Dealing with Death

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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…..

 

 

 

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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

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

 

 

Growing up with Grandparents

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It was those days when the raindrops used to be blue, green, purple and burnt-sienna. The old, fat toad used to sit under the Toad-stool  and tell stories. The breeze carried the smell of Neem flower and butter-toast.  And in those days I was small enough to tuck myself between my grandma and grandpa to listen to the radio play. My grandpa, the ever hypochondriac that he was, used to be wrapped in a warm shawl from head to toe – with only his tiny eyes visible. Grandma’s long locks smelling of Amla hair oil used to casually flutter over my face. By the time the play used to get over, she would be fast asleep. My grandfather would silently put off the radio with a ‘click’ sound and wrapping the shawl tighter would go off to sleep.

Our childhood was with and about grandparents. We were nine of us – cousins, technically, but we had a single collective tag – ‘brats of Mamma-baari’. Mamma was what we used to call our grandma. Being the assertive and stronger one of the duo – our grandma was the matriarch of the family. So our house unknowingly became “Mamma Baari” (Mamma’s house).

Our grandfather was the soft one – gentleman in the truest sense. By the time I grew up enough, he was a retired man – taking recluse in the comfort of the sofa set in the front room. He was so pinned on to the sofa day in and day out that every second year the sofa would pop out the springs inside–as if to announce it’s exhaustion!  Soft that he was, my grandpa would hardly complain till one of us would get a chance to sit on it! Ouch! What was that?? Grandpa! How could you not tell us all these days? An expert would be summoned to repair it within no time! Once repaired grandpa would be back to his seat. When I was younger, grandpa used to spend his retired moments helping maids and masons open bank accounts in the newly opened branch of a local bank- just like that. When I grew up he became Amitabh Bachhan of Piku. There was this yellow telephone with those round dials kept just for him. Every morning he would dial his second daughter – my aunt- who is incidentally married to a doctor. His opening lines would be something like this:

“Hello Pia. This morning I am a bit better. I went to the toilet and had a near clear motion. Now, should I still take the enzyme in the afternoon?”

Or

“Hello Pia. I just went and tried but ‘it’ did not happen!”

My ever-loving and soft-spoken aunt would patiently answer him or comfort him – as the situation be.

But the ‘it did not happen’ would be the cause of his depression for the rest of the day. He was a terribly neat and tidy person and would insist on shaving daily. But on the days when ‘it did not happen’ he would not shave and would eat as little as possible. Back from office during lunch time, my father would laugh, “Why didn’t you take a shave Baba?”, very well knowing the answer he would get in return.

“Huh, what shave…I did not even have a proper potty!”

My grandma was always poles apart from grandpa.  That they spent more than sixty years together is a Black-hole mystery of the family!

She, unlike grandpa, was robust, loud, hot-headed and unlike women of her age and time – a total dictator of the family! From fixing marriages to ensuring education of all her grandchildren she was the ONLY authority in the family! From her food habits to response to life’s situations – she was so different from grandpa! While grandpa was a frugal eater – satisfied with just a light fish curry and rice, grandma would eat four times his consumption level – and some strange eating habbit it was! While we would be over-filled with our morning breakfast of Parathas or bread, grandma would have an additional 10 am ‘mid-morning snack’! She would have a bowl full of left-over rice from previous day, add oodles of raw mustard oil, salt and then devour it with immense passion with a green chilly. And then have a full three course meal after two and half hours – rounding it off with a short helping of her handmade pickles!

Unlike a ‘womanly’ woman, she would hardly show her patience when it came to cooking. So most of the younger days of my dad and aunts was spent in eating strange items like – half-burnt curries, massive chunks of boiled potato to be had with rice, fish curries still carrying the smell of raw fish, hot chapatis with sliced onion!!!  She was hardly bothered about what the others thought about her! Her real passion lay in her eccentricity! That she was a good writer of her times was a catalyst to that! Once, just after my mother was married into the family, she came home from the market with a dozen small fishes to be had for lunch.

“Just clean these and keep the oil and masala ready. I will come and cook”.

My mother did as instructed and waited for her mother-in-law to return. One hour passed, two hours passed…..with the racing hands of the clock my mother began to panic. It was near lunch time but grandma was not to be found anywhere. Hesitantly my mother took the plunge and cooked the fish her way! My grandma ultimately returned after two days! She had gone to her younger daughter’s house in Dakshineswar –a half an hour train journey from Calcutta – not to meet her but spend moments besides the river Ganges in order to get ideas about a story!

She would hardly be at home, finding opportunities and pretexts to go outside. So, almost every evening I would accompany her to the nearest Gariahat market just to buy ‘important’ household items like – a pair of rubber slippers or clips for hanging clothes or even a handkerchief. I would proudly accompany her –  sitting in the hand-pulled rickshaw. This was till the day we had ‘rickshaw mishap’! God knows why or how but having found a school bus in front of him, the rickshaw puller suddenly gave up! He let go of his hands, leaving grandma and me see-saw head down while he himself hung in mid-air. Men all around came rushing towards us. They brought down the rickshaw puller from his mid-air position , only to flung grandma and me back in mid-air. While the game of see-saw gave fodder for loud laughter to the crowd, grandma was ready to turn the poor man into ashes by her angry stare! From that day on, we both went and came back to the market by feet but strangely that rickshaw puller was never to be found again!

