I looked at the heap of leaves near my feet. The garden needed de-weeding for a long time. With a two year old toddler, I hardly had the time to manage everything impeccably.
“Amma, here…only one has come”, Nagappa smiled as he pointed to a stout little purple amidst a whole lot of green.
Aha! A brinjal! Finally my little kitchen garden was bearing fruits. I couldn’t help smiling.
“Let it grow for another day or two and then we shall pluck it”, I advised him. Nagappa nodded his head in agreement.
As I walked back into my house I felt exhausted. But I let my exhaustion melt into the rustle of the dry leaves. I felt happy. That small little brinjal had ushered in a lot of happiness.
“You back ? So soon?”, I was amazed and amused at the sight of my husband in the living room.
He gave back a nervous smile.
“Lunch? Shall I serve?”, I asked in hushed whisper. I did not want to wake up the sleeping baby.
“N..No..no”, he answered, smiling mildly. His fingers held on to a dying cigarette. It was unlike him to smoke in front of a sleeping baby.
“Anything wrong?”, I asked. A soft hush of fear swept past my mind. Not exactly fear but a sort of uncanny feeling.
“N..No..no..not exactly”, he answered. This time his eyes didn’t meet mine.
“Has anyone told you anything ? Any bad news ?”, I asked, holding his hands in desperation.
“This “, he answered in a single word – holding out a crumpled piece of paper that looked like a telegram. His hands trembled.
“And what ?”, I desperately tried not to let negative thoughts over power me.
“Your mother….”, his voice trailed off.
“Sick? Let us book a ticket…Soon. Right now. I..I..I want to be beside her. If she is sick she needs me”. I tried to cling on to different spheres of hope that were hovering around me.
My husband got up from his seat and held me tight within his embrace. I felt breathless. I needed breath. I needed hope.
“I…I..We can go, na? Can we get tickets? At the earliest ? She needs me….”, I tried out different tricks to fool my growing fear.
“We can go…right now infact…We have to. Though we would not be able to meet her any more. She passed away two days ago”.
I looked at his face for many minutes. He held my face within his palms and kissed my forehead. I could see little droplets glistening near the corner of his eyes. I was not sure if it was a joke.
Why would he joke ? But may be it was a joke ? Just to fool me?
He could sense the disbelief perhaps. He enwrapped his hands around mine and kissed my forehead again.
“She died”, he spoke again.
Silly tears. Who on earth informed them? Why were they trailing down my cheeks? In search of what solace?
I suddenly did not know what to do. I felt desperate, helpless, angry, worthless.
I set myself free from his embrace and ran towards my bed.
I needed comfort. I needed to smell my mother. I picked up a pillow and held on tightly. I buried my nose in the pillow, just in case I get her smell – a strange smell of sweat mixed with Moti sandal soap. I had to feel her around me – somehow.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
The station looked dim and dull. The lonely lamp gave an eerie look to the entire atmosphere. I looked around in desperation , as the last train wheezed past us. The sudden movement of the train breathed out a small whirl of wind that caressed my frock.
‘Where from Sir? And where to ?”, the station master blinked – trying to traces faces of the only set of passengers who got down from the last train.
“Nopara. My brother in law stays there”, my father answered, trying to manage the entire lot of three tin trunks,his wife and his five children – the youngest being barely six months old.
“You can walk down. But be careful. The roads are dark and dingy. You may try and find a van rickshaw down the road”, he tried to sound helpful.
Somewhere far away I could hear a strange howl.
“Tiger”, the sister above me whispered into my ears.
“Shut up. Stop scaring.”, the other sister pinched her. Then turning towards me, she smiled.
“Just a baby fox”, she pacfied.
I shuddered. Coming from Calcutta, fox was an equally terrifying presence. I wanted to go back to our three storeyed house in Calcutta – the sound of the trams, the honk of the buses, the chaos at the public tap…..Our house in central Calcutta bustled with people and laughter. Cousins, their cousins and cousins of them filled in every nook of the household. Bundles of silks and bordered sarees came from the only departmental stores in the city. The women chose their likings while we children tried to look into them through the huge circle of feminine enthusiasm. My father was the unwritten lord of the household. Anyone who wanted to come to Calcutta only had to inform their ‘Sotu Dada’.
