Sunday, May 09, 2021

Mother-loving Child

These are bad times.

People are dying of COVID-19. People are dying from lack of oxygen. People are even being killed by other people. Sitting in this far-off land, the news from India is just unbearably depressing. And yet, I cannot travel back to India to be with the people I love.

So when Rabindranath Tagore's birth anniversary approached this year in the middle of all this, I had to think extra-hard about what poem to translate. I was tempted to look for some poem that talks about suffering or death (which I sort of did last year), but then I decided against it. There's enough of that already out there - there's no need for me to add to it. Then I realized the day of Tagore's birthday is also Mother's Day here in the US and since I had started to translate a poem about a mother-loving child sometime ago, it would be suitable for the occasion. So here's my Tagore translation for this year. The original can be found here.

Mother-loving Child

~Rabindranath Tagore

Those who live, mother, in the clouds

They call to me, call out loud.

They say, “All we do is play,

Morning to end of the day.”

We play a game of gold at dawn,

Holding the moon, a silver one.”

I say, “How will I go on?”

They say, “Come to the field’s end.

Stand there with your arms raised,

We’ll take you into cloud-land.”

I say, “But mother’s at home

Sitting waiting for me all alone,

Without her, how can I be gone?”

Hearing that they laugh and disband.

Better, mother, if I be the clouds;

To act as my moon you can try—

I’ll cover you up with my hands,

Our roof will act as the sky.

In the waves, mother, those who live,

To me repeated calls they give.

They say, “Singing is all we do,

From the morning and all day through.”

They say, “To what lands we flow,

Their locations no one can know.”

I ask them, “How can I go?”

They say, “Come to the shore’s end.

Stand there with your eyes closed,

We’ll take you into wave-land.”

I say, “But mother looks out,

In the evening my name she’ll shout,

Her, how can I live without?”

Hearing that they laugh and disband.

Better, mother, I’ll be the waves,

You’ll be some land from afar.

I’ll jump and fall into your lap,

No one will know where we are.

(Translated and illustrated by Sugata Banerji)

Monday, May 03, 2021

Death of a Teacher

I started learning Computer Science when I was in the fifth grade. We called it Computer Studies.

Throughout the first year, we learnt mostly theory: the characteristics of a computer, the parts of a computer, the history of computers, etc. Then in the sixth grade, we started to learn programming in BASIC. Little did I know at the time that this would become my favourite subject in school, and then I would go on to get an engineering degree and a Ph.D. in this field. Today, I am a professor of Computer Science, and if I try to trace the roots of my love for this subject, I will inevitably end up in those fifth and sixth grade classrooms where we learnt the basics of computer science and programming.

And I will inevitably end up remembering our teacher, Mr. Sandeep Chintamani. If I have to choose one teacher from my school who had the most influence on my life, it would be him.

I can still clearly remember his voice, his smile, his mannerisms and even his accent, as he taught computer science to us. Most of us had never even seen a computer when we started to learn about them, but he told us a secret: we did not need to actually sit at computers to learn programming. And then, the latter half of sixth grade onwards, we would form a queue and walk to the computer lab at the back of the biology lab once every few weeks and spend some time at a computer. There were only eight or ten computers for the fifty-odd students in our class, and they were old even by the standards of the day, but I still eagerly looked forward to these practical sessions and even theory classes with Mr. Chintamani. Of course, I may be biased, since I eventually fell in love with Computer Science, but I don't know whether that would have happened if the subject had been taught by another teacher.

I later had other Computer Science teachers, of course, and I remember all of them fondly. But Mr. Chintamani held a special place in my childhood memories, and even now, when I teach my students about if-else blocks, or loops, I hear certain words and phrases in my head in his voice. "How would Mr. Chintamani teach this?" has been a question that I have asked myself often, and used the answer to improve my teaching.

I bring this up today, because Mr. Chintamani passed away last week. He was on my Facebook friendlist, and when the obituary from my school appeared on my timeline, it was shocking and sad in equal parts. Just a couple of days ago, he had shared some COVID-related information on his wall. Little did I know that his life would be cut short by the disease within the week. Of the millions of lives this pandemic is claiming in India right now, this one is a little too close to my heart. He was only fifty-five. Rest in peace Sir, you left us too soon!

I don't feel like writing anything more. I don't feel like doing anything anymore. I want to be able to go home and see my parents again.

