Fluteman Series: The Other

jasmine 2

He sat with his eyes downcast. Whether his eyes entertained any drop of tear or not, I wouldn’t know. I noticed his fingers that held on to the walking stick. Three of his fingers shook in constant rhythm.

“Come”, I called out to him. He looked up. A single drop of tear nestled at the corner of his left eye.

“Come”, I called out again, this time extending my hand to hold his.

He surrendered his cold, shrivelled fingers into the warmth of my palm.  He took a bit of time – a two and a half minute – to let his body adjust and then holding on to my fingers he moved ahead, step by step.

***********

Nayantara glanced at the clock once.  And then again – perhaps the eleventh time in a span of three minutes. She rehearsed once again the things that she needed to talk to him about – Ishani’s progress report, the wrong spelling in the ration card, that she loved the smell of the hair oil that he had gifted and yes, Mini the pet cat now has three kittens…..Did she have any list of complaints? Like Indranath says always, “Okay now tell me – what are the bad –bad things….the complaints that you have?”

“No complaints this time Indrababu…things are perfectly well”, she broke into peals of laughter as she spoke out the lines loud enough, imagining Indranath sitting right in front of her – on the bed – like he always does.

And then there it was. Wasn’t that the knock that she always waited for? She rushed to the front room to open the door. A gust of wind blew in – bringing with it dust and dry leaves. Nayantara looked at the sky. Tufts of black clouds played with each other, signalling a Norwester in the offing. “No, no not now…not till he reaches here”, she said a quick prayer as she shut the door again.

She ran to the kitchen to check if things were in order. The packet of yet unopened puffed rice and savoury mixture sat snugly in one corner. Nayantara was tempted to try the savoury mixture a bit.

“Ishh, not now mad woman, control your urge…What fun it is to pick up little bits from his plate!”, she  smiled and scolded herself.

Was that a knock again? She trained her ears again. Yes, ofcourse…She ran in quick yet soft steps to the front room. Her heart raced faster as she opened the door with trembling fingers. It always did – every single time, for eight months now.

And there he stood. Nayantara let out a mild gasp and followed it with a shy smile. Micro flakes of the drizzle outside had settled over his black, wavy hair. He smelt of jasmine. But somehow he wouldn’t get in. Unlike the other days, she noticed, he didn’t ruffle her hair with his fingers. Neither did he lovingly call out her name the way he always did, “Nayana”.  It seemed a trifle puzzling to her. She pulled him in , “ Ei Indrababu, why do you want to get wet? “

He dragged his feet inside somehow. He looked tired as he bent down to open his shoe laces. Like everytime, Nayantara ran to the kitchen and brought in water in the glass that she wouldn’t use otherwise.

Indranth took just ten seconds to finish the glass of water. In the meanwhile Nayantara pulled out the little packet that he had kept on his lap. Her eyes gleamed in genuine mirth, “Jaaaasminee….I knew it, I knew it”. She clapped like a child. Indranth looked at her with tired eyes and smiled.

As he sat in one corner of the cot, Nayantara sat next to him, preparing to let her tongue finally let out the lines that she had been rehearsing over and over again for a week. But before she could speak, he gently placed his hand on hers. Something happened inside her ….it was a kind of music showered by the first rain of the monsoon. She trembled mildly. Two and half years into her widowhood when she had first encountered Indranath and he had held her hand, she had felt this strange tremble within. It was then coupled with shame and shock. Eight months later that same touch gave a celestial comfort of togetherness.

“Nayana”, he spoke with a voice that seemed distant.

“Nayana, they found out about us. And perhaps…perhaps….this would be our last meeting.” He face contorted in genuine pain as he uttered the word ‘last’.

“ Tea ? Shall I make tea for you? See, I have also bought your favourite mixture. Puffed rice, mixture and hot tea…..perfect for this weather Indrababu.”, she laughed like a child as she got up to head towards the kitchen.

Indranath pulled her towards himself. He cupped her face in his palms.

“Nayana, did you hear what I just said ? This would be our last meeting. Today and now is the last time we would ever meet”, he stressed louder on the word ‘last’ this time.

She stared at his face….simply stared, not really knowing what to do.

“But I can be your friend Indrababu, can’t I? I mean, you can always come to visit your friend isn’t it?”

“The world doesn’t understand that Nayana. To them you would always be the ‘other woman’ “

Nayantara could sense a burning, shearing pain down her spine. She felt a surge of vomit pushing up her throat.

She coughed a bit, trying to push down that strangely, riveting feeling. And then she smiled.

“I knowww….I knowww you Indrababu….you, you, you are joking, aren’t you?”, she stammered as she spoke, trying to make light of the situation.

Indranath helplessly sat down , his face crest-fallen.  “How I wish…this was a joke Nayana”. His voice was now hardly a whisper.

She looked at him in disbelief. Then with soft fingers she brought out the little string of jasmine that he had brought for her.

“ I love jasmine….you know na…I love jasmine”

“Yes Nayana, that is why I brought this for you….I couldn’t think of a better parting gift.”

“Will you never come back again Indrababu?”. There was something in her voice ….question, appeal, helplessness all coupled together.  Her dark eyes looked straight into his. Indranath couldn’t really control himself. A soft stream of tears flowed down his rugged cheeks.

“Don’t go na…don’t go…”, she clutched his hands with her long, soft fingers.  Indranath had no answer. He let his incessant flow of tears do the talking.

Then with a sudden surge of emotions she flung herself on his chest, embracing him the tightest within the ring of her arms.

“Don’t leave me Indrababu…no , no, no…not me please…I will be lost without you. You cannot leave me na? You love me, don’t you?”, she sobbed like a child. Her muffled voice was hardly audible. Her wet nose rubbed against his chest. Even amidst her tears she wanted to inhale the smell of his sweat coupled with talcum powder that smelt of sandalwood – may be one last time. He in turn held her in the tightest embrace he ever could. “I love you Nayana. And you know that. And if I am leaving you today, it is for you. If I leave my family for you, no one would stop pointing fingers at you. And if I continue this relationship the society would torment you every day as the other woman. I know..I know…the fault is entirely mine. But I really do not have an explanation as to why and what happened between us….Just that it happened.”

“You can’t , can’t , can’t leave me this way….”, she whimpered on, encircled within his embrace. Indranath glanced at the partially hidden face of Nayantara – sweat, tears, sticky nose had made a mess of her dusky face. Many a night he had wondered what had really drawn him towards Nayantara. His wife Sumitra was many times more beautiful than Nayantara – atleast in conventional terms. It isn’t that Sumitra was loud – the ones who nag the entire day. She had stood with him in his toughest times and well fitted into the role of an ideal wife. And the brutal fact was that Indranath loved her too. Nayantara on the otherhand was careless, talkative, at the best an average looking woman. The only thing that stood out were her two large eyes. But what made her special was the child-woman that she was. She would argue with him about the song played on the radio, she would encourage her daughter to steal mangoes from the neighbourhood, she would fist-fight with him like a child…..there was something in her that made her immensely attractive. All he wanted was to lend a helping hand to a helpless family of mother and daughter and what he ended up was to fall in love with the reckless, boisterous child in the garb of a woman.

“Am I bad? Am I a bad woman?”, Nayantara looked up from the cosiness of the final moments of togetherness. With his fingers, Indranath carefully unearthed her face from the maze of little locks of hair that had got pasted to her face. He kissed her forehead – once, twice , thrice.