My grandma had a unique knack of being associated with troubles and mishaps of all types. So every second year she would end up with fracture of some kind or the other. The orthopaedic had almost become a family member! Though with her impatience, grandma would hardly carry on with her plaster cast for too long. One fine day we would find her with her favourite pair of scissors – cutting away her plaster cast with uneven cuts! As a result she had knees that wouldn’t bend beyond a certain level, a half-twisted left arm, a limp etc.

But beyond all this she had a self that was unique. That was that part that ensured that her six grand-daughters grew up to be self-reliant and strong-willed women!

But my purpose of writing this blog was not just to tell about the unique people that my grandparents were, it was also to talk about the fact that irrespective of what or how they were, they were an integral part of our lives. They were luckier than the grandparents of our children. When I see my parents, my in-laws, my aunts and uncles – I realise that though they are busier these days, they are lonely somehow. With nine grandchildren creating havoc, my grandparents were a luckier lot! Till the day my grandfather died, it was an unwritten rule in my family that food would be first served to him. It was a satisfaction for my mother to see her father-in-law closing his eyes in front of his plate of frugal meal for a short prayer of thanksgiving.

Sundays were especially special. My grandparents would watch with loving eyes as nine of us would empty jars of biscuits and puffed rice! My father would lovingly accept the little note of donation from my grandfather as his contribution towards ‘one kilo of meat’  for a special Sunday lunch.

“Son, would this be enough for a Kg of meat?”, he would ask.

My father would smile, “Ofcourse Baba. This would be more than enough”, though he well knew that the amount wouldn’t even fetch half a kilo.

And most of all, for us and our parents, their decision was always the final decision. Erratic, wise, eccentric, unbelievable, practical, impractical – we accepted all their decisions – with frown or with smile – but we did accept!

Today, my parents are the ones who have their dinner after all of us . Now, I do not expect my son to have the same level of obedience towards his grandparents as I had. And my aunt who was once a patient listener to her father’s call waits unendingly for a call from all of us!

We are too busy to attend to their needs ; too involved with our own selves to teach our children the value of ‘genuine bonding’. Parents and grandparents are now a matter of need and convenience rather than of necessity.

Times change, so do situations and we are, perhaps, victims of our changing circumstances. But how I wish there was one thing that hadn’t changed – growing up with grandparents – the way we did!

 

 

Fourteen Days to Madness

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Almost every week I receive a call or two from a variety of job aspirants. The conversation ranges from serious to funny to downright outrageous.

“Hello. Is this an NGO?”

“Yeah, this is a social service organisation”

“Yes, yes…I LOVE social work”.

“Glad to know that.”

“ From childhood I am very ‘social minded’. I give blood, give money to beggars, work a lot during the community puja in my neighbourhood.”

“Wow, you do a lot of social service.”

“Yours is a women’s organisation, na?”

“Yes, it is.”

“I love women…err…I mean I love to work for women”.

“Oh, that is good. But how may I help you?”

“Madam, I want to help your organisation.”

“Yeah, sure. But what kind of help do you want to provide?”

“May be some kind of job.”

“Why not! But we work mostly in the rural region – in the remote villages”

(Long pause and a longer sigh!)

“Mmmm…don’t you have any job in the city? I can help in the office work.”

“We do have, but it is very limited.”

“No problem, I can volunteer. By the way, how much do you pay your volunteers?”

OR

“Hello. Is this a women’s organisation?”

“It is. How may I help you?”

“I have done Masters in Social Work.”

“That is fantastic.”

“I want to do social work and I want to join your organisation”.

“That would be great. But ours is a field-based organisation – mostly in rural regions”.

“The rate is different you know. If it is city I take a different rate. For villages my rate is different.”

“Rate, what rate?”

“Means my salary. Being an MSW, I expect a higher rate obviously. And if I stay in villages, the rate goes still higher.”

“Hmmm. Do you have a work experience?”

“Ofcourse. For three years I have been working in a BPO.”

OR

“Hello. NGO?”

“Yes. It is a social service organisation.”

“How much do you pay currently? “

“Excuse me!”

“I mean what is your salary, perks? Any Provident Fund ? What are your retirement benefits?”

“Excuse me, but who are you and what do you want exactly?”

“I already work for an NGO. But you won’t believe how less they pay. Just imagine, for the TA, they would only pay for the tea. Arrey, what if I want a Samosa with the tea? I can get hungry, na?”

“So, how can we really help you?”

“That is why I am telling you na. If you can give a little bit extra on the salary, TA etc than I am getting here, I can join your organisation.”

“Not really. Because we do not pay for the Samosas with the tea. Not even for the tea actually. We share it!”

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

The world of the NGOs is really a bit weird. Weird, controversial, challenging……an amalgamation of many contrasts. Though I do have an allergy with the term but in India most social service organisations are known as NGOs – Non Government Organisations. Contrary to what most people believe, especially in the context of current controversies, the work of the NGOs is not doing what the Government cannot do but is to facilitate the work of the government – build a bridge between the people and the government. At times, we are the conscience keepers – letting the government understand the lacunae in implementation of programmes, flaws in policies, loopholes in systems etc.

An NGO worker is essentially an activist. Though in the recent years there indeed are NGOs which do offer salaries, perks and facilities at par with the corporate houses, most social activists are semi-lunatics. Or to put it more correctly, are expected to be semi-lunatics. They are supposed to get paid less than the lowest rung staff of any government department or of any private organisation for that matter; they are expected to put in a ten to twelve hour a day of service and most of their meets and programmes are expected to be on Saturdays and Sundays.

