AUTOBIOGRAPHY159 mins 465 159 mins 465
Dedicated to my parents
Ma and Baba (Late Anila & Biswanath Banerjee)
I was made to believe that success is all about drive, dedication, and desire.
You broke some myths. If it were not for you, I wouldn't be in the place I am in.
Apart from my unabated passion for writing, several questions pop up as to the purpose of writing my autobiography. Would readers draw any inspiration from my autobiography? I do not enjoy celebrity status, nor have I achieved anything worth sharing in the public domain, nor do I have any earth-shattering, motivating events to share with readers. Many such 'why's raised their heads. Readership would be limited at best to immediate family members. Then, I said to myself, an autobiography is a testament to a life well-lived. In that respect, my life lived so far has been fulfilling. Sitting on the threshold of seventy, I can assertively say, life has been good, with its storms and lulls, but overall on the balance sheet of life, the scales have tilted towards the good. The need to put all this in writing is to leave a legacy for my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of glimpses of a life that they will never experience or even know about as history would not have recorded these insignificant events, significant to me, and perhaps say "well...that was indeed a LIFE!" buried under the sands of time. The truth is anyone can write an autobiography. After all, there is nothing egocentric about chronicling one's journey through life. As the great poet Maya Angelou put it, "If you're going to live, leave a legacy. Make a mark on the world that can't be erased". A legacy that can serve as an enduring fingerprint. Greek statesman and general Pericles famously said "What you leave behind is not what is engraved in stone monuments, but what is woven into the lives of others".
I took up the challenge of writing my autobiography as it requires no planning, creating imaginative characters, crafting the plot to a cohesive whole, and closing by tying up the loose ends. I would categorically say, this is the most stress-free writing in my opinion, where past events are put in words, creating images for the reader to find it interesting enough to go through the entire book or drop it after reading a few pages. In the end, it is rewarding if curiosity alone makes the reader go through the entire book and put it down, either with a sigh of disappointment or conclude 'out of the ordinariness of her life, I found some bits and pieces of extraordinariness'.
Writing an autobiography is associated with a lot of fears, primarily being afraid of unleashing my innermost demons, afraid of exposing family secrets, and afraid my work isn't emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone's life.
If it was not for my hubby's (Avinash Agrawal) insistence, and constant pushing, this book would have stayed in the manuscript stage. No one knows me better than him, and no one supports and encourages me to keep writing, freeing up time for me, by taking over my share of daily chores. There were times when I lost interest, fatigue set in, and writer's block came in the way, but he didn't let me give up. "Go on get it off your chest, even if there are no readers out there interested in reading an autobiography of an ordinary person. That gave me the confidence to write, with him providing input whenever I was tempted to switch off the power button on my laptop. THANK YOU Avi for always being there.
This is to declare that the feelings, opinions, and observations of places and people, are strictly from the author's perspective. Names of persons, dead and alive are consciously avoided to respect their privacy, excluding immediate family members.
Birth and infancy
She sat outside the labor room, waiting patiently for the news. After two granddaughters, it would be a blessing indeed if 'Bouma' (daughter-in-law) gave birth to a grandson. Her first, from her firstborn son. The nurse popped out her head from the labor room "Are you the Thakurma or Dida of the newborns?". "Thakurma" she exclaimed with pride. She wondered if she heard right about the plurality in her announcement. OMG! Two have arrived. The nurse ushered her into the labor room. She saw two of us lying side by side, swathed in white. A bonus indeed. Two instead of a grandson. Bouma was groggy with all the medicines pumped into her and barely managed a smile "Ma, two girls" and slipped into slumberland. Born fifteen minutes apart. The count in the Banerjee household rose to four with our arrival. Non-identical twins were born on 23rd July 1952, in a hospital in Dum Dum, Calcutta, as recorded in all legal documents. However, there is a mystery attached to this date of birth, that needs further explanation.
Back then, hospitals did not issue any birth or death certificates. It was a family tradition for Thakurma (grandmother) to visit our family astrologer to have the "Tikurji Kushti" (astrological predictions) drawn up for every newborn. So, was mine done and kept in safe custody. In 1990 when my father expired, I found among his belongings, this document, neatly written in ink, and was surprised to read the date of birth recorded as 23rd July 1951. Now, who goofed up in recording the date of birth is the big mystery in my life. Had the astrologer mixed up the year or did Baba erroneously enter the date of birth at the time of school admission? I would prefer to believe the error occurred at the house of the astrologer, mixing up dates, probably high on 'ganja' opium. Just a conjecture. In my reasoning, a parent is hardly likely to forget the date of birth of his children. That too, for four children, or more correctly three births. There were families with a full cricket team those days, in the absence of family control. The more the merrier, was the norm, especially amongst the landed rich,
I always wondered if Baba (father) felt any disappointment with having four girls. To my knowledge none, going by the way he loved and protected us, never expressing the need of a son. Happy to be the sole male in a household of Ma and us four girls. As told later, the matriarch aka Thakurmama (paternal grandmother) took over and named us "Shukla and Krishna", based on our skin complexion. One born fair-complexioned with sharp features, gene transference from Thakurma's side, and the other several shades darker, a mixture of features from Ma's side of the family. This time Baba overruled commenting, "now that is being color biased...why not Snigdha?". Thus I got to be named Snigdha, the quiet, dark happy, healthy infant crawling into Ma's lap whenever I needed to suckle on her breast. Shukla rejected breastfeeding and took to the bottle, leaving the field clear when it came to grabbing Ma's nipples and drinking till my little tummy looked like an inflated balloon, I would imagine.
I have little recall of the first four years of my life in Dum Dum. Stretching my memory paper-thin, some images surface in my mind. A brick wall boundary separating the two-storied house from the pond fringed with coconut trees. Us lying on bamboo mats on the grass lawns, after an oil massage, peeing and pooping while little hands cleaned our bums. Those little hands belonged to Bordi (eldest sister), a decade older, and Mejdi (second eldest sister), seven years older than us. Reportedly, when we were born, Didis (older sisters) were entrusted to take care of us while Ma was busy doing household chores. In a typical joint family structure, the bulk of the chores rested on her young shoulders. Bordi chose Shukla, and Mejdi took over as my guardian. This could as well be a transposition from childhood photos and not cognizant memory at all. There are grainy and faded black and white photos of us twins lying on a mat in the open. Infantile amnesia is the inability of adults to retrieve episodic memories (memories of situations or events) before the age of four. The cognitive self remembers another home with a broad balcony running across the length of the rooms of a Bungalow, located far away from Dum Dum. That was the place where we relocated in 1956 following Baba securing a job with Bird & Company Ltd. a British-owned company, incorporated on 27 Dec. 1928 with its headquarters in Calcutta, which was nationalized by the Government of India and came under the administrative control of the Ministry of Steel.
For the next twelve years from 1956 to 1968, I grew up in Kumardhubi, an industrial town on the border between Bihar and West Bengal. A fairy tale life. A forgotten era, never to return. Difficult to explain to the future generations, as they would never be able to comprehend that such a life truly existed. Full of fun, freedom, and cocooned security. Essentially a gated community where only resident employees lived in huge furnished Bungalows with sprawling lawns, flowering gardens, and perquisites including paid domestic staff, free electricity, free fuel, free transportation, and many more freebies I was unaware of then.
There were four huge rooms, huge by today's standards, and an equally large-sized Puja room with shelves probably meant as a storage room. A large pantry, and a decent-sized kitchen next to it. Two big washrooms, fitted with bathtubs, wash basins, toilet bowls, wall cupboards with shutters, the exit doors with glass windows at the top, openable. Most often the door windows in both bathrooms were kept open, serving as exhaust fans, I guess. Additionally, two stand fans were permanently switched on, during the entire summer season, to dry off the sweat pouring down while doing one's business. The business took more time than usual for Baba, sitting on the toilet bowl, his throne, reading The Statesman. Running along the length of the rooms were two verandahs, the front one covered, and the back narrower with iron grills, uncovered, used for hanging out washed laundry. Subsequently, some restructuring was done with the addition of two more rooms in the front balcony, reducing the balcony space, but still big enough for us to play a game of tenniquoit, leaving out the area where Baba's most important throne stood on wooden legs, with armrests...his easy chair, a vantage point from where he had a view of the golf course and the lush green surroundings. Was it I or my twin, responsible for overturning his glass of whiskey sitting on the hand rest? Hard to remember a six-decade-old incident. But I do remember, being firmly told to play outdoor games the outdoors, witexceptiny days. Baba never raised in voice in the worst situation. He had his genteel ways of reprimanding, wen deserved to be reprimanded.
In the children's bedroom, we four girls slept shoulder to shoulder on a king-size iron four-poster bed, leaving no room for 'Pash Balish' aka side pillows. Our younger ones wedged between two older ones took quite a few liberties, which went without grumbles. Legs and hands flung all over the older one's faces, thorax and rib cage. Older sisters, being indulgent by nature never complained. Some nights, overcome with sleep, my twin and I, then four, would request them to chant nightly prayers on our behalf...Om Namah Shivaya..108×2 times on their fingers as taught to us by our parents. To the sound of the chanting, we slipped into slumberland. The next morning when waking us up for school, Ma found four skewed heads, much to her amusement. 'Bordi' (eldest sister) hanging from the edge of the bed about to roll out and land on the cold floor, and Mejdi (second eldest) was found curled in a fetal position to accommodate the ' four hands and four legs' resembling circus girls caught in the act of performing trapeze.
Storytelling was part of the nightly ritual and I insisted on hearing the ones where "bhoots" (ghosts) raided the pantry, emptying the "narkel naru' (coconut sweets) tins and jars of 'sweet mango morobba' pickles. One night Mejdi (second eldest sister) added a twist to the old tale. It began like this..."Now late Mr. Johnson, the previous resident of our home, so missed the chocolates of England, that he would bring down from the pantry shelves, Ma's homemade sweets and retire to the drawing-room to satisfy his sweet tooth. All night the sound of "crunch" "crunch" could be heard." Thereafter I never went to the drawing-room alone after the lights were turned off, convinced Mr. Johnson's soul roamed therein. In my mind's eye, Mr. Johnson resembled the typical British gentry, donned in a pin-striped suit, waistcoat inside, worn over a white shirt with a stiff collar, bowler hat on his head, and a walking stick, as he was bent with age. Soda glasses resting on his hawk-like nose, made him look more ghostly than skeletal remains of ghosts walking in black gowns through a child's imagination. To make it more spooky, Mejdi advised "never enter the drawing-room without a green chilly in your hand, as that would make the ghost of Mr. Johnson flee with fright, as he suffered from stomach ulcers eating too many Indian spices". I took that seriously and whenever visiting the drawing-room, at daytime as well, I'd carry a green chilly to ward off his spirit. Dashing in and dashing out, quickly picking up a book from Baba's library neatly arranged with books, darting out to the adjacent verandah, running along the length of the house. By the time I turned ten, my older sisters were packed off to Boarding School and that was the end of 'Bhooter Galpos' (Ghost stories). The four-poster bed was also sent to the factory shed. We were allowed to sleep in our bedroom on separate beds. Admittedly the fear of crossing paths with Mr . Johnson remained till we vacated the Bungalow believed to be haunted, reinforced by stories made up impromptu by Didis, our best friends. Both are resting in Heaven, as I write this with a smile on my face. The Banerjee clan of six has now shrunk down to two, living in different states. How time flies and how childhood Bhooth stories stick in the mind, as stick jaw sticks to cavities in the teeth, hard to remove. The habit of "Pash Balish" (side pillow) continues till old age. Hubby and I sometimes grab the same one, on occasions when unknowingly one has rolled off the bed followed by the blame game "this is mine" I assert, he replies 'go find yours, this is mine, can't you see the big dent?", reminding me of "Pash Balish" (side pillow) fights of my younger days.
Knocking on my memory door, I do recall a Mr. Hopkins, an old Britisher as our next-door neighbor, for a short while. He was a confirmed bachelor, and a devout Christian, formerly (as told) a priest by profession. His stern looks, and lanky frame clothed in suits two sizes too big for him, reminded me of the imaginary late Mr. Johnson. Mr. Hopkins mostly kept to himself. His only way of showing affection was sending over through his 'Baburchi' (cook) large portions of Shepherd's pie, and caramel custard. In exchange, Ma sent him 'Kausha Mangsho' (Lamb curry), which he relished. Wonder if he suffered from heartburn post-dinner? Thankfully, no one was subjected to smelling and gagging on the sulphuric air hanging all night in his bedroom. Our interaction was limited to exchanging British/Bengali cuisines. Period.
As mentioned earlier company perquisites included a retinue of staff, including a gardener to tend to the gardens, and membership to the English Club. An enviable club life none others could match. For the clerical staff, there was a second club where all the musical programs and stage theatres were held. Three factories in total housed within the premises of the town. A Steel factory, a Rolling Mill, and a Brick and fireclay factory, a group of companies of the parent Bird Group of companies run and managed by the Britishers. Baba worked in the steel factory in the Sales and Purchase Department as a covenanted officer. Later as the town evolved, somewhere in the early sixties, another factory Mcnally Bird Engineering Co. Ltd. came into existence, with modern housing complexes, changing the landscape from a sleepy British settlement into a mixture of the old and new. Gone was the golf course, gone were the tree-lined roads, and gone were the spaces where we raced full throttle and cycled without fear of being run down by speeding vehicles. Beyond these forests were railway tracks, carrying coal from one town to another. During the summers, we kids woke up early to reach the tracks, place one paisa copper coin on the tracks, wait patiently for a goods train to pass, and retrieve the flattened coins. As the town expanded, more and more of those virgin forests were deforested and reclaimed for building modern housing complexes to accommodate factory staff. The volume of traffic also upped as more goods trucks entered from outside carrying raw materials for the factories. Uninterrupted view of the Sal forests that grew on the outer limits of the golf course, got obliterated.
One place that was left untouched by urbanization was the vicinity around the Khudiya River, a tributary of the Barakar river, meandering on the outskirts of the town. In summer, with the lowered water table, it was a sheer thrill wading bare feet in the shallow waters, to catch the little fishes swimming gaily, tickling our toes. The walk to the riverside was through forested slopes, home to the Santhals (tribals). Their villages rested on a flat table top on the steep river embankments. No one ever entered their territory. We did hear the beating of drums, and drunken singing during festivals. It was rumored, that thieves and robbers roamed the forests. Maybe, that was just to scare us away from making the riverside trips. I do, however, remember the howling and barking of the jackals inhabiting the forests, particularly on full moon nights. That scared me enough to pull the blanket over my head. The unarmed security guards kept a night vigil banging long bamboo poles on cemented sidewalks as they walked past darkened houses, asleep. This had the desired effect of the jackals fleeing deeper into the green cover of the forests.
Every morning I woke up to the factory siren going off at 6 am sharp. Baba would be ready in his white cambric cotton pants and white cotton bush shirt, black shoes polished to shine, setting off on foot to the factory, barely a ten-minute walk from our Bungalow. Others who worked in the foundry/steel departments/factory floors, wore Khakhi shorts, khaki color shirts, and heavy boots. Brown and White sahebs alike in the same uniform. 24/7 365 days of the year, Ma was up at 4.30 am to bathe, and change into a freshly laundered saree. Her day began with the ritual of entering the Puja room, saying her prayers, and offering fresh flowers from the garden to all the deities in her Puja room. All year round the flower supply came uninterrupted. Red hibiscus buds, full-bloomed, jasmine, lilies, in spring, sunflowers, dahlias, in summer, and chrysanthemums in winter, apart from rosebuds that grew wild. As a kid of 4 or 5, I vaguely remember the gardener occasionally making a bouquet to put in a vase, whenever there was plenty, over and above Ma's puja requirement. The bronze vase with flowers stood center on the dining table. If a special rose bloomed, it was cut with a long stem, which went as a gift to the class Teacher. A very special Aunty, blessed with green fingers, grew the best roses of different hues, and shapes, the envy of the neighbors. That was the only gift teachers accepted. Some smells stay with you forever and being endowed with sharp olfactory nerves, I clearly remember the Rajanigandha sticks, filling the house with its strong sweet aroma. The same Rajanigandha flowers I placed on Ma's feet, before lighting her funeral pyre many, many, years later. A day I cannot forget, even after sixteen years of her death. A huge loss that I still haven't come to terms with. She would have turned 100 this year on 6th April. And I wish she was here to see her great-grandchildren. To see me as the grey-haired woman, with stooped shoulders. In her mind, I never grew up beyond thirty. Just the way, today I look at my children frozen at sixteen, though they are grown women with children. I guess all mothers think alike! They want to hold back the child in the woman they have become.
To say I was the wild one out of the four would be an understatement. Climbing trees, sitting on the branches, gorging on guavas, rescuing kittens from overflowing drains, cycling around the golf course, swimming, and dancing in the rain, were activities I indulged in with great gusto, sometimes returning home with cuts and bruises, and once a sprained ankle. The latter memory still brings on chuckles. Needs sharing as this will also make readers double up with laughter. I must have been ten or eleven years old. My twin, our best buddy, and I were in the Club Squash Court. Racquet in hand, I was sitting in the upper-level gallery of the court, waiting for my chance at hitting the ball on the wall. My pleadings to vacate the court went unheard. Exasperated, I warned them I would jump down, a good six feet drop, and physically push them out. My twin and friend turned a deaf ear, dismissing my threat as a joke. 'Okay...here I come' I announced and took the jump, landing flat on my skinny, bony bottom with a twisted ankle, tears of shame and pain rolling down my cheeks, sitting in a pool of piss. It was a ludicrous scene that has stuck amongst the many images of my childhood. Both of them lifted me, feeling a tad sorry, and brought me home. I was homebound for the next two weeks, with a plastered leg, missing going to school. The Jamun (Java plum) season, brings back giggles as I write of an incident that happened back then. Too tall for me to climb, we kids had the gardener climb up the broad tree trunk, and have him shake the branches laden with the purple fruit, scattering on the ground below. Running to pick up the fruits and collect them in my frock, rolled up to my waist like a hollowed-out bag, I missed my step and landed face down in the drain. The fleshy jamuns flew into the air in protest and showered down on me lying in a pool of dirty drain water wincing in pain. Seeing the amusement on the faces of my gang of friends, I joined in their laughter, returning home, shin scratched, tongue purple. No way, was I going to be a sissy, cry and complain. Sheepishly, averting crossing paths with Ma, I went in for a long shower and rinsed my mouth to remove all traces of the accident.
