Grief is such a personal emotion and yet reminiscing someone we love after they have passed on, through our words or in our hearts, is cathartic, therapeutic even. November last year, my friend, philosopher & guide- Sujata di, lost her mother. The raw pain and grief I witnessed, when I went to offer my condolences, was heartbreaking. She, at last, found it in herself to write about Aunty. What I share below is her tribute to the extraordinary woman that her Ma was. When I asked di whether I could share it on my blog, she just said, “You may, if you feel it is alright. I want people to know her.” I had the good fortune of having met her and I wish I had known her better. Rest in peace Aunty!
Driving alone to Lucknow on a
Sunday evening, I saw my mother
in my mind’s eye, smile,
and beckon me into
her arms, gathering me close to
her heart and I realized
that the warmth of her
love was the
most precious thing I had in my life,
but on reaching home, this image
dissolved to reveal
the shocking truth…
under the oxygen mask, my
mother struggled to breathe,
her frail, bird-like frame
rapidly sinking under…
and as I held desperately, fiercely
on to her hands, she bid me goodbye, her
eyes finding mine, then slowly
Her final journey had begun
I sobbed, ‘Rest in peace, Ma’,
all I did was cry and cry and cry…
(2nd Dec, 2016)
(With apologies to Kamla Das)
(22nd May, 1936 to 15th Nov., 2016)
I don’t remember being born or being gathered to Ma’s bosom as an infant, but I remember the love and warmth that emanated from her all my life…………
I don’t remember the pain of the umbilical cord being severed between us, but I remember the powerful bond that tied me to her till the very end…..and beyond.
I don’t remember the early years of my growing-up. I get a glimpse of them through the sepia-tinted photos that I flick through occasionally: here, she cuddles me to her heart, feeding me something; there, I stand with a comb in my hand as she looks at me lovingly; in one, I’m a toddler, not yet having learnt to walk, being held by each hand, by Papa and Ma; in so many of them, I’m hardly recognizable with Ma having dolled me up in lehnga and dupatta, or a hat and a stylishly stitched frock or the one where, as a three-year old, I sit within the protective circle of my parents. So many moments that I have no recollection of, but when I look back over the course of thirty years or so, make me realize none of that love and care and warmth had abated or tapered off. It burned as fiercely as ever-in the way she looked at me, smiled at me or sat by me.
As long as I can remember, I have turned to Ma for advice, for support, for answers and I’ve always been given what I asked for and more. She seemed to know just the right things to say and the most suitable ways to do them. Unconsciously, I tried to copy her in all that she did. I didn’t even know I had a fetish for cleanliness and order until I realized, I had watched her meticulous way of keeping house; in the words of The Police “every little thing she did was magic”.
It has just hit me that she was no ordinary mortal; well, she didn’t move mountains or bring about revolutions, but there was something about her that set her apart from everyone I knew. She was utterly and completely without artifice. She would call a spade a spade, no matter how we felt about it; at times, her forthrightness would embarrass us among friends and relatives and we would grin weakly to dissipate the ensuing awkwardness. In really delicate situations, we actually coached her to be a trifle diplomatic and not say what was uppermost in her mind, but it was always a losing battle. Ma could not gloss over an unpleasantness and more often than not, the person who had rubbed her the wrong way would have to bear the brunt of her displeasure, come what may. It wasn’t deliberate, it was just who she was. There are very few people who were irksome to her, but her very demeanor in their presence, would become so unapproachable and disapproving, that they invariably sensed it and refrained from annoying her further. Tact in Ma, was a rarity, indeed!
Ma was devoid of all the vices that plague us at some point of our lives. I know it sounds like an impossibility, but the Creator had done a marvellous job in putting her together in flesh and blood. Her honesty, her lack of avarice, her principles and her strong moral values made her an exceptional human being. There was a purity about her that made me more fully aware of my own shortcomings. In her presence, you were forced to face your own weaknesses and find ways to overcome them. Each one of us accepts this amazing quality that Ma possessed. Her simplicity was so genuine, it shone right out of her. She made me feel humble. I wish I’d bowed before her or touched her feet or placed rose-petals on them to show her what I felt for her in a more tangible way. Instead, it was all very tacit. I own today, that I have revered and adored and worshipped no one else my entire life, as I have Ma; I just wish I could’ve told her that when there had been time…..
There had always, been a mystery surrounding Ma and Papa’s marriage. Ma never gave us the whole story. It was from bits and pieces gleaned from Saroj mausi, Mukul mausi and Ma herself, that I could piece this mesmerizing saga of love, sacrifice and banishment together. Apparently, Ma discovered that she had special feelings for Papa at the tender age of 17 or 18. A motherless waif, she established herself as a wonderful cook in a tiny kitchen, where she prepared savories to feed a horde of siblings and cousins, though hardly ever had any left to feed herself. Papa was a regular visitor to the household and was studying under the patronage of Bade Nana, the family patriarch. Papa was thin as a rake in those days (I can vouch for this fact, courtesy pictures of the time) and I’d often teased Ma as to what had attracted her to him! She would always be very serious about it and told us it was not always the appearance of a person that mattered. In a large family, comprising of sisters, brothers, cousins and sisters in-law, it was easy to overlook the quieter members who chose to remain in the shadows. Papa’s attention and care for Ma must have gravitated her to him and when the two decided to marry, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise. But it did!
The announcement sent shock waves through the residents of the stone and cement edifice that was 30, Kutchehry Road.
The Srivastava clan was an influential one in Lucknow. Bade Nana was a stalwart and moved in rarefied society; a renowned lawyer, who had traveled to London and owned, one of the very few Chevrolet Convertibles in the city, his word, both actually and figuratively, was the law! He refused permission, absolutely; no such match would take place under his jurisdiction. Papa was adamant, too. I believe, he even exhorted Ma to elope. But Ma was Ma. That went against all the scruples she held sacred. Eventually, Ma’s maternal uncle took it upon himself to solemnize the union. Hasty arrangements were made in Faizabad, where Nana was a District Cane Development Officer. The ‘baraat’ was a ragtag group of Papa’s few friends and my sole Chacha, constituting the bridegroom’s family, other than the groom himself! To their credit, Chhote Nana and all Ma’s siblings attended the Arya Samaj ceremony that saw Km. Malti Srivastave become Mrs. Malti Bhatt. There were muted grumblings in the family against Papa for carrying away the sweetest girl of the household, a grudge that was nurtured and continued for fifteen long years. Ma and Papa left Lucknow for Rourkela and thereon to Ranchi and did not come back to the city until Deepa Mausi’s wedding in 1978. Ma was not invited to Kishan Mama, Umesh Mama, Bishnu Mama or Chitra Mausi’s weddings. Forsaken and forgotten, I can only imagine how desolate and abandoned she must have felt, treated this way by her own kith and kin. In spite of my urging, Ma never spoke about her early years of married life. She did suffer a miscarriage though, before me, and Mohini Mami had come down to Ranchi to take care of her. Nana wouldn’t have been able to keep up the pretence of anger and disapproval against this eldest daughter, I feel.