Friday, May 08, 2020


I have been practically living indoors for over seven weeks now. On the one or two occasions when I had to go outside for essential work, I had to clean myself obsessively after coming home. Even then, I inevitably spent the next few days worrying about catching the virus and dying. Between that and feeling anxious about family members back in India (not to speak of the millions of other people in the world), naturally, little else could occupy my mind during this time. So when I sat down to choose a Tagore poem to translate this year, I was still thinking of the pandemic and death and wondering whether the poet wrote anything applicable to the Coronavirus. As some geniuses on social media have already discovered, some Tagore creations are particularly suited for this situation.

So searching for a poem applicable to the pandemic, I came across a poem called "Karmaphal" (কর্মফল) which means payback for one's actions. While the subject of the poem isn't really pandemic-related, it can be argued that this terrible disease is a payback to Humanity for the blatant destruction of Nature and overcrowding the planet beyond its capacity. It also talks about dying and being born again in the same place, which is probably the most positive thing that you can think of when you are being forced to think about death all the time. So this was my choice.

Also, when I was thinking of a suitable English title for this poem, I realized the most suitable word was "Karma". Although the English language has pretty much internalized that word today, it is really the Sanskrit root in the actual Bengali title of this poem, and for the first time, my English translation of a Bengali poem has practically the same name as the original Bengali version (where it is neither a proper noun nor an English word). So here's my translation.

~ Rabindranath Tagore

If a next birth truly comes 
I know what is in my fate—
I’ll be drawn again to this
Capital of the Bengal state.
Poems and prose I’ve woven a lot,
In their snare I’ll get caught,
All faults in all that work will
Atone for their every vice—
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
In those days, if by chance,
Loving readers I still retain.
Their ears will all blush crimson
I’ll call them such ugly names.
Any book that comes my way
Page by page I’ll blaze away,
To ruin my fate, I will like
A mythic demon re-arise— 
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
I will say, “This ancient text!
Seems stolen from start to end.
I think even I can pen,
Baskets full of such nonsense.”
Other things that I will pen
Thinking now, it causes pain,
For cruelty of my next birth
Now I wish to apologize—
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
You, who often don’t say things
That I really like to hear.
If you too reincarnate
And as critics reappear—
My own self I will spite,
You will think of how to write
Rubbing pens in your dens
To my protest, fit replies.
Maybe I will have to then
My own writing criticize.
I’ll write, “He’s a misfit poet,
Like a heron among the swans!”
You’ll write, “What hateful mind
Lies with such nonchalance!”
I will call you – ignorant,
You will call me – rude and blunt,
Then the things that will be written
By no means will they be nice.
You will write a strong response,
I will strongly criticize.
(Translated by Sugata Banerji)

Saturday, April 11, 2020

Where are they now?

A man stood at the midpoint of the Ponte Vecchio in Florence on a clear golden summer evening. A crowd had gathered around him to see the sunset, but he had his back to the sun. The beautiful medieval covered bridge was a major tourist attraction in this colorful Italian city full of tourist attractions, and the fact that it offered a magnificent view of the sun setting over the river Arno had pushed the whole crowd to this spot. It was almost 9 o'clock but the crowd was still mostly energetic. This man was holding a guitar, and he was singing into a microphone. He had large speakers next to him which amplified the music and filled the atmosphere with rhythm. Was he a great singer? I wouldn't say so. He was more loud than melodious, his voice more mundane than magical as he reminded everyone to tip him and buy his CDs. But the music that he created is definitely part of my memory of that evening from last June. From his sweaty face to his sinewy hands, everything about him showed that he was hardworking if nothing else, and sincere about his music. I had photographed him and dropped a Euro into his hat, but I had not really expected to remember him a few months later. His music, maybe, because that was an overwhelming part of the scene, but not him as a person.

And yet, I find myself thinking about him for the past few days. Is he still alive, or is he one of the nearly 19,000 people that have died in the Covid-19 pandemic? If he's alive, what is he doing now? He can't sing on the streets anymore, so what does he do for a living? What about the waiter who stood waiting for customers at the Piazza della Signoria in the summer evenings, or the art sellers in Piazza della Repubblica? Where are the musicians who played for the open-air diners at the San Marco Square in Venice, or the sellers of leather goods at the Florence Central Market? I saw an old gentleman in Venice having a morning walk and buying a newspaper from a newsstand. Is he still alive? If he is, he definitely cannot go out for walks anymore, and can he still get his newspapers?