During this period, the animal world entered our home, each one leaving under different circumstances. Out of the many, the first that appears in my mind is a monkey, kept in the garden shed, brought out occasionally to be fed, and patted. The gardener spotted the baby wandering around amongst the flower beds, looking lost and forlorn, in search of his mother, who probably had been chased back into the nearby Sal forests. Baba decided to parent this little guy till he was of age and able to fend for himself. Honestly, I never liked this furry creature, with suspicious eyes, vying for Baba's attention. Six months later, he was seen bounding off with confidence, probably in search of a mate. Next arrived a parakeet with an orange beak and green feathers with a long spotted tail. This one was a feisty bird, taking liberties when let out of the cage, hopping onto the dining table, and serving himself to the food laid out. Apart from Baba, the bird was attached to Bordi (eldest sister), happily perched on her shoulder, sizing up the house and its inmates. Must have been one of those days, when the birdie felt closed in and decided to take flight, after leaving bite marks on Baba and Didi. Didi was crestfallen at losing her pet. For days she stood in the verandah, calling out to him, in the hope of his return. That never happened. To compensate for her loss, Baba got a bunch of colorful Budgerigars, easily handleable and extremely social. They stayed for quite some time in the specially built cage, cleaned daily, and water and feeding bowls were replenished. Their chatter sometimes added to the chatter of the four of us. After losing a few, Baba set them free and thus ended the Bird phase.
The next adoption was a bunny rabbit, with the whitest fur, pink glassy eyes, and a bushy tail. This one was a spoilt child allowed to roam all over the house, fed with baby carrots. What I most disliked about this fur ball was finding his droppings in my school shoes, little black balls, that made me puke. I can't recall what happened to its fate. Its cage was dumped in the garden shed. The last one was a surprise birthday gift for me and my twin, arrived packaged in a shoe box, lined with layers of cotton. A two-week-old Siamese kitten got from a litter of eight and was as tiny as the palm of my hand. I watched Baba and Ma taking turns in feeding this one with milk, prying open its mouth and squeezing the cotton ball soaked in milk. He was named "Tuuta" and as he grew, the color of his coat changed from white to grey and then a darker shade of grey. From milk, he graduated to eating goat entrails mashed with cooked rice and was a happy camper, rubbing his back against Ma's legs as though to remind her it was time to be fed. My twin and I fought over him, as one would fight over toys, setting dates for Tuuta's sleeping schedule under our blankets. One week in my bed, the next week on my twin's bed. Soon enough the fights ceased, with "Tuuta", going out for overnight dates with the stray cats in the neighborhood, probably the most sought-after male in the cat kingdom. Reasons could be because of his debonair looks, his pedigree, and the fact that he lived in a Bungalow, served his meals, slept on which bed he fancied, and most importantly, had his toilet created out of a wooden crate, filled with sand, where he performed his daily business. And if we so much as watched him at his job, he gave the stinky eye as if to say "Get lost. Let me shit in peace"! His entry/exit route for the overnight dates was through the open bathroom window. One morning when Ma found he had not turned up for his breakfast, we looked everywhere and found him soaking wet in the bathtub with water up to his neck. The philanderer had missed his step on the ledge of the bathtub and landed inside. Of course, that didn't change our love for him. He continued with such escapades, sowing quite a few wild oats, and ended up catching rabies. A very sad end for him and us. My twin and I had to take the rabies injection for a fortnight. Very painful shots in the hips, administered by the Company doctor in the hospital. Thus ended the saga of "Tuuta" the Siamese cat with whiskers, my favorite.
There were dogs as well when I was an infant. Baba often spoke with pride of "Kalu", the black Indie, the smartest dog in Dum Dum. He not only did babysitting when my twin and I were left in the open but also caught a thief who had crept into the first-floor bedroom to make away with precious items. This was vetoed by my Kakus (uncles) who described how Kalu had jumped on the thief, pulled at his 'Lungi' (a sarong wrapped around the waist), and bitten his bums leaving blood trailing on the steps while giving him a chase. The thief was caught with Kalu's setting off the alarm with his incessant barking, caught and kept in the lockup, and beaten brown and blue. When I was much older and had moved to Calcutta, "Choto Kaku" (Baba's youngest brother) shared a joke about Kalu's shortcoming. While he was a good watchdog, he was mortified by the sound of human farts. Whenever anyone farted loud, Kalu the mongrel would be seen with his tail between his legs, yelping with fright. "Now can you imagine a dog unafraid of thunder, lightning, thieves, cowering under the bed when your Baba farted setting off musical notes?", had me rolling on the floor, laughing out my guts. Many fart stories were the subject of discussion on rainy evenings, with Baba pulling fast ones (my guess) of the Britisher who went red in the face when some worker had disobeyed orders, showing his anger with the rapid-fire of guns from his rear end. Poor worker hung his head in shame, trying his best from cracking up in front of the Saheb (Englishman). And it so happened one evening sitting in the bar over mugs of beer, there was a farting competition, between him and his superior, the British gentleman, to the amusement of the ladies lounging in settees upholstered in satin. True or false, again hard to guess as Baba put on his best poker face expression when narrating stories to Ma and us, giggling non-stop. Then one day with equal seriousness he proclaimed "It's impolite to fart before ladies. I made that up". Hmm...we agreed and countered it with "What about your home ladies?".
I have the fondest memories of my school years which spanned a period of twelve years from 1956 to 1968. All the children from Kumardhubi and neighboring areas of Maithon, Chittaranjan, Kulti, and Burnpur, (industrial townships) attended Loreto Convent, located in Asansol, at that time an important Railway hub, and one of the four divisions of the Eastern Railway Zone and major revenue-generating division in the Indian Railways. Railways' colonies dotted the landscape, homes for railway employees. Due to its strategic location, and once home for Britishers, English medium schools mushroomed in the area, run by the Irish Nuns and Fathers, Loreto Convent for girls, and St.Patrick's/St.Vincent’s for the boys. Commute to school took a good forty-five minutes to an hour, traveling inter-state from Kumardhubi in Bihar to Asansol in West Bengal, on the Grand Trunk Road, approximately 30 kms distance. Whenever we reached late, on occasions when the school bus had a flat, our excuse of traveling from one state to another, was acceptable to the Nuns, albeit with a bit of annoyance. One trump card in our favor! The Blue School Bus remains inerasable in my memory drive, with the old driver, and his helper Usman.
All were required to report to the garage by 7.15 am sharp. That meant dragging myself out of bed at an ungodly hour, right through spring, summer, autumn, and winter. The latter season was the hardest with temperatures plummeting below tolerable levels. Taking a shower at 6.30 am, dressing up, wolfing down breakfast, most times untouched, and then walking to the Bus parked in the garage, accompanied by 'Ayahs' (governesses), remained unchanged through those school years. The Bus entrance door was left open, windows wiped clean, seats dusted, and Usman in uniform standing near the door to help in boarding. There were no seats or belts to strap. Two long cushioned benches, ran along the length of the bus, facing each other, with enough storage space beneath to put away school bags, lunch boxes, and water bottles. Boys boarded first followed by the girls. I can’t help but smile at the gender division that prevailed at that time, to the extent that there was no communication between boys and girls, even between sisters and brothers traveling on the same bus. The privilege of sitting near the door was given to the senior girls. Scramble for the window seats was settled amicably. The Blue Bus was our mini home during school hours, parked in the vacant plot, where all company school buses stood in military order. The bus also served as the dining room during lunch break, with Usman pulling out the lunch bags from under the benches, and placing them on the seat. It was nap time for the driver, rather all day he was found napping. Can't recall his name, but his face floats in my mind, stout in build, with salt and pepper hair, and overnight grey stubble resembling a porcupine's coat, with the most kindly eyes. He hardly spoke, except when the cacophony of our voices reached high decibels, disturbing his concentration when at the wheel.
I still remember the name of my first teacher in Kindergarten. Miss Gloria, tall, fair, with permed brown hair, always dressed in figure-hugging skirts. The click-clack of her stiletto heels preceded her presence. She had a way with kids, making them feel comfortable, wiping tears from distressed faces, and hugging the newbies pulled away from the safe home environment, and detached from their mother's apron strings. Honestly, having my twin next to me and vice versa, we slipped into the school routine without much fuss. Backed by the fact that both older sisters were around to run to at break time. By the time they were sent off to boarding school in Calcutta, I had gotten comfortable with the school routine and rhythm. Every teacher left a lasting memory with their ways of teaching, strict, yet kind, showering appreciation for acing the exams, pulling up those with incomplete homework. The punishment for talking during class hours was to be made to ‘stand facing the classroom wall with the index finger on the lips’, considered shameful. The severest punishment I recall was being hit by a ruler on the knuckles by Mother Winnifred, Irish Nun, with a stern demeanor, the elocution teacher in class IV. Thanks to her perseverance in teaching the vowels, diction, speech, and grammar, learning the English language got perfected over time. Matronly looking Mother Magdalene, the teacher in class VIII is fondly remembered for inculcating in me a love for Shakespeare, Poetry written by the Lake Poets, and a love for reading the classics. And I owe bundles of gratitude to Sister Stella, a class teacher in IX and X for making Geography as interesting as Literature, and history more of a storytelling session, my not-so-favorite subject. In retrospect, learning back then was more of mugging dates, and speeches, with little scope for being imaginative and innovative. Maths never interested me, and one subject where I just about managed to scrape past the passing marks. The most fun year, was the last year in school (1968) with Mother John Berchman as Class Teacher. Well into her seventies, she held sway over the entire class not so much for her teaching skills, but her sense of humor and old age eccentricities. On many occasions, she would nod off to sleep, mouth open, while we tried hard to stifle laughs. A wonderfully forgetful teacher with a heart lined with gold. Many years later, post-marriage, when my hubby mentioned the name of Gloria Higginson, an elderly lady Secretary working in the same factory and formerly a teacher in Loreto Convent Asansol, it rang a bell. True enough she was the same young Miss Gloria, my first school teacher, still as beautiful as she was then. It was a real coincidence when we met at an office party, and she had not forgotten me and my twin in her class of forty students. Not that we were outstanding students, but for the fact that we were the only twins in her class.
As mentioned earlier, I was the nerdy one, always with my hands raised to answer questions. And if given a chance would have been sitting in the first row in the classroom. That never happened as the rule prescribed was to allot seats according to height. The shorter ones in front with the taller ones behind. Going by the growth rate, I was somewhere in the middle of the classroom, always eager to please and impress the Class Teacher, which I did successfully. I wonder if it was a self-challenge, or to prove a point with my plain Jane looks against the beautiful girls in the class, securing ranks from the bottom up. I will not dwell on that aspect too long but suffice to say, I maintained my ranking between 1 to 5, right through my school academic years, winning several awards at the year-end award ceremony, mostly books, some of which stand proudly on my bookshelves.
School shaped my personality and made me what I am today, scoring high on punctuality, discipline, compassion, kindness, integrity, and the urge to excel in whatever I undertake, and whatever roles thrust on me as I grew in life stages. Moral Science classes for non-Christians and Gospel Studies for Catholics were a big part of my learning. This learning sowed the seeds of goodness. It never occurred to question the morals behind the lessons taught. Loreto gave us the freedom to choose and hold onto our religious beliefs. Through the years the prayers said at Assembly changed from “Our Father” and “Hail Mary”, to more generalized prayers, seeking the Almighty’s Blessings and guidance, without any naming of Gods and Goddesses. And though born into a conservative Hindu Brahmin family, I was greatly influenced by the teachings in the Bible. The school chapel doors were open to all, irrespective of caste, class, or faith. I would often visit the chapel during recess, kneel in the front pews and pray for blessings for my family and friends. The frequency of visits increased mostly before the year-end exams. Like me, there were many Non-Catholics in the Chapel seeking favors from Mother Mary and Lord Jesus. A quiet and peaceful place to unburden childhood woes and stresses.
At one point of time in the growing-up process, I expressed the desire to become a Nun seeing myself in the robes of a Nun teaching in the same school. One year, I attended the School Retreat, compulsory for those following the Christian faith, but also open to non-Catholics. An event that required day scholars to stay in the hostel. Four days of training and of learning to exercise self-discipline by remaining incommunicado. Attendance to normal classes was waived for those attending the Retreat. I persuaded Baba and Ma and got them to consent to attend this event, more piqued by curiosity. There were readings from the Bible, and Preachers from outside the school were invited to give lectures on how to live a good life. At sixteen, I was deeply impressed and conveyed my intentions of enrolling in the Convent, after my studies were completed. Later, this became the subject of a huge joke in our family. Close to touching seventy, I often wonder what would life have been like, living in a Convent and leading a celibate life. Gives me belly laughs. Maybe, I would be like Maria (Julie Andrews) the aspiring nun, in the movie Sound of Music, who left the convent, to become a governess to the Von Trapp children, or perhaps the wise Abbess, the cantankerous Sister. Who knows?
School years stand out razor sharp in my memory album. Where else would one find a school, boasting of a spacious hockey field which doubled up as the sports field, six basketball courts, two tennis courts, an entire field for the kids with a Jungle Jim, see-saw, and acres and acres of green lawns, two huge ponds, out of bounds for the school girls? Here the Nuns walked in pristine surroundings, fingers moving rosary beads, praying for us and seeking God's mercy for the less unfortunate children deprived of an education. The School did take in Catholic students at concessional fees. Where else would one see a school housing within its premises, a chapel, a cemetery, horticultural gardens, a dhobi ghat where uniforms and laundry hung on a laundry line flapping in the breeze. And my tryst with the Nuns did not end after leaving school. It was good fortune that later on when seeking admission into Loreto College, Calcutta for graduate studies, two of my school Nuns were present. Thus admission was a cakewalk. No questions or interviews were necessary for past Loreto students. Likewise, my daughters had no problem getting admission into Loreto House, School, one of the premier institutes, where children of past students got priority over others in the admission process. My girls, four years apart, spent their early school years in this prestigious institution, which I am convinced has largely contributed to their success in life.
Growing up in a cosmopolitan society, laid the foundations for viewing oneness in our differences. Differences that never came in the way of lasting friendships. Comparisons were inevitable. Food habits varied. The scale of celebrating festivals differed. We participated in all the festivities, whether it was Janamashtami, Durga Puja, Diwali, Christmas, Easter, or Ramzan. On the contrary, these cultural differences expanded our knowledge and appreciation of being different, yet one as Indians. As a child, I was not aware that a Banerjee was any different from a Trivedi, a Ranganathan, a Kalsi, a Thurman, or a Billimoria. In school, we mixed with children from different ethnicities, the English, Japanese, French, and first-generation Anglo Indians. Some were endowed with natural beauty, and some looked like their petals would never open up and bloom. I was one of those who grew in height but no flesh anywhere, closely resembling the match stick girl. It was very concerning then. I would look at the mirror and see myself, all hands and legs, and nothing else, as compared to my twin and best buddy who by thirteen were blossoming into little women. Secretly, I envied them, and much as I tried practicing all the arm exercises, and body stretches, my boobs remained like mosquito bites. But surprisingly, puberty came earlier to me than the others. It happened at eleven and a half when visiting family in Calcutta with the older sisters joining us. I half cried and half rejoiced at the knowledge that womanhood would soon follow. In those days, sexual education at school and at home was uncommon. A ‘hush-hush’ subject, swept and covered under the carpet, till it needed to be uncovered. All that I knew was something gross happened to girls when they came of age, supported by seeing blood-soaked sanitary pads thrown into the bathroom wall cupboard, closed with shutters, which we were not supposed to open. But curiosity got the better of me, and I did occasionally peep in to be assailed by a horrible smell. The Jamadarni (servant lady) emptied the cupboard every so often when the older sisters were home from boarding school. Neither did I feel the need to question why Baba, took over the daily puja rituals, five days a month, and why Ma never entered the Puja room those days, presuming she was unwell. Later to learn they were complying with religious dictates, disallowing menstruating women to participate in any religious functions as per Hindu rites. In some societies, the dictates stretched further to being isolated in a room during those five days.