Though my memories of Ma in the late 60s are hazy, I do recall her as a slim, graceful, woman who loved to do everything to perfection. For her, neatness and orderliness were bywords. She couldn’t imagine being in a house where these were absent. I remember often riffling through her dressing table drawers, finding a ‘jooda’ and ‘jooda’ pins and asking her what they were for; I’d never seen her use them! I vaguely remember her long hair, reaching below her waist, which she always kept in a loose braid. Ma’s beauty was very subtle. Her simplicity defined it and perhaps, accentuated it. When she was getting ready to go somewhere, I would sit on the dressing table and watch intensely as she applied a straight ‘bindi’ out of a liquid phial on her wide forehead, the Angel Face compact which she’d used forever (until production of it was stopped), homemade ‘kajal’, with a slight slant outwards, which gave a beautiful serenity to her eyes and the saree, that she draped to precision, with nary a pleat out of place. When Ma slipped into her sandals, I wanted to applaud -”My mummy, bestest!”
I also wish to note another marvel about Ma. Even when the temperatures hit the high 40s, she never broke into a sweat. There was no body odor—none–that came off her. She exuded either a whiff of Pond’s Dream flower Talc or her much loved Charlie. Mala Bhabhi always used to bring her a bottle on her visits from the US. (It is a cruel turn of fate that both the giver and the receiver are no more….)
Earlier, she’d favoured the perfume of Intimate or Chanel No 5! She was loyal to her brands. Her toothpaste was always Colgate, her bathing soap, always Mysore Sandal! She loved the little, simple things oh, so much! For all those who knew Ma, the Lopchu tea leaves would forever be associated with her. She even carried her tea-bags to guests’ places, rather than take the tea that they had prepared. As I wrote earlier, tact was not one of her strengths!
Ma was a home- maker in the truest sense of the word. The bricks and cement structure of the house, wherever she lived, turned magically into a home under her TLC! Tantalizing aroma wafted from the kitchen, the furniture sparkled free of all dust, our clothes were always freshly laundered and she was always there to welcome us on our return from school. Ma was like a warm comforter, who blew away the cobwebs of doubt and fear and insecurity. This thin, fragile person was our mainstay. Ma was home, home was Ma! I never imagined it without her, I couldn’t!
Ma would make our birthdays special for us. How was she able to do so much! The endless variety of lip-smacking goodies–samosas, sandwiches, chhole, chutneys, gulab-jamun, breadrolls, shahi-toast and the gorgeous, icing-covered, splendidly decorated birthday cake! Looking back, I feel like genuflecting before her again and again in awe and gratitude. How she must have slaved from morning to evening to bring the day to its fruition! And this, not once but thrice a year, year after year after year!
Ma’s birthday parties were the talk of the colony. I remember the table laden with food, the drawing room, colorfully alive with streamers and balloons, the laughter and chatter of hundreds of voices, the bustle of friends and family, the huge stack of glittering presents! What a gift Ma gave us! The memories of those events give me a warm glow, even today, almost 40 years later. That’s how special Ma made them for us.
Words fail me, Ma! I do not, cannot, believe, God made another like you!
I know Ma was not really very healthy. With her meagre intake of meals, it was hardly possible for her to be entirely without certain health issues.
She suffered from severe attacks of migraine; she would lie in the darkness of the room for two or three days before she completely recovered and she always emerged in a weakened state, seeming more fragile than ever. I remember the long hours that I spent soothing her forehead, trying to ease her pain, wishing childishly and fervently for it to go away. The medicines and treatment only brought her temporary relief. That’s about the only time that we saw her take to the bed.
Ma was indefatigable. She ate like a bird and lord knows where she found the energy to accomplish so much in a day. From sun up to sundown to late night, she flitted from one room to the other. The kitchen, of course, was her favorite place and cooking her passion, and she would churn out dish after dish during meal times, each more delicious than the one before. If she enjoyed a dish at a guest’s, she would ask for the recipe and then, giving it her own unique touch, would make it taste better than the original! That’s what happened with her ‘dosas’ and ‘sambar’; she generously gave credit to Menon aunty for showing her the ropes, but with the way Ma prepared South Indian food I’m very certain even Menon aunty would’ve taken a bow ! Linda’s pizzas never tasted as delicious as Ma’s though it was the former who had first treated us to them. Learning and perfecting an art was Ma’s forte. I don’t know who the patron saint of cooking is, but I’m certain, he sat by Ma when she prepared her ‘gajar ka halwa’, ‘makhane ki kheer’, ‘gujhiya’ or her divine ‘gulab jamuns’! I’ve had them at dozens of places but it was only Ma’s magic that could turn these dishes into ambrosia! I wish I had a dram of what she possessed. I’d be a far better person for it.
Ma did not reveal any apparent fears of bogeymen or ‘things that go bump in the night’! Once, she’d shared with me her clandestine visit, with a friend, to ‘Bhainsakund’, the cremation ground. This was when she’d been in college and curious to know why women were discouraged, at times even prohibited, from attending funerals here. Lucknow, in those days, had not spread its tentacles in all directions like a giant, unwieldy octopus. The ground had been on the periphery of the city then and quite isolated, but Ma had felt no unease or apprehension as she sat there. ‘So, this is where it all ends’, was the thought that had come to her. Phantoms and spooks were nebulous, indefinable to her. ‘I’m more afraid of thieves, cutthroats and murderers,’ she often admitted in her usual unflappable manner.
She did give proof of possessing nerves of steel (if it was ever required!) on our journey back from Nasirabad. We’d gone to visit Bishun Mama who was posted with the MES in the early 90s. None of us had the slightest inkling of the peril that awaited us. The train journey itself began uneventfully, though the emptiness of the coach was a little unnerving. A couple of stops later, as if to heighten the sense of foreboding, a group of young boys came aboard and showing obvious signs of inebriation spread themselves in the vacant spaces. The lewd and objectionable comments came soon enough. One can only gauge Ma’s fears with three young girls (Amrita, Gunjan and me) in her charge. With all the dignity she could muster, she calmly approached an elderly lady in the women’s compartment, requesting her to let us in. To her credit, the woman did so with alacrity. The men were enraged at the turn of events and were almost feral in the way they rattled the doors of the closed coupe, laughing drunkenly all the while. Ma asked for my dupatta and fastened the handle of the door more firmly to the berth. It was a long night and Ma sat vigil in the darkness, telling us in reassuring tones, ‘Don’t worry. Kuch nahi hoga’. And amidst the trepidation, the shivering and fervent praying, I knew that we indeed had nothing to worry. Today, as I sit and recollect those dreadful moments of 25 some years ago, I’m convinced, it was the strength of her aura that had prevailed, that the petty horrors of the night could not have withstood the magnificent courage with which she was imbued.
It was quite quite confounding how she enjoyed TV programmes (very sparingly, though) which were decidedly lurid in content with their conspiracies, violent stratagems, unholy liaisons, et al. This sat so at variance with Ma’s composed and prosaic demeanour.
Ma’s world revolved around Papa, her kids, Dadi, her home…. all her energy was spent to make life fulfilling and complete for them. My world was Ma, there were times when I couldn’t think beyond her. Frankly, I couldn’t envisage a life without her. She could do no wrong. She was my moral compass. She was my anchor, my strength. I remember a time in Ranchi when I’d been alone at home. Ma had gone to a neighbor’s. When I heard the gate clang and saw a man, who I dreaded, enter, I rushed to the phone, desperately urging Ma to come back. Ma, slim and all of 72 pounds, was my ultimate Chinese wall between me and this lecherous, obnoxious man who was at the gate. She came home running and I cried tears of relief.
