Poetry As Sanctuary – A monthly column where poets from the Poetry of Diaspora of Silicon Valley pen their South Asian experiences.
In 1986, as a new immigrant living on the East Coast of America, I was visiting a friend in Atlanta. On our day out as tourists exploring the city, we came across a public event where I heard the beautiful, uplifting tune I’d first heard growing up in Delhi, India: We shall overcome, someday, deep in my heart, I do believe, we shall overcome.
I was moved by the way music has the power to move us. I remember thinking to myself, “These Americans have done a very good job of translating that Hindi song from my childhood.” It would take several more years for me to learn the history of this anthem of the civil rights movement. Even more, years would be needed for my ignorance to be dispelled about the role M.K. Gandhi played in inspiring M.L. King, who visited India to meet Gandhi.
In 2019, on Gandhi Ji’s 150th birth anniversary, I heard this same song again, sung in both Hindi and English at Stanford University’s Memorial Church: Hum honge kaamyab, ek din, man me hai vishwas, pura hai vishwas, hum honge kaamyab, ek din
I was seated in a pew just behind Gandhi Ji’s grandson, Dr. Rajmohan Gandhi, and his wife. The occasion was the closing ceremonies for the Gandhi-King Global Initiative Conference of changemakers from around the world. Amongst the attendees were the descendants of M.K. Gandhi, M.L. King, and Cesar Chavez. For some reason, hearing the song performed there, at the end of an inspiring conference, gave me goosebumps. My tears flowed freely.
Achieving justice through non-violent means like nation-building can take multiple human generations. Professor Clayborne Carson, the host of the conference, had gathered an eclectic group of global changemakers, including high school students, and three generations of the Gandhi, King, and Chavez families, all of whom have bravely dedicated their lives to finding nonviolent ways of confronting injustices. Their stories of suffering were difficult to hear. Their courage and endurance to confront unjust systems and build peace showcased how this is not a passive activity. It can be thankless labor of love, often coming with great personal risk. That this can be a threat to those who hold power through violent means is evident from the fact that both M.K. Gandhi and M.L. King were assassinated.
At the conference, Ela Gandhi, who lives and works in South Africa, and Yolanda Renee King, then just ten years old, spoke with the same gentle passion of being committed to values and work that simply must be done, and that it is best done in small circles, in your own or neighbor’s living rooms, through building deeply committed connections.
This year, 2022, the nonviolent power of love is evident as we mourn the loss of India’s nightingale Lata Mangeshkar and the inimitable Bappi Lahiri. Multiple generations of Indians have been touched by their songs. Every year, on India’s Republic Day, all who come from around the world to watch the parade on Raj Path in New Delhi are reminded of Lata Ji’s voice with the song: Jo shaeed hue hain unki, zara yaad karo qurbani (Remember the sacrifices of those who have been martyred).
Art, be it a song, music, or poem, has the power to unite people across the world. It connects us as humans, sometimes moving us to action, and at other times to release the joy or tears within. It consoles us like an old friend. May we each find the magic of song, music, dance, poems, and the visual arts, and learn to unite as humans.
The Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley is a gathering of poetry lovers who read poems out loud to one another. Our members are hosting a poetry slam in San Jose to celebrate Black History Month. Register here to attend.
Dr. Jyoti Bachani is an Associate Professor of Strategy and Innovation at Saint Mary’s College of California. She is a former Fulbright Senior Research Scholar, with degrees from London Business School, UK, Stanford, USA, and St. Stephen’s College, India. She translates Hindi poems, and has edited a poetry anthology called “The Memory Book of the Poetry of Diaspora in Silicon Valley.”