I often wonder what makes a man. How did I become what I am? Some would say it is upbringing that encompasses the time, place, family, and, of course, the culture one grows up in. But we know people from the same family who turn out differently. Some would say it is something inherent, it is inborn. Finally, we say it is all in the genes – but nurtured, influenced and affected by the surroundings. What is it in my case?
I was born a fraternal twin; I was told my twin sister was born 25 minutes before me. My mother went to her mother’s house for the birth, the normal custom in the old days, but they didn’t expect a twin. Instead of the afterbirth, I came out as a surprise. “A boy, a boy!” My grandmother exclaimed. My grandfather, who was a medical doctor, was not present and perhaps the only other person there was a local midwife. That’s the way it was in 1940’s India. My mother had already delivered 7 babies, so it was probably not a big deal. I was small and thin and didn’t appear healthy; this and that I was a boy stole all the attention and the good food from my sister. My mother told me, “When the cry of any baby was heard, your grandma would say, ‘Your boy is hungry, feed him.'” And I got the orange juice or whatever nourishing food was there. Years later, I felt sorry that I deprived my twin sister of food and attention. But she turned out to be prettier.
My grandfather wanted to give me the nickname ‘Kobi,’ the Bengali word for poet, but as a child I busily walked around and in between the adults and thus acquired the nickname ‘Lattu,’ or spinning top. This name Lattu stuck, not Kobi. My formal name was given during the usual ‘Annaprasan’, the first solid food feeding ceremony: Debaprasad – Deva in Sanskrit or Deba in Bengali for God and prasad for a gift specifically from God. I was God’s surprise gift to the family. Rarely did anyone call me by that name. My friends in elementary and high school, and everyone in the neighborhood, called me ‘Lattu.’ While applying to U.S. universities for admission to graduate school, I found that they needed a first name and a second name. So I chopped my name into two: Deba and Prasad. When I came to Philadelphia, some started to call me ‘Deba.’ That certainly didn’t sound right for a young man. I knew Debaprasad was too long and hard to pronounce, so I told everyone to call me Dave. After a couple of months, the daughter of my host family who was also a student at Penn told me, “You don’t look like a Dave.” So I told them to call me ‘Debu.’ The name was not new, many of my college friends called me by that name; it was a common nickname for Debaprasad. So, finally in 1964, I assigned myself the nickname, Debu, and transformed myself into Debu Majumdar.
As I look back on my childhood, I believe two things influence our adult lives: (1) the overall and the subtle internal messages of the family that one faces and observes, directly and indirectly, and grows up with (inconsistencies and contradictions in the family are critical in my opinion; they mold our later lives), and (2) a few critical events that happen in one’s individual life; this makes two people from the same family different. My family was pretty consistent in their messages: knowledge and hence education is most important. Individual growth in this regard was highly encouraged, perhaps more than cultivating a warm, loving family – they were loving but this took a back seat to education. There was strong encouragement to do our best, but the American attitude of striving for individual success above all others was not there. Success in the materialistic world was desired, but success as a non-materialist was the higher goal in our family. ‘Go where no one has gone before’ was not a stated or unstated goal.
After the dangers of World War II and the riots after the partition of India (into India and Pakistan), safety and security overwhelmed everything else, leading to risk aversion. Although there was a feeling that a super-being (God) existed, the strong belief was that there are many paths to reach that super-being or your ultimate spiritual goal – you follow the path you like (that also implies you have to find your own path, which is the essence of Hinduism). As I see it now, the undercurrent in my family was the Buddhist Shila principle, compassion for others, and ‘live and let live.’ In spite of the tribulations in the family, ours was a happy family, all caring for each other but not in an overt manner – father was the guide and mother was the caretaker – feeding, clothing, and everything related to our health and physique.
“Are you trying to be a Bahn-manush – a cave-man?” my mother would ask whenever she saw my long toenails. I remember those words each time I cut my nails, and wonder why I laughed at those words before.
When I was a senior in high school, I remember telling my mother, “Mother, should I become a headmaster of a school? That’s a good position.”