“You can’t be bad Nayana. You don’t deserve this heart-break. It is I who is bad. May no curse, no hurt ever touch you anymore after this. It was my decision to be with you. And it is I who have failed you. Can you forgive me?”, he spoke to her, looking into her eyes. He remembered what his wife had told him in the morning. Normally soft-spoken that she is, Sumitra hardly raised her voice when she spoken to him . “She, whoever she is, has dared to steal my husband. And may she never be happy. This is my curse.”, she had let out the curse drift through the stony silence of the room. And as he now held on to Nayantara, Indranath prayed with all his might to the invisible God that may no harm, no curse ever touch her.

They held on to each other while her sobs subsided.

“I have to go now Nayana”, he spoke reluctantly.

“Now ? “, there was something of the sort of a child-like fear in her voice.

“One minute”. She freed herself from his embrace and rushed towards the cupboard.

“Do you remember the muffler I was knitting for you? Just ten more lines and it would be over. Will you wait while I finish that? It won’t take long”, she tried to force a smile on her tired lips. Lord, could the clock not stop there?

“No Nayana, they would create a huge problem if I take it back home.”

Nayantara  stood helpless, her fingers holding on to the cupboard.

“Tea? Atleast tea you can have….I, I , I make good tea….”, she tried to giggle. Indranath understood her perfectly well. All she wanted was to steal moments from the time that was fast slipping off her fingers.

“Yes, tea I can have”. That was the final bit of happiness that he could offer her.

Having bought some more moments from destiny, Nayantara touched and held on to everything that was designated as his – his cup, his saucer , his spoon. As the tea boiled, she kissed each of those with tired lips. “May my love be with you Indrababu, forever and ever”, she went on repeating the lines.

It took twelve minutes for him to finish the cup of tea.  Like a child she poured it into the saucer, blew it cold and offered it to him. With every decreasing quantity, she would look at the clock.

While he drank, she used the end of her saree to wipe his partially wet hair.

At the fourteenth minute he got up.

“ Nayana, I have to go now. I am worthless of offering any comfort to you. But if you would believe, as long as I am alive I would have this special place for you that no one can take away. To the society you are the ‘other’ woman. To me, you are the woman I loved.”

He dragged his feet with the biggest might he ever could, wore his shoes in silence and opened the door.

He turned around to give a last glance to her.

“ Do you want to say something Nayana? “, he asked her. He wanted her to call him names, curse him….How could he get away so easily? He did not feel guilty. He felt hatred for himself.

“I…I…no…I mean take care Indrababu. You always leave behind your umbrella…remember to take it. And yes, I don’t like your hair oil. The smell Cantha-cantharidine irritates my nose. Use pure coconut oil…good enough. And..and…when you buy fruits, check them…you always buy sour oranges…”

Nayantara knew that not one word that she spoke made sense. Yet she let her pain dissolve in the stream of incoherence.

As he was about to close the door behind him, she spoke again, this time so softly that he could hardly hear, “ I love you Indrababu…and I will always love you.”

The gust of wind shut the door with a bang. Nayantara held the edge of her saree close to her nose. Just minutes before she had wiped his hair with it. It smelt of Cantharidine. How long does the smell last she wondered. A tiny, lonely strand of hair of his clung on to it. With utmost precision she picked it up and held it close to bosom. This was the only bit of Indranth that was now left with her.

*************

He looked at her face. For a moment there was no expression. As if he was trying to match her aged face with the one he left thirty five years back. That I made my mother lie on the cot instead of the floor, which is ordinarily the system, made it easier for him to look at her face more clearly. His lips parted as if to say something. There was only movement of his gummy lips but no words would come out of it. He then looked at me and with a voice now louder said, “Bindi..red bindi….she always loved wearing that…Won’t you put it on her forehead? Or did she stop wearing one?”

It shook me for a second to realise that what I, being her daughter of so many years of staying together had overlooked, was something he realised in a minute even after thirty five years of absence.

“Oh yes, yes…sure…She always did use the red bindi…I forgot”.

I rummaged the drawer and took out a packet. As I was about to place the dot on her forehead, his shaky fingers made a gesture of request, “May I?”, he asked, his voice now quivering.

It took many attempts for him to be able to place the dot on her forehead and the end result was geometrically correct. But the moment the ill-placed Bindi touched her forehead she lifeless face shone the brightest.

At the point, I forgave whatever was remaining of the hatred for a man who was the reason my mother had to be the ‘other woman’. Unlike what he had thought, the society wasn’t that forgiving one and my growing up years was always tormented by whispered rumours about eight months of ‘sin’ of my mother. The only person who was left unaffected by this was my mother. She had completed the woollen scarf and at the onset of every winter would put it out in the sun for it’s share of warmth. It’s owner never came back but I grew up with the strict warning of not been able to touch a particular cup, saucer and spoon. It isn’t that she didn’t love my father. Every single day , after her bath, she would spend a full half an hour talking to his framed picture – just like a wife would. But I could still sense that somehow she lived on with the memories of an eight month old relationship that had not just made a touch and go but had changed her life forever. Technically, I should have despised and hated the man. But how could I possibly hate a man for whom my mother waited every single day with the belief that perhaps one day her Indrababu might just walk in through the door….

The murmur of the visitors around me grew louder. I knew there would be a neat dissection of her character after her cremation but I didn’t care. What mattered to me was this framed moment where his very aged fingers played on with her hair, where two drops of tears made it’s way down his sunken cheeks on her forehead.

“I have always loved you Nayana, always….”. His almost inaudible whisper was only for her. No one saw but I did….the faint trace of smile that laced her lips. Her thirty five years of wait was worth this moment of worship.

“ You must be the happiest now, Ma”, I thought myself. I touched her cold feet. I smiled.

A silly smell of jasmine interspersed with sandalwood wafted around.

“Rest in Peace Ma. Atleast now….REST IN PEACE”, I whispered.

 

(Picture Courtesy: Pixabay)

 

 

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A Song Well Sung

song

It is very rare that I’ve read a story at one go. My role as a mother hardly permits me the time or energy to read a story in one sitting. ‘Somewhere in a Song’ is an exception. I was compelled to read through the entire story almost without batting an eyelid. No, it isn’t a crime thriller, it is a thriller bordering the paranormal  and yet you just cannot let it go. The premises of the story is simple – a young woman named Emma Justin gets drawn to a song -taking it to the level of an obsession. Is it just an obsession or is there anything else behind this strange behavior? Is she the singer of the song or not? The story itself is like the song – ‘There’s nothing left to do’ – first drawing you towards it and then make it a compulsion for you to time travel with Emma!  The charm of the story lies in the fact that like the protagonist you too set down to track the mystery behind the song.  To make the matter complete, there is a tiny romantic co-plot too.  As we read through, the author, Kavya’s, knowledge of music and modern age music applications become very evident. It adds to give a modern feel to the story. The characters are well etched out and everyone has a role to play in Emma’s life. But what is bold is the attempt of an Indian author to set the story in London – taking up the challenge of correct placing of geographical details , response and usage of language of the characters. Except the fact that the interviewer ‘was decked up in the finest ornaments’ seemed a  bit out-of-place – considering the interviewer to be English, the other details, way of speaking etc were spot on!

The story ended perfectly – much to my relief and left in me a sense of satisfaction.

This weekend, settle for a hot cup of coffee and “Somehwhere in a Song”. Weekend Sorted.

Here are the links:

Kindle version: https://www.amazon.in/Somewhere-Song-Kavya-Janani-U-ebook/dp/B07B8GQPDR/

PDF or ePub version: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/799272

The Tree of Grace

book

The little brown tree with it’s hardly-there leaves used to resemble a woman dancing in wild frenzy. It did not offer much shade but the fact that it was just next to the little pool flowing by made it an ideal spot.