Atleast, that is how I have observed my parents since my childhood. My father was a born social activist and my mother was an adopted one. So, our front room was always the hub of activites – torn papers, half-empty glue bottles, open sketch pens strewn here and there – that is how our front room has always been. Our kitchen has always been a Community Kitchen with a twenty four hours of open service. And I have never seen my parents keep any of their personal bank documents with themselves. One of their colleagues keep their cards and she is the one who knows their ATM pin number! I have seen a Sharing Meet of our field workers being carried out in our back room while my grandma’s coffin was being brought in through the front door.

So, it is but obvious that changing times do pain them. My Dad still does not believe that social work these days is more about profession than about activism. He speaks of his days spent in dense forests or drought-ridden villages with young men who worked with him ‘just for the heck of it’!

It was during one such heart breaking moments for him that he reminded me of the “Fortnight Training”. It was one of those rare trainings of fourteen days duration that changed many lives.

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

I couldn’t believe what I saw. My father – standing amidst leaping flames – encircling him all around. The titbits of paper of paper around him burnt in all mirth and glory. The fire, just an inch away from his denim. He stood with a calm face. The participants around him stood equally wide-eyed as me, taking many moments to believe what was just happening in front of their eyes. Till one of them almost dived into the fire and pulled my father out. Having woken from a trance, a few others rushed to douse the flames.

Unfazed, my father smiled and spoke out.

“This, my dear friends, is the Sensitivity Test.”

He took a moment’s pause and continued.

“The first and foremost requirement of a Social Activist is this – Sensitivity – towards others and the situation – at the cost of one’s own safety and security.”

It was a fourteen day long training in weirdness – to help a bunch of young people discover the seed of lunaticism in themselves. There was no agenda, no timings. One day the training began in the evening hours and went on till early morning the next day. One day instead of a proper lunch, the participants survived on fruits – that too in very limited quantities. There was no room for inhibitions. At times the participants had to drink water from one single glass, eat from one single plate.

On day three, two of the participants packed their bags and left.

“This is an insane training”, one of them said.

In the evening hours or very early in the morning there would be games – robust games like football(soccer) and the women were expected to play alongside with the men. It is there that I learnt that best way to hit a football was to hit it with the slant of the toe and not the tip of the toe!

During one such game, one of the participants fell down and hurt himself badly. As the rest rushes towards him, my Dad stopped them.

“ I am happy to see the sensitivity in you all but this is a test for him. Social Work is a tough job. And it requires grit and endurance. So, get up!”, he instructed the one injured. Very slowly he got up, much to the anguish of others. He washed his own hands, went to his room alone and waited till a doctor was summoned.

“ Imagine, you are in the remotest of regions. And there you are sick. There is no one, no facilities to reach you and you have to survive….You must learn the art of survival.”, he explained to the bewildered participants.

In another session, he asked the participants to identify any object in the room that they would like to possess. It could be anything.

One of the participants wanted a LP record that was a prized possession. My father handed it over to her.

“Take it. It is yours”.

She couldn’t believe what she was hearing. My father repeated. She happily took the record.

“Now”, my father said, “break it into two halves.”

There was a murmur in the room. The participant could once again not believe what she had just heard.

“Do it”, my father commanded.

With shaky fingers she broke it into two.

He then called another participant.

“And which one object would you love to possess?”

“The HMT watch that you are wearing”, he smiled mischievously, knowing well that my father had a soft corner for the watch.

My father held out his left hand. “Take it”.

The participant smiled and took it. There was a look of challenge in his eyes.

“And now, throw it on the floor with all your might!”, my father commanded.

“Excuse me?”, the participant now looked worried.

“Do it.”

“I cannot”, he held out the watch back to my father.

“Do it”, my father repeated with a cold voice.

With total disbelief he flung the watch on the ground. The watch broke into three parts.

“A social worker is like a Sanyasi – a hermit. You may have desires but not a clinging obsession to possess any material goods. The moment you let your possessions rule over you, you stop being an activist. An activist is like a nomad”, he explained. There were tears in many eyes.

I was too small to fathom the depth of his words but when I saw participant after participant jumping from a very high platform, letting go of themselves, it did strike me that there was something magical about his words.

“If you are a social worker, you MUST learn to trust – situations, people, co-workers.”, he shouted loud, as one after the other the participants jump down with the belief that their co-workers would rescue them unhurt midway through their fall.

I spent most of the sessions drawing on my own or playing with my dolls; I don’t even remember most of the sessions but all I understand now is that those fourteen days to madness really did help build social workers – ACTIVISTS.Today, all the participants who attended those trainings are established social workers in their own rights. Irrespective of the different challenges of life, not one has wandered away from this madness of activism.

Even today when many of them touch my Dad’s feet and acknowledge that what they are today is because of him, I get goose bumps. Many, many, many times I’ve heard these participants introduce my Dad as their Guru in public forum. And that is an inexplicably special feeling. It brings tears to my mother’s eyes too.

I know that times have changed. I understand that social activism is gradually being replaced by a more disciplined way of working in the social sector- in line with the global requirement. I understand. But my father doesn’t. Holding his inhaler in his hand, with his unkempt hair and near-torn slippers he still waits – waits for that one activist who would risk his life to drag out a fellow-human being from the fire of distress!

Gerua…..

