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)