“Some streamers please”, the tallest among the cousins would cry out. We would immediately hand over colourful streamers to him. Tall that he was, it was easier for him to hang the streamers from the tree branches.

Then four of us would promptly lay the mats and bed-sheets for all to sit down.

“Move, move, move away”, our family servant Deenram would loudly announce, making way through our huddle.

Just under the higher branch of the tree he would then place two cane chairs.

That was the cue for grandpa to walk along (and most of it over the freshly laid mats and bed-sheets-much to the dismay of grandma) and take his seat in one among those two chairs.

That would mark the beginning of our ‘Boxing Day’ ritual – our family picnic.

One by one the mats and bed-sheets would be dotted by huge tiffin carriers, badminton racquets, wailing babies, balls of wool and knitting needles, newspaper, giggling teenagers, annoyed mothers and aunts, eager-to-eat fathers and uncles.

Amidst the commotion, grandfather’s eyes would be fixed towards the little foot-bridge over the pool.

“Ah, there comes Freddy and Fanny”, he announce loudly – getting up to welcome them.

Our Boxing Day family picnic would never be complete without Uncle Freddy and Aunt Fanny.

How and why were an Anglo-Indian couple a part of a Bengali Christian family was unknown to us. Once when I had dared to ask my grandfather whether they were actually a part of our family circle, he had let out a loud laugh.

“Ofcourse, they are,  infact they are a close relative of ours”. And then he had gone into the details of one Shantilata’s husband’s sister’s step son’s  daughter’s sister-in-law and would have gone further till, exasperated, I put up my hands.

“Yeah I understood. They are quite close indeed” – with this I had closed the conversation.

We knew the seat next to grandpa would belong to Freddy uncle. Unlike the other men of the entourage, Freddy uncle would come to the picnic wearing format suit and tie and would never remove his shoes. Fanny aunty would however adjust her tight fitted dress to sit carefully on the mat with our mothers and aunts.

We never knew what Freddy Uncle did for a living or where they stayed. The only thing we would bother about was the silver tiffin box that Fanny Aunty would bring out from her picnic basket. Amidst the pile of oranges and cookie tin would gleam her flower-carved silver container. As our plates would receive left-over Christmas mutton roast, grandma’s ghee pulao, cardamom scented rice pudding, our eyes would greedily gaze at the glimmer from Fanny Aunty’s silver box -as her dainty fingers would bring out golden brown Shammi tikkas. Her recipes were often noted down by the newly-married, kitchen-enthusiast women of our family but somehow no one could replicate the magic of her creation.

There was a certain art with which she would just hold on to the greasy discs of minced meat – touching lightly, careful not to break them.

Somehow our Boxing Day picnics had become synonymous with melt-in-your-mouth tikkas of Fanny Aunty. And she would be generous enough to hand out those -as many as possible -much to the satisfaction of Freddy uncle. His eyes would glimmer in pride as plate after plate would be sent across to her to have ‘just one more’.

There was one more thing without which our picnic would be incomplete – Freddy Uncle’s violin . Once the empty tiffin carriers would find their way into the picnic baskets and our legs would be tired enough from numerous rounds of catch-me-if-you-can, grandpa would take out his cigar from his Burma teak cigar case.

“Freddy, shall we?”, taking a puff he would expectantly look at Freddy Uncle.

With utmost care Freddy Uncle would take out his violin from it’s case.

There would be a prelude of total silence except a twitter here and a chirp there of lonely birds.

Placing his violin on his shoulders he would close his eyes. With dedicated precision his strings would send ode of love to his lady.

        “I can’t help falling in love with you”

And every time he would play on, Fanny Aunty would move her fingers over the lace of her dress- her eyes downcast.

I was too young to notice perhaps, but my cousins who were older had noticed a shy drop of tear rolling down her cheeks. But I did notice how her cheeks would turn crimson at the end of the performance!

We would clap loud as soon as he would end his performance – as a mark of appreciation as well as a symbolic gesture that the Christmas celebrations were finally over.

**************

Time brings in its own bag of surprises – sometimes pleasant , not-so-happy ones otherwise. And as we grew up, our large joint family underwent a lot of equations – new wailing members were added, while others took abode in the Lord. And with the passing away of grandpa and grandma, things were not the same anymore.  Ours was no longer a joint family that it was – meeting only occasionally during birthdays and festivals.  And amidst the burden of exams and the challenges of fresh teens, Uncle Freddy passed away. It was shocking for the family because Uncle Freddy was hardly in his forties. For me, it left a tinge of a piercing sadness thinking of his Elvis Presley looks and the musical magic that he used to gift us every year. Most of us were busy with the ongoing exams so only the elders attended his funeral. For many days, with red-tinged nose and silent tears mothers and aunts here and there remembered Uncle Freddy. But like every other death, Uncle Freddy soon faded into the album of memories.

But with his passing away, somehow Fanny Aunty became our occasional guest every now and then. Poverty or loneliness – which of the two was a more profound reason I wouldn’t know but in between our school days and holidays we would often discover her in our front room sofa sipping on her cup of tea.

As days cloaked on to nights and seasons brought in new emotions, opportunities  and people to our lives, the petite and dainty Fanny Aunty quietly transformed into a bulky middle-aged lady. Her visits became more often, transforming our courtesy to annoyance. With age, the ever-quiet Greta Garbo became a quintessential middle-aged, talkative lady. No matter who heard her, she would incessantly talk about ‘her Freddy’ and ‘his values’ that she claimed to be adhering to –much like the crucifix around her neck.

“Grace multiplies when you share it. It is like a seed. You sow it and it branches out to a huge tree – sheltering many more under it. The moment you share what you have, you light a candle of gratitude in front of the good Lord”, she would repeat and repeat the lines. Our mother and aunts would still lend her a patient ear for the sake of old times but for us, she was annoyance. Often my elder brother would call my mother aside and laughing out loud would hand over a few notes to her.

“Here is my piece of ‘grace’ – please share it with Mrs. Grace Tree! “

The notes clutched tightly within her palm she would walk out slowly while we would heave a sigh of relief!

Near the gate she would invariably turn back, smile at us and say, “Do come to my place one day”.

“Sure”, we would smile back, knowing well that the word really meant nothing because most of us hardly knew where she stayed.

**********

With the family becoming scattered, family events became rarer, though we still stuck on to our Boxing Day ritual of family picnic. Some faces left, some got replaced but Fanny Aunty became that corner-furniture who would never be replaced. So be it rain or shine Fanny Aunty would walk slowly down the bridge on the pool to join our family picnic. And every single year she would unfailingly take out her silver tiffin box – now dented and lustreless. The shammi tikkis would still be there – except that their numbers would dwindle every year. There wouldn’t be any change of taste but the numbers would be too less for each of us to have one. But with deft fingers she would break the discs into neat twos and threes and distribute it among us. With the new generation acquiring newer tastes, there would be no one to give a feedback about her culinary skill but her eager eyes would hover from face to face – seeking that small glimmer of satisfaction.

Don’t know how long this ritual would have gone on but it didn’t. As she was opening her tiffin case one Boxing Day, one among the younger cousins spoke up, “Fanny Aunty, why do you take the trouble of bringing the tikkis? Yeah they are tasty but they are too less for all of us. Moreover, now that you do not have so much money, I don’t think you should be spending so much!”

