Carol Salomon (1948 - 2009)

In memoriam

Where do creatures go when creatures die,

If God’s homestead does not in the world of this body lie?

                                                            Lalon Shah Phokir (Choudhury: 366)


The first time I met Carol Salomon was in an apartment in New York City’s Greenwich Village, when I was still a student at New York University. I had read her work already, particularly the pioneering “Cosmogonic Riddles…” essay on Lalon Phokir, and knew what a rare scholar she was—not only as a Bengali scholar in North America, but on top of that as a Baul specialist who had given herself to the study of the work and life of Lalon Phokir. Having read everything she had put out (her work was characterised by quality, not quantity), I really wanted to meet her.


Her work was unique in that she was working singularly on an iconic figure in Bengali culture, Lalon Phokir, whom almost everyone knew in both Bengals, but few cared (or, perhaps, knew sufficiently well) to broadcast to the outside world. Concomitantly, this was also an area few non-Bengalis were interested in (Carol, to the best of my knowledge, was the only American scholar interested specifically in Lalon Phokir). There were postcolonial thinkers writing about the privilegentsia and their appellative subjectivity, sublaternists theorising around the silent peasantry and their unwritten articulations in hegemonic history, and South Asianists filling volumes with understandings of ancient histories and their manifestations in esoterisms of various orders, often lacking in historicised socio-cultural underpinnings. But there were no scholars doing what Carol was attempting: prying out the valences involved in the religious syncretism of the Sufi-Bauls of Kushtia through her protracted research into the life and work of Lalon Shah Phokir. The socio-cultural dimensions of what Lalon Phokir’s body-based spiritualism signified came out through Salomon’s deep readings of the song texts, the explored range of their polyvalent implications, their political significance in the intersecting contexts of class and gender. In accomplishing the above Salomon’s work also took into account the contemporary situation and identity politics of nation and culture, along with the vexed continuity of Lalon Phokir’s legacy between the two Bengals. Her research was yielding results that did not necessarily fit any singular label, be it of area studies or the normative directions of postcolonialist (or even subalternist) inquiry. Effectively then, she was doing what attracted notice and lip service but did not inspire real attention in the form of dedicated scholarship. Barring an important entry in the anthology, Gender, Genre and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions (Arjun Appadurai, et al, eds), Carol Salomon’s work on Lalon Phokir remains practically unpublished. But Lalon Phokir—what a figure like him says about South Asian history, religious hybridity, gender and subaltern subjectivity and transcultural humanism—was important, and continues to be so. Unfortunately though, Lalon is better known today through populist “feel good” celebrations of his iconic status in poorly-made feature films (two have been made, with a third currently in the making), pathetic English translations, patronising journalistic write-ups, and (lately) fictionalised novels that do more disservice than good. Lalon’s redactive and reductive populist dissemination and metonymic representation has been his true obfuscation. Carol Salomon had undertaken correcting this wrongful undissemination of Lalon as her true dispatch.


In 1997, quite by accident, I had found out Carol’s phone number through a common friend from Bangladesh, then living in New York. Without hesitation, I had called her out of the blue in Seattle (where she and her husband, Richard Salomon, himself a renowned scholar in South Asian studies, both taught at the University of Washington) and sought her friendship. Given our rare commonality of research areas, Carol (she and I were, to the best of my knowledge, the only two scholars specialising on Lalon Phokir in North America at that time), soft-spoken as ever and shy almost to a fault, tacitly accepted.


After a few more phone calls and a bit more familiarity, Carol suggested that we meet in New York, which was her hometown. Born Carol Goldberg on July 28, 1948, in New York, she would often come back to see her aging parents in Brooklyn. My last phone call had been just before one of those trips and I took the opportunity of inviting Carol over for a home-cooked Bengali dinner, which she gladly accepted. On the night of the dinner, Carol came across to me as one of most tenderhearted people I had ever met. She placed my infant son delicately on her lap and spoke to him in Bengali ever so softly as he cawed and cackled and clutched her extended little finger. Even while rocking little Birsa to sleep, she talked about Bauls and, particularly, Lalon Phokir, our common centre of interest. Her eyes lit up, the voice going up a fraction of a decibel, each time we shared an intricate detail about the saint or tarried over a minute point that would be absolutely esoteric (if not of no interest whatsoever) to most others. I was over the moon to be able to talk about Lalon in such detail with anyone, and I daresay, Carol may have thought the same.


