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