I assumed that he was only trying to be helpful but Fanny Aunty’s fingers quivered a little as she moved away the lid of the box. She tried hard to bring in smile to her lips.

“Aah as I say, grace should be shared. If Freddy had been here, he wouldn’t like it if we came without these “, she tried hard to make the situation easier but I somehow felt that her voice was tinted with painful agony. She did break the tikkas and distribute among us but unlike other years, her eyes did not seek appreciation.

That was the last we ever saw of the dented, silver box.

No,  Fanny Aunty never missed a single family picnic but her silver box and shammi tikkas melted into the oblivion – much like Freddy Uncle’s music!

***************

Then one fine morning, she died. As the lazy winter morning was just letting the warm sun rays seep in, someone appeared at the front door to let us know that Fanny Aunty was no more. With most of our aunts and uncles no more, we were the only ‘family’ left for Fanny Aunty.

“Where do we have to go? I mean where is her house?”, my brother asked.

The man who had come to inform us looked puzzled.

“Beniapukur…that is where she used to stay. Have you never been there?”

“Well no…not really…”, my brother sounded apologetic.

“I can show the way if you come now. But I cannot wait. There are a lot of arrangements that have to be done. You can keep the number of my shop. Call the number. Whoever picks up, just ask the direction to Grace Home, they would direct you. Tell them my name – Salim Bhai”.

“We will join you in an hour Salim Bhai. I will have to inform my cousins too”, my brother told him.

As he left, my brother took out the phone book to inform our cousins.

*****************

I do not know who did the arrangements and how but by the time seven of us reached there, Fanny Aunty was peacefully sleeping in her inexpensive coffin, wearing a powder blue gown that she had so often talked about. Her coffin lay outside a small shanty that smelt of pigeon poops and animal fur. Six girls of varying age, stood around her coffin, sobbing silently. A small gathering of men, women and children stood scattered here and there.Six dogs and a lame cat moved in and out of the single room. Enclosed within the maze of her fresh wrinkles, her lips carried a strangely beautiful smile – as if she had always been waiting for this moment.

Seeing us, the man who had come in the morning, Salim bhai, came running.

“Now that you all have arrived, shall we proceed towards the burial ground? But sahib, I have a small request. I know you all are her family and she always reminded us to inform you all in case of her death, but sahib, many of us want to carry her coffin on our shoulders one last time. Her contribution to our lives have been immense. And if you all permit us, we would like to organise a prayer meeting in her orphanage.”

“Orphange? What orphanage?”, one among our cousins questioned.

Salim look a tad astonished but recovering himself, pointed to a two-storey building. With red-gate and sunshine yellow walls it stood out against the back-drop of the shanties around.  “Grace Home”, the words in blue were bright enough to catch our attention.

“What a lady she was”, Salim continued, “ she gave away her house, her belongings , her every saving to bring up this orphanage for girls. Most of the time she couldn’t manage funds for the girls but would somehow collect money from here and there. You saw the girls, didn’t you?”

“And the dogs and cats Salim Bhai. Don’t forget them. She would hardly eat a meal but would pick up and bring home every other street dog”, another man joined our conversation.

Astounded we looked at each other. We had no words or even if we had, they only flowed down as tears.

***********

As promised, we let them carry her on their shoulders. The boys, the men, the unknowns -with their dusty, torn, stitched and dirty dresses took turns to reach her to her destination. Holding back tears, the little orphan girls marched along, holding the hymn books – singing aloud their farewell song. I couldn’t gather enough strength to join them. I stood there, holding on to a pillar. Amidst the dust, foggy mist of the setting sun I could see Fanny Aunty with her powder blue gown walking with dainty steps towards the lone man under the tree – holding a violin. With shy, yet content smile, she walks towards him – proud- that she did manage to light her candle of gratitude in front of the good Lord. The curtain of tears block my vision but the music reaches my ears:

Like a river flows

Surely to the sea

Darling, so it goes

Some things are meant to be

Take my hand,

Take my whole life too

For I can’t help falling in love with you

 

(picture courtesy: Pixabay)

 

 

 

Dealing with Death

tomb

One among the few blessings of having a nomadic childhood was the shield against facing death of family members. Having spent most of my childhood outside my home-town meant that I did not get to witness the dead body of near and dear ones. The news of someone’s death would arrive in the form of nerve-wrecking mid-night telegrams or mostly inaudible telephonic trunk-calls. As a result, at times, the mourning would be for a hail and hearty relative instead of the actual dear departed. This would also result in mild arguments if it was ‘Khoka Dada’ or ‘Chota Dada’ who had heeded to the heavenly call and made his departure. My participation in the grief and mourning would be to pass on glasses of water to my emotional mother who would genuinely cry her heart out till her nose would turn blood-red and the eyes would almost be ready to pop out! The worse side of the grief would be in the form of eating only vegetarian meals till the period of mourning was over. I suspect, mostly as a compensation for their absence at the side of the grief-struck relatives, my parents would take extra care to organise a bland, vegetarian mourning period. The only treat during this time would be the little memoirs surrounding the departed soul which my parents would share with us. This would be followed by the arrival of a detailed letter from my grand-mother via a blue Inland Letter. A writer that she was, she would pen each and every detail of the days and moments before and after the death – inviting yet another barrage of tears from my mother. This time I too would join in the tear-shedding ceremony . Being an imaginative kid, I would almost see the heart-wrenching final moments being played out before my eyes – tickling my tear glands to shed enough tears.

Looking back, it had it’s own flip side too. Having been away from such mourning and witnessing-the-final-moments, I’ve always struggled to face death as such. As I grew up I found it hard to accept death as a natural process. Every night I would sit to pray, reading out the names of the probable list of relatives whom I would suspect to be counting their days. Then I would pray with all my might to keep them ‘safe, healthy and happy’ for ‘another hundred years’. But God obviously had different plans and most often than not, names would be struck off in random order with alarming rapidity.

The first time I faced death was when I was in sixth or seventh class. We were unfortunately stationed in my hometown for those years. That day it had rained hard. At school we hardly paid attention to our class – keeping our gaze fixed outside the window. It rained incessantly, dollops of black clouds created disarrayed maze in the sky – promising more rains. When the school gave up we made it a point to find out each and every water-filled pothole and waddle into those dirty waters with our canvass shoes. And that would mean travelling by school bus with naked feet –pretending to keep the shoes aside to ‘dry’. That was a strange kind of romanticism – comparing the size of toes with each other, discovering chipped off nail-polish in some of our toes-nails, trying to hide bruises…..

As my school bus halted at my stoppage, I found my cousin sister standing with an umbrella. It was unusual for her to come to pick me up but I happily dangled my wet shoes to the hook of my fingers and hopped down from the bus.

“Come fast, there is a disaster back home”, she pulled me along with a sense of urgency.

The wind has turned tumultuous, making it difficult to keep the umbrella upright. The rain had become fast and nosier. And with my shoes still dangling from my finger, my wet socks in my pocket, I ran with my bare feet. As I entered our premises I saw people and more people. The crowd had gathered not in front of our house exactly, but in front of the next house. Sighting me, my mother came out sobbing.

“Your ‘Gachh Dadu’ is no more”, she hugged me tight.

‘Gachh Dadu’ was my grandma’s sister’s husband. Strict though he was, we had an immense attraction towards him and his garden. He loved gardening immensely and hence we called him ‘Gachh Dadu’ – ‘Tree Grandpa’.