Being small there wasn’t many things I understood but I could sense the dwindle – in people, in trust, in fortune….till we were the only ones left in that huge mansion. Night after night I could see my father counting his last bit of savings to pay the huge burden of unpaid rent.
But at that moment I wanted to go back to our house in Calcutta and tuck under the cosy blanket.
The road was dark, rough and the hunger was over powering.
“Don’t worry, we’ll stay for a day at your uncle’s house and then I shall find a house for you by tomorrow”, my father offered his solace as we walked towards an unknown tomorrow. There was a certain lace of uncertainity in his voice. It was scary.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
“Carefully. Here. One more step”, the men held on to my father – tightly holding his near limp body. Three of them held on to his body while the fourth widened the door enough to pull him through.
“ Which way sister? He needs to be put to bed.”, one of the men asked my mother.
Speechless, she pointed to one corner of our room.
The doctor who had accompanied the men set on to do his duty as soon as he was laid on the bed.
‘Cerebral hemmorhage’, he shook his head.
‘You can shift him to a hospital but I cannot guarantee anything. It can be today, tomorrow or anyday’, he sounded the death knell.
The men from George Telegraph looked at mother helplessly.
“We tried our best sister. He just collapsed while working”,they sounded apologetic.
“It is okay Sir. He hasn’t been keeping too well off late. Since we shifted to this semi rural area he had been upset”, my eldest brother pacified politely.
My sisters sobbed inconsolably. I did not know what to do.
“Ma”, I tried to hold on to her saree.
“Hushh”, she pulled me up to her lap. I put my head to her bosom. I could hear her heart beat.
Her lips moved in murmur. I trained my ears to hear her.
“The Lord is my shepherd ; I shall not want. He makes me to lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside the still waters. He restores my soul, he leads me in the paths of rightousness for his sake. And when I shall walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me”.
I knew it was a passage from The Bible. Her trust on her Lord was unshakable. It somehow rubbed on to me too. At that moment I could feel a sense of comfort.
I was very small to understand the economic repercussions but perhaps big enough to know that with the clock ticking away for the only earning member, it wasn’t going to be too easy for a family of seven.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
It came very slowly at first. And then as days passed it hurled itself at us with unending ferocity. Every day I would see my brother going out in search of work. Everyday we would count coins, just to know how far we were from the brink of absolute poverty. And everyday we would see the snowballing effect of hunger and poverty over powering our desire to survive. But amidst all this my mother would wake up at four thirty every morning, take a bath, freshen up her paralysed husband and then sit with her Bible. Turning her face towards the rising sun she would read aloud passage after passage from The Bible – tears streaming down her eyes. Nascent rays of the morning sun would play around on the printed verses. Her voice would brim with pride – pride of her unrelentless belief in the Almighty. No poverty, no hunger could touch that one area.
One by one she sold all her remaining assets – her jewellery, sets of brass utensils which we used for our eating….almost everything that we had. But she ensured that not a single day would go without food. With minimum ingerdients she would rustle up such marvels in the kitchen that neighbours would find excuses to peep into the kitchen.
Till the day there was nothing left to sell anymore.
“What now Ma?”, one of my sisters asked.
“Hushhh…have belief”, she smiled.
She brought down the green tin trunk from the attic.
Sitting around the tin trunk we rummaged through the contents. I noticed my mother. Her lips quivered in silent prayer.
From amidst woollen garments and old shawl emerged volumes of Encyclopedia Brittanica. It smelt of moth balls. I remembered the series on butterflies – pages after pages of colorful butterflies.
“Shall we, Ma?”, my elder sister asked. The reddish tinge on her nose was unmistakable. She faked a sneeze. A tiny droplet from her eyes fell on my dusty palm.
My mother held on to the books for a while.