GERUABenu looked to her left and then to her right. The Banana leaves created strange silhouettes around her. The breeze smelt of raw mangoes. A strange shadow crossed their path and vanished into the woods. Benu shivered a little – just a little. Not as much as Nenu, her younger sister. Even if she felt afraid, Benu knew she had to keep up a brave face. Atleast for the sake of her younger sister. With their mother already busy with two other kids, she was in charge of her sister. Atleast that is what she thought.

A man appeared in the vicinity with a lantern in his hand.

“Selaam Sahib”, he grinned from ear to ear – trying to balance the lantern and the clumsy salute.

“I was told that a bullock-cart would be available at the station. Why was it not sent?”, John Solomon thundered.

“ I am sorry Sahib but the pig ditched at the last minute”, the man sounded apologetic.

Sejdi, what use is a pig to a bullock cart?”, Nenu whispered.

Benu giggled. It was no use explaining to her that the pig in this case was the cart driver himself.

As they walked behind him, the man went on to explain in detail as to why it was not possible to catch hold of yet another bullock cart and the challenges of staying in a remote village.

The post sunset evening light was not bright enough for Benu to get a clearer picture of the village. At that moment she wasn’t interested either. Her stomach rumbled for want of food.

The last food they had was a sumptuous lunch at the Ferry-ghat where their steamer had just landed. The sailors always had a make-shift arrangement for the travellers using the steamers and launch-boats. Balancing through the knee deep water and clay the Solomon family had managed to sit under the make-shift canopy. The sailors had then served huge helpings of steaming rice and chicken curry – heavily peppered with red chilly paste.

But that was five hours back. And the railway ride and walk had already made the children hungry.

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

The landscape of the suburb village in East Bengal was so much different from their home at Kolkata. This truth dawned upon Benu the next day when kissed by the morning sun, the sky became clearer. As far as her eyes could see it was endless expanse of greenery. Little huts and single-storied houses dotted here and there but there was an engulfing calmness all around. The numerous ponds and water-bodies mirrored the travelling tufts of cloud sailing in the blue sky above. For Benu, who was the naughtiest among her siblings, this was an open invitation to unending adventure.

John Solomon, who was a police under the narcotics department, was too happy to be back to where his roots were.  Inspite of constant complaints by his wife, he was not too eager to admit the children to school. He wanted them to enjoy the landscape, people and unending happiness of his homeland before being pushed to the daily grind.

For Benu it meant unleashing her curiosity to the maximum extent possible. In the afternoons her mother would go for an afternoon siesta with her two younger ones, giving a warning to Nenu and Benu that they should never venture out in the afternoons as the ‘Childpickers’ use those hours to kidnap young children. Nenu would close her eyes and pretend to be asleep, while Benu would wait for the signal of the soft snores. She would then tip-toe to the huge expanse of mango orchard at the back of their two-storied residence. Bundling up her long tresses into a top-bun, she would wander from tree to tree – plucking raw mangoes, searching for bird nests. Interspersed with the rustle of the dry leaves there would be the faint sound of breeze through the branches. Ta hoot utu, ta hoot utu…..Tihaa tihaaa tihaaa…..kirik kirik kirik….birds would twit on their own. Benu would train her ears to identify the birds. Picking a twig from one of the trees she would travel deeper into the orchards….till she reached the old, broken, deserted house. No one stayed in that abandoned house. Some locals even labelled it as a haunted house. Though curious, she hardly had that much guts to enter the dilapidated building. Till the day she gathered the courage enough to look through one of the half closed windows. To her surprise and much to the discomfort of her racing heart she discovered a moving figure inside the building. She would have let out a loud scream but placing his finger on his lips – the young man gestured her to keep silence.

“Who are you? Dacoit ? Ghost ? “, having regained her courage, Benu asked in a low tone.

“Ha, ha, ha”, the young man laughed, “a bit of both”.

“Come in through the back door”, he spoke to her through the little slit of the window opening.

Benu was in dilemma. She wasn’t sure if it would be safe to listen to someone who may be partially a ghost and a dacoit. But as always, her curiosity won hands down.

She tip-toed in through the back-door. The old, rusted door made a creaking noise. The inside looked as dilapidated and dirty as the outside. The young man stood at the entrance.

“Sit here”, he instructed, clearing out a small stone-platform near the back entrance.

Benu hopped in.

“Who are you?”, Benu asked.

“I told you, didn’t I? Half ghost-half dacoit. And who are you?”, the man asked, a smile hanging on to his lips.

“Benu. And what is your name?”. By now, the paced of her heart had subsided it’s speed.

“Haider. Do you know I have a niece like you back home? She loves me very much.”

“Then why are you here? Have you done something wrong?”, Benu was curious.

“Ha ha ha. I should be home. But I have to kill demons. So I am hiding here”.

Benu felt a mild touch of fear reaching somewhere down her throat.

“Are there really any demons here?”, she asked, taking a quick glance around.

“Not here exactly. They are many in numbers – out to destroy our country”.

Benu really didn’t like the idea of someone destroying this beautiful country.

“And with what will you kill them? Do you need a gun? My father is a police. He can give you a gun”.

For a few seconds Benu could see his face turn ashen.

“ No, not really. I do not need a gun. But promise me that you will not talk about me to anyone. Otherwise no one would allow me to kill those demons. And never come this side”.

His voice had suddenly turned stern.

“I have to go now….You run and get back home”

Benu jumped down from her seat. It was already late afternoon and her mother would have already woken up.

As she walked away from the house she looked back once more. She couldn’t see much but could sense a pair of eyes that were keeping a watch on her.