She said, “Good. You be a headmaster.” Her round face with the large red mark on her forehead would beam with joy.
Then, a few months later I’d tell her, “Mother, teaching in a college is a great profession. I’d like to be a professor.”
“Good,” she would happily tell me. “You be that.”
Sometime later, I’d tell her, “Mother, Government service is very good. Should I join the Indian Administrative Service?”
“What do they do?” she asked.
“They run the country. They are the most powerful people, like the magistrates.”
“That’s good. You be that.”
I told this to my sisters and we laughed.
“Mother doesn’t know anything. She is happy with whatever I want to do.
One day I teased my mother again. “Mother, I want to become a scientist. Like Newton or Einstein. Won’t that be wonderful?”
“That is very good. You can discover new things.”
I gave her a hug. She was content with whatever I became. She was married before she could finish high school to a man she had never seen before.
I wonder now how my mother had the innate knowledge to encourage her children to become what they desired to be – a teacher, a scientist, or a government officer – it didn’t matter. Because contentment is what mattered in the end, not the position. Life is much bigger. I understood it only forty years later.
I do not remember seeing a doctor or going to the medical college for an eye examination, which I must have, but I remember when I was in 4th grade, my father took me to Calcutta to a store in Boubazaar Street for glasses. I put on my glasses sitting on the top deck of a double-Decker bus on our return journey. ‘Wow,’ I told myself, ‘I can see and read the signs on the store fronts!’ What a discovery! The surroundings looked so different. The power of my glass was negative 4 for both eyes. I was essentially blind and don’t know how I managed my school assignments or anything else.
I have a vivid memory of my school in Shalkia, near Calcutta where we lived in a rented house while our father supervised the construction of our house in Dum Dum, a suburb in north Calcutta. I remember the rows of coir mats hanging from the ceiling which swung to cool the air in our classroom. I didn’t know then that a person pulled strings from the end of the hall to make this happen for the rooms on the same corridor. I remember this because I have never seen that system of cooling, instead of regular ceiling fans, anywhere else. One day we went to Dum Dum for the ground-breaking puja, or worship service, for our house construction. The same day I had an exam at school. I don’t remember many details of what was involved in the exam, but I know when my older brother came to pick me up, the teacher called me for an oral exam. I hurriedly answered the teacher and ran out. My mind was not on the exam, but rather on my excitement about the new place where we would live. After boarding a bus with my family, I told my brother that the teacher asked me what the English translation of the Bengali word ‘kagaj’ was, and I couldn’t tell him. “You couldn’t remember the word ‘newspaper’?” he asked me in a slightly scolding tone. “The newspaper that we read everyday?”
I was not good in sports, but I was enthusiastic about games and participated in all the games, whether it was soccer, cricket, or local games of Ha du du, Pittuk Jinda or Dunguli. This is primarily because I was slightly built, perhaps a result of being born as an unhealthy twin. Sports in my time was an activity outside of school; local neighborhood clubs and boys organized these among themselves.
Our family’s oldest children, my oldest brother and sister, died of typhoid at 10 and 11 years of age in Rangoon, Burma – a part of British ‘India’ at the time. My father spent all his working life there, retiring as the Superintendent of the city and returning to India before World War II. I never met them as they died before I was born. My father never mentioned their names, and my mother talked about them once or twice. We had a big photo of the two from that time (in Burma) on the wall, but we never talked about them except mentioning their names – Renu and Benu. I didn’t realize the effect of the sadness surrounding their deaths had on my parents. The two children existed as an afterthought in the family air. Fifty year or so later on a visit to India, I discovered a notebook of songs while visiting my second oldest (really third) brother, beautifully written in a girl’s handwriting. Those are the songs our father used to sing with our oldest sister in Rangoon, he told me. My brother, who had known her, had preserved the book. All other memorabilia of them are perhaps lost or are somewhere in some trunk, tucked away and forgotten. Only then, holding the notebook and reading the songs, did I realize how much our father must have changed, but had carried on life as he had to – a life devoid of enthusiasm, a life where the air had been taken out of him. I was told he used to teach Pali language, the language of the Buddha, in Rangoon. He must have known many Buddhists in Burma. I used to wonder why our father never became a Buddhist and never mentioned the Buddha, although we had a large marble statue of the Buddha in our house. With that notebook in my hand, I understood why he did not become a Buddhist – it had no consolation for a father with dead children.
