Shyamali – homage to a friend

by Archana Datta

ShyamaliEarlier this year the Youth and Literary Activities Sub-Committee of the Lower Mainland Bengali Cultural Society in Vancouver held its monthly gathering at which we hosted a young guest speaker from the Global Alliance of Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA).

He addressed a full house of 21 parents and children, and spoke eloquently to us on the environmental issues surrounding GAIA’s vision of a just, toxic-free world without incineration. GAIA mobilizes grassroots action against the spread of incinerators and other end-of-pipe waste technologies, helps build a movement for environmental justice, local green economies and for creative zero waste solutions. Our young speaker touched on the practical alternatives to incineration and what can be achieved through workshops at community and municipal levels, as well as individual and group efforts. He stated that being aware about the environment is the first thing one can do for one’s self, and then taking it further one step at a time. Whatever one does, it is important to always remember things in a bigger context as they affect life

I watched the reactions of the children and the parents alike. They asked questions on the challenges, what they could personally do, and how they could take the first steps. Our speaker made an obvious impression on the mixed audience. That was important for our small committee, so I let go a few items of our agenda and let the question-and-answer session proceed up to the end. All the while I watched the speaker fondly and intently, because he was the son of my dear, late friend Shyamali, and I have known Ananda since he was about 9 years old.

Shyamali was the daughter of an eminent Bengali artist, sculptor and educator from Dehradoon, India. Motherless at a very early age, Shyamali grew up with her grandmother in Shantiniketan, 160 km north of Kolkata. Shantiniketan (“home of peace”) was originally an ashram built by Debendranath Tagore, the father of India’s renowned poet Rabindranath Tagore. Today Shantiniketan is popularly known as a university town where anyone, irrespective of caste and creed, can come and spend time meditating on the one Supreme God. Shyamali grew up in nature, which had a profound influence on her.

She was an artist, activist and a mother. In the early 70’s she went to central America with her architect husband and their very young son. In the mid 70’s they came to Vancouver. She was a very social person and introduced herself to me when I was a new arrival in the city. From the first day I knew she was different to anyone else to whom I was introduced in the Bengali community.

Shyamali was a keen observer of what was going on in the world beyond her four walls, and a lot was indeed going on. She participated in public meetings, forums, artists guilds and rallies against nuclear armaments, war and the irradiation of food crops. She joined the artists’ guild and lived in a tent on Jericho Beach for a period. She was jailed in the U.S for protesting nuclear armament proliferation.

Her young son Ananda was always with her, but there was friction. On one side there was the tumultuous period in the USA with its effects on Shyamali, and on the other side there was an affluent life style. It was considered not to be healthy for the child’s soul, so Ananda was sent to an elite residential school in Ooty, situated in the mountainous Nilgiri Hills in southern India. Shyamali was not happy with this arrangement. By attending public lectures, rallies, forums and workshops with speakers the likes of Margaret Mead, Helen Caldicott, James Douglass and David Suzuki, she realized she needed to go back to her home base if she really cared for Shantiniketan and her son. She went back to India and brought her son to Shantiniketan where he finished high school.

As long as she lived, she did whatever she could do to protest against whatever she thought was wrong and she sided with whatever was right for people, for the soil, for the air, and for the water. Once in Shantiniketan she protested against a vintage car rally, arguing that the already polluted air of Shantiniketan should not be subjected to a few rich elitists’ pleasure. The organizers did not pay her any attention. She had much conviction and was a believer in non-violence as a great tool, so on the day of rally she just quietly laid herself down on the dusty road in front of the starting line and stayed there in a matter-of-fact way without any publicity and media attention. The rally could not take place. In all her artistic works, be it in a painting, in her story-telling with her home-made puppets or in her origami, she was one with nature.

She was a very gentle soul, yet uncompromising for the causes she thought were right – a tough but extremely loving role model for any child. According to Indian custom, once the body is done with living, it is incinerated. Shyamali wanted to be alive and remain part of living nature. Today her mortal body is buried under the soil in a village close to her beloved Shantiniketan. She chose that particular village because it did not discriminate against people of different religions, castes, creeds or social positions.

After he completed high school, Ananda came to live in Vancouver with his father. Since arriving here, he has never worked for any corporation, company or organization other than environmentally dedicated ones. Growing up during his formative years in Shantiniketan, with its particular social and physical environments, he realized what his mother had tried to instill in him throughout her life, namely that life is precious, not only for a privileged few, and that a healthy life is a right for every living being.

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