These are questions that keep haunting me and my wife Poulami repeatedly as we look through the photos of our Europe tour from last summer. We had always wanted to tour Europe, and Italy was the brightest jewel in that crown of a tour. We remember Italy as a hot, crowded, colourful country full of loud, cheerful people everywhere eating delicious food in the roadside cafes. A country of bustling marketplaces, busy alleyways, and people standing in queues to eat gelato while the tantalizing aroma of freshly baked pizza wafted through the air. The brightly colored country full of tourists, souvenir sellers and priceless wonders scattered everywhere surely left us impressed and longing for more. My parents had also come from India to accompany us during these ten days of tiring but unforgettable sight-seeing.  

And today, barely eight months later, all of that is gone. It's gone, along with nearly 19,000 people, leaving hundreds of thousands whose lives were changed forever. Of course, everyone in the media is talking about the sufferings of gondoliers, cafe owners, shopkeepers and other faceless people, but it feels particularly bad when one has captured some of their faces. Many of the people in my photos are tourists, and they are unlikely to be there now. But there were others whom we remember vividly, such as the lady who owned the gelateria near our AirBnB in Rome, the young woman who showed us our AirBnB in Venice, and the taxi driver in Rome who magically changed my 50 euro note to a 10 euro note. Maybe we don't remember that last person with a lot of fondness, but we do remember him vividly. It feels very painful to think of that country under lockdown now, with the hospitals overflowing with COVID-19 patients.

Italy is by no means the only country to suffer in this pandemic, and bodies are piling up fast in my favourite city in the US as well. Spain wasn't part of our itinerary last summer, but we traveled through UK, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, Greece, Germany, Austria and Greece. All of these countries are affected to various degrees and I really hate to think what this beautiful continent is going through right now. Meanwhile, we haven't left the house for the last three weeks and teaching classes through Zoom seems like the new normal. The world we know has changed - probably forever - and it happened so quickly that everyone seems to be in denial. It is this denial that is exacerbating all this suffering in the US, and I shudder to think what can happen back home in India if things are not handled well.

But this blog post is about Italy and the happy people we met there. I wish I had some way of knowing where they are now, and how they are doing. I also hope they can get back to their normal way of living sometime soon. For an elderly gentleman who has spent all his life taking morning walks and buying newspapers, it would be very sad if he has to spend the last few years of his life deprived of these simple pleasures of his daily routine.

Friday, February 21, 2020

The Laws of Twenty-one

This Bengali nonsense poem by the great Sukumar Ray talks about the strange laws in the imagined country of Lord Shiva. Such laws may or may not resemble real laws in real countries. The laws relate to the number 21 various ways.

Today being the 21st of February, the International Mother Language Day, AND Maha Shivaratri, the annual worship day of Lord Shiva, I couldn't resist the temptation to translate this poem to English from my mother language today.

In the land where Lord Shiva stays,
Terrible laws one must obey!
If someone happens to slip and fall,
A policeman will arrest and haul
To the court, and the judge opines,
He pays twenty-one rupees in fines.

There, before it's evening six
For sneezing you need permits.
Without permit, if a sneeze will come,
Bang! Boom! On your back they drum,
A dose of snuff the Chief applies,
Until you sneeze twenty-one times.

A loose tooth, if someone has,
They must pay four rupees as tax.
If whiskers grow on someone's face,
A hundred annas is their cess.
Poking his back, bending his neck,
Twenty-one salutes they have him make.

While walking, if someone chance
To cast left or right, a sideways glance,
At once to the king this news will rush,
The soldiers all jump and make a fuss,
They make him drink, in the sun at noon,
Water in twenty-one serving spoons.

With poetry, those who fill the pages,
They are caught, and put in cages,
And made to listen, in tunes variable,
Recitations of the multiplication table.
They have to read grocery-store ledgers,
And do additions for twenty-one pages.

If suddenly when the night is deep,
Someone snores while they're in sleep.
On their head they rub with glee,
Cow-dung mixed with apple puree,
Twenty-one times they are spun
And hung for hours twenty-one.

(Translated by Sugata Banerji)