On Freedom: Meenakshi Mohan Art and Poems

On Freedom

(Dedicated to Rabindranath Tagore)

 Tagore by Meenakshi Mohan
(watercolor with mixed media)

I came to the USA with my husband, Kshitij. He was a student at Georgetown University, Washington, DC, working on his Ph.D.in Physics and, at the same time doing his internship at the National Bureau of Standards (now known as the National Institute of Standards and Technology). Then, we realized that I needed to find a job too. We had a young child to support. I was in my early twenties then. I had only a bachelor’s degree in Education from a girl’s college in Calcutta with no job experience. So, when I went for my first interview, I was apprehensive about what kind of job I would find. I parked my car in front of a tall, ten-storied red brick building where I had my interview.

I had all the mind to go back home and tell my husband that I did go but did not find a job. But my conscious did not allow that, so there I was being interviewed by the CEO, Managing Director of the Membership Department, and several Board Members of an educational organization. I had no expectations of finding a job in this high-profile, internationally known company. But, perhaps, the stars were on my side that day – as soon as I reached home, the phone buzzed, and the Membership Director asked me if I could start working from the following Monday as her Assistant. Wow! I never believed it! I called everyone I knew – that is how excited I was. When I called my father-in-law, a High Court Judge in India, and told him excitedly that I would have my own office and six people would work under me -- what he said that day still resonates with me. He said, “Beta, I am happy for you, but you are still young; I would like to see you continue your education because education is something one can never lose.” Many years back, I realized how right he was. I earned another bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in Education/Library Science while working at the same time. Later, I earned my master’s in education and a Doctoral in Educational Leadership. I have been teaching at universities in different cities in the USA as we moved around because of my husband’s job. I can associate what Kofi Annan said, “Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress ….”

I love the writings of Rabindranath Tagore. I grew up in Kolkata (Calcutta in those days), and his poems and songs – Rabindra Sangeet, were very much in my bones. So, I dedicate my poems and paintings for this theme, “On Freedom,” to him by quoting his few lines from Gitanjali:

 

          Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high.

          Where Knowledge is free,

Where the world has not been broken up into fragments

by narrow domestic walls,

Where words come out from the depth of truth,

Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection,

Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way

into the dreary desert sand of dead habit,

Where the mind is led forward by thee into ever

widening thought and action –

Into that heaven of Freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

 

Note: My husband, Kshitij, was a rare/limited edition book collector. On one of our trips to Europe in one of the Limited-Edition Book Stores, we found several signed copies of Rabindranath Tagore’s books. The signature on my painting is his original, which I copied and pasted.

***


Dreams of a Rickshawwala

 

Rickshaw Wala by Meenakshi Mohan
(The original is oil on canvas)

You had dreams.

But alas!

You had no time to lavish and linger on them for yourself.

With your thin legs in worn sandals

and with a gamcha on your shoulder

to wipe your sweaty face

you paddled through the crowded streets of Kolkata

 

You had dreams.

But alas!

With your sunken eyes

buried in the deep creases of your face,

you gazed across the muddy roads to your destinations.

But unfortunately, you had no time to lavish and linger on your dreams.

 

You had dreams.

But alas!

When you crossed over the potholed streets of this crowded city

you thought of your responsibilities – old parents, wife, and children –

you thought of how you would make the two ends meet

on your exiguous income.

You had no time to lavish and linger on your dreams.

 

You had dreams.

But alas!

Did your clients, indurate and compassionless,

ever wonder about your impecunious life?

What went on in your heart

when they argued with you to save their few rupees

and when they blazed you as dishonest?

Then, finally, you sighed and moved on.

You had no time to lavish and linger on your dreams.

 

Yet, you still had dreams –

for the boy in his rags on the street,

selling paper flags of India.

You stopped your rickshaw to buy two small paper Indian flags from him.

You paid him more than the asking price,

and he looked at you surprised, grateful, and with stars in his eyes.

In return, you smiled and stroked his tousled hair gently as if in blessings.

 

Yes, you still had dreams –

when you went home to your shack

to your little boy and girl reading

under a dim, dangling light from the ceiling, you smiled

and looked at them with pride.

Your gift of paper flags of India

brought smiles to their faces.

You knew you could dream big for them.

 

You had dreams --

when a sweet melody of Vande Mataram from a faraway field

resonated and seeped through the open doors of your dwelling.

You knew your children were your dreams!

 

Notes:         

gamcha – a small towel

Vande Mataram – Mother (motherland - India) I bow to thee. A song written by Bankim Chandra and first sung by Rabindranath Tagore referred to India’s freedom from the Britishers after two hundred years of slavery.

***

 

 

Ah! What Freedom!

 

Mother and Daughter by Meenakshi Mohan
(pen and ink)

With a cup of steaming cappuccino

and a light shawl wrapped around her,

she stepped out into her backyard -- a Zen Garden.

The sky was flushed with the dawn, spreading its crimson glory.

She sipped her frothy coffee slowly, enjoying every sip

while slowly strolling on the winding graveled pathway,

 inhaling the fragrance of various flowers and foliage.

 

Something about this garden filled her with placidity and tranquility --

the wooden bridge over a stream with pink and white lilies,

the shiny leaves of bonsai trees, bamboo plants,

the multiple branches of Hinoki cypress trees

adding greenery to the place.