Once, when I’d been much younger, maybe four or five, I lay sleepless under the mosquito net. It must have been eleven at night, but some nameless fear kept me awake. Even with Pikku and Dadi in the room, I couldn’t play down the morbid thoughts that prevented me from dozing off. My throat dry with terror I whispered again and again-’Mummy’; of course, in the adjacent room, Ma couldn’t have heard me even if I’d called out at a normal volume. And suddenly, as if by magic, a soothing hand lay on my forehead. Ma had come. How had she known that her little girl had been afraid and wanted to be comforted! To this day, I have no explanation for what happened. Suffice to say that a mother’s instinct to know her children’s feelings is an inbuilt mechanism that defies all logic.
Moderation was Ma’s mantra. She had no excesses whatsoever, and so, was genuinely shocked at others, who could not resist a vice, be it smoking or alcohol, or anything as unhealthy or unpleasant.
She was a frugal eater. What she didn’t like would make for a very long list indeed. I never, in her entire life, saw her have lunch. Everyone would have dal, roti, vegetables, rice and she would have a plate of sliced cucumber! That was HER lunch; at dinner, a roti and a little side dish of vegetables was all she was able to eat; a morsel of gajak or a few spoonfuls of ‘boondi’ was dessert and she was done! We called her a wonder of nature. A grown human being running on the diet of a bird! And so her weight varied between 30 and 35 and her waist-line never went beyond 21!
One painful fact which all of us will have to accept is though we loved Ma, we never took her word seriously. On hindsight, she’d always turned out to be right, but at the time, she was always ignored. She had implored Papa not to leave England and instead to bring Chacha there for his treatment. Papa went against her–all of us did–and made one of the biggest mistakes of his life. Today, he admits it, regrets it and apologizes to her, when she’s no longer present to accept it. Life’s ironies come back to hurt us all at one time or the other. You never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. Ma had always had the foresight to know how the consequences of an action would or could pan out. Her prescience was never valued and I believe she felt undermined and slighted, at times. I could sometimes see that defeated look in her eyes but, we are too thick-skinned and obstinate to take cognizance of another point of view if it sits at variance with our own. Therein lies our fault.
Tuesdays were special for Ma. Since she’d been a girl, she’d been devoted to lord Hanuman. Despite her diet, she kept a fast on the day and for some years now had given up taking salt altogether on Tuesdays. Pooja time would be extended by an hour as she would read the Sundarkand along with the Hanuman Chalisa. Then, we would all be given ‘prasad’ of dry fruits. ‘Boondi’ would be offered in the evening. This ritual rarely varied and we had grown into the tradition of observing Tuesdays too; no one ate eggs and meat was completely forbidden. All of this, if violated, displeased Ma intensely and no one wished to face her wrath, silent and ominous as it was.
Fasts somehow never made Ma feel listless or weak. Whether it was the Navratris or the difficult ‘nirjal’ ‘Karwa Chauth’, she seemed more zestful and ebullient than ever, if possible. She applied herself busily to work on the occasions, preparing the special ‘Pooja’ items throughout the day and claimed to suffer from no hunger pangs or discomfort whatsoever. In earlier years, though, I have seen her struggle through ‘Karwa Chauth’, due to the infernal migraine attacks but she never gave in to the pain. Only after the moon had risen and she had performed the precious ‘Pooja’, would she succumb and lie down in exhaustion. I’m sure, Papa realises the love she bore him throughout these years. ‘Karwa Chauth’ was never a duty for Ma, but always an act of faith and devotion to him for whom she had forsaken her entire family 53 years ago.
For Ma, a little went a long way. She never borrowed, never owed anybody anything and abhorred the idea of being in debt to someone, especially monetarily. She had a knack of running the household on the salary that Papa brought home with an efficiency that is truly admirable. Where she had got such horse sense from is an enigma because such things can’t be taught. It had to be intuitive. True, every single penny was gone by the end of the month, but none of it had been wasted. Good nourishing food was always on the table and we were clad in the best cotton fabrics that could be bought. She saved on the tailor’s expenditure, because she stitched most of our dresses herself on her Usha machine. I recall the hours that she spent on the sewing and hemming and even the classes that she took to perfect herself. In those earlier years, she always wore blouses she had made herself, with the sleeves reaching to the elbows! Even when the design had gone out of style, her sleeves retained this length and she was mortified if the tailor (later, she had resorted to getting them stitched) made them shorter, even by an inch!
I do not remember wearing cardigans, pullovers or sweaters bought from shops. Before we left for England, all, and I say all, our woollens were knitted by Ma. Throughout the winter months, Ma would be industriously clicking away her needles to produce exceptionally deigned woollens for us–the intricate patterns, the vibrant colors and impeccable knitting – it was perfection manifest! Others in the colony marveled at Ma’s dexterity and proficiency. Some of our pullovers were so flawless that many refused to believe that they were not machine – made! Incredibly, the warmth of her hands seemed to have become an indelible part of the wool, so that when I wore it I didn’t feel the cold at all.
Even when in financial straits, Ma never made us feel the lack of any essential item at home. There were always eggs, butter, bread and milk for everyone, surf to clean the clothes, all kinds of soaps for the family’s use, shoes and slippers and their accessories, and even an occasional outing where we were allowed to buy story books! I don’t remember any of our bed sheets or quilts or blankets having patches or being ragged. Everything was spartan but clean and well maintained. It was all Ma. No one could have done it better. She gave us the best life that we could have had as children. Having come from a joint family where she could claim nothing as her own, she had put the stamp of her exceptional individuality in the way that she had made her family and her home. Mild-mannered yet strong-willed, patient, yet determined, she was a person of many paradoxes, not the least being the fount of energy that propelled her almost delicate- boned physique to performing amazing feats of endurance and resilience. Ma, I salute the woman you were!
Ma had never been garrulous; she spoke only when necessary. I remember the silences that we shared as we sat companionably in the covered verandah of our 3 A/3 home at Ranchi. She would be busy with her knitting or some unending kitchen chore while I was invariably with a book, ruining my eyes further! Only occasionally would she look at me and chide me for my incessant reading. There are so many things I learnt from her through these moments. While she was intent with the task at hand, I would surreptitiously be watching the deft way her fingers shelled the peas or chopped the vegetables; she taught me to chop ‘gobhi ka saag’ in the finest manner possible to extract its flavour to the maximum when cooked.
Her patience and commitment in accomplishing the smallest of tasks was astonishing. No wonder her cooking was such a revelation. She brooked no shortcuts and had no tolerance for a job hastily or shoddily done. I can understand some people who go about doing their work with perhaps similar dedication and attention, but Ma did it for 53 years without cutting corners, ever! That is phenomenal!
It was in 1977 that Papa got a midnight call from Sharma uncle in Detroit. They’d been great friends before uncle had emigrated to the US. Friendship beckoned and Ma and Papa were sent tickets to go visit them for a three month stay. It was my first separation from Ma and being the oldest, I felt it the most. Though Chacha’s family had come down to Ranchi to keep us company, it was no compensation for Ma’s absence. Whenever, Papa and Ma called from the US, I could hardly speak for the tears choking me up!