I had met him that very morning – trying to trim off leaves that had turned yellow. How can a man simply die! For my eleven years it was an unfathomable mystery! I tiptoed to the room where his body was kept. There were sound of sobs, wails, murmurs of reminiscing his last moments. I looked at his face closely. He seemed asleep – there was no pain, no anguish. A small dish with two green chillies and a neatly sliced lemon waited for the unfinished meal. I tried to observe if by chance there was any movement in his body. There was none. I waited for tears, I waited for sadness to engulf me but I was too stunned to react. Rather I tiptoed away to his garden. The untimely squall had left his garden in a rummage. The petals of Balsam – once planted in a neat array of colors – lay strewn here, there and everywhere. The rain was incessant. Like a girl possessed I picked up the wet petals – as many as I could- withing the squeeze of my small palms. The petals would slip away every now and then but I wouldn’t give up. Somehow I kept feeling that the garden was mourning it’s master. For a baffled me, that was the only way I could carry on the continuity of the cinema called Life. Looking back, it seems strange what I did but perhaps that was the only way an eleven year old could mourn.

From then on I had witnessed several deaths. Being a part of a joint family meant an alarming regularity in births and deaths. But what I can perhaps never forget is the death of my paternal grandparents. Being brought up by them, I was too close to them. So, the grief is still intact.

My grandfather died few months after the birth of my son. Though he would talk of death often, that Christmas he called everyone –including the ones who worked in our office. From hs little wallet he took out money for each asking them to buy a Christmas gift of their choice.

“This will my last Christmas”, he had smiled.

“Come on grandpa, you are healthy and hearty”, we had laughed.

But true to his words, from Christmas onwards, his health began to fail. He had no disease as such but he gradually became bed-ridden – kind of surrendering to his old age.

Around March beginning he wouldn’t get up from his bed. He would have very little food.

‘He has to be given nutrition, otherwise….”. my doctor uncle had pronounced.

So, we had family meetings every now and then to discuss the different food options. This resulted in the fact that each of his children and grand-children would bring in a variety of food – from fresh fish from the pond to light stew to watery soup. One of us even brought in Spirullina formulation. A quiet and gentle person that he was, he willingly surrendered to the whims of his caregivers. Only the Spirullina was a bit too much for him. Having taken a mouthful, his faced transformed to that of horror till he literally spewed out the contents of his mouth – much to his own dismay.

It was a Sunday. And one of our well-wishers had brought home the priest. “I think we should give him a final communion”, the priest had pronounced. The word ‘final’ hit us hard – my cousin sister and me.

“What does he mean by Final? Whose final?”, my cousin had fumed in anger.

“He will kill grandpa with his words”, I had shot back angrily.

Thankfully we were not within his ear-shot.

Most of us were reluctant but grandma insisted.

“Would you be able to take communion?”, my grandma whispered into his ears.

He smiled and nodded his head in affirmation.

The priest prayed the prayer of Holy Communion, barely audible, grandpa’s lips moved to join in the prayers.  Lying in his death bed, he opened his mouth to take in the Holy Communion. He then closed his eyes with a sort of satisfaction.

That day my mother had cooked a mild stew which he had had to his heart’s content – though just a spoonful or so. That day my mother had also cooked a special sea-fish for us. I don’t know why but I still remember the exact taste – that special garlicky flavour. Almost no one ate that day. But I ate. Contrary to my usual practice, I took almost three heaped helpings of rice. I felt ashamed but I ate. I do not know, perhaps that was my way of finding solace.

At around 2:00 pm, grandpa opened his eyes once. He tried hard to look at the clock.

“What time is it?”, he whispered in the lowest of voices.

“It is almost 2’o clock Dadu”

“Have you all had your food?”, he asked in almost inaudible voice.

Having known that we have all had our food, he shut his eyes again.

We all sat surrounding him. One of my cousins who had work elsewhere came rushing. She was the only one remaining to arrive.

My grandpa opened his eyes once again.

“Have you come?”, he asked softly.

“Yes grandpa”. She held his frail hand.

“Praise the Lord”, he used all his might to utter the line that was on his lips forever.

It was 4:00 pm by then. His breathing became softer, scantier. In another half an hour he was gone – surrounded by his ever loving family.

My second aunt held on to me and sobbed, “You know, till I grew up I used to sleep with father. I had this strange habit of tucking my nose in his bosom and sleep. He had a strange soft smell in his body. I used to call that ‘my Baba smell’. Just now, as I was bending down over his body I could still get that smell – my Baba smell”. Of the many things, I have never forgotten this line.

Five years after my grandpa’s death my grandma died. In line with her strong character, she never exhibited emotional outbursts after grandpa’s death. Infact she was the one who had arranged for everyone’s food the day grandpa had died. But somehow, somewhere there was something mildly different about grandma post his death. She clung on to his belongings – his radio, torch, com, diary……She wouldn’t show but she was breaking bit by bit.  Arrogant that she was, she would never have medicines regularly, nor visit the doctor.

“You people don’t have to worry. I am too impatient to suffer. I would simply fall on the road and die”, she had declared proudly.

But contrary to her belief, she spent almost two weeks in the hospital.

When I went to see her at the hospital I wouldn’t believe that my robust, arrogant, know-all grandma would lie so limp and frail in the hospital bed with an oxygen mask over her face. Eyeing me, she signed me to come close to her.

“My diary. Can you get my diary?”

“No, no grandma. They will not allow you to write. Once you go home you can write”, I tried to explain.

“Then can you atleast bring a piece of paper and a pen?”, she struggles as she spoke.

I was not sure why she wanted that but I ran outside to find out if there was any pen or paper available. One of my aunts tore the white part of an envelope and gave me. Another one gave me a pen.

As I took those to her, she seemed visibly happy.

With whatever remaining strength, she pulled up her hand fixed with saline drip. Balancing her hand and the pen somehow she scribbled a message.

“For all of you”, she smiled, handing over the little note.

Already emotional that I was I couldn’t bear to wait any further. I rushed out with the note. I opened the piece of paper. Inside it, were scribbled these words: “May you all be well and happy forever by the grace of God”.

A week after these my grandma passed away. Her umpteen knick-knacks stayed behind – her unfinished pickle in a secret jar, her hair-oil infused comb with a string of her hair still stuck, her numerous diaries, her wild blue-bell plant that she had tried grow in a coke can, the drawings that she had made with my son…..

And among her diaries I found a piece of writing – her own obituary.

On the day of her memorial service , with tears flowing down my eyes I read out the tiny piece of obituary.

“For all my life, amidst the hustle-bustle of a full family of children, grand-children, sisters, bothers, I have waited for my flute-man! Amidst the cries of noisy toddlers, cranky teenagers and robust laughter I’ve waited all my life to hear the soft tune of his flute. I have no regrets about my life – with my great grand child playing with me I have no regrets whatsoever. But there have always been the longing. I’ve been that lover waiting to cross the river to reach to her beloved. As I sit at the banks of the river, I can see my boatman arrive – to help me cross over to my destination. And as I prepare to take that much awaited journey, I can hear the strings of a hymn – faint at first, much louder now……

Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!
Even though it be a cross that raiseth me,
Still all my song shall be,
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

Though like the wanderer, the sun gone down,
Darkness be over me, my rest a stone;
Yet in my dreams I’d be
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee!

There let the way appear, steps unto heaven;
All that thou sendest me, in mercy given;
Angels to beckon me
Nearer, my God, to thee;
Nearer, my God, to thee, nearer to thee! “

 

Epilogue:I have lost many, many, many near and dear ones over the years. Some too early perhaps. I’ve grown older, a bit wiser perhaps but this is one reality I have never really come to terms with. I live on with the hope that perhaps somewhere, someday I would still find them – my grandpa sitting with his pet radio, my grandma writing stories with a pillow tucked under her chest, my youngest aunt sitting with her harmonium-her eyes closed in devotion…..

