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Nicaragua, ultimately

It was Pete Seeger who, on learning from me that I wished to visit Nicaragua to write a book in Bengali on the Revolution, recommended me to Father Ernesto Cardenal, the priest, poet and guerilla, who was then the Minister of Culture of the Government of Reconstruction in Nicaragua. One day I got a letter of invitation from Father Ernesto Cardenal. I quit my VOA job and went to Managua as the minister of culture’s guest. My visit to Nicaragua Libre (Liberated) opened up a totally new world to me. That happened in 1985 and I am still reeling under its impact. It changed me considerably. It taught me things that I never thought of before. It made a different man out of me. I also got exposed to the New Song movement of Latin America. The New Song was a genre of songs that came from everyday experiences, from events that happen in one’s life and in the life that surrounds the individual. The New Song became important after revolutionary and radical movements started to take shape in Central and South America. But one should be cautious about forming any fixed notion as to the nature of the New Song. A love song could also be a New Song. It depended on the context. The New Song writer was not bound by any oath to deliver hard core political or partisan songs per se. The point was not to be politically or ideologically correct. To be musically creative and thematically relevant was the important thing.

Shubho nabo barsho! Today is the Bengali new year’s day.


Maya Angelou

Maya Angelou was like a mother for me. On learning that I wanted to write a book on the anti-establishment personalities in the USA on the basis of elaborate interviews she told me to give her the manuscript so her publisher could publish the book. I told her that I wanted the book to be published in India by an Indian publisher. Upon that she told me, ‘But Suman, why do you have to be so mean about which country your book might be published in and by whom? Isn’t my country your country too?’ I felt embarrassed but I adamantly stuck to my idea of having my book published in India. Maya Angelou told me, ‘Well, if you were clever you would publish your book here in America. I wonder if you would find a publisher in your country.’ She was right. On returning to India I looked for a publisher and failed to find any. Samar Sen told me that his Germinal Publication might publish it but it did not have the necessary funds. When I offered him money he was quite annoyed. He said, ‘I should not publish any book taking the needed money from the author. My project The Other America never materialized. The thought of that book that never was and the memory of all the great American minds that helped me write the manuscript still make me sad. Could I ever face those wonderful people ever again? Do they still remember me, Suman Chatterjee? At that time I was Suman Chatterjee. I became Kabir Suman on the basis of a proper affidavit in 2000. Some of the interviews got published in Frontier and in Desh.


My US friends

Maya Angelou, George Wald and Pete Seeger were especially kind to me. I shall never forget the encouragement and love I got from them. George Wald, a Nobel laureate scientist, came to like me so much that he started calling me up from the Harvard University late at night and we talked till the small hours. Listening to Dr Wald was like attending a seminar of the highest intellectual order. Avoiding pedantry he enlightened me on things as varied as physics, philosophy, Taoism, Zen and radical politics. What I found remarkable was his sense of humor. Whatever he said was always with a touch of humor. He told me that as the Chairman of the Russell Tribunal he once faced an interesting situation in which some US military personnel rather stupidly asked, ‘But how the hell can we move out of Vietnam now?’ And this was what Dr Wald told them: ‘Why? That’s quite simple: in airplanes, in ships, by cars and by foot!’


My Nicaraguan dream

I prepared for my dream trip to Nicaragua by reading books on Latin American history, politics and literature and by taking lessons in Spanish language. My plan to write a book on the anti-establishment personalities in the USA took me to the doorsteps of Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), Paul Sweezy, Harry Macdoff, Annette Rubinstein, Bertel Ollman, Maya Angelou, Maxine Klein, Holly Near, Noam Chomsky, George Wald and Pete Seeger. I can never forget the amount of encouragement and assistance I received from all of them. I told them about my plan and they readily agreed to be interviewed by me. But, at the same time, they made me read their books so I could do my homework. I did not have to buy a single book. Almost all of them sent me their major works by courier and I interviewed them only after I studied their thoughts. It was like taking the most wonderful and colorful university course in politics, philosophy, history, sociology and the liberal arts.


Manab Mitra!

Work at the VOA was arduous and boring. But I profited a lot from mixing with all sorts of people in America and reading books, journals and periodicals. I planned to write a book on the anti-establishment personalities in the USA and I started to read voraciously. America is a place where one can really grow if one wants to. The intellectual growth that I had in those five years in the USA has stood me in good stead in my later life.

I started to write a monthly feature for Desh: Durer Janla. But I had to adopt a different name to do that for I was told by my colleagues that I could not use my real name if I would write for journals and newspapers as long as I was in the VOA service. I adopted the name Manab Mitra. In addition to my monthly Desh feature I also started to write for Samar Sen’s Frontier. The articles I wrote for Frontier were strictly political while the Desh features were on various subjects. But there was always an anti-US government undertone.


Life in USA

My job in VOA was permanent, but spending my life in the USA was not my intention because by 1979 I had found my songwriter’s voice, so to say, and I had written several songs, all rather political in nature, that my friends liked. Music has always been my first love and I thought I had found my true vocation: songwriting, singing and making music. I could not write songs in Bengali if I remained in the USA, so I decided to go back to Calcutta after spending five years in the USA, learning whatever I could of Jazz and Blues, getting used to playing organ and piano, getting more exposure to international politics and enriching myself intellectually as much as I could. My great hunger for books was amply satisfied by the stupendous array of books that I could find in the USA. I have visited a few countries and lived in two other continents. In no other country did I find book stores and libraries so eager to help book worms in every possible way. There was another factor. In 1979 the Sandinista Revolutionaries ousted the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza and seized political power. I felt a great desire to go to Nicaragua to write a book on the Revolution. I started to learn Spanish in Washington D.C.


The Voice Of America

In 1976, I started to send articles to the Desh Patrika and owing to the benevolent and liberal attitude of Sagarmoy Ghosh, the editor, my articles also started to get published. I wrote mostly on German literature, politics and society. In 1979, I came back to Calcutta for several months as the Calcutta correspondent of the Voice of Germany. During that time I also taught German at the Ramakrishna Mission at Golpark, Calcutta. I thoroughly enjoyed teaching German to students of all ages and I saw that my students enjoyed my classes too. I still feel that I would make a good language teacher even today. In 1980, I left Calcutta to join the Bengali Service of the Voice of America in Washington D.C. I had taken a test for that job while I was still in West Germany and I had passed the test. I became an International Radio Broadcaster at the VOA.

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