So, when I first saw streaks of blood in my knicker, I thought I had cut myself. In half mind, whether to ignore the stained knicker or check it out with Didi, I decided to let it be, till the menstrual cramps hit with great force, making me double up in pain. It was only then, did I share the news with Didi. She assuaged my fears by telling me it was normal for girls to bleed every month, congratulating me on attaining puberty. The mystery of the soaked smelly pads in the bathroom finally got solved. Within a few months, I demanded to wear a brassiere. Ma looked at me and sort of tried to say, …c’mon you still have time for that. I pestered her quoting the names of girls in my class who were already wearing bras under their school shirts. If they were allowed, why not me? So, one weekend, we drove down in the company car to a nearby shopping complex. Ma took me to the lingerie section and asked the man behind the counter to show her the smallest size available. Did I imagine him giving me quizzical looks? It didn’t bother me. I was just so excited to be joining the rest of the 'bra-wearing' clan of girls in my class. There was no trial room. Ma picked up the smallest size for me and one cup size bigger for my twin, as we proudly walked out of the store, discreetly hiding the packets under our arms. It was a celebratory day the following morning, wearing a bra to school for the first time. Yes...I did want others to know and the way to be noticed was to keep pulling up the narrow straps that slipped off the shoulders. Girls will be girls, as much as boys will be boys. Now I would rather do without one and let gravity play. The last two years of being grounded at home, and used to wearing PJs all day, wearing a bra has become bothersome, and worn only when stepping out from home.
Hormonal changes took place as is natural. And along with it, thoughts of romance surged in my mind, attributed to an overload of reading Mills and Boons novels, imagining the Hero appearing in his white stallion and sweeping me off my feet to his castle far away in Scotland. In no time, I developed an enormous crush on a man, who lived next door, six-plus feet tall, with a voice to boot, and killer looks. He had just returned from Germany and was recruited as a trainee in the Furnace department, on the night shift. Whenever he returned around 2 am, whistling Elvis Presley and Pat Boone tunes, sleepy head me, jumped out of bed to peer out of the bedroom window to have a look at my dream hero, a good 15 years older. He had no clue about my ‘crush’, treating me like a kid, and that too a stupid, idiotic one. My dreams of getting married to him crashed when he visited our home, presenting his wedding card. I was heartbroken and cried myself to sleep. A short phase, that went away to be replaced with the next crush on yet another Management trainee joining the company. Crushes that came and got disposed of as sugarcane bagasse.
Between the ages of 13 to 16, there were many such crushes, that never went beyond a smile and physical closeness when dancing, and once a lip lock kiss that had me in panic mode for a month. I remember vividly where and when it happened. On a deserted stretch of the Golf course, while returning home, accompanied by a bunch of grown-ups, (well-meaning guardians), along with their relatives visiting from Calcutta. This young handsome guy, an excellent Ballroom dancer, and I were walking a little behind, talking of our common interest in music and dance forms. He suddenly grabbed me in the darkness and kissed me full on the lips, the way I had seen in Hollywood movies. I would be dishonest if I said it was repelling. It felt good, adultish, but felt wrong at the same time. I returned home with swollen and slightly bruised lips. Baba and Ma asked the obvious, and I lied, attributing the cause to being stung by a bee. Did they know and chose not to talk about it? Did they do so to save me from embarrassment? I feared the worst. What if I got pregnant with that kiss? Not only would I bring shame to my family, but also be an outcast. What would happen to my studies? Questions plagued me till the next menstruation cycle. Yes, I was that stupid in thinking that a kiss could get a girl pregnant. Going through that tension, made me wary of men and their intentions. The saga of 'school crushes' ended thereafter. But secretly I envied those girls in my class who dropped out to get married while still in classes IX and X. How lucky I thought to myself, to be loved and love someone, little knowing they were years older and were committed to marrying the man chosen for them while still in their cribs. A custom followed in many households between friends promising to change the relationship to permanent status, by getting their offspring married. At that time, I thought that was such a cute concept. No more!!
Having a crush on someone, some Hollywood actor, some celebrity, was not mine alone. At those sleepovers in my best buddy's house, it was a topic of hot discussion, closeted in the children's bedroom, with lights out, spilling out our secrets in the dark, laughing and leg-pulling till eyelids drooped off to sleep. I had the gall to even have a crush on Prince Charles, the crown prince to the throne of England, imagining myself dressed in a flowing white gown, with a long train, walking up the steps of Westminster Abbey and bowing before Queen Elizabeth, before taking the marriage vows. I was not alone in this. Many like me, at some point in that stage of growing up, entertained thoughts of a marriage liaison to Prince Charles. Woolly-headed dreams that interfered with studies. On reflecting, I admit it was all a part of the growing-up process, however ludicrous the situations panned out in our impressionable minds.
From my vantage point at seventy, viewed objectively, I can talk openly about two aspects of my teenage years that were swept under the carpet. These are now subjects of discussion in public forums and are no more considered shameful, immoral, or sinful, to air out in the open. Back then it happened and continues to happen whenever bigoted mindsets refuse to take cognizance of the incidents. Today, teenagers are not only taught about safe sex but also encouraged to identify the 'right touch' from the 'wrong touch'. I was a victim of many 'wrong touches' as were my siblings, cousins, and friends. Considered shameful, the incidents lay buried deep down. The farthest I can recall were the times when the tailor came home to take measurements for stitching clothes. His hand would stay longer than necessary when measuring the breast, and hips and linger over private places, right under the nose of Ma who sat on a nearby chair. Did Ma not notice? And if so, why didn't she object? I would prefer to believe Ma was innocent and failed to see the tailor's mal intentions. Another incident that sticks like a sore thumb in my memory platform was of the 'Gerua' (saffron) clad Singing Master. Baba hired him for teaching us Rabindra Sangeeth to the accompaniment of the harmonium. He would have his right arm circling my shoulders, holding my right hand to press down the black and white keys. The hand that taught, was the hand that molested, I now assume intentionally. For those three years of singing classes at home, my sixth sense told me it was wrong. Why I never shared this information is my weakness and fear of chastisement. Ma and Baba would have rubbished it and termed me as precocious. I noticed it was the same way he taught all my siblings. If they didn't think it was inappropriate, then I certainly must be imagining it, was my conclusion.
"Self-gratification" was a subject no one had heard of, no one talked about. And this is not restricted to sex alone. It encompasses all forms of it. Self-indulgence, Self-adulation, and Self-promotion are more appropriately described as the: "act of pleasing oneself or of satisfying one's desires, especially the satisfying of one's sexual urges. The latter is more of a response to biological needs. A journey of self-discovery. Suffice to say, been there, seen it, done it, and felt guilt strapped. All boiling down to situational needs with the mind having no control over physical needs, convinced it was abnormal, and a sinful act according to my Hindu/Christian upbringing at home and in school. Later, much much later, I 'unlearned' that there was nothing sinful in responding to the overwhelming demands of the flesh, justifying that if masturbation was sanctioned and viewed as normal for growing boys, how could similar acts be considered sinful for girls? How could preening before the mirror, and arranging one's hairstyle to look more attractive be wrong? How could wearing short skirts with hemlines above the knees, or cleavage show be considered abnormal? That's the way the cookie crumbles is what occurred to me as I matured and took a U-turn from the continuing guilt trip.
Running parallel to these emotional struggles, was the race to excel in studies and secure a five-point score at the Senior Cambridge examination, which meant an average of +75% average. A hard task I had set for myself and as was expected from my teachers as well. 1967/1968 were tumultuous years. Baba lost his job in 1967 and was asked to vacate the Company Bungalow. The Bird group of companies was heading for bankruptcy. Like Baba, many were asked to put in their resignation. Conceding to his request to give him a year to find a job, we remained in the company Bungalow till the summer of 1968. Leaving Kumardhubi and relocating to Dhanbad was not easy. This was home, this was where we grew up, and this was where we were leaving behind our childhood friends, who had become a part and parcel of our lives.
All of this came like a bolt from the blue with its manifold ramifications. I was in the final year of school, six months to appear for the Senior Cambridge examination. The distance covering Dhandbad to Asansol, made daily commuting unfeasible. Baba had to request the School Principal to have us, twins, as boarders for the next six months, till we completed the school-leaving exams. Here again, the kindly Nuns who loved the Banerjee twins responded promptly assuring Baba, that arrangements would be made to admit us as boarders, even in the face of a full house. The laundry room was converted into a bedroom with two cots for my twin and me. Leaving home was not easy for us, as well as for our parents. A first in our lives. At the end of the summer holidays, we drove from Dhanbad to Asansol, with Black tin trunks in the dickey, stuffed with six sets of uniforms, underwear, nightwear, two pairs of shoes, socks, winter garments, toiletries, and our study books. Waiting to receive us on the school porch were Sister Jude and Mother Attracta. My Parents filled up all the forms and we bid tearful goodbyes. My twin and I at seventeen were not ready to leave the security of home. But that got fixed soon, with the Nuns getting us settled down in the hostel. A different life, adhering to different norms, and different schedules, which in retrospect helped in grooming us into mature and responsible persons. Those six months in the hostel had their happy and sad moments. Happy that it would be just six months before we met our parents, and sad to leave school forever and enter into a new chapter of life. This change did impact my life and performance in the exams. I caught the 'mumps' from a classmate and spent a fortnight in the infirmary, cut off from the rest of the class, and most importantly from my twin. While the nurse took all care to help me recover and coax me to eat the diet prepared for the sick, this was when I missed Ma the most, wanting her desperately near my bedside. Mother Bernadine, visited morning and evening, inquiring about my health, with some advice on how to prepare for the December SC exams. Two weeks of lying in bed, half-awake, half-asleep, had my imagination doing cartwheels, grappling with my fears of visitations from the ghosts of Nuns buried in the school cemetery. The isolation room was spooky, with a small window overlooking the big old tree that stood at the entrance of the Assembly hall, rumored to be haunted. My ears would prick up to catch the slightest noise coming from the open window. Was that Mother Magdalene rising from her grave, reciting Shylock's speech on humanity, learned by heart "Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh?" May her soul rest in peace, I prayed.
When the exam results were released in March of 1969, I was in for a big bad surprise, securing a 17-point score against 5 points as was expected by the Nuns and teachers, well within the grade of first Division, but a dismal one. Thankfully, my parents were more than happy with the results. At this point, I must mention that we had no coaching classes or private tutors throughout our school years. It was unheard of. Any help needed was provided at home. My mother never pushed any of us to break the glass ceiling. As for Baba, he was the most carefree person. A 'bindaas' hero with no high expectations from his girls. Never bothered with how we were faring in our studies, as long as we got promoted to the next class. He dutifully signed our report cards at the end of the year and was satisfied as long as no red marks appeared anywhere on the report card. I guess, he had no big ambitions for us, nor seeing us walking in hospital corridors with the stethoscope hanging around our neck, or wearing a lawyer's gown, fighting a case in court. Like most parents of my time, marriage was the ultimate goal for girls and they worked towards that goal, providing us with an unenviable education, social skills, and a congenial and stable family life to carry us through with the roles of being good wives and good mothers.
The first marriage in the family, (cannot forget the date) was on 26th January 1966, important on two counts, Republic Day and Saraswati Puja coinciding on the same day, Bordi (eldest sister) got married. After a year-long search through matrimonial columns, Baba hit the jackpot. Now the jackpot was that the groom was none other than the next-door neighbor's son from his ancestral place, where Bordi was born and lived till age four. Ten years older than her, she was his childhood buddy and he later confessed to dreaming of marrying her one day. Ma and Baba were on cloud nine at receiving the proposal from him. There would be no need to make any adjustments, having seen the groom from his teens, and proud of his career in Government service from the West Bengal Civil Services cadre, posted in Ranchi.
I was then in class IX and had never attended a Bengali wedding. Thakurma, (grandmother), Uncles, Aunts, Cousins, and distant cousins, from Calcutta and beyond arrived several days ahead of the wedding. The accommodation was arranged for them in some of the vacant Bungalows. Several cooks were hired to prepare meals, and sweetmeats were polished off as fast as they were made. Jingle of bangles filled the house while cutting vegetables, descaling the fish, stirring pots and pans, with friendly banter exchanged between brothers and sisters. Since the groom was known to the entire family, no formalities were observed as is accorded to the Bridegroom's party. Didi sitting all decked up in a golden yellow brocaded benarasi sari, gold necklaces of various lengths hanging down her neck, hands full of bangles reaching to her elbows, wore a new look on her face. The first granddaughter, the first daughter in the Banerjee clan, had changed from being the boisterous one to a docile maiden, ready to cross over the threshold of spintershood in a matter of few hours. Her husband was driven by my best buddy, barely fifteen, in the company station wagon, to our Bungalow, to the beating of the 'dhak' and 'dhol' (drums). Hard to recall the sequence of events, but remember Didi looking radiant with the vermillion streak on her parting, cheeks flushed, united with her childhood friend. And the next morning Didi left, throwing a handful of grains, behind her, climbing onto the Jeep, and driving off to her new home. Ma and Baba looked broken, as though a part of their body had been severed. Thankfully, the gregarious family clan, hung on for a few days, restoring the normalcy in the household, with their incessant chattering, planning meals, and polishing off the tins and tins of sweets specially prepared for the wedding feast. This next link to this event, came with the arrival of my nephew on the 1st of January, 1967, a joyous occasion, making Baba and Ma, first-time grandparents, and me, a Mashi (Aunt). Whenever Didi visited with her husband and baby, holding the little one in my skinny arms, made me feel quite adult. The little one as of today should be fifty-plus years, a parent himself. I last saw him when he was twelve at Didi's funeral. Kiddo then, suddenly orphaned. And suddenly cut off from our lives. As though with Didi's departure, we had no rights or claim over him! I still cannot figure out, where and how the connection got disconnected. Where things went wrong is hard to tell. But the brother-in-law who was more a brother to me/us and a son to my parents dropped us like hot bricks.
The second family wedding happened in the summer of 1968, the year I was to appear for the Senior Cambridge examination. Mejdi had already chosen her beau. As opposed to the liaison, there was the usual family drama between my parents and Mejdi, both sides stubbornly maintaining their stand. The marriage meant a big step down for Mejdi in terms of lifestyle. She stood her ground and insisted on marrying him with her assurance of adjusting to the new lifestyle that her marriage would entail. Thus I acquired another brother, aka brother-in-law that year. Never mind the perceived differences, Meji was happy and that's what mattered everyone said. I have the fondest memories of him. A simple, kind human being, blessed with a voice that could stir even the souls of hardened criminals. Mejdi a graduate of Shantiniketan Vishwabharati University, herself a singer, had not only fallen in love with his voice but his looks as well, with his close resemblance to Uttam Kumar's (popular Bengali cine star) appearance. With time, Baba and Ma grew to love him, more and more, despite the many differences. What I most remember about him, was his rendition of "Shyama Sangeet" (songs dedicated to Goddess Kali).....Kali Kali Bol Rasona, (let your utterance of Kali Kali be your salvation) and my favorite one is "Mayer Payer Joba Hoye, Utna Phute Mon" (my mind will bloom, lying as a hibiscus near Ma Kali's feet). The air seemed to purify itself as his voice rose and fell with each stanza.
I also saw their meteoric rise and fall and that served to throw up the lesson to the saying 'cut your coat according to your cloth'. Without sounding critical, I do not advocate living on two ends of the spectrum, one of the excesses without a care for what happens in the future, nor living like a miser, saving for the future, missing out on 'living' in its truest sense. Within my family circle (here I'm referring to my immediate family before marriage) I observed many embracing lifestyles fit for Kings and dying in penury. Others followed a frugal one, missing out on the good things in life, and leaving behind wealth for their children to enjoy. Personally, the middle path is what I follow and consider the best path. Mejdi and her husband' followed a lifestyle, swinging on both ends of the pendulum. They died premature deaths, due to diabetic-related ailments, leaving behind their son, with whom all connections ceased following Mejdi's demise in 1992. Ma went into depression, coming out of it as usual, with her innate strength to overcome all tragedies, big and small.
Skipping this part would be like missing out on sharing the uniqueness of life in these Industrial townships. A lifestyle that will go down in history as a closed chapter with no future edited versions. Hence, I needed to share this aspect before moving on to the next phase. There were two Clubs, one for the Whites and Brown Sahebs, and another for the Babus. When the Britishers were still around, Club activities centered around entertainment, indoor and outdoor sports and sports competitions, parties, Balls, Banquets, and lady’s get-togethers. The white ladies in long skirts, wearing fancy hats, and handheld fans, looking sedate were both intriguing and interesting as opposed to our mothers dressed in chiffon sarees, hands full of bangles, forehead sporting bindis, looking comely and homely. Did they feel uncomfortable mixing with the brown memsahibs? I think not. I noticed them sharing jokes with laughter outbursts, gossiping at the mahjong table, exchanging recipes, and sipping glasses of Shandy. The white men were more gregarious, and jovial, hanging out with the Brown Sahebs at the bar, talking shop over mugs of Beer. All this was observed from outside the glass partition that separated the bar from the library. As kids, what excited me most was the parties thrown at Christmas, New Year, and much later during Diwali and Holi. Those Christmas parties had all the trappings of Christmas parties we read about in Victorian novels. Paper-thin cut cucumber sandwiches, pastries, puffs, candies, tarts, bottled coca colas, Christmas hats, whistles, and a bag of goodies for each child, made for exciting times. But the highlight of Christmas as I remember clearly was rotund Mr. Moon, (a Britisher) dressed as Christmas Father arriving in his sled, pulled by deer, with gifts stuffed in burlap sacks. He stood on the auditorium stage, calling out the names of each child to come on stage, shake hands and receive the gift. The excitement stayed heightened till the party got over at six pm. and we rushed home to tear open the wrappings to discover the contents of the secret. Mostly girly stuff for the girls like dolls, cooking sets, sewing kits, and boyish stuff like trains, ships, and board games for the boys. One Christmas my secret gift was a doll, dressed in a Scottish outfit, a checked red and black skirt with a white top, and a matching beret on the hand. My twin and I would take turns in sleeping with the doll tucked under our arms, during those winter nights for many years, till we outgrew of it and by which time, one glass eye was missing, hair from under the beret had thinned to a few blond strands, shoes, and socks untraceable. The doll was buried in the green wooden box where castaways were kept.