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

The oldest among the girls spoke up.

“ Girls, it is time we express ourselves against the atrocities of the British. They don’t want us to use our own clothes. They want to push their ideas, their clothes, their food. But there are so many who have come forward to protest against this. Khadi is our answer to their atrocities. And for that we have the Tokli.”, she held out a small device – a hand held version of the Charkha.

Benu and her friends skewed their eyes to look at the mini version of the device to make threads from cotton balls in an indigenous way.

“Do you know who she is?”, one of the friends whispered.

Benu looked quizzically.

“She is the cousin of the famous revolutionary Pritilata Wadedar”.

Benu felt happy. She had heard a lot about Pritilata Wadedar.

A girl younger than the speaker handed over the Toklis to the small group of girls around.

“Girls, today we shall use the Toklis to make threads as a mark of protest against the British atrocities on our freedom fighters. We are school girls, we cannot do much. But by this way we can send them a message”, the speaker concluded amidst a light applause. Their little gathering before the school hours had mostly gone unnoticed by the school authorities.

As promised, Benu held on to her Tokli during class hours. She could hardly make a proper piece of thread but she knew that it was a symbol of protest.

“Rekha Solomon, will you please deposit your device here on the table!”, the teacher thundered.

Benu tightened her grasp on the Tokli.

“Rekha Solomon! This is my last warning to you. You will be thrown out of the school if you do not part with that thing!”

Benu looked down, her fingers adamantly clinging on to the Tokli.

“Please follow me out of the class”, the teacher ordered.

Benu obeyed.

Being the younger among the girls, she escaped being rusticated but as a punishment Benu had to stand outside in the hot afternoon sun for the rest of the day.

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

“Hold the edges carefully”, Benu instructed her younger sister.

Nenu obeyed her sister but her young fingers were too small to hold on to the slippery banana leaf.

“What are you doing?”, John Solomon tried to figure out the plan from the wide array of things strewn around – Huge Banana leaves, bamboo pole, red colour, small pieces of cloth.

“Trying to make a flag Baba”, Benu smiled – her fingers and nose already dotted with various hues of color.

“Flag? What flag?”, Solomon Sahib  quizzed his daughters.

“An independence flag”.

“With Banana leaves?”

“Yesss”, Benu replied empahtically, “we shall write I-N-D-E-P-E-N-D-E-N-C-E on the leaves and put outside with the help of a pole”.

“Yes. And I am helping Sejdi”, Nenu smiled meekly.

“Hmm….”, their father turned to look at their mother.

“Let them”, she answered, her eyes shining with pride. “This is the only way they can take part in the freedom movement. I too have thought of a plan”.

John Solomon laughed out loudly.

“Pramila, I am a Police under the British. If they get to know the grand plans of my family, it wouldn’t take long for them to boot me out of my job”.

“You are in a different department Mr.Solomon. And moreover, it really does not matter. We have to stand for what is right”, his wife teased.

“Ofcourse. I have my full endorsement for that. But what is your grand plan ?”

“As a housewife I cannot do much but from now onwards, no chinese silks or georgettes. If you can get me some Khadi cloth pieces I can stitch dresses for the children. I too would like to wear only Khadi saree”. Her determination reflected in her voice.

“ As you say”, John Solomon smiled, as he left for his duty.

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

The honeymoon with the picturesque sub-urban East Bengal wasn’t for a long time. Soon there was a transfer order back to Calcutta.

Benu’s mother spent an entire day sharing her tears with her neighbour Mehrunnissa. They spoke about the beautiful days they spent discussing new stitch patterns, learning new recipes, sharing the woes of family life.

John Solomon tried to mask his gloom with business of last minute duties.

And for the last time Benu visited the Mango orchard. After many, many long days she tiptoed to the broken and abandoned house in the orchard – just in case she would chance upon the half ghost-half dacoit! The house seemed totally empty. A lone bat flew away as she tried to open the window to look inside. Disappointed, she returned home, having said her good-bye to the birds and trees.

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

As the bullock-cart made took it’s last turn from the village premises, a small gathering of men and women stood on the road –unknowingly blocking their way.

“Is something wrong?”, Benu’s mother asked her father.

“Yes, I guess they are here for Haider”.

“Haider? Who Haider?”

Benu shuddered a little. Did she hear the name somewhere ?

“Haider was a young chap – a revolutionary of sorts. He died last night in a gun battle with the British police. It seems he was hiding somewhere around”, John Solomon’s voice drowned in grief.

Benu felt like crying. She could never ask him if he could ever meet his niece again. Or if he could atleast kill the demons.

Brave that she always was, she wiped face with the edge of her khadi frock. She hated to let others know that she way crying. She would rather let the tears melt away with the fading sun-set.

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

For all my life, I had seen my grandma holding a special place for anything to do with the country. Once, as I was colouring a flag, she asked me if I knew what the colors of our Indian flag meant. “The orange means…”, I was about to begin.

“Na..na…not orange.”, she interjected, “ It is called a Saffron – Gerua. It is the colour of sacrifice.”

Everytime the National Anthem would be played in the TV or on radio, she would prompt us to stand up.

“You must. That way you show your respect to the country, as well as those who have fought for the country”, she would insist.

Those days I could not fathom her spirit or her emotions. But today, as I have grown older, I realize that India’s freedom came with a lot of cost and a lot of sacrifice – a sacrifice that was not limited to big names and big leaders alone but also to thousands of Haiders, Benus and unknown faces.