Eventually, the three month stay was cut short by half (whatever may have been the real reason), because, we were being missed too much by our parents. I recall our impatience at the platform, waiting for the train that was bringing Papa and Ma home, and the way I had hurled myself at Ma, clinging to her saree as she’d stepped off the compartment. My god, her feel, her touch, her smell….. my paradise had been right there in her arms; she looked smart and pretty in her new haircut, glamorous even. On reaching home, I tried to emulate the style by chopping off my hair and making a mess of it. I was twelve and mortified at the way the strands stuck out like pine-needles. Again, it was Ma who smoothed them down and pacified me by saying that my hair was thick and straight and had a beauty of its own. Only Ma could make me feel better when the mirror said I looked a right idiot! Until I left to join Mody in 2001, that was the second longest that I’d stayed without Ma and it had been a wrench!
Her other interests, outside her family, were of a cerebral nature. She had a profound knowledge of Indian classical music and particularly of her favourite ragas. She loved to listen to Malkauns and Pahari. She had a sweet voice and sang mellifluously, one thing I’ve inherited from her! She was always sore at the fact that I did not apply myself to the music lessons with adequate diligence or willingness.
With a fairly pragmatic temperament, Ma never claimed to have been bowled over by anyone from the celluloid world as many of her age had, but she confessed to have been an avid admirer of Sitar maestro, Ravi Shankar. During one bout of spring cleaning, we’d come across a picture of a young Ravi Shankar that she’d kept in a folder. I’d teased her mercilessly about it until she’d turned around and squarely told me it was nothing like my manic obsession for Steve Waugh. That had shut me up!
She loved listening to Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Pt. D.V. Paluskar. Papa and she would occasionally attend all night SPIC MACAY concerts in BIT, Mesra, coming home in the early hours of the morning. Her taste, even in movies, ran to songs which were based purely on ‘ragas’. In her tiny, little diary, she has the lyrics of soulful Lata Mangeshkar numbers from ‘Anpadh’ and ‘Anarkali’, or Surraiya and someone called Shanta Apte. Her most favoured male singer was Talat Mahmood and somehow, that doesn’t surprise me at all. For the quiet, soft-spoken, sensitive person that she’d been, Talat was the obvious choice! I’d made a collection of her favourite Talat songs last summer and she sat and listened to them with pleasure, humming in an undertone, reliving perhaps, some forgotten moments of her past. There had been a lost, dreamy look in her eyes, and I’d felt, it would have been an intrusion to ask her the reason for it.
She had completed fifth year Sitar Visharad from Bhatkhande but, unfortunately, I never heard her play the Sitar, though, the instrument kept standing for many years in the corner of our store room. Once I’d asked her about it and she had a sad look in her eyes when she said, ‘Your Papa doesn’t seem very keen.’ I was young and felt a spurt of anger against Papa who had robbed Ma of the joy of playing the Sitar. Ma’s feelings on the matter were never properly expressed. On certain issues, I feel, she’d been extremely reticent, especially if it would have projected Papa in a poor light. He’d been her knight in shining armor who’d whisked her away from a life of loneliness and neglect and she would do only that which made him happy. Her metier was to be a mother and wife par excellence, a role that she fulfilled effortlessly. Dadi had once also vouched for the fact that she was a daughter-in-law who everyone dreams of and never finds. Dadi and Ma had been a perfect complement to each other. She was the daughter Dadi never had and Ma never missed her own mother, having found a perfect one in Dadi.
I find that there is no particular sequence to this narrative and, even I later, could find myself getting disoriented going through it all. In my defense all I can say is that I had no time to clinically plot it all out into some semblance of orderliness, so that there could have been a harmonious pattern to the events as they unfolded. My mind is a jumble of memories and there is too much pain and trauma for me to have detailed any of this out. So here it all is, in all its fragmented messiness. I hope, Ma forgives me for it, because she, after all, had been the very epitome of meticulousness and propriety.
I know, I cannot avert the inevitable. At some point during this account, I would be forced to dwell on the last days of Ma among us. I also realize that if I avoid doing so, the catharsis that I so desperately yearn for may never come.
I had looked forward to going back home for the ten-day Diwali break. Home was Ma, always and unconditionally, Ma. As she’d done for 15 long years, she stood in the drive-way opening up her arms as I stepped through the gates into them. I hugged her tenderly, gingerly even, and said what I felt, “You’ve become even thinner, if that’s possible!” She brushed the concern aside and I more fool I, did the same. A couple of days before Diwali, she began to complain of pain in the chest. Everyone assumed, including her, that she must‘ve slept the wrong way or pulled a muscle. Some painkillers, a hot water bag and an ointment brought some relief and she was on the go, once again. However, the pain stayed and at times, became too intense for us to ignore it. An X -Ray and ECG were done and to our relief, neither showed any abnormality. We visited a reputed orthopedic physician and, on viewing the X -Ray film, he told us that Ma suffered from a most severe deficiency of calcium and that there were tiny, multiple breakages in her ribcage and shoulders. Seeing the look of alarm in my face, he reassured us that he would try to control the damage but Ma would need to take a lot of calcium in her meals, besides the meds that he was prescribing. We returned home in a buoyant mood, already feeling better. On the way, she even asked me to buy a kilo of apples, the hard kind, and kept reciting all the things she could have which had calcium in them.
On the 5th of Nov., though still in some discomfort, she sat with Deepa mausi’s family, chatting, having dinner, posing for photos…….. As I look at them now, at her smile that, almost certainly must have hid her pain, I whisper, ‘My brave Ma!’ Two days later, she bemoaned not being able to prepare ‘suji ka halwa’ on Adi’s birthday. With Gunjan also suffering from typhoid, the holidays had not been festive at all. I was to depart on the 7th from the venue of Adi’s party though I did not much relish the thought of leaving, what with both Ma and Gunjan unwell. However, certain pressing work back at Mody forced me to return; I did drop a mail to my Head that, if required, I would have to come back home after the function at School was over. Feeling the hot unshed tears burn my eyes, I hugged Ma goodbye and when she whispered, ‘Kab aaogi” I held her tighter and answered, “Jaab bhi tum bulaogi”. For the next three days, through the whirlwind of events at the work place, I could only call home briefly to inquire of the patients’ condition. There was no cause for worry. Recovery was slow but taking place. The band of tension around my forehead began to relax.
Sunday morning, on the 13th, I woke to the strident notes of Gunjan’s phone call. ‘Come home, di, Ma is in ICU.’ The blood drained from my face and I felt I would fall if I got off the bed. How could this have happened, when I’d been receiving such encouraging reports on her health! Through bits and pieces, I learnt that she had taken a bath that she shouldn’t have, which had aggravated her chest pains to the extent that she couldn’t breathe properly. Every desperate gasp for oxygen sent slivers of shooting pain through her ribs. A second X-ray revealed the thick spread of pnuemonia over her lungs.
All through the bus journey, on the advice of well-wishers, I chanted the magic mantra of ‘Om Namah Shivay’ over and over again, hoping, praying, desperately wishing for Ma’s speedy recovery. Gunjan and I clasped each other tightly, each trying to instill courage into the other. The drive-way looked forlorn in the absence of Ma. She was far away in a hospital bed, fighting for her life. After a quick bath and change of clothes, we called a cab and reached the medical center where she was in a closed cubicle on the first floor.