The club boasted of having two hard courts for lawn tennis, two badminton courts with flood lights for evening matches, a squash court, table tennis, a billiards swimming pool, and a grocery store, stocking all the imported food items. Summer saw us in the swimming pool in the evenings, chilling with bottles of coca-cola that has just come into the Indian market. A special treat on special occasions. However, the special soon became a daily feature, little knowing the rise in Baba's credit billing. Baba was shocked at the astronomical billing at the month's end. We had mindlessly ordered Coca-Cola every day, little knowing its impact on the payee. Baba gave us a dressing down for being irresponsible. The bearer serving the drink was duly instructed to stop taking requests from us unless countersigned by him. That served to put brakes on spending habits. Likewise, the Club Store, from where I and my sibling helped ourselves to bars of imported Cadbury chocolates, adhered to Baba's order of 'no credit extension'. These dictates inculcated the habit of becoming more responsible in not giving in to greed, of being aware of how it would impact Baba's finances in running household expenses, making us conscious of not living it up like the Jones. This awareness, made us recognize that living beyond one's means was not the right attitude. Lessons that stood in good stead, when we had to manage our finances. Dad did give his best in certain areas where no compromises were made; namely education, food, and holidays. There were no full stops here for us four siblings. Whenever I outgrew the school uniform, or school shoes started giving blisters on the heels, the tailor was summoned to stitch new sets, a size bigger shoe was purchased from Bata. Did I feel any less for not having a wardrobe full of clothes, a rack full of shoes, or grand birthday parties? The answer is a big NO. New clothes were stitched/custom bought thrice a year, birthdays, Durga Puja (a festival celebrated in Bengal), and if there was a wedding in the family, that warranted a new set of clothes. A bonus that year. Four of us wore identical dresses, stitched from a bale of cloth, presumably bought at wholesale rate. Resembling the Van Tromp family in the famous movie "Sound of Music". This is evidenced by old photos preserved in family albums. And I never felt deprived or envious of friends who had more, obviously coming from better economic backgrounds. Happiness was in being loved and growing up in a loving family, where there was no favoritism. I can emphatically say, my parent's love compartments were of equal size and dimensions.
In my enthusiasm for sharing the love I received from my parents, I have digressed from the main issue. Sports was one area where I failed miserably, unashamedly, taking part in every event. Instead of hitting the shuttlecock, the badminton racquet went flying to the opposite court, much to my disconsternation, and merriment from spectators. I took to swimming as a duck takes to water. My spidery arms and legs performed the breaststroke with natural ease. But I could never summon enough courage to walk up to the diving board and take the jump. Fear of drowning or cracking my skull stayed forever. I admired the courageous girls, boys, men, and women, jumping effortlessly, and taking two somersaults before breaking the water's surface. The pool remained closed during the winter months. Tuesdays were a much-awaited weekday. Hollywood movies were shown in the club auditorium, on a huge roll-down white screen, with the film spool passing through the projector. One day in the week when club curfew time for us was relaxed, as the show timings were more to suit adult club members. Returning from school, I would rush to finish the homework for the day, shampoo my hair, and style it in the latest fashion, from sporting a fringe to a Jackie Kennedy hairstyle, hair coaxed to turn outwards at the nape of the neck, to backcombing and creating little "samosa" shaped cones to give the effect of height and an adult appearance. Baba and Ma were not much movie fans, so we girls walked together to the Club and grabbed our chairs waiting eagerly for the movie screening. If you ask why I and the rest of the teenagers, took so much pain in dressing up, the answer is obvious. We wanted to look good, be admired, and maybe, even catch the eye of the men on whom we had a massive crush. Watching the iconic couple Liz Taylor, and Richard Burton's epic romance movies put romantic ideas into our heads. A phase that phased out with growing academic pressure overriding all else. A clash between facing the challenge of excelling in school versus being admired by the opposite sex and the need to feel desirable. After all,' you can't have your cake and eat it too' as the adage goes.
Another annual Club event was the New Year's Eve Ball and Banquet. It was exciting enough to watch Baba and Ma getting ready to attend the Ball, though they never did take to the floor. Baba in his three-piece suit, bow tie, and black shoes, looked more handsome than the Hollywood heroes. Seriously, Baba with his aristocratic looks and mastery of the English language could put anyone in the shade if he wanted to. Ma dressed in her best saree, her hair neatly tied in a bun with a gold butterfly stuck in the doughnut, looked regal without any makeup, except for the round bindi on her forehead. We stayed awake all night for their return to listen to some amusing incidents that usually happened. Some I'm sure was just to tease Ma. Like the time, he noticed Ma's dinner plate with a large slice of beef roast, which unknowingly she had picked up. Baba came to her rescue just before that succulent piece was forked into her mouth. On being whispered of picking the banned meat from the buffet table, Ma's subsequent action, made us roll in laughter. She had promptly put down the plate and rushed to the washroom to gargle, returning shamefaced, not venturing again to serve herself with a fresh plate. She never again accompanied him to the Annual Ball attended by the British and Brown Sahebs and Memsahibs. Preferring not to break her Brahmanical ways.
We couldn't wait to attend the first ball. And it happened sooner than expected. With the management changing hands from the Britishers to Indians, many of the rules were relaxed. At sixteen, we pleaded for permission to attend the Ball, and it took little effort for our parents to acquiesce to our request. A big departure from the past, with the age bar staying pegged at eighteen plus. The permission came with some caveats. No liquor, no close dancing, no skimpy clothes, and many other 'No's. So, that was the first time I wore a saree on my skinny frame, with an ill-fitting blouse, dangling filigree silver earrings with a matching necklace, purchased that year on our visit to Puri. I styled my hair into a French roll, to give that adult look. Since Ma never wore high heels, I wore two strapped leather slippers, not ideally the best for dancing. Accompanied by parents, I attended the first Annual Club Ball. The Hall was decorated with streamers and balloons, and the stage was set with a live band, guitar, drums, and piano, occupying their places, to ensure the acoustics didn't burst eardrums. Couples were already on the floor waltzing away. I sat with my parents on chairs that were pushed against the walls, leaving the floor empty. Few teenagers were picked up by their partners and already doing crazy moves to the beat of the music. I sat like a wallflower, for quite some time, and then this guy, the one who had given me swollen lips, two years ago, came striding forward, extending his hands, requesting me for a dance. My parents nodded consent as I jumped out of my seat, careful not to trip over my saree hemline. We danced and danced, jiving, foxtrot, cha-cha-cha, enjoying the thrill of being watched, admired, and frowned upon by the prissy ladies. Throwing caution to the winds, when the music turned to a slow waltz, my favorite song 'Besame Mucho', he held me close, as the lights were dimmed. Dancing cheek to cheek got interrupted with the band taking a break and brakes applied to dancing. The dinner announcement got us heading to the buffet table. I, my siblings, and friends occupied one table, all looking flushed and hungry enough to devour a whole roasted pig. Just exaggerating! No...no prince charming came with a glass slipper on the stroke of Midnight and we went home safe and secure in the company of the elders. An unforgettable night that I kept playing over and over in my mind for days on end.
Back to the big metropolis: Calcutta
With the conclusion of the Senior Cambridge exams in December 1968, out came the Black tin trunks, piled up in the luggage room. Preparations commencing with packing our belongings and heading home, leaving behind our childhood and a phase in life that I now can assertively say, was THE BEST, sans tensions, sans criticism, sans being judged and sized up. Nuns and Teachers accompanied us girls on their journey back home. The last nail in the coffin was when we boarded the train at Asansol Station, carrying a folder full of childhood memories. Reaching Howrah station, my eyes searched for Baba. There he was, towering above the rest of the crowd, taking big strides, with his arms open, to grab us both to his chest, peeping out of the open door of the compartment, in bewilderment. The crowd, the traffic on Howrah Bridge, and driving home through unknown narrow streets, imposing buildings, and monuments, was an overwhelming experience. As was his habit, he never asked how we had fared in the exams. Typically Baba! For a small-town girl, with no experience of what to expect in a city like Calcutta, a series of shock waves passed through my cranium. The crowds, the choc-o-block traffic on Howrah Bridge, and the huge river Hooghly flowing lazily beneath, triggered fear, excitement, and wonderment. Moving from spacious surroundings at school and living in 'stand alone' bungalows in Kumardhubi, into an apartment was the second shock as I climbed up the stairs to my new home in Calcutta, closed in on the left side with similar buildings and on the right by a 'Khatal" (cowshed). On mornings I woke up to the mooing of cows, clanking of buckets, and chattering of the 'goalas' (milkmen) in their dialect. And the smell of cow dung/urine, a cocktail of smells wafting into my bedroom that had me digging deeper into my blanket. It took some time to get used to the new sounds and smells attacking the olfactory nerves.
Getting used to the lavatory/shower/wash basin in one closed unit, took some time and many adjustments, particularly when nature's call coincided with equal urgency from another. Bang...bang...bang on the bathroom door was a daily phenomenon. "Hold on...give me a second...I'm coming out", with me hopping crossed-legged outside the door, brings on chuckles. With Ma, there was never a problem as she maintained sunrise timings when no one was awake. Most often Baba was the one, forced to vacate, with my twin and I hammering on the door. With the newspaper rolled under his arm, cigarette dangling from his lips, he stepped out reluctantly, with his morning ablutions incomplete. And that is the only reason, we went searching for another apartment which had more toilets and luckily chanced upon one on an evening walk down the main street with a board hanging on the gate "Ground floor apartment for rent". Thankfully, the apartment was designed by someone more intelligent than the previous owner, equipped with four units, two lavatories, and two shower rooms. The door banging ended. Baba was happy to read the newspaper undisturbed end to end, smoke curls rising to the ceiling, coaxing out his stomach contents. Picking up his habit, my reading material accompanies me to the toilet, never mind the stench!
Being newbies to the city, I and my twin stayed home for the six months from January to June of 1969, eating, sleeping, reading, and generally lazing, anxiously waiting for the Senior Cambridge results from school that would determine which college to seek admission to. Baba and Ma discouraged us from stepping out of the house alone. On weekends Baba took us out, familiarising us with the City where we were born, and hardly knew. Bus rides, tram rides, and the black, and yellow taxi rides were new and thrilling experiences. One weekend it was to see the majestic Victoria Memorial, another weekend a treat at Anadi Cabin, a Mughlai restaurant serving the best 'Dhakai' paratha and "kosha mangsho" (spicy mutton curry). With Baba, no visit was complete without diving into the popular eating joints on Chowringhee. He was the incorrigible foodie, introducing new tastes and smells, flavors, all so foreign. Whenever a Hollywood/Bollywood blockbuster was screened in Metro, we were accompanied by Baba to watch it through, ending the evening with dinner at some of the other restaurants of his choice. "Mera Naam Joker" was one of them. Eating in a restaurant was again a 'first' for me and my twin and therefore, heightened the excitement of the weekend outing. And while getting acquainted with city life, was the underlying nagging fear of not passing the board exams.
Without a phone connection at home, we had no means of communicating with friends who likewise had no phones in their homes. Back then, one had to book a trunk call to talk to somebody living in another state. Those Trunk calls took forever to connect and were time-bound. From Mid March onwards, the panic button stayed depressed permanently and was released the day Baba came home from the office with the exam results, communicated to his office number, by my best buddy. She had looked up the exam result list pinned on the school notice board and rushed home to share the news with Baba. He looked pleased as punch that I and sis had cleared the exams. A dismal first division for me and a good second division for sis. While I was completed shaken and unhappy Baba and Ma were unconcerned. As I have mentioned earlier, they were 'non-pushers', in every sense of the term. Performance at exams was never a matter of concern or discussion. Their purpose was in seeing us educated and able to conduct our lives without compromising on the values instilled since childhood My suspicions on the reasons for slipping in grade points, got confirmed when the mark sheets and certificates arrived in the mail a fortnight later. History marks were responsible for the drop in grade points. That I was unhappy showed on my face. Baba and Ma comforted me as usual. After moping around for a few days, I concluded 'Good riddance to bad rubbish", Atleast my tryst with History was over and done with. Mugging updates, remembering names of Emperors, Invasions, least interested me. Goodbye to English history, European history, a subject I abhorred.
The choice narrowed down to either pursuing graduate studies in Geography or Literature. With that over, began the search for the best colleges offering my chosen degree courses. Lady Brabourne College in Park Circus was first on the list, followed by Loreto College in Middleton Row as the second choice, not for any other reason, but the former meant a shorter commute from home. That got struck out when we got to know the College gave admission only to first divisions, disqualifying my twin's admission. My parents as well as both of us wanted to study in the same college. So, it was back to Loreto College that we went with Baba for the admission process. To our good fortune, Sister Stella was the then college principal. No introductions and no interviews were needed. It was a cakewalk getting admission. I picked up the Honours Course in Geography instead of English Honours, after mulling over it for a few days. What clinched my decision was the idea of pursuing Geology for a Master's degree, which would allow me to travel. I had already been bitten by the travel bug at eighteen.
The first hurdle to cross was learning how to travel on public buses. The walk from home to the bus stand took a good ten minutes. Baba had written out the bus route number that would drop us off either at Park Street Crossing for the front gate, or right opposite Standard Chartered Bank on Chowringhee Road, which was a shorter walk to the back gate. Except for Bus no.45, there were no direct connections to Chowringhee Road. The other alternative was to get off at the Sealdah Station stoppage and then board any bus route passing Chowringhee Road. It took some time to figure out the best alternatives with the shortest travel time. Overcrowded buses were avoided. Balancing books, handbags, and hanging onto the overhead rod, when seats were full, was not easy at first. Every time the driver applied brakes, I rolled down the aisle, much to the amusement of other passengers. Ignoring the stares, and putting up a brave face, was the trick for surviving bus rides. In a few months, all that was history, graduating to pushing our way, as the others did, rushing to grab a vacant seat, and shouting to the conductor as others did "thamun... .thamun dekchen na ladies namche" (stop...stop...don't you see ladies disembarking). Needless to mention, Calcutta being Calcutta, ladies were and are always accorded special respect and privileges, said without any bias. And in those three years of traveling in public buses, I learned the art of warding off the 'boob grabbers', 'rear pinchers', 'crotch rubbers' giving stares that would have them scurrying like squirrels out of eye contact range.
Recalling those three years in Loreto College (1969 to 1972) traveling in public buses, seemed like a much-needed maturity pill; suddenly the small-town girl, grew into a City maiden. There was no opportunity for bunking classes with the pressure associated with pursuing an honors degree. Those pursuing the Pass degree managed successfully to sneak out of the back gate unseen, meet up with their boyfriends from St.Xavier's to catch a matinee show, or gallivant on Park Street, the most happening place in Calcutta, then and now. Though uniforms replaced casual clothes, Loreto College has some strictures in place for dress code...hemlines above the knee, necklines way above cleavage showing, and no strappy dresses. And without exception, whether you were a popular Bengali Cinestar's daughter or some big shot bureaucrat's offspring, or with political connections. The defiant ones were forthwith sent home, to change into appropriate clothes. There were quite a few occasions of a few of them being picked out from the assembly hall and given the marching orders, returning modestly dressed. A new set of friends made, new ways of entertainment, and slowly the City of Joy grew on me as I settled down, no more naïve about what a city life entailed.
Eating in the College Canteen was rare, as seeing a full solar eclipse; it was meant for girls from better economic backgrounds. No one in my batch ever ate lunch or bought snacks from the canteen. Like school days, we carried lunch packs, sat on the green lawns, and shared from lunch boxes. It was the same with a wardrobe change. I never felt the need for wearing a different set every day in college, as did my batch mates. A few sets rotated. And nobody cared. Of course, I was envious of those who had a wardrobe full of trendiest clothes. But that was about it. Loreto taught me humility and giving up on being self-conscious about one's clothes and appearances, and more focused on pursuing studies.
Geography opened up opportunities to travel. The practical course involved compiling the thesis based on readings and inputs taken from the field. Off we went to a remote village in Rajasthan (Jawai Bandh) with theodolites and all the associated equipment, adding a few days of sightseeing as well. En route a stop at New Delhi, which happened to coincide with Kali Pujo, and on the return a stop at Ajmer for those wishing to visit the famed Khwaja Moin-Ud-Din Chishty Darga. That was the longest train journey I had taken and perhaps fuelled my desire for travel. This love for travel took birth while still in school. During Kumardhubi days, holidays meant weekend stays at Maithon, Tilaya (dams on the river Damodar) guest houses, or Hazaribagh forest guest house, accompanied by pets. The last was a road trip to Benaras from Dhanbad. On the way, Baba suggested we stop over for the night at Ranchi. A road trip that turned awry with Ma suffering from food poisoning after lunch at a Dhaba on the highway. That night, while Baba was desperately searching for a doctor to visit the hotel, I prayed and prayed and must have said a hundred "Hail Mary" my fingers moving on the rosary beads, like the needle of a speedometer at an increasing pace. Ma was throwing up incessantly and completely dehydrated as I spooned drops of water into her mouth. It was the scariest night in my seventeen years of life. Around midnight Baba returned with a doctor in tow. He administered injections and prescribed medicines. All was good the following morning, with Baba regretting his decision. Mother Mary, I believed had heard my prayers. On reaching Benaras, we first stopped at Kashi Biswanath Temple to offer thanksgiving.