The statues of Buddhas sitting on rocks, stone lanterns, pagodas,

stone benches, and even a pavilion so artfully placed fascinated her.

Then, with another sip of her coffee, she took a deep breath

as if to absorb the serenity in her whole being.

 

She ascended the wooden steps to reach the bridge

and looked intently at Kameshimas, between the lilies floating in the pond.

Someone had told her that Kameshimas, the stone turtles, radiate peace.

Peace! So, needed!

A light breeze tousled her hair.

She heard the jingling of the wind chimes.

She was in a celestial world of calm and serenity.

 

A shuffling in the nearby bushes

under the tall pine trees broke her reverie.

She found two squirrels, one brown and a grey,

neck to neck over a pinecone.

Their squabbling took her back to her life

of anguish and desperation with scars and tears --

hopeless, helpless with no future.

Arranged marriage, an abusive husband, pestering in-laws,

a house she could never call home.

She remembered those thirty years of pain.

She was like a caged bird with no freedom.

 

The conflicting social and cultural boundaries stood like rocks

on her way to freedom

How could she shame her parents with the taboo of divorce?

Would they be able to bear the shock in their old age?

Then, to think of her children –

how would she manage their nurturing alone?

Would he and his family let her be in peace?

Many unanswered questions shackled her in chains.

 

Then, one day her turbulent journey in life crossed its limits –

when she caught him red-handed with another woman.

She questioned him, and in return, he physically abused her.

It was her son who called the ambulance and the police.

She ended up in the hospital.

Then with the help of the social workers,

she gathered her strength and courage and filed for divorce.

Divorce was the turning point of her life.

Like Medusa, she rose and liberated herself from a life of curse.

 

Her coffee was getting cold, and she was about to go inside to fill her cup,

when her four-year-old granddaughter came running to her.

Together, they stopped and admired the flowers and foliage.

She watched her running after the butterflies.

Her granddaughter stopped, held her hand, and said,

“Look there, Nani, Mr. Slate is under the pine tree.”

Mr. Slate was the grey squirrel –

a character from a story grandmother and granddaughter had created together.

Mr. Slate was calmly and peacefully pecking on the pinecone.

 

She smiled and mumbled,

Ah! What Freedom!

***

 

  

Emancipation

 (For my husband, Kshitij. Kshitij means horizon. Kshitij Passed away on January 2nd, 2010.)

 Sunrise over Penobscott Bay by Meenakshi Mohan
(The original is oil on canvas)

 

I sat on the stone steps in the backyard of my children’s house in Maine

with a backdrop of the vast span of the ocean.

Its wrinkled waves moved back and forth

as if scribbling stories on its shore.

 

I wondered if they were writing the stories of you and me.

You, who lived in the tranquility of the Elysium.

Me, an ocean, still wrapped in its earthly elements

trying to touch your hem.

You were perhaps an illusion,

but for me, this convergence of you and me

stayed as real as the seven steps of the solemn oath

we took before the holy fire.

 

I sat there in silence, raptured

listening to the whispers of the breeze

melodies of the leaves, fluttering songs of butterflies,

rhapsodies of rippling waves – was it the

Vedic hymns echoing through the mountains,

and enveloping the cosmos around me?

I was embraced in eternal peace --

ionized with the comfort of being next to you, my love!

 

When far away at a distant,

I noticed broken wooden steps

going down to some unknown destination,

crossing over the streams

passing by the surrounding bushes and trees

down to the shore where a lone red boat was waiting.

Wooden steps fascinated me.

They symbolized the journey of life.

And I wondered where my life was going.

 

“Ammu,” I heard my two-and-a-half-year granddaughter,

running towards me.

With a hug, she asked me in her childish voice,

“Whele wel you? I am missing you.”

She woke me up from my reverie.

I looked at you. You were still there, far away, smiling

as if reciting your favorite lines of Gulzar:

 

Aahista chal aye zindagi, abhi kai karz chukana baki hai

…kuch hasrtein abhi adhuri hain , kuch kaam bhi aur zaroori hai.

(आहिस्ता चल ऐ ज़िन्दगी, अभी कई क़र्ज़ चुकाना बाकी है,
… कुछ हसरतें अभी अधूरी हैं, कुछ काम भी और ज़रूरी है)

And I nodded and smiled back at you,

Yes, my boat can wait.

***

Meenakshi Mohan
Notes:

Aahista chal aye zindagi, abhi kai karz chukana baki hai

…kuch hasrtein abhi adhuri hain , kuch kaam bhi aur zaroori hai. –

 

Life, slow down your pace. There is a lot of debt yet to be paid.

Some wishes are yet to be fulfilled. Some work is yet to be completed.

***

Dr. Meenakshi Mohan is a scholar, art critic, children’s writer, painter, and poet.  She has taught at universities in Chicago, Boston, and, more recently, Towson University in Maryland. She has published worldwide both in the academic and creative areas. She has been listed twice in the Who is Who Among American Teachers. She is on the Editorial Team for Inquiry in Education, a peer-reviewed journal published by National Louis University, Chicago, Illinois. In addition, she received Panoramic International Poetry Award in 2022. She was also nominated as the Artist of the Month (January 2021) by DC South Asian Arts and Literary Council. Meenakshi lives in the USA. www.meenakshimohan.com


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