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Lokvani Talks To Bijoy Misra

Ranjani Saigal

Dr. Misra has been active in the local community affairs to assist and organize events for a long time.  He was instrumental in reinvigorating the India Association of Greater Boston to establish the popular India Day event held every year at the Hatch Memorial Shell Esplanade.  He has contributed efforts to the success of the Shishubharati  School and New England Hindu Temple.  He has been a resource person for the parents and children of Indian descent in the New England area to help counsel in need, mentoring for future growth potential and being helpful in hours of crisis and need.  He hosts the monthly India lectures at Harvard University held on behalf of the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies.  He represents the Indian American community in interfaith events thus facilitating better understanding of the community in the larger complex of American life.  He is married with two grown up children and lives in Lincoln, Massachusetts with his wife, Lata, who is also a physicist and works as a computer professional. 

A physicist by training, Dr. Misra has held teaching positions at Harvard and MIT. He was the first Indian to receive the world Meteorological Organization Award for Young Scientists and has distinguished himself with other award-winning research papers.  He has lately been interested languages and phonetics and is preparing a book on knowledge classification formulating a comprehensive knowledge model.

We caught up with Dr. Misra at the India Day celebrations at the Esplanade last August, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Award on behalf of the India Association of Greater Boston.

Why did you decide to leave India and pursue a career in the US?

My father was a freedom fighter, an orator and a poet.  While he spent a good amount of time in jail during India’s freedom struggle, it’s his arbitrary detention in free India which was bothersome to me as a child. He wrote about the disparity in Indian society, oppression, exploitation, bonded labor and class structure.  He was known in Orissa for his popular motivational songs for the cause of farmers, miners, laborers and common men.   I loved him very much but missed badly when he would be taken away.  In the ‘70s, India entered a phase of strange undemocratic period, when anyone critical of the Government was arrested under some autocratic British-age colonial law.  He was sent to a remote jail in Bihar and we had to fight in the Supreme Court of India for his release.  I wanted to stay in India, but the political climate was too harsh. My mother and family were getting disheartened.  We were worried about father’s health.  I wanted to leave to survive and to help my mother.  I wanted to look at India from a distance.  My principal goal was to gain my father’s freedom which I succeeded.

Could you describe the early days of your stay in US?

I had first come to the US in 1972 as a Visiting Scientist to National Center for Atmospheric in Boulder, Colorado.  I returned to finish my PhD and then came to MIT in 1974.  MIT was a technical university,the arts and humanities were only peripheral.  Though Harvard was next door, there was a cultural separation and a tacit competition between the two institutions.  India was looked down in both places as a country that was incapable of fighting its hunger and Indian students were viewed with a pity since they were supported by University funding for their education.  India’s poverty and chaos was the only news that was circulating in the newspapers and television. 

The Museum of Fine arts maintained its strong India Arts program, but the golden age of India was only in the museum.  The Indian student body Sangam existed in MIT and was occasionally active in hosting concerts and dance programs.  I remember meeting late Senator Patrick Moynihan in MIT in a lecture when he had just returned from his ambassadorial tenure in India.  Senator Moynihan was in high praise of India’s culture, but analyzed that India had lost the new technological age and could remain backward for a long time.  Ramakrishna Vedanta Society ran Sunday program and also a campus program.  Swami Sarvagatananda was affectionate to the students and was strongly pro-Indian.  He became a good friend.  We would also occasionally go to India movies arranged by India Association of Greater Boston and learn about grocery stores and survival methods.   I believe weather was harsher in the ‘70s and we had the great blizzard in 1978.  I had my first taste of American open society when my daughter was selected for a gifted children scholarship in music when she was five.  The equality of life which I had seen strongly deficient in India and also in the US began to emerge as a foundational virtue of my new journey.

You were part of the team that founded Shishubharathi. What was your motivation to found this institution?