I really hope my children would see Independence Day as being beyond yet another holiday with a lazy morning and a sumptuous lunch….for the sake of the sacrifice – big or small – of many Haiders or another little Benu – their great grandmother!

Rang de tu mohe Gerua….

PHOTO COURTESY: Subhadip Mukherjee (Indian Vagabond)

 

 

 

 

In the name of Father….

BABA2Whatever I am today is because of my mother. Whatever I am not is because of my father.  I am not exactly how a mom of two kids should ideally be. I am not a cleanliness freak, neither a very organised person – my house is normally like a bachelor’s pad. I am too impatient to be an ideal mother. If the string of my salwar whooshes inside and beyond the reach of my fingers, I hardly bother to pull out and re-push it patiently with the help of a pin. I conveniently cut open the place where I can feel the string and draw it out enough to tie a knot. My mother keeps complaining about the loose buttons in my daughter’s dress that I never bother to stitch again. ‘Inspite of being a woman’ (and how I hate this phrase!) I hardly use creams, shampoos and have not visited a parlour since my marriage day! And inspite of the general feeling in the virtual world that I am an over-friendly, smiling Whoopi Goldberg, I am not. I am rather a withdrawn kind of person whom the neighbours and relatives hardly find – in happiness or in grief! And I know that I have inherited this bohemian gene from my Dad.

With my Dad, life is a never-ending picnic, as also of learning. With my Dad life was never supposed to be normal – not conventional in the least. His marriage is still a talking point in my family. For his marriage reception, instead of wedding cards, he distributed printed leaflets, inviting ‘only the young friends’ with a strict warning that no one should bring any gifts for the wedding. It was a musical evening instead of a lavish wedding feast. There were only snacks accompanied by a musical programme – songs sung by my Dad and his friends. The relatives frowned, my mother-the new bride-was puzzled, but he stuck on to his plans. But he was always like that. He sold shirts in the bus-stand, spent days in the refugee relief camps in the name of ‘just going for a walk’, walked in political rallies against the government, gladly denied a secure, government job.

So, it was no surprise that when I was born, he was not around. While my mother was battling a near-fatal child birth, my Dad was somewhere in some remote drought-prone region – distributing relief material among the extremely poor population. He first saw me when I was three months old. From that day on, we developed an unusual bond. Not only that of a father-daughter. But also of a guru-shishya.

Life has been an unending story of adventure since that day. For one, he made us believe that we must take life as it comes and enjoy every bit of whatever we have. Having a bohemian social worker as Dad is never an easy life. We’ve spent a near nomadic life – living in deep forest areas known for dacoits to lavish campuses to red-soiled rural areas. And we’ve always lived with the mantra that it is not important how much you have but how well you live with whatever you have!

So, with our limited resources we would have ‘barbeque nights’ in our terrace, organise little picnics in our neighbourhood park, have a ‘night out’ to the local restaurant where four of us would share a big bowl of soup and a plate of noodles. Because of him we learnt to enjoy our food as well as be thankful for it. While we were in Bangalore, wearing his trademark bright orange wind-cheater, he would take my brother and me to the green expanse of Bangalore Gymkhana grounds – just to buy the smoky kebabs from the road-side sellers. Enjoying the breezy ride, we would inhale the strange smell of smoky kebabs, amalgamated with the dewy smell of the fresh grasses of Gymkhana. On Sundays, he would travel all the way to the suburban areas – just to buy farm fresh chickens. Every winter we would come down to Calcutta for Christmas. He had a strange passion. While the train would stop at major railway junctions, he would ask my mother to take out our big tiffin carrier. He would then get down from the train and go all the way outside the station to buy best local food. While the train would whistle loudly-signalling ready-to-depart – my eyes would frantically look for him in the station. The train would then begin with a jerk and I would almost start sobbing. “Babaaa”, I would begin to weep and press my face against the window rails, looking for my Dad. And then, out of the blue, I would see him waving to me from the entrance door- smiling.

He has never been a dad-like Dad. For one, instead of studies or career he only spoke about music and movies. So, by the time we grew up , both my brother and I , had immense knowledge about music and movies. Come Sundays, and our house , would resemble a mini festival arena. From the little tape-recorder songs ranging from The Beatles to Ghulam Ali would fill in the air while mother would get down to cook umpteen number of items. My father would then sit on the cane chair and discuss movies from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly to Indiana Jones. We would listen in awe while he would hum songs of Mohammed Rafi. Not that he wasn’t interested about our studies. He had an unconventional approach to it. My brother, who was a difficult child to teach, just wouldn’t sit to write his spellings. So, my father had an unique plan. He recorded the words in the little cassette recorder. He played the cassette and asked my brother to write the spellings. Tech-buff that he was, my brother happily jumped at the proposal, much to the relief of my mother!

His way of imparting knowledge and the range of subjects covered was weird. We learnt how to prepare the best thread for kites using cat poop; make a TV satellite receptor using umbrella; use different chemical powders to prepare hand-made crackers; use our teeth effectively to cut electrical wire ; understand the different paper sizes and fonts used in a printing press….

When we were quite young, he gave my brother and me, the entire salary of a month and asked us to maintain the expenses. He said that it was one way to know how tough it is for mother to manage a family with limited resources and understand the value of money as well. After a month we gave up!

But if there was one major thing that my father taught us was never to be perturbed by the report cards. So, our mere pass-marks would mean a huge treat from my Dad! Even our failure would never perturb him. He would merely smile and say, “No problem. Next time.  Next time.”