Then with a firm voice she answered, “We shall”.
“Can we atleast keep the book with butterflies”, I pleaded.
“For as long as we can”, she assured.
The ‘as long’ was too soon enough.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
Thirteen years, three months and twenty five days – that many days my mother held on to the belief that miracles do happen. Every single day she walked through the valley of death, knowing that the Lord is her shepherd. That many days unfailingly she bathed her paralysed husband, kept the room absolutely neat without a speck of dust, cooked the best ever dishes, fought with individual destinies of each of her children, ensured their education. Those of us who at times wondered if her belief was worth the effort, failed to realize that the very fact that we were all there to see the day was a miracle in itself.
Thirteen years, three months and twenty five days since the fatal day- on the morning of 26th of January my father died. Normally there would be a sense of relief or a sense of grief. My mother had none. A calmness adorned her countenance.
My marriage followed.
The day before my marriage she called me to her room.
“Will you sleep with me tonight?’, she whispered into my ears.
That night I slept with her. Like my childhood days I buried my face in her bosom. She let her fingers run through my hair.
“I am sorry my child. I couldn’t give you anything as you were growing up. It was a constant battle with poverty instead”, she cried.
“Don’t tell like that Ma. You are the reason we are what we are. You have ensured education, marriage….everything that we could ever ask for.”, I sobbed.
Throughout that night we spoke to each other like long lost friends.
** ** ** ** ** ** ** ** **
“Close the window”, my husband advised.
“Let it be”.
“Won’t you catch cold?”, he was concerned. He wanted to pull down the shutters of the train window.
“No”, I answered. I wanted my mind to be preoccupied. The acres of passing greenery soothed my failing nerves.
I recalled what my sister had told me over the phone. The line was bad, the voice cracked but I had held on to the receiver as close to my ears as possible.
“Not once did Ma let us know what pain she was going through. When finally we could understand we took her to the hospital. Not once did she wince. Instead she recited Psalm 23. At the hospital the doctor had at first refused to give her water. She kept asking for a glass of water. But when the doctor knew there was not much time left, he asked her if she still wanted some water. You know what Ma said ? She said, ‘Son, now I do not need water. My Almighty is waiting there for me with a glass of water’.”. She couldn’t continue thereafter. The line had got disconnected.
“Ma”. Someone touched me with her soft wet fingers. I shuddered. This was the same touch I had felt when my mother had touched my hand just the day I was to leave for Bangalore with my husband.
“What if I die ? May be you will never see me”, she had smiled her glorious best.
“Don’t say like that Ma. You’ll always be alive”, I had chided her.
“Still…in case….be my good girl then. Keep everyone happy. There shouldn’t ever be a reason for anyone to point fingers at my upbringing”.
I had kissed her – once, twice, three times.
That was the last I ever saw of my mother.
“Ma”, someone called again. I realized my little daughter was calling me. My tears had worried her.
“I am here little one”, I picked her up and put her in my lap. She pressed her nose against my bosom. Did she too get the same smell ? Of sweat and sandal soap? I didn’t know. I just hoped desperately that I did smell like my mother.
Epilogue: This Valentine’s Day I wanted to write about love – the power of love. The more I thought about the extremities of love the more blurred became the images of soft teddies, scented candles, red roses, heart shaped muffins. I realised that there could never, ever be a love more powerful, more all encompassing than a mother’s love! With growing age the worries about my mother are becoming overpowering. And suddenly I realize what she would have gone through, having lost her mother when she was just a new mother herself and barely out of her teens. Being of only two years, I hardly remember my maternal grandma. Two floating images – of a peach complexioned woman with a cotton soft touch and a pair of hands making a porridge of puffed rice in the dim light of a lantern appear now and then. But as I have grown up, I have come to realize what a powerful story of motherhood she symbolizes. Her story is a story of the strength of womanhood, of belief and of unfailing love for her husband, her children and family. So Ma, this is for you. A story you wanted to tell the world – the love story of you and your Ma! Happy Valentine’s Day!!