Carol and Karim Shah

Our conversations continued well beyond dinner that night and we kept in touch over the phone and via e-mail. Every time Carol visited New York, I would know and we would at least chat on the phone, if not meet in person. On one of her trips to New York Carol brought an audio tape she had compiled for me out of selections from the field recordings of performances by Lalon Shahi phokirs she had herself made during her many trips to Kushtia since the seventies. I learnt from her more about many of the stalwart phokirs she had met there: Khoda Baks Shah, Mokshed Ali Shah, Mahendra Goswami, Laili Begum, Karim Shah, Nizamuddin Shah, Komala Phokirani, et al. Every new meeting added more to my knowledge. I had already made a trip to Kushtia by then, in 1997, but I realised the need to go back at the end of every meeting with Carol.


One of our New York meetings happened to be at a conference in midtown Manhattan. At the end of the conference, I was walking Carol to the Subway station. It was around 9 pm on a muggy New York summer night. We walked eastwards from 6th Avenue along 42nd Street, and then got stranded at the corner of Broadway right in front of the Subway entrance. The reason was that we simply could not part, even after having said goodbye a hundred times! As time waited upon us, we stood there working out subtle differences in opinion, arguing politely over the meaning and implications of certain words and terms in a riddlesome, cosmogonic Lalon song that Carol had translated (as part of her larger project of making Lalon Phokir’s songs available to the English-speaking world), while the flashy lights of 42nd Street dazzled and oblivious passers by passed by.


In 2003, when I moved to California to teach at UC Berkeley, Carol and I got a little bit closer, distance-wise, being now on at least the same coast of North America. Soon after I moved, the Center for South Asia Studies asked her and Richard to speak at UC Berkeley. This was the perfect excuse for catching up. We met at their hotel and chatted, again Lalon occupying a great deal of the conversation, over Afghani lunch, Sufi music piping out of the PA system. This was also the time when the idea of Man of the Heart as a performance project had started to solidify in my mind and I discussed this a bit with Carol. She seemed enthusiastic in her characteristic underplayed way, but by now I could read Carol’s subtle displays of emotion for what they actually meant. In 2004, with a view to making Man of the Heart possible, I applied for a grant and heard back in 2005 that the bid was successful. Back to Carol again, for now I needed access to her audio collection from fieldwork in Kushtia over all the years she had been there since the seventies. She had already whetted my appetite with the sample tape a few years earlier, but I needed more; and since I could not possibly go back to Kushtia before Man of the Heart would need to start rehearsing, access to Carol’s materials became a paramount necessity. Now, those who are in the world of academia know how rare it is for scholars to share materials amongst themselves without “getting” anything out of it—a book contract, a sumptuous grant, a prestigious publication at least… something that was a material gain—but Carol did not ask for anything. She was willing to do this out of the sheer goodness of her heart! I flew out to Seattle, stayed at her house for three days and almost without a pause went over all her tapes, digitising them one by one and finding out about a bygone era in Kushtia that a thousand future trips could not give me access to.


During those few intense days (and late nights) in Seattle, Carol cooked and cleaned, playing the hostess, and in between (quite uncharacteristically) revealed herself to be quite the raconteuse par excellence in narrating first-hand accounts of her numerous experiences in Bangladesh: stories of the phokirs who were no more and their unusual lives, the changing political climate of Bangladesh and Kushtia, how her Jewishness once never mattered there but now could (for in the post 9/11 era, in 2005, Bangladesh was in some political turmoil), and a whole range of other subjects where her knowledge and wisdom, perhaps unbeknownst to her, illuminated many of the creative and research choices that went into the writing of Man of the Heart. In fact, she had helped Man of the Heart in ways she herself did not realise; one of them was by introducing me to Dr Soumya Chakrabarti, the physics professor in Southern California who was also a Baul scholar and a musician himself. Soumya ended up playing the dotara in Man of the Heart, and becoming a good friend. Even though she was central to the making of the production, Carol, unfortunately, could not herself come to see Man of the Heart in Berkeley for personal reasons. Later, I sent her the DVD and, to my great relief, she wrote back saying she “really enjoyed” the performance.