I was shocked at her appearance, though I desperately attempted to wear a normal expression and tone as I clasped her hand. Her eyes seemed listless as she breathed tortuously through the oxygen mask. The monitor beeped in the corner, displaying her vital signs. Blood pressure normal, pulse normal, oxygen saturation good (with the mask on, with it off, it started to decelerate). She spoke weakly but ate a few spoonfuls of porridge from my hands and later, even some tea and biscuits. A team of doctors came and pronounced that Ma was responding to the treatment. Recovery would take time because of the general weakness that had never given her a very robust constitution at any point of her life.
Papa, Gunjan, Mama, Mami had all come visiting and even as everyone spoke in murmurs, Ma fell into a fitful sleep and at seven in the evening, most of the visitors left, preparing to come the following day. Mami kept me company. I had no intention of leaving Ma’s side. I stood looking down at her, willing her to become better. She had promised me that she would allow me to feed her some ‘lauki’ and half a chapati later; Pikku left to get this meagre dinner prepared for her and I sat on the cot, soothing her swollen forearm, taped with a syringe plunged through her skin. Her fingers, hands and toes had swollen to such an extent that they were unrecognizable as Ma’s. Where were the thin, bony digits through which the veins had always been clearly visible? At times, the skin would be stretched so tightly over them that we could even see the blood coursing through them. These puffy hands and feet seemed to belong to a stranger. No wonder, a little earlier, she had asked me to wear her gold bangles–they were cutting into her distended wrists. Ma and I had always shared the two pairs. She wore it with glass bangles and I without. Now, all four were on my wrist. But not for long, I told myself silently; only as long as Ma was in the hospital. Once she was back home, the bangles would go right where they belonged.
Abhijeet kept reminding us that Ma should be in respiratory care unit because, her condition was basically lung related. She was, after all, in the gastro-enterology ward that catered to specific problems of the stomach and liver. There was talk of shifting Ma to SGPGI for further treatment the following day. I don’t know what happened in the next half hour. Her placid breathing suddenly turned erratic. She moaned, once, twice and panic – stricken, I gasped, crying, “Kya hua, Ma?” Through the labored breathing, she slowly turned her eyes to mine, and even as I began desperately to scream, I saw the light go out of them, I saw them become still…… the next hour was a nightmare. Doctors, paramedics, attendants rushed to administer CPR to her lifeless body, forcing her heart to beat again, her pulse to throb again. My knees gave way, my teeth chattered and my mind became blank. This couldn’t be, couldn’t be… what about the mantra of Om Namah Shivay” that was supposed to have made her whole again!! Where were the Gods? Why didn’t the prayers work? What else could we have done? There were no answers. I had not expected any.
As Ma was shifted into the ICU again, (a futile exercise, I feel, on looking back), Papa and Pikku rushed inside, wonderment and disbelief writ large on their faces. Ma was in a hurry to leave. Nothing worked. All night, Mami, Pikku and I stayed in Abhijeet’s chamber but, I knew, even praying now would be of no use. Accepting the reality was not an option either. I remained in the twilight zone of semi consciousness and acuity, not believing what was happening, yet sobbing uncontrollably. This was Ma, my mother, who had been my strength and support for as long as I can remember. How could she just leave in this way? People get a chance to say their good-byes, to settle their accounts, to prepare their loved ones for the final moments…. they don’t say they’ll have ‘lauki and roti’ and slip away into oblivion, never to return!
When she was being shifted to PGI on the 15th, the terrifying siren of the ambulance cutting a swathe through the thick traffic, some foolish noise in my head continued to hope. Even the doctors had said the magic words ‘miracles happen.’
But this time, the miracle didn’t happen. I will never forget, as long as I live, the stark corridor where I sat with Mami and Mintoo, the words that were yelled from one end of it, ‘Bed No 8, Malti Bhatt!’ With trembling legs, supported by Mintoo, I went up the stairs and entered the Critical Care Unit where Ma lay, tubes and bandages and tapes all over her crushed, defeated, wasted form. I heard the fatal words- ‘It is over,’ coming from somewhere near my head and I fell at Ma’s feet, no longer able to stop the wail that rose from my lips, a lament that has been made by countless men and women as they have lost the dearest, the most loving part of themselves to the inevitable.
My simple, noble, sweet mother was no more……. I’d never understood the finality of death but, in that moment, I knew how bitter its taste can be. It is terrible to find yourself breathing and walking when the most precious part of your life has gone. Many times before, I’d often put this question to myself–what will I do when Ma goes, and I would blithely say nothing, because I won’t be alive to suffer the pain. I’ll go too; well, that hasn’t happened and I’m amazed, even guilt-ridden, at the resilience of life, the tenacity with which it clings to you. It makes you suffer, it makes you want to die, but it doesn’t let go of its hold on you.
My eyes felt as though they would burst through the sockets and my lungs gulped in oxygen, even as Ma lay in the sterile, unfeeling medical unit upstairs. I just wanted to take her home, sit by her side, and bathe her lifeless body with my tears.
Pikku brought her back and lay her on a bed of ice. Her face was serene. The vestiges of pain were no more. The following morning, she began her final journey. We dressed her in a resplendent red saree and maroon chunri, decorating her from head to toe, even as the tears streamed unchecked down our faces. This wasn’t to be! This isn’t why I’d come home – it’d been here to take care of her, nurse her back to health.
The rituals followed–the Puja, the havan, the crowd of friends and relatives, the condolences, the wisdom and the platitudes–nothing brought relief. There was no closure. Life, in all its harshness, opened up like a long, unending path before me, an invisible hand pushing me on to it–go, walk……… and all I wanted to do was sit in a corner and slowly become a part of the wall behind me.
Then, the faces slowly fell into focus; Papa, alone and suddenly shrunk in stature, appearing lost and vulnerable. His partner had left him just short of their 54th marriage anniversary. The Royal Bengal Tiger had aged visibly in 48 hours and the fearsomeness that had been so much a part of his persona, seemed like a mirage. Looking at him, I understood the nature of my own selfish grieving. Papa’s loss was the greatest, especially when I recalled the way he had won Ma’s affection and fought against the tide of her family’s disapproval to make her his own. Their romance of yester years had stood the test of time, had seen tumultuous ups and downs, had overcome the many barriers that would inevitably have come their way and had finally found the calm, unhurried pace of walking together in the twilight of their lives. Now, Papa stood alone on this road, not believing his fate, his eyes restlessly searching for her and his voice echoing just the one word—‘Malti, Malti, Malti……… I had to stop my own tears to wipe away his. I must not store my memories in my eyes, they may roll down with tears. I must store them in my heart, so that every heartbeat reminds me of their beauty.