Shishubharati was already a functioning institution by the time I joined in 1983.  I tried to give it a new shape and tried to design it such that it can be stable and be a premier educational institution for our children.  This task came to me because the school was viewed more as a cultural meeting group than one with a learning environment for our children.  We had to expand our offerings  in order to cater to the entire community with the multiplicity of languages of people and their regional cultural pride.  The upbringing in India for immigrants in those days did not convey their representation of a national heritage in a foreign land and individuals had little idea how they would communicate their traditional culture to their children.  The children though respectful to the parents had little understanding what their heritage was and were mostly strewn between the cultures.  First I started teaching in Shishubharati with a goal to attract parents and students.   I also experimented to observe the potential of children of Indian descent and estimate their possible achievement path.  I imagined that we could create a curriculum that would help children to discover their own identity through the understanding of their heritage and help them inculcate self-esteem in their cultural roots.  The idea was that we could create talented professionals whose personality and values are deeply Indian.  In association with many teachers and parents, it took me about ten years to create a comprehensive curriculum in language and culture.  We have seen the first generation of Shishubharati graduates in the American professional market and the experiment seems to have succeeded.   We need good motivated teachers to keep up with the children’s enthusiasm and I would urge all to think about teaching in order to enhance one’s own learning and to help a cause for our children.  I plan to call our former graduates in professional fields for a Convention in 2010 to obtain their recommendation on the next generation of children of Indian/South Asian descent.  We have to build the foundation of an Indo-American community in the New England area.

You have created the unique Harvard university Multilingual poetry sessions. What motivated you to start that?

In the ‘70s and the ‘80s I was engaged in helping Indian artists perform in the greater Boston area and I discovered that the appreciation of music and arts was segmented among the Indian language communities because of lack of understanding and association.  In 1987, I was nominated to be the President of India Association of Greater Boston and I tried to organize the “India - a Festival of Science” exhibition at the Boston Museum of Science.  Through the support of IAGB, I created a celebration of Indian language areas and the regional culture through this exhibition.  It appeared to break the language barriers in the community and we saw India as a one full national identity.  This encouraged me to conceive of organizing the India Day festivities at the Hatch Memorial Shell Esplanade in cooperation with the Park Service of the Metropolitan District Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  The event went very well and continued year after year with increased participation and enhanced enthusiasm.  Through this organizing, I discovered that India’s soul was in the literature and most interesting knowledge exercises in the world were written and discussed through Sanskrit prose and poetry.  Harvard University maintained a Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies, but the studies were more for the text translation than propagation of the language in the community.

People of Indian origin were mostly technically trained and their association to languages was weak.  I thought to revive interest in Sanskrit education and in order to do that one had to revive interest in regional literature and the spoken languages.  With the advice of Mrs. Catherine Galbraith, I launched the Outreach Lectures in Indian studies on behalf the Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies in 1994.  We made language as a focus in recitation, phonetics and literature in 1997.

This led to the annual multi-lingual poetry reading sessions in May of every year.  A community of poets has begun to emerge.  Lately poets with origin from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal and the US participate in the event.   From this year, the group meets every quarter with the annual meeting scheduled in May at Harvard University.    

How do you see the Indian American life in New England having evolved over your time here?

Over thirty four years I have been around in the New England area, the community size has increased about twentyfold in the area.  Indian American community has their own places worship, own newspaper, own lawyers, physicians, real estate professionals, brokers, restaurants, grocers, travel services to name a few.  Indian American students do well in schools and colleges and there are many well qualified professionals who draw respect from the larger community.  It’s interesting to note that we organized the first India Computer Expo “Software India” in 1988 in Boston with little knowledge that India would become a major software exporter in ten years time. 

Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts was sympathetic to India and had led a trade delegation to India.  Many business houses in New England area are lately involved with outsourcing services offered by talented young men and women in India.  Indian Americans have also formed political grouping Indian American Forum for Political Education that has helped to engage people in participating in school groups, city councils, state legislatures and national tickets.  A local girl has flown the sky as an astronaut.  But the Indian Americans have a long way to go to be attuned to the American thinking of freedom and adventure.  The citizenship duties and responsibilities to the community as regards public service, helping neighbors, schools, shelters; volunteering in libraries, hospitals, community centers; networking for support, employment, business interests; standing up for each other in time of need are some of the tasks remain in a rather weak state.  The community thinking is still outmoded and conservative stifling the youth in not undertaking new challenges of exciting prospects that the American resources can create and nurture.  We have to spawn many more creative thinkers, designers, artists, poets, scientists, engineers and philosophers.  An Indian American is a combination of India’s creativity with American adventure.  It needs be achieved.

What advice do you have parents bringing up children in New England?