The next act of Carol’s kindness towards me came in the form of a letter of support she wrote for me when I applied for a Senior Fellowship from the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies to do further field research in Kushtia. Thanks to Carol’s recommendation, I did get the fellowship and go back to Kushtia after 11 years, in 2008. During my stay there, I would often call her or connect through Internet video conferencing systems, or simply e-mail to tell her about my experiences there. I told her about the 107 year-old Bader Shah, whom I had met and recorded, and whose honest distrust towards (mostly dishonest) visitors struck me as distinctive, and Carol agreed, “He is quite a character…. I am glad to hear that he is still alive. He may remember me”. I verified; he did. Our conversations would range all the way from the trivial to the cosmic. She would offer me advice about whom to see, where to go and, most importantly, whom and what to avoid. During one of those conversations, Carol asked if I could donate some money on her behalf to one of the ailing senior phokirs who had been Carol’s friend for a long time and who, she thought, was “really… a national treasure…. I often think of him as a Bengali Leadbelly”. Needless to say, I agreed and did the needful, while also finding out that this was not her first donation to that family. In their indebtedness to Carol, the phokir and phokirani in question had named their grandson “Jesse”, after the name of Carol’s own son. When I returned to the States, a reimbursement cheque from Carol was already waiting in my mailbox. Carol was a giver in every sense of the word. She was a soft and generous soul who had no fear of losing her knowledge through giving, and she gave without expectation of any reciprocating act of recompense. The deed was commensurate with the desire, process was the product, means were the end. Perhaps the time she spent among the phokirs of Kushtia and her deep immersion into their thought and Lalon Phokir’s songs, had made Carol herself something of a selfless phokirani.


In early March 2009, just before a planned visit to the New York area (I had by this time moved residence to the UK), I called Carol to see if she would be in the city at that time, for I wanted to give her (for a change!) digital copies of my gleanings from Kushtia. She told me that the time, unfortunately, did not coincide but then asked me to call over the weekend after my arrival. A day before the weekend arrived, Soumya Chakrabarti, the friend Carol had introduced me to, called to give me the devastating news that Carol Salomon was no more. I could not believe what I heard; this was so unwarranted. I had spoken to Carol just four days ago and was supposed to ring her the very next morning. On Wednesday, 11 March, a normal weekday morning in busy Seattle, Carol was as usual bicycling her way to work, when a car hit her unexpectedly. Carol was thrown off and landed on her head, sustaining serious lacerations. She was taken to the hospital unconscious and, less than 48 hours later, succumbed to her head injuries.


The following figures come from the National Bicycle Accident Statistics: 716, 698, 773, 784, 725, 629, 665, 732, and 693 cyclists were killed in accidents each year in the United States in 200 and 2000 respectively (from, accessed 21 September 2009). According to the Bicycle Helmet Safety Institute (, head injuries have accounted for more than 60 percent of these deaths and non-helmeted riders are 14 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash than helmeted riders. Carol was not wearing a helmet and added one more figure to the 700+ bicyclists who will have died by the end of 2009 in such accidents. Carol Salomon, that rare giving soul, the living person who still had a world of work to do, had sadly been turned into a statistical unit.


In a lesser-known song, Lalon Phokir claims an exclusive space for his creed by defining a state between faiths and forms, a way station in the interstices of life and death:

The true Saint and Dervish are the ones

That Die and merge with the Uncatchable at once…. (Jha: 108)


Carol Salomon, having lived between faiths and forms, having given her life to the act of giving, having worked ceaselessly on a project that no one else dared/cared to take on with self-effacing humility, herself merged with the “uncatchable” on 13 March 2009. Correcting Lalon’s undissemination, her lifelong remit, was left in limbo. Carol’s magnum opus to be, City of Mirrors: An Edition and Annotated Translation of Selected Songs by Lalan Fakir had been halted abruptly, unkindly interrupted, like her life.


Carol was a unique friend to me, especially since I have very few people with whom I can share my work and interest in Lalon Phokir. With Carol gone, I feel partially silenced.


-- by Sudipto Chatterjee




Choudhury, Abul Ahasan (ed.), Lalon Samagra. Dhaka: Pathak Shamabesh, 2008.

Jha, Shaktinath, Lalon Saain-er Gaan. Kolkata: Kabita Pakhshik, 2005.

Salomon, Carol, “The Bauls”, in: Donald S. Lopez (ed.), Religions of India in Practice, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995, pp. 187-208.
Salomon, Carol, “The Cosmogonic Riddles of Lalan Fakir”, in Arjun Appadurai, Frank J Korom, Margaret A Mills (eds.), Gender, Genre and Power in South Asian Expressive Traditions, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1991, pp. 267-304.

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© Parabaas, 2009