood that he was reading from a blank sheet of paper. In 2019, Unmesh lost its long time patron, Ananta Ghosh, our Anantada as he was known to most Unmesh members. The legacy of love with the Bengali language he left, particularly with the members of Unmesh, will be remembered for many years. Those goodbyes were always difficult.  Years from now, we would look back to find reflections of Bengali immigrant ethos in those anthologies.

In one of these anthologies, I came across Shubhro Dutta’s hilarious story titled “Who said it?” I am a big fan of this author but I never read it before.  It is a story about the misadventures of a classmate who was obsessed with quotations whether applicable or not. The funny thing is that I love to use quotations to introduce my essays too! After laughing for a few minutes, I decided not to use any quotations in this essay! Dear readers, you are being spared. In the early years, anthologies were lovingly edited, produced, and published by dedicated volunteers who spent long hours, putting them together. Since the beginning of the last decade, many of the production responsibilities were outsourced. Issues have become thicker and slicker with more authors and additional third-party drawings. With many more color photos and better paper quality, they are delightful to hold and read. However, the simplicity of older issues brings back the memories of faithful Unmesh members who are no longer with us.  

As I mentioned before, Unmesh is hosted in rotation by members living in Chicago suburbs. We try to dress in classical Bengali saris, shawls, and muted jewelry. The meeting normally ends at midnight. Hosts, with some help from other attendees and their spouses, prepare great midnight buffets with dozens of sweet and savory dishes. Leftover food is always distributed to guests for take-away.  Mid-night buffets on cruise ships may be an apt comparison. In the past, I had taken my infrequent turns in hosting. I was always amazed by the contributions made by talented guests. It is a matter of pride for many hosts and guests alike. I look out for opportunities to learn tasty, yet easy, recipes at these gatherings. It is also a good place to catch up with the news of the local community and reminisce about our younger days in India.  Anjali Bhattacharya always hosts Unmesh birthday parties with cakes and Payeesh, the traditional rice pudding reserved for special days. Devipriya Roy hosts birthday celebrations of Rabindranath Thakur, whose vast body of works would continue to influence most authors of Bengali origin for many years to come.  Unmesh women members attempt to make these gatherings as festive as possible, dressing up in classic saris and appropriate jewelry, emulating styles appropriate for semi-formal dinners.

This essay will not be complete without mentioning the most delightful event of the year. That is the annual Unmesh picnic. Thanks to Anjali’s organization, we meet at the Herrick Lake Forest Preserve in the western suburb of Chicago, an idyllic setting by a lake, mostly during August. For many years, the main dish, the goat meat curry, was prepared on portable grills on site. With the natural aging of most members, the labor-intensive preparation of goat meat has been replaced by the egg curry. It is accompanied by authentic Bengali potluck dishes, snacks, and, of course, fancy cakes and sweets. Most of the time, Chicago’s unpredictable weather cooperates, but we also experienced heavy rain ruining the event partially. Occasionally, the picnic had moved to my garage and home, since I live closest to the forest preserve. A little rain can never dampen the spirit of the Bengalis. The open readings at the picnic are often complemented by writing exercises using prompts.

With the support of Unmesh and its leaders, some of us even had modest publishing successes throughout the U.S. and internationally. I could not have produced and published more than three hundred poems, essays, and stories otherwise. Like the other Unmesh members, I looked forward to these monthly celebrations. However, the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting shelter-at-home lockdown disrupted the routine flow of our lives. The April 2020 meeting was canceled. However, in May, Devipriya Roy organized a three-hour-long online Zoom meeting to celebrate the birthday of Rabindranath Thakur. She chose Rabindranath’s poem  Duhsamay (Difficult Times) as the theme for writing, the most appropriate one. I salute all Unmesh members who adjusted to the technical difficulties, decorated video backgrounds for the Tagore birthday celebration and dressed up as if we were attending a regular Unmesh meeting. Unmesh members were grateful that all of us continue to be safe at the time of this writing. It was time to gather strengths from each other to overcome the unprecedented difficulties the world is facing, although we shared screens. Like the initial Unmesh meeting, we gathered and shared “virtually” our joyous literary life.




















​​(Posted October 1, 2020)



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