The children are extremely bright, thanks to the affectionate mothers and the caring fathers.  I taught children in Shishubharati School for twenty years and I noticed the special sense of security among the children as regards their ties to the family and their association to the parental expectation.  It then comes to the duty of the parents to nurture new direction in children’s journey and to allow them to explore seemingly difficult and challenging careers.  This could include careers in arts, music and dance; or in design, architecture and construction; or in research, inventions and expeditions; and or in politics and civil services.  The children have the potential of being leaders in the fields they choose and parents should let children explore the avenue of their choosing.  Particularly New England offers opportunities in education, training and talent enhancement available nowhere else in the country.  So we must look to the whole personality development rather than putting importance on the academics.  Sports, extra-curriculum in school, community service and volunteering for public causes are all part of the fabric of creating a foundation that would nurture the child for the rest of his or her life.  Many times parents get stuck in finding brides and grooms for their sons and daughters to create a “match” in their own little community.  We have to make the children as secure world citizens and feel happy to welcome people of different cultures and religions to our homes.  An Indian value transcends any narrow region, it’s only the skills and the heartfelt truthfulness of the individual that should command a welcome reception in any Indian American home.  Friendly and free communication with the children is necessary and important.  Particularly important is the task of not to spill up the stress of our own struggles into the children’s lives to create confusion and commotion.  While we must build our community strong enough to nurture our children together, parents have individual responsibility to provide the warmth of love, respect and affection to let the child shine in the world. Our individual moral character and our diligence in living a pure life would nurture character in children.  Good character and high genetic talents with new cultivated skills will help children meet any challenge they might set themselves for.

What words of wisdom do you have for the community at large?

I have not lived enough years to cultivate any wisdom to share.  My own thought process is mostly influenced by the teachings of the Gita, which I love as a creative book.  Though it’s difficult to map the philosophy of the Gita in the individual life, one can try.  Most people in the community are spiritual in nature, but they confuse spirituality with religion.  India doesn’t champion a religion, India champions human life, living, excellence and creativity.  In this exploration, various paths are seen and they have become different religions.  All religions converge in Indian philosophy and the great Mother nurtures
them all.  We have to bring this spirit to our life and to our community.  We champion human values and humanity.  We serve and share.  We don’t discriminate nor are we selfish.  We are religious in the sense to offer peace and security to the world than to our own little self, or to our small family.  We are blessed because we have better education, better resources, more opportunities than many of our friends.  We use the blessings to give a hand to not-so-lucky in the community and to the hungry and poor in the world.  Personally we must design our life with the engagement and deliberation such that our neighbor is indeed our family member, which is the hall mark of India’s culture.  We have the great vantage point of understanding the world and appreciate how the world of knowledge has emanated from India.  We cultivate, learn and discover how fundamental discoveries are made in our own minds.  

Anything you would have differently in your life?

Not really.  Personally I like to experiment ideas and living.  When we don’t expect results from experiments, we are blessed with an internal metaphysical expedition.  Many times people don’t experiment because the family conditions are not conducive for experimentation.  Experiments have the aspects of success and failure.  When you don’t set a goal, there is no failure.  Society sets numerous constraints to curtail our freedom in life.  But it’s only the freedom that lets us see objects and ideas more clearly.   We have many more tasks than one possibly can do.  Life’s journey with freedom is an internal joy, which is experienced and can hardly be expressed.

Anything else you would like to add?

I am grateful to many people in the world to make my life possible.  I learned language and human feeling from my father and I learned the aspects of sincerity and devotion from my mother.  My wife has been a companion for more than forty years as a colleague, friend and a support to my experiments.  She has been in some sense a guardian to our two beautiful children who are exploring life in their own way.  I am thankful to all my teachers in all places of instruction for their kindness, friendship and encouragement.  I have learned more from my students at Harvard, Shishubharati and the Sri Lakshmi Temple than they may be aware of.  Hundreds of my friends in the New England area have been the anchor support in many of my efforts.  Thousands of others have participated in the events and have encouraged us in our journey.  I am grateful to all of them who have unhesitatingly poured talents, resources and energy into causes which didn’t seem doable when we first conceived.  While I conclude, I wish to offer my respects to venerable Swami Sarvagatananda, who turns 96 by the time these lines see press. He has nurtured the New England Indo-American community for more than fifty years and we are blessed that he taught us the way of life with love, diligence and scholarship. 

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Bijoy Misra Felicitated by IAGB

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