 

 

 

Trail of a Grasshopper

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She ran. I watched. It was a different kind of run – you run but there is no continuity – not like a flash, more like a flicker. You run, pause, run again. I let her run to the point where the horizon submerged into the green, mossy pond.

“Aaah…yes, right here”, she broke into a smile. Before I could say anything she sat on the banks of the pond – her left leg dunked into the moss green waters of the pond and her right leg just slightly the trough of a ripple.

“Nack, nack, nack, nack” , she imitated the cackling of a group of busy ducks trying to wade into the pond.

Her white chemise with dull orange flower motifs was gathering as much clayey dirt as could be possible.

“ We took bath in the pond for about an hour that day. Whoop, whoop and dunk….We went on and on, till my Maasi and mother came out screaming. My eyes were bloodshot. But that day I had the best afternoon nap. Wet hair, masoor daal and red coloured chicken curry – I guess, all these did the magic!”

She suddenly became restless. She turned her head to the left and then to the right.

“Are you looking for something?”, I asked her.

“Yeah, the tamarind tree. The huge, h-u-g-e tamarind tree”, she tried to give an estimate of the hugeness with the width of her open arms.

I too looked around. There wasn’t a single tamarind tree around.

“That summer it was here – right here. My Maasi had spread out a mat under the tamarind tree. ‘See how cool it is under the tree’, she had told. I sat on the mat with a story book. Within minutes I was covered with leaves – tiny, tiny leaves from the tamarind tree. The leaves fell like hushed snowflakes – silently. ‘Taste the leaves – they are tasty’, a young married woman carrying a pot full of water told me. I put some in my mouth. They had tangy taste indeed. I don’t know if my aunt had sprinkled water on the mat but coupled with the incessant shower of the tamarind leaves, it lent a somewhat cooling effect to an otherwise hot summer. And then suddenly it hit hard – just like an injection. Wild ants…..I ran, ran, ran as fast as I could. By evening, my lips and thigh had become  red and swollen. I almost had a fever.”, recalling the incident she laughed out loud.

“You so vividly remember your holidays, don’t you?”

“Not all of them…some.”. her voice trailed off.

There was silence – one whole minute of silence. And then she spoke again – her voice, somewhat distant.

“Like I remember the time I went to my eldest Maasi’s house. Compared to others, she used to stay a bit off route – probably a bit distant from the others. So we hardly went there. But that holiday, all of us went there – all my aunts, cousins.”

“Oh that must be fun – with so many of you together”

“Must be….I don’t remember much.”

“ But just now you said…..”

“Yeah, yeah I know what you mean. I remember, but not really much about the fun we had, except the fact that my uncle had bought two huge fishes to be cooked for us. My uncle brought them home swinging them by a  little rope tied around their nostril.”

“But what I remember is the evening we spent at the banks of the river –Hooghly river. My aunt’s house was very close by , so all of us walked to the river bank in the evening. Splash, splash, splash – little steady waves hit the bank every time a boat passed by. And with every little wave, the remains of a clay deity showed itself and submerged again – in turns. Someone would have probably immersed it after the Poojas were over. The water had almost washed away the colors to lend it a beyond recognition look. The color streaks around a single eye however remained intact. I don’t know why but I felt there was so much sorrow in that one eye. That look haunted me for many nights after that. There was a small island in between the river. Not really an island but a small stretch of land just in the middle of the river. A handful of Kans grass swayed there. Two boatmen had tied their boat there and were sitting and smoking in that tiny stretch.”

“You are kind of strange; you remember strange things”, I laughed.

“That I am..”, she smiled. “I like to remember things by their smell. Like the smell of the rails of the train windows. They have a special smell – rust, paint, memories, people – all put together – it is a difficult kind of smell. We used to travel long distance every now and then. And long distances meant days of travel. I used to be restless at times. Pressing my face against the windows I used to watch the kingfishers make a touch and go and the green expanse of farm fields outside. The smell used to pacify me. ‘Don’t stick out your head too much’, mother used to warn me. But I wouldn’t hear. Many a times it was the flying droplets of water from the next window – most probably due to washing of hands by a careless co-passenger- which would make me move back my face from the window rails”.

“What else?”, I was curious. “Smell of rain? Wet grounds? Flowers ?”

“Flowers yes….may be…Night-jasmine, Mahaneem….but not really rains. Rains make me sad.”

“Then?”

“The smell of fenugreek seeds sputtering in hot oil. Most of the time, while studying, I would doze off. And then mother would wake me and put in little balls of rice and curry. Half-sleepy I would put my head on mother’s shoulder and chew on . The hint of fenugreek would give a certain sense of calmness.”

“Do you miss those days?”

She fell silent. Then she spoke again – this time softer than ever.

“Do you know what I feel like right now? To catch hold of a grasshopper, hold it’s wings softly…..Do you know how to hold a grass-hopper’s wings?”, she suddenly asked.

I shook my head. “Naah, not really”.

“ You must fold the wings behind – just softly.”, she explained with a sense of importance in her voice. “You must be careful not to fold it too harshly and then just let it crawl on your palms….just feel the fun”, she giggled.

“But then won’t they get hurt Mumu?”

She shook her head violently.

Offo, don’t call me that…We Bengalis have a fascination for such bisyllable pet names –  Pupu, Khuku, Tutu, Mumu….When I was born they named me Popita. My parents had their pet names beginning with ‘P’ as well. Most of the family members had begun to call to call me that till one of my Hindi speaking uncles pointed out that it was too close to Papita which meant Papaya in Hindi. Neither I looked like Papaya, nor I had a complexion of one – so the name was ultimately replaced with a hurriedly thought of Mumu. But Papaya or not , I still love Popita – it has the sound of candy and toffees”.

I laughed out loud, “Ohh ok, but what about the grasshopper”

“Want to see?”, she asked. Then like magic she drew out a grasshopper from the fold of her chemise. “Show me your palm”, she commanded.

I put forward my palm.

The grasshopper crawled gently on my palm. It tickled at first and then vibrated violently.

And then there was this piercing sound – loud enough to tear into my senses.

It was tough opening my gummy eyelids.

5:30 am – the mobile displayed – accompanied by loud, shrill alarm and unending vibrations.

Disappointed, I ducked my head back into my pillow….

“Popitaaaaa….”, I cried out loud. I still had so many things to ask her….The pond appeared for a brief second but she was nowhere. Nack, nack, nack……the cackle of the ducks faded away. The grass-hopper trudged along it’s tired feet into the oblivion.

Picture Courtesy: http://www.pixabay.com

 

 

The road less travelled

roadThis Sunday was different. After many years, though centuries would have better described it, I stood in front of an open window and savoured a winter morning. It was seven and half minutes to be precise, but within those seven and half minutes I cut off myself from the rest of the world. A small twirl from a lone pumpkin creeper in my window touched my cool cheek, as I inhaled the morning freshness. After many years, I actually smelt a morning. It smelt of a lingering drop of strong coffee sliding down a cube of ice! I let the left-over breeze from a cyclonic depression somewhere play with my hair. My hair – that were once silky and faded brown now smell of old coconut oil and stale cake batter. But I still let the breeze bounce through the sticky mess. I stared at my fingers. Regular chopping of vegetables have left unending marks of knife rummaging through the fine lines of my finger print. I marvelled at how I use the same fingers to key in funny stories, tie shoe laces and run them on calculator pads. I use the same fingers to pinch out the exact bit of salt that would make the balance of taste perfect – even at the cost of the mild tinge of pain that hits my nerves when my cracked skin comes in contact with raw salt.