My memories flow on… Ma’s boundless source of energy had been a conundrum none of us have been able to solve. Her daily diet included three large mugs of tea, devoid of all milk and sugar and brewed of the finest Lopchu tea- leaves of Darjeeling, a slice of bread over which she generously spread homemade butter and then sprinkled it with the spicy ‘dalmot’ of Aminabad–this was breakfast! Sliced cucumber or a bowl of curd was lunch. A few ‘namkeen’ tidbits made up evening tea and a smallish sized ‘roti‘ or ‘paratha’ with the vegetable of the day was dinner! With a few variations, here or there, this had been her intake for close to 50 years! In retrospect, the only explanation that comes to mind is divine energy. She was propelled by some kind of spiritual strength that never made her lie down to rest during the day, never tired her out, never made her feel weak, never enervated her…… What else could it have been? She was a machine whose engine ran on hardly any fuel at all! I recall those summer afternoons when I returned exhausted from work. After lunch, I would flop down for a siesta while she sat near my pillow and read a book. After a couple of hours of healthy snoozing, when I came awake I’d find her in the same position, reading! I would shake my head in wonder and ask her how she could be so still, keep sitting in that position for so long; and she would smile and tell me all the things she had completed while I’d been resting. The table had been cleared, the dishes emptied, the kitchen cleaned……
My friends and colleagues refused to believe me when I described Ma to them. ‘She doesn’t seem real’ would be their response. Only when they had met her in person were they able to accept the truth of my words. But that didn’t mean, they weren’t astounded by what they’d seen with their own eyes.
Many came to offer solace at the workplace. Their words and gestures of consolation and sympathy could bring only a tiny modicum of comfort to my heart. How could it be otherwise when it has been torn asunder so? Some asked me how old Ma had been and when I said ‘80’, I could see the incredulity in their expression that plainly said, ‘So why this disbelief at her demise, why the unacceptance of the ordained. She was OLD’. But, that’s the thing; she was old only chronologically. Her movements, as if in defiance of her age were always very definitive, her manner always upbeat. She brimmed with enterprise, ever in motion, ever sprightly. Even the orthopedic doctor who we’d gone to for a checkup, had exclaimed, ‘80’! Mataji, you don’t look a day over 60! Give me also the herbs that have kept you so young,’ bringing a smile to Ma’s lips.
How could I explain this singular fact of Ma’s personality to those who had never had the good fortune of meeting and knowing her– the exceptional human being that she’d been!
Ma was a stickler for perfection. Either she would not take up a commitment at all, or if she did, she would invariably see it to its completion, come what may. ‘Impossible” was not something she believed in; ‘Hoga kaise nahi’ was her response, always. This is one thing, I hope, I have learned from her. Ma’s tuition was very subtle. There were no in your face directions or instructions to accomplish a task; she would do it herself, without asking us to observe her methods, but the intentness and absorption with which she worked were encouragement enough for the learners. I remember her deftness with the knitting needles and having watched her for a while, one day, I begged her to teach me this skill. Under her expert tutelage, I completed two wonderful pullovers for myself.
My handiwork was much appreciated, though I know I had not been able to bring the kind of exquisite neatness that was the hallmark of her knit work! Well, perfection is not easily found. Everywhere, it is at a premium and I had the most beautiful example of it in my Ma!
Ma loved the simple things in life. Not for her intricately carved, gold ‘kadas’ instead, she kept a dazzling array of glass bangles. She loved them with a passion untold! During my trips to Firozabad, my only personal work would be to browse the market for glass bangles for Ma–red, pink, magenta, orange, maroon–she loved their texture against her wrists and the way they jangled against one another. They would always be a couple of safety pins fastened on to one of them. How many hundreds of time have I borrowed them from her, knowing with certainty, that I would find one there! These little moments have gone forever. There would be no sweet clinking of those glass bangles ever now……..
Her second toe would never be without a ‘bichia’. She had an assortment of them which she changed from time to time. I remember, how the ends were cutting into her skin as she had lain in the hospital bed because of the swelling in her feet, and even then she forbade me from taking them off. ‘Thoda dheela kar do’ was what she wanted me to do! This Diwali, she showed me her purchases with pleasure–a beautiful pair of gold bangles, lovely ‘bichia’ and ‘payal’. All of them so, lovingly bought, lie unused, unworn in their boxes. Ma went without being able to wear them. I doubt, any of us will ever muster the courage to do so. The flood of memories will be too difficult to check!
Ma hardly had any jewellery to speak of; a few trinkets and some pearls were all I could find in the closet; I’m fairly sure, there is no other secret chamber where she hoarded her treasures. Ma’s heart was pure, 24 carat, gold; it was generous, forgiving, honest, simple and huge! When I think of her today, I find strength in the knowledge that I am the daughter of a woman who was as pure as the driven show…….
Some 25 years earlier, Ma had been extremely worried about my marriage. Putul’s marriage had already entered the third year and this put her in panic mode. She went about amassing my trousseau. Beautiful sarees (she had impeccable taste!), a couple of gold jewellery sets (again, intricately designed) and a pair of exquisite gold ‘kadas’ (which I’ve lost, btw!), cotton bedsheets, designer bed-covers and numerous other knick- knacks. She arranged them all in a suitcase and put my initials on it. Everything was ready except a groom! More than myself, I felt for Ma, and the longing that tore her apart when Rajul, Babli, Amrita and Jaya, all got hitched one after the other. Some things are just not meant to be and I know, there were scars on my mother’s soul when things didn’t go as planned. If I’m truly honest with myself, I’d say that the experience didn’t really hurt me much because Ma stood as a talisman between me and all that was vile and demonic. In her own inimitable way she became my savior. We’d shared the same room in those days and I remember talking late into the night, pouring out the extent of my horrors until I was spent. In her presence, I was cleansed and reborn as a stronger, more confident individual.
It was Ma who urged me to broaden my horizons and start applying outside Lucknow. Without her staunch faith in my ability, I would never have gathered the courage to leave home.
All my life, I suddenly discover my actions have been subconsciously motivated by Ma. Once, some 16 years ago, I had returned late from work. It was December and the days had turned chilly. Looking for Ma, I came to the verandah at the rear of the house and found her struggling to wash out a couple of bed-sheets. Aghast, I asked her what she thought she was doing in the cold water. She looked at me and that was answer enough for me. With my meagre savings, I went the very next day and got a new semi-automatic washing machine, which I’m glad to say, served us very well for close to 12 years. The look of joy on Ma’s face is something I cherish to this day. There is another similar incident, when I’d felt I had to prove to Ma how fiercely I loved her. It was near Diwali and we’d just spent the better part of the night without any electricity. When I came out of the room in the morning, I found Ma on all fours, mopping up the large puddle of water in the dining room; the ice had melted from the fridge and overflowed the plate at the bottom. It was painful to watch Ma, because again she was cleaning up the mess so that none of us slipped and hurt ourselves. I went to the same store and ordered the purchase of a frost-free refrigerator to be delivered at the earliest. As luck would have it, it came on the day of Diwali! What a moment that was! Small pleasures of life but the intent behind them was infinitely profound and I believe I saw Ma look at me and nod slightly.
She understood that this was nothing but a small way of showing how much she meant to me. Her joy was my joy. All this was naught compared to what she had given us our entire lives. She had turned us out as decent human beings, who would always be honest to themselves and to their work. She made us understand the importance of the ‘here’ and ‘now’. ‘Kal kabhi nahi aata’ are words I’ve heard her say a thousand times and she probably would’ve said them a hundred more times had she been here, lest we forget their import!
I regret, I could not buy her any new books to read in the past few months. She loved the classics—Premchand, Sarat Chandra, Bankim Chandra, Ashapurna Devi, Bhagwati Charan Verma, Shivaji Sawant, Shivani—her little library had a rich array of titles and she’d yearned to add more to her collection. I kept putting it off, promising to shop for her online. What wouldn’t I give today to be able to see her reading a thick book I’d bought her on Amazon, with her spectacles resting on her nose………my life itself, if that were possible…..