After graduating from college, again I was left at loose ends. Further studies, or moving into professional courses. Back then there were limited opportunities for pursuing a professional course. It was either going on to complete the B.ed one-year course offered at Loreto College and pursue teaching as a career or enter into the Corporate World. With my penchant for travel, I suggested why not join Airlines and train to become an Airhostess, following in the footsteps of several friends. Baba saw red! Girls from middle-class families don't go into that profession. To my why, I was told that it would not auger well for my reputation. Being away from home for days and living in Hotels, was considered inappropriate. All humbug, I thought to myself. But I didn't have the gumption to disagree. Joining the corporate world, itself was accepted albeit with hesitation. So, again my twin and I enrolled in the Pitman's Commercial Course on Dharamtala Street and aced the exams in Shorthand/typing and bookkeeping. That brings me to the next bend in life.
Career 1973 onwards
No sooner had I completed the course, than the job market opened with welcoming arms. Around the early seventies, there was a demand for Convent educated Graduate stenographers in multinationals. Hitherto, this bastion held largely by the English-speaking Anglo-Indian community, came to a dead-end, with them migrating to Australia, England, and the far west. Most of the multinationals were being headed by Indians, consequent to the departure of the ex-pats. The Babus, many of whom rose from the ranks, lacked adequate communication skills to interact with the parent companies located overseas. The new breed of Stenographers/Secretaries were expected to fill in the gap. Even before receiving Pitman's certificate, I got my first unsolicited interview call. The couple running the Institute sent me to a Social Service Relief Organisation, located on Russel Street. The Manager, a kindly-looking elderly gentleman, removed all my misgivings about working in an environment that was completely new and foreign. His Secretary, a girl from Mizoram, helped me settle in, peeling away the layers of shyness and initial reservations about communicating with the men, all regarded as 'Big Bad Wolves' in my mind. In six months I was not only comfortable but also loved my work and the handful of people working in the organization. A grooming ground, leaving that feel-good factor encouraging me to apply to other organizations. The Manager was sad to see me put in my resignation and happy that I had other offers from Multi-Nationals. The next move to the Head Office of a well-known recording company in Dalhousie lasted for less than a fortnight, attributed to the 'bad feel factor'. Something didn't seem right. Women have the extra-sensory powers to identify between the good and the bad, and I had a squeamish feeling working in that environment.
And then luck favored me in that I saw this advertisement in The Statesman, calling for Graduate Stenographers, to which I responded immediately, and received an interview call within a few days. Certain pictures stay unfaded in the mind and that day of the interview is gold framed. The address given seemed complicated to locate, still a newbie to the City. My Brother-in-law (Bordi's husband) from the West Bengal Civil Service cadre, serving at Writer's Building, offered to accompany me for the interview. There I was, dressed in saree, pleats arranged neatly, pallu pleated and pinned on the shoulder, hair braided, wearing footpath-bought sandals, with a folder tucked under my arms, containing my school/college/commercial course certificate, gingerly stepping into the office on Hare Street. An old building, a vestige of Colonial days, with a cranky small lift, self-operated by pulling shut the heavy iron grill gates. No...this was again a first in my life. And yes, I was nervous when handing over the interview letter to the receptionist, an attractive-looking Anglo-Indian lady, in a dress and dark lipstick. OMG! I thought to myself. I'm not getting this job, dressed differently, makeup-less face, and a long braid. Feeling utterly self-conscious, I tried with little success to hide the slippers under the hem of my saree, watching the receptionist on her high-heels entering into the deeper caverns of the office. There were a few more girls, waiting in the reception, better and more smartly turned out, wearing the look of confidence. My confidence had plummeted. When my name was called for the interview, I jumped out of my skin, with my Bro nudging me to get up and go.
Surprised at the huge glassed office, with a handful of glassed cubicles, I was first taken to the Branch Secretary's office. Meeting her was like seeing a mother figure in the workplace, a functioning second home that helped dissipate all the niggling doubts festering in my mind. Checking through my academic records, she commented as to why I was seeking a job in the corporate sector, where there are no growth opportunities available for office desk jobs. She still had a good fifteen years of service before her position fell vacant. The only upward move for a Stenographer. I had no ready answer, as my future career plans had not taken any concrete shape. She accompanied me to the adjacent chamber of the Branch Manager, an elderly Bengali Bhadrolok (gentlemen), a breed of men that is now a rarity. After meeting the Branch Secretary and the Branch Manager, I felt this was the right place to start my career. I was given a consumer complaint to answer independently. That done, I met the Assistant Branch Manager, another elderly man, who dictated a letter I took in shorthand and returned after typing it on the big manual typewriter. Did I see queer looks from others seated in the main hall? Or was it just my imagination. What made me make up my mind there and then to join the company, if offered the position, was in noticing the presence of employees much older sitting at their desks, giving me the impression of being in a safe and secure work environment. That initial feeling grew stronger and made me stay for eighteen long years, refusing to change for the better opportunities, that came and went. The employment letter came in the mail within a week, and I reported for work on 3rd August 1973, a chair and desk placed in the Branch Secretary's room, as her understudy. The Branch Manager gave me the employment letter, with a warm smile asking what were my salary expectations. I had no clue what to expect and no idea of prevailing salary structures in competitive companies. My jaw dropped when he mentioned the amount and the perquisites of a company car, annual bonus, medical expense reimbursement, and a whole lot of benefits that went over my head spinning with excitement. In 1973 a take-home salary of Rs.650 was considered a bumper offer. I signed on the dotted line and went through the mandatory medical tests before officially joining the company. The first Graduate Convent-educated Stenographer to join Calcutta Branch.
Yes...there was underlying resistance from colleagues, perceived as a threat to their existence, and wishful thinking of seeing my back within a few days. Yes...I was a subject of ridicule for reporting to work dressed in traditional outfits without make-up. I was in awe of them in their western wear, carrying matching handbags, walking on high-heels, made-up faces, dark lipsticks, permed short hair, and a general 'mightier than thou' attitude. In the beginning, I was studiously ignored and kept at bay. Except for the 'mother-figure' lady's comforting presence, and the senior officers, some nearly as old as Baba, I would have left. But I stuck on, keen on breaking the ice with the others. It didn't take too long to be accepted as one among them. What began on a wrong footing got right in a few months. The bonding started during lunch breaks, with sharing food from our tiffin boxes. ' Luchi aloor dom' in exchange for pork sausage curry; Goan fish curry in exchange for Bengali cuisine. This sparked the beginning of an everlasting friendship with my lady colleagues. Soon after my six-month probation period got over, and I was confirmed as a permanent employee on the company rolls, my work station shifted to the open area hall, seated adjacent with the second Stenographer and clerical staff.
Hitherto, the ladies were addressed as 'Memsahebs'. The nomenclature 'Didi' was first time introduced upon my joining. At that time, there were three levels of staff on the Branch payroll (excluding the Branch Manager and Assistant Branch Manager who were on Head office payroll) namely, Officers, Clerical staff, and sub-ordinate staff under which came peons, despatchers, godown keepers, and drivers. This class distinction remained on paper only and never got in the way of interaction during working hours. From leading a sheltered life in Kumardhubi to fitting into the ways of urban living, it was back again to a 'sheltered' existence. Looking back I can unequivocally say, the work environment fostered a home-like environment that I grew to love over the years. Picked up at 8 am from home and dropped back by 6.30 pm, by company transport was a perk extended only to the lady staff. Most multinationals in Calcutta extended this extra privilege to their female staff. An extension of the respect and safety accorded to ladies, as was and continues to be exclusively a Calcutta culture. One dare not mess with the ladies of Calcutta in workplaces or the public. And that's the way it was right through my eighteen years of service with the company.
I confess, to being poor in financial management. Add to that, my very minimal personal requirements. Every month, the salary envelope was handed over to Baba with great pride and a sense of satisfaction of contributing to running the household expenses. He was retired by then and appreciated this gesture of mine. My only expense was in expanding my wardrobe, an urge that surged noticing my colleagues never repeating a dress in a fortnight. Baba gladly went out shopping with me for sarees. Sarees that my twin and I wore in turns for variety's sake. I had no need, the skills, or the desire to wear makeup. Watching my colleagues freshening up after lunch, I slowly picked up how to wear make-up, most often ending up looking like some circus clown. After a lot of practice and learning, I got the hang of how to apply foundation, eyeliner, blush, and lipstick. Starting with the minimalistic look, I gradually stepped up the layers, imagining myself looking more suave and sophisticated in an office environment, till one day Baba and Ma, told me up to my face "you look like a 'hanuman' (A Hindu God and a mightly warrior represented as a monkey), with all the gooey stuff on your face.
That comment put the brakes on applying unnecessary makeup, restricting it to just kajal and talcum powder. This brings to me an equally amusing incident, that happened the time I went out shopping with my beau before marriage. I was in a spendthrift mood and enjoyed picking up the costlier brands of makeup for use on my wedding day. He stood patiently watching and mentally calculating the amount I had spent on makeup alone, assuming this would be a monthly billing, in the future. Later he confessed to being alarmed at how expensive it would be to maintain a wife of my standards. He was not aware, it was one-off spending! We still laugh over it, more now that the need for any make-up has been replaced with the need to wear masks at all times. In 1975 my status changed from single to married. I will come to that later as I continue sharing my work experience.
Needless to say, office politics and gossip were part and parcel of every organization without exception. But nothing serious enough to damage anyone's reputation or anything even remotely termed as character assassination. Did I face the much-talked-about subject of sexual harassment at work? No...no...no. As written earlier, the work culture was clean, the environment completely white-washed, and relationships official yet familial. I reiterate that it was as close as close could be to a home environment. In happiness, in sorrow, in sickness, we gathered together to rejoice and grieve and provide comfort and support. If an employee died while in service, his/her offspring were considered for employment. All things being equal, staff children applying for the same job, were given preference over other candidates, which was one of the policies for recruiting staff.
In 1986 when I was diagnosed with an Ischemic heart, my superiors were concerned and let me take time off. Kind-hearted souls came visiting, enquiring about my health. I was touched beyond words. At 34 my world crumbled down like a pack of cards. But I never let depression get the better of me. And what made me overcome this phase was my determination to beat death as I was not ready to die. I had to fulfill my responsibilities as a daughter, wife, and mother to my little girls. The company doctor visited often and had repeated tests done to rule out the condition. An echocardiogram test, just then introduced as a diagnostic tool, confirmed it as the wrong diagnosis. This culture of caringness was the backbone and a scoring point in that rarely any employee left the company for better opportunities. Most worked till retirement. In my eighteen years of service, there was not a single resignation submitted and my vision for the future was getting old and retiring from the company at the ripe old age of 60. But fate had other plans. I will come to that subsequently.
The year 1987 was a life-turning point. Consequent to the Branch Secretary's retirement, the position fell vacant. The Branch Manager had already recommended me for filling the position. Meanwhile, there was resistance to contend with from staff who felt, the position should rightly have gone to my colleague, senior in service by a decade, as was the system prevailing back then. I got my promotion letter confirming my new position, as Branch Secretary as of 1st January 1987 concomitant to which arose the changeover from manual to computerization of payroll and all allied activities. A change that meant, unlearning and relearning systems and practices. Without a formal handover/training, I felt like being thrown into the rough seas without a life jacket. I had to stay afloat or die. Survival meant changing my mindset and focusing on learning new ways. From mainframe to desktop, the change entailed a massive amount of data entry, ensuring no mistakes. The IT department from Head Office visited a couple of times to initiate me into the processes involved. There was no hand-holding in this transition. Mostly through communication and applying my mind. That year was also a changeover of the old giving way to the new. A new young Branch Manager stepped into the shoes of the older Branch Manager, following his retirement the same year. So many changes, creating waves of dissent, acceptance, and adaption to modern management principles. An exercise of flowing with the tide or being washed ashore, like dead driftwood. Not only I but the entire branch staff had to go through this exercise, under the guidance of a young, competent, kind, energetic leader. One who "knows the way goes the way and shows the way"(John Maxwell). With him taking over, a new work culture came into place. His enthusiasm, hard work, affable nature, and fostering the family spirit, rubbed off on the entire staff; work and jollity went hand in hand. With his IIM background, the training of sales staff had the desired facelift, showing fresher and newer ways of running a company. These helped unzip the archaic ways and replaced them with modernistic approaches. I was a beneficiary of his work culture. Without a doubt, my learning curve went up during his two years tenure as Branch Manager.
For every woman, or shall I say, most women, marriage is like taking a blind curve on the road. Within two years of my joining, I climbed on the bandwagon of the married, acquiring a new surname. A marriage without a script. While Baba was on the lookout for suitors within the Bengali Brahmin community, the rebel in me had other plans. On Sundays, unknown to him, I would read the matrimonial column in great detail. Presto! I found what I was looking for. Essentially what stood out in the advertisement read as "Foreign returned executive looking for a convent educated bride. Caste no bar. No dowry demands". Just up my alley. Without consulting Baba, I wrote a response, closing following the format Baba would write in response to matrimonial advertisements, which I had chanced upon lying unsealed on his study table viz. family background, bride's educational background, physical attributes, etc., signing off as Baba. Got the letter mailed by the office Peon. Returning from work one day, Baba showed the response to the letter, providing similar details from the groom's father, signed off as Agrawal. I blurted out the truth, ready to face the outcome of his wrath. The pros and cons of an inter-state marriage were discussed at great length, apprehensions about cultural differences, and food habits, were laid bare for me to see what I was going to walk into. I knew what I wanted and convinced him suitably. A date was set for a meeting at our home. In walked a tall, handsome, mustached guy, with a thick crop of hair and long sideburns, that were the rage those days. I remember him wearing a rust-colored bush shirt and brown pants, his broad hands, resting on the sofa seat armrest. We chatted for a while over cups of tea and snacks. He had all the requisites and much more for a suitable son-in-law as Baba opined later, except his concern about how I would fit into a strictly vegetarian household, with my non-vegetarian food habits, and for the fact that I had never entered the kitchen in my entire life thus far. Baba mentioned this non-skill of mine, thinking that would end the liaison. To cut it short, we dated for six months. Back then dating meant meeting at home. The one departure to that was the day we asked permission to go to Diamond Harbour. Reluctantly permission was granted. That was the first time I boarded a local train rubbing shoulders with vendors, pickpockets, and laborers was a humbling experience. Sitting next to my would-be husband, I felt out of sorts, being the object of curiosity. He was quick in directing dirty looks to anyone who so much as glanced in my direction. We checked into a hotel overlooking the harbor. The receptionist asked us to sign the register. "Mr. & Mrs. so and so he wrote, without lifting his pen. Over fried masala peanuts and soft beverages, we got to know each other better and discussed the roadblocks we would encounter in an inter-state marriage. And that was when he confessed to having written the response to my response to the matrimonial ad, signing off as his father. So, that made two of us partners in the crime, as we laughed over it, found a common ground, and knew that come whatever, we would get married.
Baba was pacing up and down the driveway with puckered eyebrows when we reached home. I knew what was bothering him. He probably thought we had eloped, taken a ship from the docks, and set sail to a different country, bringing shame to the family. He smiled when I assured him, "If you think, what you are thinking, then relax. We got delayed with two local trains running late, because of a body lying on the tracks, that had to be removed. A case of suicide, I guess." The eyebrows arched over his eyelids, resuming their normal position. That was the first and last date outside the drawing-room.
After some big hiccups/resistance/misgivings from both sides of the family, we got married on 6the December 1975 two years into my starting work with Nestle. With the guest control order in place, I did not invite any colleagues from my office. He likewise, invited only those colleagues who were his fast friends. On 6th December 1975, I touched my parent's feet, tears welling in my eyes, and as I got into the car decorated with flowers, I saw tears in Baba's eyes. An emotional state I had never seen in him at the marriages of my elder siblings. Age does break down the armors held by even the strongest of men. He didn't let go of my side of the car window, till the vehicle had picked up speed. A fleeting moment when I felt I was abandoning my family to acquire a new family. And now I ask myself, did I abandon my old parents for selfish reasons? But wasn't it normal for girls to have their own homes, and run their lives independently crossed my mind in defense? Packed in a small fiat, borrowed from a friend, I sat squeezed between my new husband and his younger brother, in the back seat, with the friend at the wheel and three others as well. Near Park Circus, the car broke down. The panic button went off. How were we to make it home in time for the 'mahurat' welcoming the couple into the new home? That too dressed in bridal clothes and heavily bejeweled. The friend tried to flag down cabs, and after several attempts, one elderly Sardarji, stopped and a smile broke on his lips as he saw a new married couple stranded on the road beside a broken-down car, surrounded by a group. We piled into his cab, bangles jingling, neck covered with strands of gold necklaces, giggling, at the comical situation we were in. Reaching home we found the looks of concern on the faces of my new in-laws.
Then followed arguments, and resentment, when hubby announced, that we would be leaving for our honeymoon. Both of them looked aghast. In 1975 this was not a 'done' thing in most middle-class Indian households. Newly married couples were rarely given the sanction to go on a honeymoon, more in conservative households. It was considered as being spendthrift. If at all, any exception to the rule was made, the couple would always be accompanied by a troupe of sisters, brothers, 'Mashies' (Maternal Aunts), 'Pishis' (Paternal Aunts), leaving no 'alone' time for the newlyweds. "Tickets have been purchased, hotel booked, no way am I canceling the plans", my rebel 'foreign' qualified/just returned, husband asserted. They gave in, packed our dinner, and grudgingly saw us off at Sealdah station on the train bound for New Jalpaiguri.