At that point, somehow I felt proud of myself – proud that I try and manage so many things – so many roles with smoothness…..not smoothness really but manage nevertheless!

I have never been a winter person exactly. Being wrapped in mufflers and caps, winter has always been a tonsil-story for me. And, endorsing my low sustenance to winter cold, a small stream of liquid flowed out through my left nostril. Shamelessly, I let it! It reminded me of childhood – of coloured water bottles, sticky nose-tips, smell of jaggery, bad handwriting, clay dolls with swinging heads……

I then realised that it had been years that I had actually spent time with myself. In my quest to be the ‘perfect super woman’ I had forgotten the smell of a good tea. Who on earth gave me the pre-condition that I had to make the perfectly crispy dosa to be the best daughter-in-law? What could possibly go wrong with the world if I just wish to knit mufflers for a day and not do the dishes? Why would I feel like a sinner if, for a day, I want to spend alone –ALONE and not really want the kids around? I realised that there are so many things I want , I can, I would love to but I dare not. And all this because I am interested in being branded – branded an ideal daughter, perfect wife, fantastic daughter-in-law and an award-winning mommy! There are so many things I want to say ‘No’ to but I do not because I do not want the TRP rating to fall! For instance, I hate to subtly announce the dates of my menstruation cycle when my in-laws are around, just so that my ‘touch’ does not pollute their food! I like long hair but No, I hate to tie it! And yes, even though I love cooking as an art, I HATE to cook everyday – especially the thought process of ‘what to cook’! I Yes, I love food – oily, deep fried and extremely unhealthy sort of food and No, I do not exercise because I feel my everyday schedule is punishing enough! And hygiene be damned, I terribly, terribly hate taking bath in the winter months and detest morning wake-ups! So, to cover up for my flaws what I normally do is pretend. When I was a kid, I used to throw water here-there and everywhere behind closed doors of the bathroom and pretend that I was taking a bath. Then to show that I had actually taken a bath, I used to apply water all over my face and hands and come out shivering. I do the same thing now – though I play ‘pretence’ with myself. I fool myself into believing that the warm water in extremely cold morning is actually relaxing. I apply soap to my face and tell myself that this is the only time I get to pamper myself! Though deep within my heart I know that I would rather cuddle myself under an over-weight blanket and sleep with my mouth open – just to combat my nose block! And all this because I want to be the perfect one in front of myself and the world at large.

Not much, but those seven and half minutes was liberating enough. Like childhood, I wiped my nose with the back of my palm. I laughed and savoured the moment! I felt that at times it was fair enough to take the road less travelled by.

I was thrilled to have rediscovered the things that could identify me as myself. As I was leaving the window sill, I discovered a nascent, green sapling peeping through the dusty soil of an abandoned flower-pot! For once, I loved winter.

Photo: http://www.pixabay.com

The Windows

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The windows were big – as big as us. We would stand and the windows would cover our full length. The windows were green – a sort of strange bottle green – faded here and there-probably due to the direct rays of the sun falling on them. Those were our windows – our windows to the world outside. And then there were those iron railings in the windows. They were once green perhaps but by the time they became ‘our’ windows they were partly rusted, dark iron railings. They would leave behind marks of brown and a strange rusty smell if we had been clinging on too long but those – the wooden frames, windows, railings were a part of our childhood.

Being naughty that he was, my brother would often use the window to the extreme right on our first floor, as his toilet of convenience.  If prodded to get up too early, he would simply crawl onto the window and pee to his heart’s content – right through the window railings!

On the days when we were not allowed to go out, the windows would become our mini-bus. Hanging from the railings, one feet inserted, we would become bus conductor. Changing our voice to a hoarse one, we would scream “Rokkey, rokkey…bhai…passenger, passenger”. Those days collecting bus tickets from elders was a favourite past time. And these would be the times when we would make use of the tickets. Each of us would want to become the conductor with no one willing to be the passenger. The end result would be two conductors hanging from the same window screaming, “rokkey, rokkey”.

Those were the days when television shows were limited to Sunday shows and one hour every evening. So, all our happiness would revolve around inane, lifeless things surrounding us.

Having been a permanent patient of tonsillitis, a little bit of rain would mean house-arrest for me. From the other side of the windows I would watch the sky gathering tufts of dark clouds and then the fall of the rain – in drops first and then in furious slants! Looking left and right, having noticed no one around, I would slip out my hands through the window, trying to entrap the water droplets within my palm. Emboldened by the venture I would go on to slip out my foot too. But I was a bad prankster and the wet edges of my frock sleeves would often give my prank away! My mother would surely come to know of it.

There was this window in my study room that would not open outside but to another room. The window was shut permanently and became my black-board. Using the bottle green back-ground and left –over chalks I would play ‘Miss Miss’ – pretending to be the science teacher of my class. The uneven surface was often difficult to draw upon but I would somehow manage to draw the diagrams. I even had a torn piece of cloth tucked within the railings as the duster for my ‘blackboard’.

I had my single cot adjacent to the window. During hot summer afternoons, I would spend hours simply staring at the closed window. There were numerous near-obscure  crevices all through the wooden parts. A long file of ants would steadily and patiently march along to reach and disappear into one of the crevices. Some of the ants from yet another groups would criss-cross ways – and as two ants from opposite groups would meet face to face they would pause for a while and change their path. I would conjure up imaginary conversation between the opposite factions – sometimes amicable, at times disputing….There were pairs of pigeons who used to reside in the little room-ventilators – ‘akum-akum; akum-akum’ they used to coo along – providing the perfect background score. Training my ears, I would wait for familiar sounds to float in through the window– ‘Achaar, achhar’….the heavenly sound of the hawker selling pickles!

The windows were our ‘conspiracy centers’. During many a summer afternoon, my cousins and I, used to organise ‘window-to window’ talks. Each of us would stand at our respective window and chat in low voices or fix timings for our evening games or even develop plans for the next prank.

The railed windows used to let in sliced pieces of golden sunlight – flooding the red-oxide floors with unending warmth. During winter, mother used to lay out a mat at exactly the spot where there was adequate sunlight. Then she used to throw quilts, blankets and woollens on top of the mat –making them crisp and warm and smelling of sunlight!

Sitting besides the window on a hot summer night was especially magical. The jasmine creepers peeping through the open window would let out whiffs of fragrance from the tiny white blooms. The fragrance would be maddening…..though somehow depressing too. Coupled with the diffused moonlight, the little white flowers would remind of some unknown sadness. The night before my marriage, I stood for long hour in front of the window- savouring the last moments of my childhood freedom.  The rusty smell of the windows made me cry.

As we grew up, life became different – a bit more convenient, bit more adjusting to the new life systems.  Repairing the huge windows and rusted railings became expensive and so were replaced with sliding glass-windows. The windows close with a ‘click’ and make the room a near sound-proof one. But even if the faint sounds of the street-hawker does not penetrate, the rich smell of the blooming jasmine still makes it’s way in. The other day I saw my niece reaching out tiny fingers through the grilled window to pluck a few jasmine flowers for her dolly. Having managed to pluck in a handful, she held out her clasped palm. “Aunty, just smell it…soooooo beautiful”, she smiled, I smiled. In her, around her, a small part of my childhood perhaps still exists somewhere. Every childhood, I guess, has a soul .We grow up, circumstances change but that soul remains embedded within the concretes of yesterday!