When I look at the photos of Ma of earlier years, I can see why she had caught Papa’s fancy. There is a soft vulnerability about her that she more than adequately hides beneath a veneer of tranquility. Her face just falls short of being heart-shaped. Instead, there’s greater charm as the chin bears slightly squarish lines. This should have marred the symmetry of her features, but somehow, only gave it a haunting look that stayed with one long after the album was closed shut!
Today, I only have to close my eyes and the sights and sounds of my present melt away and images of Ma fill my senses like never before—her thinning hair is perfectly coiffed, the greys of which had remained deftly coloured right up to her eightieth year! She is just a little stooped with age, having lost none of her verve, though and a one rupee coin sized red ‘bindi’ sits on the wide expanse of her forehead; a nose-pin winks on the left side of her face and an infinitesimal gap that had appeared between her front teeth is visible as she smiles her brilliant smile in a moment of joy; the ever-present maroon bangles clink softly against her bony wrists; her eyes, alive and brimming with love for me, look into mine, and that fraction of time becomes an eternity as I keep them shut for as long as I can…..
Despite the fragility of her slightly-built physique, there was no hint of emaciation in her face. Ma photographed very well. It seems even the lens of the camera could not help but capture the vitality that was such an integral part of her persona! Her eyes, touched with a hint of grayish-blue, like Mama’s, shone with the idea of all that she had to do throughout the day! Sometimes, I’m sure she felt there were not enough hours on the clock for all that she wished to accomplish. It was difficult for us to keep up with the frenetic pace of her work, especially around Diwali, when she would take upon herself to clean and sanitize each and every corner of the house. For days, she would be a-bustle, maniacally pursuing her mission until she was certain she had rid the rooms of all cobwebs, filth, dirt and clutter.
We remember with fondness her manner of reading the morning paper. With her glasses perched precariously on her bridge, she would spread the pages of The Nav Bharat Times over the dining table and, and sipping leisurely on her Lopchu tea, proceed to read the length and breadth of the news of the day. Some days, she would take an hour and a half to peruse the broadsheets, savouring the stories and offering her own analyses on matters political, social, economic or cultural—remarks, I believe, made more to herself than to any of us!
Lately, she’d become a little hard of hearing, (a genetic failing in several members on Ma’s side of the family), though to mention it to her was to earn her ire in no uncertain terms. ‘Tum log muh udhar karke bologe to kaise sunai dega?’ So, actually, it turned out, WE were at fault, she couldn’t hear properly! Another job that was set for everyone, at some point of time during the day, would be to look for her glasses! ‘Fridge pe hoga. Nahi hai? To telephone ke paas dekh lo. Wahan bhi nahi? Pooja ghar me dekhna…’
Ma, your glasses lie forlorn in their case today; to glance at it is to be reminded of the eyes that had looked through them at the transmutation of life and the relationships they had formed and nurtured over the years.
Ma had been a giver. Always, an irrevocable giver! Even when she’d loathed something, something we may have liked, she would make sure we never went without it. She abhorred the smell of ripe bananas, guavas, mangoes or papaya and always complained of the fridge reeking of them if we kept the fruits in it. But she never dissuaded us from having them; indeed, she even bought them herself for us on many occasions!
I remember her telling me to have a banana on Monday, when I kept a fast. ‘Bahut filling hota hai’, she’d say and I asked her how she could know that, having never tasted the fruit even once in her life!
She could not take tomatoes in her food, didn’t like the taste of them, she said. Yet, she prepared dishes for the family, such as ‘aloo-tamatar’ or ‘baigan ka bharta’, where she put in the vegetable in abundance, eating none of it herself and instead, taking immense pleasure in our enjoyment of the dishes.
We have picked up so many of Ma’s habits that, at times, it feels a trifle uncanny to watch each other do the exact same things in the exact same way. Ma has managed to ingrain certain practices in us that would be difficult to eschew. Though, to begin with, her efforts had been met with reluctance, criticism, complaint and, at times, open defiance, it did not deter her from doing things the way she considered to be the best. Being quite the dictator in the realm of her kitchen, it was either HER way or no way! Even when a dinner party wound up close to midnight, the crockery had to be washed, dried and put away safely before we could call it a day. ‘The masala stains will ruin the china,” she reasoned. When tired and frazzled, we wanted to leave them overnight for the maid to clean them the next morning, she would rush to the sink and indicate she’d do the chore herself and we could go to bed if we were so exhausted. (As if, after that, we could’ve!!). Unwillingly, we would complete the work to her satisfaction, even as the hands of the clock sometimes struck one! Of course, to Ma’s credit, she NEVER, ever made us do this alone. It was well nigh unthinkable for her to retire to her room and leave us to struggle with the dirty dishes. She would be beside us, right up to the point where the last plate and bowl were neatly arranged back in the cabinet.
She has drilled into us that the kitchen should be left spotless every night after dinner is over. The gas cooker is scoured with soap water, the tiles and counter swabbed, first with a wet mop and then dried off. The stainless steel sink has no unwashed spoon or glass in it (oh, the horror if it does!) and it is similarly scrubbed with scotchbrite and wiped of all moisture so that it gleams like new when the kitchen light is snapped off! If we ever, henceforth, leave the kitchen in a mess at night, it will seem like sacrilege and I doubt, we will be able to get any sleep at all!
Ma taught us how to take out ‘purees’, ‘samosas’ or ‘pakoras’ from the oil in the pan, once they were done. We could not just drag them to the sides and slide them out on to a plate. ‘The oil will ooze down the edges and stick to the underside. It’ll take ages to scrub it off,” she‘d explain. So, she’d make sure the oil was properly strained before the item was lifted out of the pan and transferred to a plate with nary a drop of oil oozing or spilling anywhere. She wouldn’t allow Uma Mami or anyone else to help her out with these jobs. ‘Nahi, tum kadhai gandi kar dogi,’ would be her blunt reply to such overtures. We also had to bear the brunt of her irritation if we made the Vim bar, kept for the washing up, soggy.
She has made all of us understand the benefit of having lukewarm or hot water in the morning, at night, and every time in between. From Punam, to Aru, to me, all have begun to appreciate how right she had been as we follow her example now, especially in the winter months. The first thing every morning and the last at night, we always saw her nursing a glass of piping hot water, up to the very end.
Each one of us goes the extra mile to do things in a way that would have met Ma’s approval. It’s as if she’s watching over us from some vantage point and we’re attempting to score brownie points with her by doing so! Oh, I so fervently wish that this were true and she is….
Ma was one of a kind. Everyone who had came to pay their respects, confessed to have been touched by her in some small, indefinable way. Cousins flew in from various parts of the country, even if it was for a day. Ma was no public figure, but all who knew her came to share our grief, even those whom we hadn’t met for years. Ma brought us all together again. As in life, so in death!
She loved family gatherings and both ‘Rakshabandhan’ and ‘Bhaiya Dooj’ were huge affairs where old and young would converge to spend precious moments together. ‘Bhaiya Dooj’ would be a much bigger deal than Diwali. Whenever, we suggested that these ‘dos’ be toned down a trifle, she would bristle and say ‘Jab hum nahi honge tab jaise chaho waise karna’! Oh Ma, why did you have say those words!