MIL advised, "don't forget to remove the hand 'dhaga' and throw it into a water body on day 10". We nodded in agreement, waving as their faces receded, with the train gathering speed, eager to be away from all the drama preceding the marriage and what followed thereafter. A honeymoon loaded with memories both sweet and salty, along with hiccups we faced...miscalculating the honeymoon budget, thus running out of cash...a distance relative whom we were instructed to visit, coming to our rescue, handing over a bundle of notes, which we promptly returned by a crossed cheque in his favor, as soon as we touched home base...lavish dinner at the Planter's Club, hosted by the same relative...early morning Jeep drive to the Mirik lake, half-frozen, where we immersed the 'dhagas' on our wrists, keeping to our promise, shivering in the cold without adequate warm clothing...again naivety at play...and finally the reward of seeing the snow-peaked Kanchenjunga range against the golden sunrise...obliterated all else. We had squeezed in two days to spend at Kalimpong in a colonial bungalow, converted into a hotel, resting precariously on a mountain ledge, surrounded by landscaped gardens full of winter blossoms. That's where we tasted the best roast chicken drowned in a special gravy with sautéed potatoes and veggies on the side, ending the meal with caramel custard, wobbling on the plate, as the chef laid it on the table. Later he shared that everything was sourced from the kitchen garden, including the feathered bird from the farm pen. A satisfying meal with a blazing fireplace, and warming up the bedroom were the perfect condiments for promoting good sleep. Alas! Sleep eluded us. As the night grew longer, the creaking of wooden floorboards reached our ears, dismissed at first, as caretakers making the nightly rounds to lock up doors and windows left open. Past midnight the creaking had not stopped. We looked at each other, unsuccessful in hiding the fear written on our faces. Picking up blankets, pillows, and extra blankets, we stepped into the attached bathroom equipped with a huge bathroom raised on metal lion legs. That night we slept in the bathtub, huddled up, uncomfortable, till the first rays of the sun streamed through the glass window panes. Between sleeping and wakefulness, the creaking of the floorboards continued unabated. The next morning when checking out, we narrated the incident to the caretaker. "Why didn't you tell us this place is haunted?" accusing him of keeping us in the dark about unsatisfied 'atmas' (souls) taking up residence in the hotel to frighten the guests. "Arre saheb...those were owls scratching the window sills that you mistook as creaking of floorboards". Pointing out to the big oak tree, he showed us the owl nest, in a state of falling apart at any moment. The mother owl with her babies had taken refuge on the roof and out in the night foraging for food. "C'mon your kidding," we said, moving on to our next destination.
Forty-six going on forty-seven years of married life, walking down the line to the first, we now smirk and smile whenever we meet honeymooners on overseas trips and suddenly feel so out of place. "Uncle, Aunty, you are both an inspiration," they say with admiration..." our parents cannot be persuaded to step out of their comfort zones, and here you both amaze us to no end with your youthful spirit". A compliment accepted graciously. Hubby and I with our penchant for traveling have grown old but remained young in mind and spirit.
My first visit to 'Sasural' (my husband's family home) happened in January 1976. The purpose was to introduce me to the other family and extended family members. Everyone was so disappointed with the inter-state marriage, on second thought, the decision to hold a formal reception got dropped. Some relatives visited to have a 'look' at me, the working woman, leaving shaking their heads in disappointment. Hubby's favorite school teacher, belonging to the old school of thought, had this to say "Now what made you marry a girl from another community?". Needless to mention, several such comments reached my ears, from both our families and at the workplace. And I had mistakenly thought, having grown up in a multi-racial environment, that the adjustment process would be seamless. Far from it. The first shock was knowing I was not allowed to stand in the verandah, the second was, the need to cover my head at all times. There was a dress code for the 'Bahus' (daughters-in-law). Sarees and nothing else, at all times, day and night. There were no separate bedrooms allotted for sleeping, except for parents. A huge hall is where we slept with the other five brothers and three sisters, jabbering away till late hours. In the daytime, it doubled up as a living room where guests were received. There was a study room on the upper floor with a huge open terrace. Blimey! How was I going to sleep wrapped in six yards, head covered, and wake up likewise. I dutifully obliged, for the few days in a year when we visited. I was proved wrong in my assumption, this requirement had long since been relaxed even in the most old-fashioned communities. I had observed Ma, covering her head, only when Thakurma (paternal grandmother) was around. This seemed all so strange. And the strangeness continued till my father-in-law's demise in 2000.
That I never had entered the kitchen was not a secret. But their expectations of a 'Bhabi" (sister-in-law) took a beating with my entrance. In their world, I was supposed to fulfill the role of preparing meals, serving food to all the members, and then cleaning up. Like other "Bhabis" I should be seen sitting in the courtyard in the afternoons, knitting, sewing, embroidering, and teaching them social skills. I failed to fit that image, and guess let them down on many counts. My only participation in the household chores was in washing the dishes, (which again was new), such that I was the designated 'washer woman' all through the many visits to my Sasural. An ill-conceived joke, but I played along, in my effort to be a participant in sharing the household chores. To date, my three sisters-in-law carry the impression that I am starving their brother, not knowing how to cook meals. Gosh! I may not know how to cook food suited to their palate, but I did learn, and have managed pretty well in bringing up my kids, on cuisines, I best know how to make. Hubby, they, and my Mother who stayed with me will testify to that. Not that I needed to make a point. As far as being given due respect, I have no complaints. Senior and junior members never slipped up on that score. They accepted me as I am, knowing my upbringing which was vastly different from theirs. Many, many years later, after the girls were married, they said "I wish we were brought up like you and had the liberty to choose our husbands, and been economically independent". That spoke volumes.
Even at the work, I was not spared unwarranted barbs from the Bengali gentry. When I went back to work, post-marriage, I overheard a few senior colleagues commenting... "Were there no good Bengali Boys, that she had to get married to outside her community?" I chose to ignore the ignorant's comments. If it were today, I would have lifted my middle finger right up their noses, in contempt. Back then I was not aware of these gestures and their meanings. They were the bigoted ones, with closed minds, having preconceived notions that all 'Agrawals' are 'Marwaris', all 'Mishra's', 'Sharma's', Dutta''s', 'Goswami' Bengalis, and all carrying the surname 'Singh' were from the Sardar community and the entire Southern states clubbed as "Madrasi'. Now how can one educate those who have not set their foot outside of their small 'nukkad' ( neighborhood)? How can one educate them who refused to be educated and showed no inclination of learning cultures other than their own? Content with weaving webs on their doors, and remain permanently stuck. However, those were few and far between, but hurtful. Anyway, who were they to comment? Happily, the majority of my colleagues and senior bosses were happy to see me married to the man of my choice. I was a trendsetter in that sense. They treated hubby with utmost respect whenever he visited my office, as accorded to a Bengali Jamai (son-in-law).
Meanwhile, we were struggling with the dilemma of whether to stay in India or immigrate to Canada, with hubby holding two simultaneous Ph.D. scholarships from the University of Waterloo, and another offer from his professor at UBC who was relocating to the University of Berkeley, assuring of funding his studies for the first year. The offers were open for two years. Tempting offers, he turned down, after considerable thought, because of our strong commitment to staying back to be available always for our aging parents. I wonder if life would have been any different had we moved to the West in 1977. Getting a job would never have been a problem. But I would have lost out on so many counts, most importantly being cut off from Baba and Ma. They were dependent on me. In that respect, I can say with full confidence of having fulfilled my responsibilities, however small, in supporting them in their sunset years. My monthly allowance to Baba for meeting his expenses never stopped till his last day. It was my way of showing gratitude to him, for never cutting corners in bringing me up, exposing me to the best lifestyle of those days, and providing me with an unenviable education. I feel I could have done better and still wish they were alive to share with them the comforts and luxuries I presently enjoy.
Like all marriages, we went through hurricanes, tsunamis, and storms, but stuck it out, transgressions both serious and insignificant not excluded. Love grew in equal proportion to our marriage anniversaries. Many lessons were learned about not throwing in the towel at the slightest difference. In our times, marriages were for keepsakes, in happiness, in sickness, and even during prolonged periods of 'maunbrata' (not talking to each other), couples rarely took the bold step to separate. I recall with amusement the many occasions when verbal brickbats ensued, I would go to bed on an empty stomach, while my better half gobbled down his food. They say two opposites attract...so true that was in our case. One such night, he kept a pack of biscuits by my bedside, thinking I would be hungry and would need it. I stared at the packet for a long time, but stubbornness got the better of my hunger. The next morning, it was I, not him, suffering from heartburn caused by acid reflux. Two important lessons learned out of this are a) never go to sleep on an empty stomach, and b) call a truce to an ongoing fight before hitting the pillow in the night.
The merits and demerits of sticking it out, in a bad marriage continue to be a subject of debate in today's society. I ask myself if I were to deal with this as a young wife, and mother, living in present times, would I have pulled out of a bad marriage. The answer remains NO. And the reason is that too many lives are at stake when marriages break up on flimsy grounds, or sometimes on even more serious ones where one partner is cheating on the other. Only when no meeting point is reached and in cases of abusive marriages, physical and emotional, can one take that step as the only way out, to preserve one's sanity and dignity. As the years rolled by, and we got to know each other better and accept each other's weaknesses, our marriage built its barricades to prevent extraneous circumstances break it up. The 'push' and 'pull' from both sides of the family as was common back then, never allowed any side to have the better of us. Another factor in our favor was that we lived independently, without interference from both sides of the family.
Another cardinal rule that works in favour of holding a marriage together, is not asking about the past. When we met and got better acquainted, we promised that we would start from the present without the shadow of the past hovering over our heads and we walked into the future built on the present. I cannot say with certainty that it will work for everyone, but going by my experience, the past never popped up in our conversation. And being honest with each other should always be encouraged. For instance, I didn't know the ABCs of cooking, and thus flattened expectations from hubby or my in-laws of the "Bahu" taking over kitchen chores. We had a cook who prepared our meals. Over the years, I picked up the reigns and evolved into a fairly good cook, thanks to hubby who did all the hand-holding and taught me the rudiments of simple cooking. Coming from a big family, he had learned cooking from his mother, and then having lived in Canada for three years for his post-graduation on a Commonwealth scholarship, he had further honed his skills in preparing multi-cuisine dishes. Therefore, I was not surprised to discover hubby's leanings toward non-vegetarian food. This difference in food habits, mattered little to me, even if the need arose to convert to a vegetarian diet. The adjustment process was not that hard, a lesson learned during the first few years of married life. The misgivings on both sides, in the early years of our marriage tapered off with an addition of a little one.
1979 has special significance. One arrived and two took their leave from earth planet. On 28th February, the first granddaughter on both sides of the family was welcomed with great rejoicing, catapulting us to parents, another blind curve in the road. The lady colleagues in the office, already mothers, shared their experiences and were overly kind during those nine months, pandering to my cravings for Pork Sorpotel, spicy crab curry, and Goan dishes I loved but never got the opportunity to cook myself. And more pampering came from Seniors and Bosses, ensuring pregnant ladies were treated specially. Footrests were placed under the table, workload thinned, and the office boy who served tea/coffee, making that out of turn gestures of preparing and serving chilled tall glasses of Cold Coffee, sweetened with Milkmaid and topped with crushed ice. Delicious and soothing, bumping up energy levels. These little memories, that I keep going back and forth, are to emphasize the working environment back then.
I went on maternity leave, carrying with me their good wishes, that helped. Having heard of women going into labor for several days, sometimes subjected to sitting in a warm water bathtub to induce labor for a natural delivery. I imagined the worst and prepared myself accordingly. Again unfounded fears. At the first signs, and as advised by my gynecologist, hubby got me admitted to Woodlands Nursing Home around 7 pm. Seated in the reception area, with concerned looks, the white-capped, white-uniformed nurses told him not to lose sleep and go home assuring him the baby would not make an appearance till the next day. Anyway, returning was just a phone call away. He went home leaving me in the labor room, twiddling my thumbs and praying this would get over soon. The Almighty heard my prayers and answered them promptly. Within four hours of my admission, and an hour of being struck by acute pain, out popped my daughter, with a loud shrill that could not match my labor pain screams. My gynecologist and his assistant congratulated me while pulling the thread and needle, at the same time heaving a sigh of relief that the windows of the labor room had not shattered with my screams of pain. And all this was happening, while hubby was sleeping, oblivious to the drama preceding his change of status to fatherhood. He was an elderly doctor, with a patronizing attitude and often chided me for asking irrelevant questions. All in good jest.
The moment the 6 lb 6ozs of a carbon copy of my hubby, lying on a kidney-shaped tray, made eye contact, I felt an adrenaline rush never before experienced. A magical moment uncomparable. She seemed to say "Hello! So you are my mother. We'll see how you fare with Motherhood", and I looked back with tears of joy and gratitude and feelings indescribable. In medical terminology what is described as postpartum never touched me, except for the bouts of tears whenever I thought of her future. When she was brought in after I had rested, and placed in my arms, a tsunami of emotions went through my mind and body. Again copious tears rolled down my cheeks, droplets falling on her exposed face, eyes closed, as the nurse got me to breastfeed her for the first time. Hubby arrived as soon as he was informed, smiling like a Cheshire cat. I think he had gained two inches of height overnight, judging by the way he walked tall and proud to the nursery to see his first born, his daughter, a chip of the old block as one would say. This was ratified by my parents when they visited exclaiming in delight "OMG...she is a replica of him". And after five days in the Nursing home, our little bundle of joy came home. Then started the sleepless nights, baby cries, nappy changing every thirty minutes, dealing with loose poopies, throwing up, and me too exhausted to even change my clothes, smelling a concoction of poop, pee, and acidic vomit. Ma had already moved in with us to help out and her presence was the biggest comfort. She handled everything with supreme confidence that I lacked as a new mother. From giving the oil massage, stretching her limbs, and identifying the cause of her yells, Ma was a Godsend in raising my two daughters and providing them love and care no grandmother could match. I say this with absolute conviction, now that I'm a grandmother of two, and compare myself with her dedication. Mine falls far short! And when I resumed work after three months of maternity leave got over, I never felt any anxiety at work, knowing she was in the best and most capable hands.
In October of that year, the grand matriarch of the Banerjee family aka Thakurma (grandmother), bowed out from the stage with grace. She was an integral part of my growing-up years. Summers saw her arrive each year with all summery flavors...tokri full of' ' Langra' mangoes, neatly arranged in layers, lying sleepy-eyed, on beds of mango leaves. Benaras made (renamed Varanasi) Chom-Chom sweets, no other 'halwai' could come anywhere close to its taste and texture, packed in boxes and double packed in muslin, knotted at the top, accompanying her otherwise small personal belonging. And she never forgot the boxes of colored glass bangles with twisted golden threads, she picked up en route from Mugalsarai station. All these and many more gifts she bought for her grandchildren.
The ringing of the cycle bell rickshaw, heard from a distance, announced her arrival. And we waited anxiously bending over the verandah railing to catch a glimpse of her white hair, white saree, and white chaddar, which she always wrapped over her chest, whenever outdoors. She refused to be picked up from the railway station, a fiercely independent woman though Baba insisted. "Kono proyojon nai" (not needed). Period. 'Saara Bharat eka brohmon korechi, aar ayetukun poth parbo na?" (Having traveled all over India independently, I can do this small commute as well). That was the stubborn streak in her speaking, which only got worse as she crossed from being a quinquagenarian to a septuagenarian to a ripe old octogenarian. Without further ado, there she rested her case.
Baba would be waiting near the gate to receive her with her 'potla putlis' (cloth bags) and the battered black tin trunk. That she was well-traveled was evident from the anti-theft pocket stitched inside the waist of her petticoat. Cash, coins, and 'rudraksha japer mala' divine prayer beads) safely tucked inside, way out of reach of the smartest pickpocket. Having done with paying the rickshawalla, Thakurma (thamma for short) looking disheveled after the open-air ride, but full of beans, opened her thin arms like boom bars, allowing us entry for the big bear hugs. Home felt whole again with her returning every summer. To say she was beautiful would be an understatement. She was regal, as befitting her regal ancestry. We only got to know of this much later by happenstance, reading without permission, Baba's responses to matrimonial ads, with an entire paragraph explaining the ancestry of the Banerjee family, and of the matriarch being a descendent of Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay. I think it was more to impress the other party. We never spoke about it otherwise or gloated over belonging to so and so of Bengal.
Once done with all the hugging and kissing, Baba and Ma would bend to touch her small feet to receive her blessings. Wonder if they suffered from cricks in their necks, with the prolonged bending over. After a few hours of rest and batteries charged with cups of milky/sugary tea, she was up and about, herding us four girls, getting us involved in all kinds of fun activities. 'Khukhu I hope you have collected all the silver foils from your father's cigarette packets? This time I'm going to create the Tree Of Life", a question directed at didi, the eldest, on whom rested the onus of collecting the foils, straightening the kinks, and keeping them in between pages of the heavy "Gitabitan". And it did turn out amazing, with her magic hands rolling, twisting, and shaping the foil over used match sticks, to get the desired effect. Chunu two years younger than Boridi had to collect, wash and keep in her custody, all the discarded clothes, sarees, and kitchen cloth, piled up during the year, which she fashioned into rag dolls and colorful Kanthas. Kanthas (hand-stitched quilts) which were the cynosure of all eyes, studded with sequins, she deftly stitched around the cloth patches. We twins, being the youngest, were mere observers of her arts and crafts, rather keen learners. From nothing, she created something of a treasure. The treasured rag dolls with beady eyes, and long braids, remained constant sleeping companions, till we grew out of our teens. Of course, none of us ever acquired her creativity skills. Those genes missed me by miles.