Maadhu, Bonbibi and the Tigers of Sunderban

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I have a problem – a strange problem- my hobbies keep changing every season.  I begin with something and then I am hook, line and sinker into it – totally, insanely…..till I discover some other hobby!!! (And thankfully, my erratic nature is limited only to my hobbies). Like now my new found passion is knitting. Having accomplished my goal of knitted a baby cap and now in the midst of knitting a muffler for my son. So, I am discovered every now and then, here and there with my ball of wool and knitting needles!

This morning as I sat down with my needle a small tuft of breeze brushed pass my face. There was a certain nip in that breeze – that strangely inexplicable wintry-breeze nip! And all of a sudden I was reminded of my grandma. Come winter and she would take out her semi-bent knitting needles to knit for us though with her limited patience she would offer us mild disasters in the name of woollens – a sleeveless sweater which is two sizes less or the knits being too loose to offer protection against winter chill! But I still remember that one sweater that she knit – pink with red and blue border. It was for Maadhu!

I do not recall how we came to know her family or with whom she arrived but all I remember is that Maadhu was a special person in our family. In those days when there were no scope to hire governess or caretaker, it was a fairly common practice in Bengali families to keep a young person as a companion for the kids of the family. Coming from poor families, these young people would gradually become a part and parcel of the family – some of them staying on even after being married. Maadhu was one such fourteen year old who had come to stay with us. She was mainly deputed as a companion for my hyperactive brother. With his favourite past time being chasing baby snakes and playing with live electrical wire, our family thought that a timid and weak sister like me wouldn’t be enough to ‘keep an eye on him’.

Maadhu was originally from Sunderbans. To us, the mangrove-laden Sunderbans only meant Tigers, Crocodiles and Snakes. That human beings also survive there was beyond our belief till Maadhu came in. With wide eyed wonder we would listen to her strange stories of Tiger and Crocodiles. Little scenes of cinematic pleasures would emerge and dissolve in front of our eyes – of a woodcutter who saw a two-headed Tiger, of a neighbourhood fisherman who went out late in the night only to be half-eaten by a crocodile! We never logically questioned nor debated the idea of how that ‘neighbourhood wonder’ survived till the age of eighty, having no body left stomach downwards! Smeared in nose-burning mustard oil before a bath, we would listen to her ‘wonderland’ stories open-mouthed.

She devised strange ways to keep my brother engaged. Every now and then she would organise a puja – a worship- of BonBibi – the local forest goddess! Forgetting his pranks, my brother would keep himself busy arranged stones in the form of a deity. We would then gather flowers, leaves for the offering. With the background chant of her shrill songs in praise of Bon Bibi we would offer the leaves and flowers to the deity. Maadhu would then offer water to the deity and pray for the safe keeping of all of us against Tigers and Crocodiles. Though at the times my brother would wonder aloud if the Tigers would at all reach this fire, Maadhu would instill fear by saying that the Tigers of Sunderbans were strong enough to cross rivers and mountains to reach the city of Kolkata. It was after many, many years that I actually read about Bon Bibi. Strangely, Bon Bibi is not a Hindu Goddess but is a mythical belief of Muslim origin wherein she is the daughter of a Fakir from Mecca (Source: Wikipedia) and she is revered both by the Muslims and Hindus as a protector against Tigers. For Maadhu, she was the only deity she knew of and believed in.

In the late evenings, in those days when power cuts were a regular feature, we would sit around the burning lamp to complete our reading and homework. Grandma would pull in Maadhu into the circle of ‘avid readers’. Being illiterate, she did not know how to even write her name. Grandma had bought a special note book for her where she was made to practice writing her own name, other than alphabets. With big bold hand-writing she would practice writing her name : M-A-D-H-A-B-I  D-A-S.  We, in the meanwhile, would try and create silhouettes in shadow using our fingers. It would end in jostling with each other for the ‘perfect space’ – a place from where the best shadow figures could be created. I would give a mild push for a pinch in return from my brother, followed by a loud shriek from me…..and this game would continue till my brother would be whisked away to another  corner by my mother. Oblivious to the happenings around her, Maadhu in the meanwhile would continue her writing practice – her fingers bathed in the ink from the pen.

My brother had a carton full of ‘naughty toys’ – partially broken toy jeeps with metals dangerously jutting out from different corners, screw-drivers, heavy stones, hammer….. He would eagerly wait for the green signal from mother and grandma and then let out a loud cry – Maaaaaaadhuuuuuu. It was then time for her to drag along the heavy carton and bring it in the play area. With careful precision she would unpack and pack the box daily – careful to even pick up the stones and wires strewn all around. When things would go in the hyperactive zone, she would begin spinning her stories. From dacoits to crocodiles, her world was no less attractive than Alice’s wonderland. In between the fairy-tale like wonders she would also speak about the uncertainties of a forest life and livelihood. She spoke of how her mother and other women would risk their lives to collect forest wood, how most men fought the fear of crocodiles while going for fishing and ofcourse the every day fear of Tigers visiting the villages due to shortage of food ot the fear of confronting Tigers while going to collect honey or wood.

Every time my brother would try to wriggle out of her clutches, she would spin a fresh story – “Bhai, do you know what happened one day?”

But strangely, though she spoke fondly about her grandma, parents and an elder sister back home, she never cribbed for them. As I grew up I realised that perhaps the comfort of a square meal a day and a warm bed was more alluring to her than a tryst with daily poverty and uncertain future back home.

She became such an integral part of my brother’s life, that he would only look forward to playing with her – making me almost-jealous of her!

Then one day he came – Maadhu’s father. Her sister was getting married so he had come to take her. Sipping on the tea, he spoke of the troubles of running a household without a daughter. “With my elder daughter going away and her mother being forever sick, I have to take back Maadhu you see….” . My grandma tried to reason with him that she was receiving  good education and a comfortable life. But no amount of coaxing or convincing worked. Maadhu too desperately tried to convince him that she should be back after marriage.

“ We shall see. I’ll surely try”, he smiled. But something told me that Maadhu would never come again.

Sobbing, she packed her bag – the different colourful ribbons that grandma had bought for her, the new dress that mother got for her, her copy books, pen and that new, pink sweater that my grandma knitted for her . But my brother was no where to be seen.

“Bhai, bhai…where are you?”, she kept searching for him here there and everywhere.

Finally, she bade good-bye and walked towards the gate with her father.

All of a sudden, my brother came rushing from no where.

“Maaadhu, maaadhu…don’t go away Maadhu”.

Holding him in her warm embrace she too sobbed like a small child.

“Bhaai, I don’t want to leave you bhai. So come and visit me soon”, she cried profusely, oblivious to the fact that the physical and socio-economical distance between Kolkata and Sunderbans was perhaps too great for a small boy.

Picking up a favourite stone of his, he pushed it in her palms as her final gift. She in turn gave him a stone to keep as a remembrance.

“Bhai, when I see the stone I will remember you and when you see yours remember me”.

That was the last we ever saw of Maadhu.

That stone is still there kept in a broken show-case in our store room upstairs.

Whenever there is a news about Sunderbans in the television, I try and search for that big, bright eyes. She must be a middle-aged woman now. I am sure, even today  everytime she prays for the safety of her kin to the deity of Bon Bibi she remembers us – especially my brother. Or who knows, lost in the struggle of her daily survival amidst crocodiles and a depleting number of tigers, we must have been relegated to a small nook of her lost memories!

 

pic courtesy: wikipedia