My father had many friends who were Hindu monks. Two of these monks lived in Rishikesh and would come to Calcutta once a year, usually during the Durga puja season (in autumn). They would visit us only for one day; they would not spend the night in our house. They wore the ocher clothes of monks and we called them by the honorific title of Maharaj as they were pursuing higher goals – like a king of the spiritual world. One of the monks, Abinash Maharaj, had a Master’s degree, a lawyer, and was married and had a daughter, but he gave up all these and became a monk. My father would send 5 rupees, 1 dollar then, every month and write a post card to them. He told me this was to help them buy a glass of milk every day. I used to go to the post office to send the money order. I thought they lived in caves or in some such similar places and meditated and prayed to God. Once my father asked me to accompany one of the monks, Prafulla Maharaj, to Dakkhineswar – the site of a famous temple and monastery. On our return journey, the ricksha-walla accidentally let go of the handles and we fell backward. It was bad fall for both of us – I had never seen this happen before and never saw it again in my life – but the Maharaj did not say an unkind word to the ricksha-walla. I often wondered and really didn’t understand how they got their daily meals and who took care of them if they were sick. I asked one about my concern. He told me, quite casually, that it was not a problem; they would only have to go to a Dharmasala -a special place for monks and pilgrims to get food, a simple meal of chapati and vegetables. I wondered then,why didn’t all the poor and starving people go there? My next older brother once told Abinash Maharaj that he wanted to become a monk; he found no interest in the regular life and he was willing to sacrifice for attaining the higher life of a monk. The Maharaj asked him, “What do you have that you want to give up?” When my brother remained silent, he said, “If you have a rasogolla (a Bengali sweet) in your hand and you want to give it up, only then is it a sacrifice. If you don’t have the rasogolla, it means nothing. So first, earn something worthwhile, then you can sacrifice.”
The more I think about what made me, one memory comes to me over and over again, which I didn’t realize when I was growing up. My father and my family never stopped me from going on travels to places outside Calcutta with my school. In fact they supported me without asking any questions. I wonder about this often. This was very unusual at that time as travels except for pilgrimages were not common and parents would, of course, worry about the safety of their children. While my other school friends couldn’t get permission to go, I had no problem. It is also amazing to me that none of my brothers and sisters went on such trips or showed any inclination to explore places away from home during their school days. For example, when I was in 7th or perhaps 8th grade, my father let me go alone on a school excursion to Puri, the nearest seaside beach town to Calcutta (several hundred miles away), without asking who else was going, or what the school plans were. I was not a bold or very courageous boy, but I must have had an inner strength from the beginning to stand on my own or not be afraid to face the unknown or, perhaps, I was foolish enough not to realize the problems that might lay ahead. After our final Bachelor’s degree exams, my best friend in high school and I went on a trip to Bhubaneswar and Puri – just the two of us. My family didn’t object; I don’t remember now if anyone cared or we told them much about what we planned to do. In the same way, I went alone to a far away place in Purnia, Bihar to spend a month in the summer with my mother’s youngest sister, my aunt whose family was completely unknown to me. This was simply not done in my time; if people went to visit family they went in a group, not alone. It seems my family trusted me completely and was saying to me ‘If you want to go, go!’ These seem like nothing now from the U.S., but in India in the 1950s, a mere 20 year old was not considered an adult and the family watched over him or her very carefully. Usually we were not considered adults until we were married and had our own children. These kind of adventurous initiatives and the encouragement to do what I wanted to do must have influenced my life.