And we never tired of listening to stories of her childhood; her marriage at the age of twelve, playing hopscotch with her stepdaughter, just two years younger than her, and then being catapulted to a mother by the time she touched thirteen. Sounded all so strange to our ears. No signs of any remorse either, at being widowed in her thirties, left with six sons to look after, on the widow pension she received. Fortunately, her step daughters and biological daughter were married off before tragedy struck. Her sons-in-law, one in the legal profession and barely a few years her senior, pitched in to help whenever she needed to sort out property claims. She started 'living' only after her sons were married, and she had the joy of delivering a few grandchildren. It was then she expressed her desire to settle down in Kashi (Benaras), her second home. They resisted. She had her way. And in Kashi the 'little lady' flapped her wings and grew from strength to strength, traveling to Kailash, Uttarkashi, Amarnath, and down south to Rameshwaram, in her pursuit to seek spirituality. Sometimes alone, and sometimes in the company of her daughter 'mejo pishi'. When the summer temperatures in Benaras skyrocketed, she graced us with her presence.
During one of our conversations, which happened mostly at bedtime, I asked... 'Thamma, how come you can read, write, and know the Ramayan and Mahabharata end to end and also deliver babies, without any formal education?' Her response still rings in my ears.."There is nothing one cannot achieve if the mind, body, and soul speak the same language". "And what is that language?" curiosity made me ask. "Determination to overcome all the odds", is what she replied. She had mastered that 'oneness' and achieved what many in her generation would not have dared to even contemplate doing. Her journey towards self-growth didn't have any end. Self-taught, she was a prolific reader, writer, and human being with unparalleled humanness, which extended to the animal world as well.
As the story goes, there was a pregnant cow in her cowshed mooing in pain. Thamma (fondly addressed) was told to call a vet immediately if the cow and calf were to survive. Unnerved, she went to the cowshed late at night and calmed 'Moni' with her soothing touches, while inserting her right hand into her uterus only to discover that the calf was in breach condition. Again it was her magic hands that gently maneuvered the calf's head into position, thereby easing the delivery. Both cow and calf became her lifelong friends, sidling up to her whenever she came to visit them.
Her indomitable spirit, her courage, her in-depth knowledge, and her social skills, are all testimony of her greatness. An inspiring woman, fiercely independent, even in death she had her way. "I will die in my husband's 'bheeta' in Panihati was her last wish, refusing to be hospitalized and refusing to stay with any of her sons. They employed a nurse to take care of her during her last few days. The matriarch died a peaceful death in her sleep. This new fad of wearing designer face masks during this lockdown reminds me of Thamma. She would have hand-stitched them and given her competitors a run for their money! Most people are inspired by famous leaders, authors, poets, and freedom fighters. My inspiration, my muse, is Thamma (grandmother). There is a separate file full of her memories, I dip into, from time to time.
On a cold day in December of that year, another left unexpectedly at a young age. Again my world caved in, as the news of Didi's passing away reached our ears. My parents were devastated as much as us siblings. From four, reduced to three, felt like being punched hard in the face. A dam of memories burst open, recounting her life of 34 years. Dressed as a bride...leaving home with her husband...proudly holding her first born...and then fast-forwarded to her lying on the bed, mouth slightly open, eyes closed never to awaken...of the men lifting her on their shoulders and walking away, leaving a huge void in our lives.
Having Ma with us helped us tide over the scary parenting moments. Although I had read Dr.Spock's book on raising newborns, I was not prepared to deal with crisis situations. Ma handled these situations effortlessly, putting us to shame. There was this time when the little one had taken a fistful of puffed rice and was choking on it, with us wringing our hands in despair. Ma picked her up, turned her upside down, smacked her back, and out came the ball of soggy rice. I remember crying out of relief. She had the presence of mind to do what she knew best. I had lost mine. Many crisis situations were resolved effortlessly, by Ma unschooled yet full of confidence, having raised four of her own.
On another occasion, we narrowly escaped from a 'near death' situation, only this time Ma was not with us. Like all working parents, we waited for the weekend, to enjoy parenting. Exhausted with five-day work/life balance, life rhythm changed over the weekends, with a few indulgences, like sleeping in late, unless the little one woke us up demanding attention. That Sunday in October of 1980 we woke up late to a beautiful sunny day, enthused to make that much overdue visit to the Dakhineswar temple, to seek Ma's blessings for our eighteen-month-old daughter. A sling bag carrying her snacks, clothes, and towels, is all we took with us. The plan was to return before sunset. Ma did not accompany us on that visit.
Two bus changes brought us to the doorsteps of the famous temples built by Rani Rashmoni, on the eastern banks of the Hooghly. With the smell of "beguni",(batter fried brinjal) and "luchi aloo dam" permeating the air, it was hard to decide whether to quieten the tummy growls or hark to Ma's calling. Chose the latter. With our puja tokri (basket of flowers) loaded with "rakto jabas", (blood red hibiscus) incense sticks, and pedas (sweet), we queued up for darshan, a long one, with the sun beating down on us. Some kindly ladies seeing us fanning the little one, without our even asking, urged us to move ahead of them "bacchatar rodh lagche, apnara ageeye jaan". (The sun is not good for your child, move forward). Thus we reached the temple precincts, said our prayers, and took the walk around the temple square, stuffing our mouths with the prasad of sweet pedas, leaving a few to distribute to family. After tucking in a brunch of "hinger kachori with aloor sabji" and a couple of the brightly coloured 'darbesh', we put on our shoes, preparing to head towards the Bus stand.
"Having come so far, let's cross over and visit Belur Math" we spoke aloud simultaneously. A complete volte-face. The country boat was waiting for passengers to board. Seeing us approach the ghat steps, the boatman's face broke into a huge grin. We boarded and sat under the shaded arched bamboo covering. The river was dead serious as though sitting for the board examinations, not a sound except for the swishing sound of the oars cutting through the calm river, lazily winding its way to meet the bay.
Inside Belur Math nature has created a serendipity concomitant to the abode of smiling 'gerua' (saffron) clad Sanyasis (priests). The little one was a happy camper running around trees, grassy patches, and in between the flower beds, without being chased by her protective parents. The call of the Koel reminded us it was time to wrap up the Sunday outing. We got into the boat once again to cross over to the eastern bank
Halfway across the river, black clouds came rolling over the Dakhineswar bridge and burst into torrential showers...curtains of moving rain soaking us to the skin. The pregnant river sighed and heaved, and belched, as though her water bag had burst. The fury unleashed, took the boatmen by surprise, as they struggled to keep the bow and the stern aligned. We were held tight in the grip of 'Mr.Panic'. My first thought was to protect my baby, holding her tight against my chest. My swimming skills would be of no use should the worse happen; for that matter no Olympic swimmer could have won against her mighty strength. We all prayed silently watching the boatmen fighting to reach us safely. The wind speed pushed us further and further away from the ghat steps, as night descended in its entirety.
One of the boatmen courageously jumped into the angry river, took hold of the rope, and kept pulling to steer the boat to the muddy banks. Hallelujah! We struck mud and stayed stuck, about ten feet away from dry land. One by one we walked through the sludge, every step forward, sinking into knee deep mud. All of us made it, as the rains abated. On reaching the big banyan tree, we plonked ourselves on the cemented circular bench to catch our breath and then washed our muddy feet from the hand-operated tubewell pump. In unison we hollered "Jai Ma Bhavatarini...Jai..hog tomar naam". (Glory be to You O Mother, our savior). The temple doors were shut. Our foreheads touched the temple "chowkat" (threshold) in Thanksgiving.
Reaching home late and narrating the events of the day, brought forth another round of wrath... this time from concerned parents. We had not informed them of the Sunday outing. "Toder kono akkel nai..aye choto baccha ke niye fhurti korte...angry remonstrances followed. (don't you have commonsense, taking a small child on a risky adventure?) Our names were shortly going to be added in the thana register on the 'missing persons' list...they told us sternly.
That was the first and last time we ever took a ride on a country boat! A ride that would have ended up being swallowed by the Hoogly river! And the last time, we went anywhere without keeping Baba and Ma informed. As I write, this Shyma sangeet comes to mind "Amar Sadh na mitilo, Asha na purilo Shakali phuraye jay Ma Janamer Sadh daki go Ma tore, Kole tule niye aay Ma, Shakali phuraye jay Ma: particularly these two meaningful lines, relevant to the present time." Prithibir keu bhalo to bashena, A Prithibi bhalo basite janena", translated by Deepankar Choudhury to read as
"My desires are unfulfilled.
My hopes are unassuaged.
Everything is being emptied,
O' my mother.
To chant your name, since birth was
Please uplift me to your corona, O'
No one in this world loves.
No one knows how to love.
Where there is love and only love.
My heart yearns to go there, O'
Please uplift me to your corona, O'
By the time baby number two arrived on 22nd February 1983 I was more knowledgeable about what to expect. The fear quotient was minimal. Here I would like to share an amusing incident. Closer to the date of delivery, my gynecologist asked, so what are you expecting this time. Hubby piped in answering even before I could get the words out of my mouth..." It's all in the hands of God. You and I have no hand to play". The doctor looked smugly and said, "I'm glad to hear that". So, when my second daughter arrived and was placed on my chest, the Nurse insisted I look at her genitals emphasizing I had a daughter. A second daughter. She was checking out my reaction. The labor room staff were hesitant to disclose the news to hubby waiting in the corridor. The doctor rushed past him without so much as giving him a second glance. Hubby was panicked, wringing his hands as to what had happened to me and the newborn child. This time the Head Nurse, called him into her chamber, calmed him down, and casually asked "so, your first born is a girl"? "Yes," he replied. The nurse gave him a sympathetic look and disclosed "you have another daughter" anticipating drama unfolding in her chamber. "So, what is the hesitation in telling me? Do you imagine me disowning my child, daughter, or son?" The doctor and Nurse had assumed that having an "Agrawal" surname, meant disappointment for the parents at having another girl. Their fears were not unfounded based on their experience of having to deal with the banging of heads, cussing, and blaming the hospital for a second girl child. Later, my husband recounted this dialogue when I was back home, and we rolled in laughter, wondering how ludicrous it all sounded. When we visited the Gynecologist for the post-childbirth check-up, he too looked sheepish. We had to talk him out of his misconceptions of parenthood being not about having a boy the second time and had a long chat about our beliefs and expectations in life. He admitted then, that many families, found it hard to accept a second daughter and flew into a rage at the hospital, and he thought the same would happen in our case. A gift from God is always accepted with gratitude and grace, however, packaged, was what we told him to remove his preconceived notions. Our second gift was exactly the opposite of the first, in looks, temperament, mannerisms, health, and personality traits.
Most families have to deal with sibling rivalry. Taking a neutral stance is the best way out, without giving any impression of one being more favoured than the other. Impressionable minds, are quick to catch these wavelengths, sowing the seeds of inferiority complex, that one is loved more than the other, because one was found lacking in what the favoured one had. My elder one, a week before her fourth birthday, was overjoyed when I got home from the hospital with her sister. She claimed her as her birthday present. Jealousies never surfaced as I have observed and know them as a mother knows her children best. The second got the 'hand me down' clothes, books, and toys, and never complained or demanded anything new. The younger one looked up to the older as her friend, and partner in crime when it came to pulling fast ones on me and hubby. They enjoyed a relationship rarely seen between siblings. I could therefore, not relate to the feedback I got from others on how they had to be extra careful in raising two or more kids, with having to deal with jealousies, fights, and harbouring ill-feeling against the other/s till way into adulthood, in some cases dying with the feeling of being short circuited in parental love and attention.
1990 - losses
A catastrophic year! Hubby was already operating from Bangalore, under the IT department shifting from Calcutta to Bangalore. Five days in a week in one city spending the weekends with us in Calcutta. That year in June, we siblings (three then) were planning to celebrate our parent's 50th wedding anniversary on 15th July. We had plans of visiting Baba and preparing a grand meal and having them exchange rings and garlands, in honor of this important milestone in our lives. The saying 'Man proposed and God disposes of' couldn't be truer in what followed. To explain further, I have to go back to the time when Didi shifted her abode from earth to heaven. This tragedy affected Baba much more than Ma who accepted whatever fate doled out to her, with calmness as that of a still glassy lake, hiding the depths of sorrow deep inside. He lost it and announced his desire to live on his own in a place far away from Calcutta. His reason for taking time out was explained as a journey to seek answers to the 'why's of life, and study tantrism practices and their relevance to salvation. He was deeply into tantric studies and literature, much before this happened. The Father who lived 'King Size' at various stages in his life, thereby exposing us to equally 'King Size' living style, shaved his head clean, donned the saffron attire, and took leave from us, knowing Ma would be well taken care of by me. Ma was asked to accompany him but refused. Her path of spirituality lay amid her family while fulfilling her responsibilities as Mother and Grandmother to her four grandchildren, two girls from me and one son each from Bordi and Mejdi.
On Saturday the 2nd of June of that year, around lunchtime, the shrill ringing of the phone, got me jumping out of my skin and rushing to pick up the receiver. At the end of the line, a voice heavy with grief reported our loss. Baba at seventy-six hail and hearty without suffering any ailment had passed away in his sleep, alone in his home. His neighbors had gone to pick him up for their daily walk and bath in the hot springs, known to have beneficial effects. In the absence of any response, they perforce called up the police station to break in and found him lying on his bed, asleep. They had already communicated the news to Mejdi. She lived at a closer distance and managed to reach in a matter of few hours. The shock of hearing the news left me frozen. I had to break the news to Ma and the rest of the family ready to dig into lunch, we had ordered and got packed and picked up Saturday Club. Gently, I broke the news to Ma and the rest of my family. All our plans of celebrating their 50th anniversary went kaput at that moment.
By the time we reached Baba's place, the cremation was over, the last rites performed by Mejdi's son. None of us got to see Baba's body, his ashes still not cool enough to be picked up and immersed in the Ganges. We returned to Calcutta after donating his meager possessions, taking back some mementos. My inheritance was his most used sweater and shawl and the brown-colored bedcover, he used to cover himself when asleep. Except for the latter, the other two still are kept in the closet, aired once in a while. Materialistic things meant little to him. As I was told, he wrote off his portion of his ancestral home, in favor of his younger polio-stricken unmarried brother. None of us contested this when the property was sold and the proceeds were divided equally amongst the inheritors. His dictum in life was "God would take care of him and his family", not exactly what I subscribe to, but I respect and remember him as the BEST Father, friend, and teacher. The mystery surrounding his passing remains unraveled. Did he just give up on life, or had other plans in the afterlife? Memories of him float in my mind, the ones that best describe him can be found in the following verses.
Glasses slipping down the nose bridge
Goldflake cigarette dangling from lips
White muslin 'dhooti', border crinkled
Silk 'Panjabi' buttonhole embroidered
Kashmiri shawl was thrown over the shoulder
looking more dapper than Uttam Kumar
Doyen of Bengali cinema!
Loved the finest Brands of Darjeeling tea
along with 'Thin Arrowroot' biscuit
Far exceeded love for freshwater fish
'Chai'... 'adda' synonymous
A head cocktail to keep up spirits
All seasons to indulge in
No prescribed venue
Chosen on a whim!
Switched effortlessly from Politics to football,
Cricket to Rabindra Sangeet
Discussed threadbare Karl Marx theory
Netaji too in conversations crept in
Poetry, and literature, followed mood swings
Quizzed on anything,
had an answer ready at fingertips
Walking encyclopedia that was him
Never show off to his friends
Steering away from conversations
when they veered around wealth
Humility is his hallmark and a major strength
Qualifying as 'bhadralok':
The Perfect gentleman
Slipping effortlessly into any environment
Suited booted at parties, boardroom meetings
amongst peers made himself at ease
with his dignified presence!
"A Bengali amongst Sahebs
A Saheb amongst Bengalis"
Long gone this breed of Bengali men.
On the 4th day of his passing, several queer things happened, some would rubbish as a figment of the imagination. As is customary, the family had gathered for the 'Chaturthi' prayers, followed by lunch. While lunch was being served, a cat had climbed up the stairs, pawing at the door, meowing loudly, as though it wanted to be let inside. A one-time occurrence. On the 13th day, while the 'havan' was lit and the priest commenced with the prayers, his garlanded photo kept overturning. There was no wind to disturb the religious proceedings. Another cat also visited the venue of the "Shradh" ceremony, behaving in an agitated manner. Joining the dots together, provides no plausible explanation, except that his soul had come for both the religious ceremonies, as an assurance, that we had done right by him. Or had we slipped up somewhere in not fulfilling his desires as was expected of us? The guilt of not having him in our midst during his old age, lay heavy on my heart and mind.
Seeing Ma's status change on that day from a married to a widow, came as a greater shock. The red vermillion-streaked parting looked as barren as a desert. In one sweeping moment from being a non-vegetarian to a vegetarian as the Bengali culture demanded. It broke my heart seeing the silent tears rolling down her serene face.
And the spool of memories kept rewinding to when I was five/six to the Thursday ritual in our household. A day when Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth) is worshipped, a tradition followed in every Bengali household. Blowing of the conch shell, burning of incense, and the chant of ‘Lakhi path’, at the auspicious moment, when day hands over the baton to the night, with much fanfare. But the bigger fanfare was watching the prep up of the married ladies. Recall with nostalgia, Mom going through the whole process, starting first with the mandatory hair-wash with ‘ritha’ (Indian soapberry). While shampoo had just entered the market then, women still preferred the old-fashioned. Halo and Palmolive rarely moved from shelves.