He instilled in us a unique value system of frankness and honesty. And that was not to be compromised. So, we were brought up to be absolutely free and frank with each other. So much so that when I had my first periods, it was my father and not my mother to whom I spoke about it. As I lay down in extreme pain and discomfort, I could see the pain in his eyes as he tried to comfort me. Much of this was possible because to him ‘gender’ was and still is just another word. He would insist that I climb trees and learn to ride bicycle. Unlike typical Indian father I never heard him speak about ‘marrying me off to the best guy ’; instead he always insisted that I get to travel the world, be independent, be myself. So it was no wonder that meet-the-groom in my case was unique as well! He never, ever asked my boyfriend whether he worked or not, where he was employed or what his earning was. They met at a restaurant in my absence. As my jittery husband-to-be smiled nervously, my Dad asked him just one question: “What did you have for breakfast?”. Staying alone as a bachelor, his options for breakfast were limited, so he admitted that he had some leftover rice from the previous night .That was all he had for breakfast. My father shook his hands and sealed the deal, followed by a sumptuous lunch. Later, I asked my Dad how he could decide that he was the right one for me. My Dad smiled and said, “His answer was enough. One, I knew that he was an honest person. Two, I knew that his wants from life were simple. A man who could be happy with the breakfast of left-over rice would definitely be simple and less demanding to keep my daughter happy”.

I am thankful for having a hippie Dad. Because of him I’ve learnt to take life less seriously : enjoy the smell of simple rice and dal served in a Saal leaf-plate in a remote village, savour the joy of travelling miles just to taste one simple food, not be worried about the bank PIN number, believe in the fact that religion is a philosophy of comfort and not a struggle with rituals.

Because of him I am beginning to understand that life is all about living – living to the fullest. His funda is simple: If you live life properly, once is enough. As I am writing this piece, he is uploading his social songs in the Youtube with the help of my son, while receiving phone calls from our field workers in remote tribal regions. He has been pestering me for the past one week to know about building network through Indiblogger. He has just acquired a camera from my brother to try his hands at photo-blogging. I am not sure about his next venture….From making paper lanterns to buying semi rotten mangoes – for him and with him, every bit of life is an adventure. And I am glad that my children are getting to travel the same road as us. On his part, his fresh innings has just begun with his grand children.

 

 

Rain in Summer

rainfallI know there aren’t many people who love summer. I recall my teacher criss-crossing her eye-brows reading my essay on my favourite season. I could understand why she cringed at the thought of summer but I was helpless. Indian summers are hot, harsh and hardly offer any scope for being a romantic season. But somehow I have always loved the season.  This, irrespective of the fact that summers have always tagged along red marked report cards, near-rotten birthday cakes and hours of stay-home curfew hours. But there is that one special something about summer that I perhaps can never explain.

Summers usher in a whole lot of memories. A trunk full of them perhaps. I am not sure if the others have felt it, but I’ve always felt a special smell of summer. In the intense, sweaty heat of summer, returning home from school with my back pack I used to get that smell. A sort of raw summer sun, punched with the heady scent of unripe mangoes, punctuated with the whiff of Gulmohar flowers. A bronze sort of smell. Swinging the empty water bottle back and forth, I used to crazily savour the smell.  A mild throbbing headache caused by the scorching sun. A group of thirsty crows crowding around the little water-hole near our locality tap. Powder of dry mango flowers flying here and there. A  pair of burning feet. And amidst all this, there was this strange summer pleasure.

Those days we used to store water in earthern pitchers during summer. The earthern pitchers came in two varieties- black one with narrow neck and terracotta red with broader necks. The water used to be too cool. There is perhaps no exact word to explain the earthy coolness they offered. Back from school, I would throw around my bag, bottle and shoes and rush to dunk in a glass inside the pitcher.

“Don’t drink cold water as soon as you come from hot place”.

“Don’t you dare dunk your fingers into the pitcher”.

Warnings would just make a touch and go. By then my dirt laced fingers would already be savouring the cool comfort of the pitcher water. Gulping the entire water in one go, I would close my eyes and feel a soft stream of coldness make way through my throat into my stomach.

At times my grandma would make a strange drink of sweet curd(yogurt) and water. Impatient that she was, she would hardly stir the curd enough to blend in smoothly into the water. Rather little blobs of pinkish white sweet curd would refuse to mix evenly, resulting in a strange coagulation. But I used to love that strange drink. Dipping my fingers into the glass, once the liquid had been consumed, I would scoop out the mass of pink precipitate from beneath the glass.

Summer vacations would soon be announced. And it would invariably mean days of unlimited fun with my cousins. Mats would be rolled out under the guava trees and the little plastic and tin ‘kitchen set’ would be neatly arranged. One of us would chop leaves with our mock knife while the other would go to collect ‘fire wood’. Clink, clank, clink, clank! Bits of raw mango would be ‘cooked’ hastily. The ‘men’ had to go to office. A cooker full of ‘pebble’ meat would be made ready in the meanwhile. Not that our little ‘family’ would remain happy forever. Most often than not we would be disturbed by the boys, who would be tired of their ‘marketing duty’. They would want to play marbles. Soon there would be a commotion and the games would end up in lots of tears and ‘don’t-you-dare-talk-to-me-ever’ promises.

By eleven, the sun would be too high for us to continue our game or fight – whichever, and we would be herded back home by our mothers.