Another thing strikes me is that I know so many Indian folk and mythological stories, but my parents and most others in my time didn’t read bedtime stories to children and I do not remember my older siblings telling me stories. How did I get this knowledge? I must have read them myself, but I do not remember when I read all these books. Reflecting on this now, it comes to me that in the 5th and 6th grades we used to exchange books among our classmates and borrow books from local libraries – the Mohan detective stories series, scary ghost stories, stories of adventures in distance places like ‘In the Abyssinia Front’ or translations of foreign books, like ‘Count of Monet Cristo,’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ ‘Treasure Island,’ ‘All Quiet on the Western Front,’ etc. We rarely bought books or got books from anyone as presents except those we received as prizes for doing well in school. I read good Bengali novels from 8th or 9th grades on. During that time I must have also read a lot a mythological stories – but I don’t remember doing so.
My formal training was in physics, theoretical physics, in the 1960s. Math came easily to me and that led me to study physics, as that was the creme de la creme subject in my time and the best students studied physics. Medical and engineering didn’t excite me and computer science didn’t exist in Calcutta. There were no ‘Commerce’ studies in my college, the best in Calcutta, Presidency College. And getting degrees in ‘Business Management’ was unheard of. So it was physics and I am always proud of that. I tell everyone to study physics because after that you can do anything you want – whether it is chemistry (of course it has to be theoretical chemistry), engineering, computers, or anything. Even art. But no one has listened to my words. Now I realize that studying physics has to come from within. It is the study of the fundamental laws of nature and seeking answers to the big questions, pursuing fields of inquiry where no one has yet gone.
However, one thing happened to me when I went to college that was perhaps, not so good; I essentially stopped reading literature – novels and poetry. I read only what was required by the college. It is an exaggeration, of course, because I did read, but that was not my priority. The priority was on loving and studying well the physics courses at college – nothing else. Part of the British (and later Indian) system of higher education is to focus on one’s Major to the exclusion of other subjects. The education is narrowly focused and there was no need to read literature beyond the first two years if you are a science major. Much later I realized I had followed the story of the ‘Eye of the Bird’ in the Mahabharata – a story about whole-heartedly focusing on the goal to be achieved. (This story and ‘The Ant and the Grasshoper’ were my father’s favorite stories.) In those days I read only in my mother language, Bengali. Rabindranath Tagore received a Nobel Prize for his poems in Bengali. That made Bengalis very proud of their literature and I didn’t think of and didn’t have the time or inclination to read novels in English. All the good novels I read, I read in Bengali – and all before age eighteen. I didn’t cultivate writing, and I didn’t get high marks in Bengali and English during my high school and colleges exams. That lowered my standing. So my standing rose to the top when I didn’t have literature in my curriculum! That is when I studied only science subjects.
In India I lived in only one city, Calcutta, which became Kolkata many years after I left, though in local conversations we always called it Kolkata. My life has been spent on three continents: India (first 23 years), Europe (Vienna and London) and North America. In the U.S. I have lived in several cities and small towns: Philadelphia; Stony Brook on Long Island; Syracuse, NY; Ann Arbor, MI; Brookhaven Hamlet, NY; Idaho Falls, ID; and Bellingham, WA. So my experience in these cities influence my writing.
A physicist by profession, Dr. Majumdar writes fiction and non-fiction. He has written Op-Ed Columns for two Idaho newspapers: The Post register and The Statesman. A native of Calcutta, India, he came to Philadelphia in 1964 for graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and after several years in three universities (SUNY at Stony Brook, NY; Syracuse University; and the University of Michigan) and Brookhaven National Laboratory, he settled in Idaho Falls in 1980 with his wife and two sons. He was a Senior Scientific Advisor with the U.S. Department of Energy and has represented the U.S. at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, Austria. He has a Ph.D. in physics from SUNY at Stony Brook and Master’s degrees from Penn and Michigan.
His first book, From the Ganges to the Snake River, a compilation of creative non-fiction essays was published by Caxton Press in 2000. He later wrote four children’s books to expose American children to another culture and the good principles of friendship, perseverance, and loyalty.