On her birthday this year, I’d gifted her a Titan wrist watch, studded with American diamonds. Her childlike excitement had been so palpable that it had brought tears to my eyes. There was so much innocence in her. She was so transparent about her joys and sorrows that you couldn’t help but be touched by them. I’d teased her with the words ‘tum jiyo hazaron saal’, and was rather taken aback at her show of displeasure at them. ‘Aisi wish mat do, yeh wish karo ki hum chalte firte chale jayen. Kisi ki sewa nahi leni pade.’
And that’s the way she went. Here today, gone tomorrow! Like a butterfly or a sparrow, she flitted away to a world unknown taking nothing from us, except our peace of mind, except our happiness! I’ve heard that only the purest and noblest of souls are blessed with a death that took Ma away from us– so quickly and painlessly. I’m only grateful for the fact that such a gracious and unblemished life was an inextricable part of our own lives.
I feel helpless and torn; I am too far away from my family at this most tragic and wretched moment of our lives. Waves of sorrow engulf me, even as I force myself to take up a piece of work and apply all my faculties to getting it done. It is an uphill and strenuous task, when the mind falters and runs amok, finding comfort in her memories alone.
It is reflexive, not something I can control. She’s my last thought as I turn out the lights and wait for the blessed oblivion to descend and the first when the cock shrilly crows me awake at six. I have been desperately praying for her to come into my dreams since 16th Nov. and finally, on the 18th of Dec. she did. I saw her vividly in the puja ghar, standing with her back to me and on hearing me call out to her, turning around. I half expected her to change into someone else…but, it was Ma’s lovely face that looked at me. I said ‘Ma’ in amazement and she walked out of the room. I held on to her tightly. She smiled but said nothing…..I cannot interpret what I saw. I still recall the thrill on waking up and going around for a few hours with the feel of her in my arms.
I know, with time, her memories will become a solid ball of light and lodge itself into the deepest corner of my heart. It will warm me when I’m cold and lonely, show me the way as I travel on this journey of life (that I must). But, at present, this is yet to happen. Very often, now and then, an excruciating sliver of pain and disbelief shoots through me, forcing me to acknowledge the horror of a life without her. I have imaginary conversations with her, urgently holding on to the belief, nay, the faith that she’s watching over us, as protectively as she had always done.
Grief is a very private state. I know people mean well when they offer me consolation, but how can anyone know the profundity of another’s sorrow! We have different mechanisms, each one of us, to cope with a loss of this magnitude. Some may find relief in the comforting words of others, but for many they remain just words….. ‘life has to go on’, they say. I know. ‘Stay strong’. I know that too. Isn’t it a show of strength that I manage to drag myself through the day, accomplishing the work that I have to do, without dissolving into a flood of tears…..? But, when I’m also urged to smile and laugh and be cheerful…..I’m afraid, the very idea nauseates me. Life doesn’t hold a great deal of charm for me these days. It is by being strong, as has been demanded of me by so many, that I am able to go on with any measure of equanimity. I’m incapable of anything more than this at this juncture. but I yearn for the day when I too can ‘become comfortably numb’……
Gunjan confesses to undergoing similar pain. She refuses to believe the agony will subside with time. She says it will go only when she breathes her last. I agree with her and attempt to give courage to both of us through pitifully inadequate words. It is also true, though, that we do Ma a grave injustice by crying incessantly. She would be appalled to learn how weakly and spinelessly her daughters behaved when the moment of truth came. During crunch time, she would have wanted to us to step into the breach and prove our mettle, not just to the world, but, more importantly to ourselves………….
I think the fact that I remained single made both Gunjan and me cling to Ma like a port in storm. I remained tethered to her even as I grew older, never really imagining that the post might not be there forever. Each time, I faced a setback or confronted an adversity, Ma’s reassuring presence was all I’d needed to go beyond and over it. I was taller, heavier, wider than her, but her frailty was only visible in her physical frame. She had a power that we could sense very distinctly in our times of need. She was our bulwark ‘against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Perhaps, it was because I had never seen her lose control over anything at anytime. There had always been a calm, unflinching aura around her that drew an invisible circle of protection for her children, who she loved, unconditionally and completely. She cushioned our fall, patted dry our tears, and pushed us gently yet with an inexorable firmness, to find our feet again, to stand erect. We didn’t even know it and later found that a little of her brand of fortitude had been transferred to us, sub rosa….. That was Ma!
I too have inherited the migraine from Ma. Having suffered the splitting headache for close to 40 years, Ma knew what I went through during the attacks. She must’ve read of some remedy for them, some panacea to cure me of them forever during her protracted devouring of the morning newspaper. On one of my visits home, she’d come with a handkerchief knotted at one end. ‘There’re some ground cloves here. When the pains come, breathe in the aroma, deeply. It will help.’ I keep her ‘nuskha in my handbag. If it works it will be because of the care and concern with which it had been prepared. She never stopped being a mother… it was as if I was still ten years old for her and it made it difficult for me to grow up in any real sense. As long as Ma was there, I’d known with certainty there was a buffer if I ever stumbled. Now, I have to take baby steps again. I have to learn to walk again…
Ma was a gift to us from paradise and I believe, we have become better people because we are her flesh and blood. Her meeting with her Maker is just one instant in a full and lovely life and we, as her children, should celebrate rather than mourn her passing. Human nature, being what it is, is rarely able to accept the loss of a loved one with equanimity. All the teachings, wisdom and philosophies of the Gita fall by the wayside, failing to assuage the grief that spills over; I’m waiting though, for the time when I realize that the joy of having basked in the radiance of her presence is far, far greater and ennobling than the sorrow at her quietus….
I wear her sarees everyday to work. In some of them, the creases of when Ma had last worn them still remain and it gives me a wonderfully comforting feeling to drape the fabric around myself. The fragrance that was so uniquely her own clings to me, too and I feel deliriously close to Ma all through the day; so much so that, at times, I cannot see myself as a separate entity at all, but as essentially a part of her…
Today, I think of the most ordinary of things, mundane even, but also see the enchantment that makes them images of beauty–the rising of the sun, the first star in the sky, the rainbow, a butterfly, a rose bud, the smile of an infant, the song of the cuckoo or the sweet fragrance of the ‘bela’, I think of Ma, for she is all of this for me and more…..With time, they say, the pain would abate, the scars would heal and I will become whole again, but I know, the umbilical cord was never properly cut off. Wherever her soul has gone, the ties still bind me to her and doubtless, they always will.
Rest in peace, Ma, and may peace come soon to me too—-
When the dawn breaks over the saffron skies,
When the dreams of night slowly leave my eyes,
When the first wild rose blooms among the rushes,
When the air resounds with the songs of thrushes,
When the dark clouds descend in a flood of tears,
When the sounds of silence are all that one hears
When life and love and you seem a part of my past,
When out into the world, like a waif, I am cast,
When the strong gusts of wind make me tremble and sway,
When the power of my thoughts takes me far far away,
When the meaning of truth seems empty and lost,
When the star of my fortunes seems forever to be crossed,
When each new night and day brings tears anew,
I think of you, mother, I only think of you……..
(19th March, 1990)