Our bathroom had very little spcae, one reason was the existence of a little cement tank inside the bathroom. Those were the days of extreme water scarcity. So it was my mother who took the trouble of lifting water from an underground tank and filling up the tank in the bathroom. There was no tap and that tank was our only source of water. Looking back, I feel guilty of the number of times I had wasted the water of the tank. But summer afternoons were the only time I would be given the licence to take bath in the cold water from the tank. Those days we used to used Margo neem soap. Perhaps the soap actually contained neem extract, for it felt terribly bitter if ever the soap lather entered the mouth. I would spend umpteen minutes inside the bathroom, pouring buckets and buckets of water or dunking the soap inside the tank and lifting it up almost instantly. By then the water would turn hazy white. And I wouldn’t come out till I would hear a loud scream from my grandmother!

Come summer and my grandmother would buy me dozens of chemise. Chemise is supposed be to a straight lined under dress – basically worn under frocks. But my afternoon attires would be white chemise with ducks, flowers or birds embroidered on them. Afternoon being a curfew time, we would not be allowed to venture out. I would lie down next to my grandmother, placing my leg over hers. Most of the time there would be strong power -cuts, ranging for many hours. Grandma would use a hand fan made of palm leaf to fan both of us. Being a story teller that she was, she would weave little stories of her own, while I and my brother would listen to with wide eyed wonder. Sometime down, just at the crucial juncture, her words would sound like incoherent vowels , her hand holding the fan would stop it’s random motion.

‘Grandma, what next?’, I would nudge her, prompting her to wake up with a startle and continue her story. This would continue till no amount of nudging would wake her up and her words would transform into soft snores.

THAT would be my ‘THE MOMENT’. I would carefully slip off her embrace and head upstairs to the terrace. Collecting unripe mangoes, I would tip toe to the kitchen. Armed with a rusted razor blade and a palmful of salt mixed with chilly powder, I would devour one green mango after another – closing my eyes intermittently due to the surge of tanginess.

But if there is one thing that I would sincerely look forward to, was the Norwester. While playing Kit-Kit, Pittu, Colorman in the evenings, my eyes would look into the sky every now and then. Little traces of dark silhouettes would offer me hope. And then they would make their guest appearance. They would begin with soft winds resulting in little ballets of dry leaves and pollens. Then they would gradually transform into a mad frenzy of dried twigs, large droplets of rainfall and ear-splitting thunders.

‘Run, Run, Run’, we would scream in rejoice. Though we our legs would hardly increase pace.

‘Rush in, fast, fast, fast’, the elders would warn.

We would rush in but wouldn’t let the elders close the doors and windows. My mother would put out her hand and collect rain water in the cup of her palm. Then with great care she would apply the water on our skin.

“Summer rains are good for the skin. They cure rashes”, my grandma would laugh.

Pressing our cheeks against the window rails, we would intently watch the scenery outside. A collage of mayhem and ecstasy. Flying sarees from some unknown terrace. Loud rattle of loose tin sheds. A wet dog taking shelter under a Frangipani tree. Noisy boys playing football in the incessant rain. Sound of falling mangoes. And then that special smell – of parched soil just bathed in raindrops.  We would breathe in as much as we could, inhaling the maximum of the earthy vapour.

“Aaaah….what a beautiful smell”, we would scream aloud in unison.

The temperature would suddenly drop down to many notches below normal, providing a sigh of relief to all.

By nightfall it would be cold enough for my father to announce his desire for Khichuri – a preparation of rice and lentils cooked together. There would invariably be a power cut that night. Sitting around the shadowy magic of the kerosene lantern we would listen to the sound of wet, croaking frogs and crickets while waiting for the aroma of hot Khichuri and Fried Brinjals to emanate from the kitchen indoors.  My grandpa would take out his light shawl and wrap it around himself. The late evening news would blare in monotone from his little radio. Enjoying the light after-rain breeze, my grandma would murmur, “Aah, God Of Breeze, may you soothe our soul”.

Summer would be a quiet damsel that night; weary after a fiery session of love making.

Late in the night, the jasmines would bloom in mirth. There was this special jasmine creeper that my grandma had brought from Bangalore. She had planted it near our window. After every Norwester the Jasmine creeper would break into tiny dots of perfumed whites. It would be the best gift of Summer. Sitting near the window I would watch the creeper bathe in moonlight; at times shadowed by passing tufts of cloud. I would thank God for Summer.

I do not know if it is an irony of fate or not. The same Summer that had once seen my birth, also witnessed my grandma’s death. In one scorching afternoon we were told that she is no more.  That evening it rained hard. It rained for many hours. From our window  I watched the Gulmohar petals soaking every joy of summer rain. Only there was no grandma to make tiniest of paper boats to put out into the after-rain puddles. There was no one to tell me how rain water cured pimples and summer allergies; no one to brave the rains to go out and tie a falling creeper to it’s support. Till nightfall I kept looking out through the window -just in case I would catch her shadow passing by. But there was no one. The Jasmines bloomed that night – their fiercest best – not a single branch was left untouched by the little white blossoms. As I reached out to touch them, tears ran down my cheeks. I could suddenly feel the presence of my grandma. I could almost hear her voice. “Aah, God Of Breeze, may you soothe our soul”.

Summers have never been the same again but amidst all the office, kids, bills, loans, stomach cramps, noisy network connection that I have, I still wait for little black mossy clouds to huddle together in the scorching summer sky….just in case it rains.

The Power of Love

apple-570965_1920I 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!!

GRANDMA