Hair washed, she would sit in the open verandah for the sun to do its job (no blow dryers then). Thursdays the ‘Napith Bou’ would arrive sharp at 3 pm to perform the weekly pedicure/manicure. In her cloth bag, she carried the necessary tools…. black pumice stone, a sharp hooked knife, a brass bowl with curvy edges, and a bottle of ‘Alta’(red liquid traditionally made from betel leaves) for decorating the feet. With her feet raised on the wooden 'peeray' (platform) Napith Bou would soap her feet, washing them with warm water, followed by scrubbing the heels with the pumice stone, to take off the dead skin. With a sharp knife, she skillfully would cut out the overgrown and ingrown nails ensuring no cuts or nips happened. A bottle of good old Dettol stood nearby always. Focused she remained head bent engaging in the conversation now and then, mostly about other households she visited. The ‘Alta’ (red liquid dye) would be poured into the brass bowl. The final part of the pedicure was drawing designs on the feet, an art in itself. Dipping her index finger into the liquid would draw a thick red line circling the feet, from the toes to the heel. The frontal part of the feet had paisley or lotus, or hibiscus design, whatever the mood dictated. While the feet dried, manicure would be in progress, following the same process with the knife, and the Alta decoration.
Lapith Bou (pedicurist) was always treated to a glass of chilled water from the Surai (earthen vessel) with a handful of Batashaa’ (jaggery sweets). She charged a paltry sum of four ‘annas’ (1/16 of the rupee back then). Humming under her breath, she would take leave, touching her feet, and making her way to the next household, carrying with her the latest gossip. Hair grooming was as meticulous as coloring the feet. Mom would spend a pretty long time in front of the mirror on this activity alone. After applying the right amount of oil, the middle parting is done with exactitude, she would tie a small gamcha (muslin towel) pulled over the head and knotted tightly under the chin. Gently she would coax her hair to take the shape of patas (leaves) framing her face. Then followed the braiding, and coiling into a bun, just above the nape of the neck, the gamcha removed only if satisfied with the leaves shaped. A gold comb adorned the bun. The parting thickly smeared with vermilion and a round bindi of vermilion she shaped with her finger, right in the center of her forehead, homemade kajal drawn on eyelids, completed the ritual. Picture perfect in all respects of a Bengali Bodhu draped in red-bordered saree Bengali style, house keys flung over her left shoulder. Hands always wore the red, white, and gold bangles, apart from the ‘loha’ (iron bangle worn by married women). The Lakshmi of the house would then engage in cutting the fruits, placing them on bronze plates, along with homemade sweets, and offerings to the Goddess Lakshmi, invoking Her presence. This never changed till the day she lost Dad. And then everything changed. From hibiscus red she transformed into a white dove, head bent with grief. None of us could summon enough courage to remove the sindur and break the red and white bangles, society demanded. She looked helpless! Gently I slipped them off her hand, leaving the vermillion stains to wash themselves off with her next head bath. The redness was replaced with starkness. Hurt the eyes for many many days.
She moved on bottling her grief just for our sakes. The Pujas continued right till her death, but the grooming upended. And with it, a tradition ended! The Temple bells have a muffled ring, and flowers placed at the Goddess's feet look wilted, however, fresh. They'd not been touched by her loving hand. Garlands hung looking depressed, not woven with her prayers, conch shell lies inverted mouth open, no one has the lung power to blow with that strength, Sandalwood plate and stick have caked, no paste can be made. Who has that arm strength? Who has that devotion?
Life is full of surprises as they say. The ability to take those surprises without flinching is what made me into what I am today. My next boss, an IIM graduate, with the most disarming personality, bursting with energy that spread like wildfire, had all of us fully motivated to work for him. And just about the time, I was settling down in my new role, having earned the respect of my seniors and colleagues, came another blind curve in life's journey. The decision to move to another City threw me off balance. Consequent to that involved pulling out my daughters from Loreto House school, Calcutta's most sought-after institution. It would also be hard for them to adjust to a new school and make new friends in a different environment from what they were used to. For the first time in my 39 years, I was going to live away from my twin. Not a day went by when she didn't drop in after work, to meet the girls, spoiling them rotten with gifts, and candies. To say we would miss each other is putting it mildly - it was Snapping off the umbilical cord that held us together for 39 years. After careful thought, I put in my resignation with a heavy heart. There was no opportunity of continuing with my employment with Nestle in the absence of a Branch office to where I was moving. My boss assured me of re-employment if I ever changed my mind and returned to Calcutta. That never happened. In retrospect, what happened turned in favor of my daughters, with the transition from being a working mother, to a full-time one.
I had a few offers lined up for employment opportunities in Bangalore, mostly from IT companies. Within a fortnight of working in one, I quit, not for any other reason, but because of a mismatch between my and the company's expectations. Cultural differences, and work ethics, were in complete dissonance with the experience of the previous eighteen years. The next offer was from a reputed liquor company, their office right next door to my residence, which meant zero commuting time, and the opportunity to have lunch at home and get back in time to attend to family commitments. To my good luck, most of the management staff were ex-Calcuttans relocated to Bangalore, eliminating any adjustment issues. My role as Executive Assistant to the Managing Director opened new avenues of learning, most of the work involving legal issues, and exposure to a new line of work. My stint with them ended after eighteen months, with disabilities issues preventing me from discharging my duties to my best. My hearing was progressively declining, and that posed the biggest problem in pursuing a career. A genetic disorder, or more appropriately gene transference from my mother's side of the family. And that is when I, supported by my husband, decided to hang up my boots and call it a day. It took months before I could reconcile to this new situation of 'at home' from 'at work'. A career of two decades came abruptly to a halt.
It's often said that if one door closes, another opens. With the support and encouragement of my husband, I resumed online studies, going on to complete my MBA from IGNOU, New Delhi. Did I feel fulfilled? Did it come of any use as I was outside the playing arena? The answer to this is I learned and could better understand the Corporate world and relate better to the problems inherent in large organizations faced by hubby, as he moved from one company to another, building them up from scratch and seeing them to their ultimate end i.e. being sold for a profit to another larger company. During this time, while running home and taking care of my elderly mother, and being available for my girls, I got the opportunity to travel. Travel doors opened up and being an intrepid traveler, I never passed up an opportunity to accompany hubby on his overseas work trips, stretching as long as two months at a time. And again, I owe this to my mother and my daughters, then 16 and 12, who encouraged and supported me. This was the time, we covered the USA from coast to coast, several times, and south to north from San Francisco to Seatle and further into Canada, visiting Vancouver (hubby's alumni), Montreal, Toronto, seeing the Niagara Falls from both sides. A trip on an eight-seater aircraft over the Hoover Dam was the most exhilarating experience in my travels at that time, all time-bound., stopping at several European countries on the return journey. Without a computer, my travel diaries back then were handwritten, to share with the girls. Boundless travel came much later when my nest emptied, hubby had retired from active employment and we had more time to indulge in our favorite activity.
Thankfully, intelligence genes transference to my girls came from their father, said without any bias. They needed little supervision in their studies. Both excelled in their studies, acing their exams year after year till their last school year and beyond. The older passed out from school class X with the highest score in the Science stream, making her school proud. Unlike my time, the pressure to excel had mounted with more opportunities opening up for girls in every profession. Thus it was not surprising that the older one got a full scholarship in a US university soon after passing class XII. At eighteen, I was not ready for her to leave home and was the spoke in the wheel, acting on a mother's instinct, promising her she could pursue her studies overseas after graduation. She was hugely upset with the turn in the decision, as hubby had given his consent. A decision that put me on a guilt trip for a very long time.
Not one to give up on her dreams, she won a full scholarship this time for pursuing Ph.D. studies at a university in the USA. This time I gave in without a murmur of protest. My girl was big enough to take her own life decisions. Seeing her off at the airport was like one of my arms getting amputated. Coincidentally it was the 15th of August, so relevant to the freedom my girl was getting on Independence day. I was comforted by the thought that hubby was accompanying her to settle her down, rent an apartment, and get her acquainted with the University staff. The little bundle I had brought home 21 years ago was leaving the nest to fulfill her dreams. I promised not to break down and kept a brave face, as did my mother and younger daughter. We drove back home from the airport with stoic looks on our faces. Hubby had booked his return ticket to reach on 26th August. Meanwhile, we were felled with another ax. On 23rd August, the news of my father-in-law's hospitalization came as a huge blow. He had gone into a coma following a stroke and the chances of survival were reported minimal. Soon on his landing on the 26th, we boarded the next flight, only to see him in inert condition, his soul gone to its resting place. Once the cremation was over, I had to rush home, worried about leaving Ma and my younger one by themselves. It was altogether a year full of sadness, worries, and getting adjusted to living without.
2001 to 2006
The 9/11 attack on the twin towers got us worried, as to the safety of the older one, though she was far removed from the site of the accident, living on the eastern coast. Daily phone calls did not help assuage our fears. That year, the younger one was to visit her in the USA during school vacation. It got abandoned. Four years after the older one left, I had to steel myself to deal with the 'empty nest syndrome' with the younger one choosing admission to an Engineering College outside the city. With her moving to the hostel, my family shrunk to three. Though the location was merely two hours' driving distance, the emptiness hit me fairly and squarely in the face. The dining room chatter ceased. Their bedroom looked squeaky clean, beds made, books stacked neatly on bookshelves, as opposed to the time when the room resembled a battlefield or more appropriately as though a hurricane had passed through with clothes, shoes, socks, school bags, strewn all over the place. Some habits die hard. And the habit of dusting their bedroom, and rearranging stuff continued. When she was home after each semester, normalcy returned.
It was during these four years, after being freed up from many chores, that I was able to give more time to Ma. Friday afternoons were reserved for Mother/daughter outings. A matinee show of the latest movie, with bags of popcorn and cold drinks. All her life, she had served us, and now it was my time to give her what she had missed out on. She loved watching those Bollywood movies, some serious, some stupid comedy matinee shows, as much as I did. We went on many road self-driven trips, whenever hubby was traveling. Our last one was to a riverside camping site, that offered accommodation in Swiss camps as well as Cottages on stilts. She was a trooper in every sense of the term. At eighty we took a coracle ride on the river Cauvery, without an iota of fear. Shifting through the photo albums, there are pictures of her fishing, holding the line, waiting expectantly for the big catch, sitting with her prayer beads inside the cottage, and wand watching the wildlife movies screened in the main hall. Nothing could dampen Ma's spirits as I observed, rightly or wrongly. Maybe, she just did not want the grief inside her to show on her face or in her actions and worm its way into my home/her home. Maybe, she believed, God has plans for every one of us. And that is the way, I saw her, taking tragedy in equanimity when she lost her first born, Baba, and then her second-born and her husband within the span of little more than a decade left with my twin and me as her sole caretakers, spending six months with each of us. She was like the Rock of Gibraltar, always present, firm in her beliefs, and uncomplaining. Slowly the rock was eroding with age. Many visits to the doctors revealed nothing serious. I was not prepared how to deal with the gradual decline in her health.
Soon after returning from Calcutta in June of 2006, she seemed in a trance, less vocal, reduced appetite, and had sudden lapses of memory loss, looking confused. When she stopped sitting before the temple for her morning and evening ritual prayers, it still didn't strike me, that she was getting into dementia. Unfortunately, the doctors never warned or counseled us on how the disease would progress and its ramifications. This was the first time, I was seeing a different Ma, with her dramatically changed behavior, which was deeply concerning. Reporting her behavioral patterns to the doctor, I was asked to admit her into the hospital for diagnostic investigations. That night, when I went to her bedroom to check in on her, I found she had not moved from the position I last saw her sleeping. She didn't respond to my asking if she needed to visit the washroom. She lay with her eyes shut, breathing, but not responding to anything. By 6 am the following morning I had the ambulance report to take her to the hospital. An MRI scan revealed she had multiple minor strokes, admitting her into the ICU, while I sat in the reception area, praying for her recovery. For the next four days, I lived on the edge of a precipice visiting her in the ICU and watching her hooked up to tubes running through every body part. I was told this would reoccur and the best place for her would be at home, under nursing care. Back home, she seemed to be getting better, still fed on liquids through a Nasogastric feeding tube, a small quantity, every two hours. The catheter attached looked menacing. Manacles of fear gripped my being. The nurse employed from a nearby center did little to help. Within a few days, bed sores appeared. Running from pillar to post, we found a doctor from a hospice center to visit and advice us on patient management. His observations and advice ran a chill up my spine. She needed to be kept in a hospice on a water bed for the sores to cure, needed her lungs pumped out daily due to accumulation of phlegm, and needed changing of the catheter and nasogastric tube, under the supervision of professionals. All mumbo-jumbo to me. In short, he disclosed the pros and cons of having her at home, in pain, or alleviating the pain in a medical center. With a heavy heart, I decided to shift her to the hospice for treatment, fully confident, of her returning home, able to walk again and perform bodily functions. On our many visits to the hospice, she seemed to be recovering, even taking a few steps with the help of the nursing staff. The doctor in charge assured us she would be ready to leave in a couple of days. Those couple of days stretched to nine days when the phone rang conveying she had passed away in her sleep on the 3rd of August, 2006. Reaching the hospice, and seeing her wrapped in white muslin, with her prayer beads wrapped around her folded hands, told a story differently, from the story I was creating in my mind of having her back home as her former self, the rock of Gibraltar in our presence.
For the first time, I and my younger one took the onus of cremating her, in compliance with Hindu rites, in the absence of any other relatives. From a person to a urnful of ashes, we picked up from the crematorium and immersed the contents into the holy Sangam. For days, months, and years, we grieved and continue to grieve and regret my decision of sending her to the hospice, to die among unknown faces. I will carry this guilt to my grave, and no amount of reasoning that what I did was for her best, can get me off that guilt trip. Sixteen years have passed since her demise without a single day that she has not popped up in our conversation. Little things remind us of her life, her indomitable strength, her ability to take the good with the bad, and lead us to believe God can be found in our daily existence. The following verses sum her up in a nutshell.
Dressed in cotton red-bordered saree
Edge weighed down with a bunch of keys
hanging over her left shoulder casually
she was the matriarch of the family
face aglow with shades of red across her parting,
'teep' on the forehead
On her hands the red pola,
white Shakha bangles
Proud of her marital status!
Her love for cooking, and feeding her family
Far outweighed fondness for other activities
Reading, writing, knitting,
always took a back seat
Perspiration dripping prepared meals
On a coal-fed stove, stirring and stirring
Till oil separated, floating on top
Labor of love brought to the table
Polished off quickly!
She was the entire neighborhood's 'Boudi'
Dropped in without notice,
demanding Cups of her specially brewed tea
With a smile brought along hot 'begunis'
Sometimes joined in the 'adda'
if time permitted
For she too had her studied opinion
On matters ranging from cricket to politics
Visitors young and old sought her blessings
Touched her feet!
When the situation demanded,
joined club parties
Total makeover in pleated Jamdani sarees
In slippers with heels; mingled with other ladies
Wine glass in hand, a picture of serenity
Held her own however mixed the community
Attentive, absorbing, adding to her learning
Didn't ever buckle with twists and turns of fate
Steel-like woman, of Zamindari descent.
A Fading breed of Bengali women.
Her absence is acutely felt when festivities start and end. As our bodies bend with age, we feel the loss of our pillar of strength. She taught the lesson of continuing with the business of living, even in the face of tragedies, never letting her personal feelings permeate others in the family. A constant source of mental sustenance, moving gracefully, adapting to change, without compromising on old age values held. Every festival her image floats before the Temple in the wall recess. A Goddess in human form she represented.
Following Ma's demise, I went into depression, impacting my health, with all the alarming signs of loss of appetite, loss of weight, loss of sleep, total loss of interest in anything, and feeling perpetually fatigued. Somewhere I felt I had failed her. Had she passed at home, she would have died in my arms, knowing she was loved till her last breath, instead of at the hospice, perhaps feeling unloved and unwanted. Thoughts that ate away at my sanity. The doctors termed it a psychosomatic disorder. All the diagnostic tests were done, and once again I bore the stamp of having a heart condition in medical terms known as LBBB. For months I was on medication with little improvement. Even the frequent trips overseas held no interest. The only comfort I found was in losing myself in reading books, both fiction and spiritual. That year the younger one left for the USA to pursue her MBA. The half-empty nest was fully emptied with her leaving. Hubby was then setting up a US start-up company in a different city. We took up residence in a new place, hoping that a change of scene would help me in getting over the depression. It didn't. I hadn't mustered her kind of stoicism in dealing with losses. In October of 2008, we returned to the city, our home since 1991.
What lifted my spirits eventually was the announcement of a marriage in the offing. The younger one still in the USA, employed on campus after completing her MBA, told us of her marriage plans. We knew of her friendship with her Senior in Engineering College but hadn't known that the friendship would have turned more serious. Hubby and I were overjoyed with the news and started making plans after a date was set for November. There are always hurdles to cross in any inter-state marriage, as experienced in our marriage as well, and this one was no exception, in fact, more complicated, with many cultural differences cropping up, sorting out itself with compromises made mutually. A beautiful wedding that had my daughter's friends from the USA attending, my elder daughter flying home and taking charge, and families from both sides, in full attendance. Three days of happiness, laced with tense moments, and sadness at giving her away. A feeling that all parents can empathize with at the time of 'Bidai' is seeing their child leave her parental home for a new home. The tears came naturally, the knotted fears took a long time to unknot. When she visited with her husband looking radiant and full of confidence, we knew she had chosen right. We had acquired a son by default, well educated, extremely knowledgeable, and with a sense of humor that came naturally. Having known him for all the years they were dating, he fitted into the family easily and comfortably.
2012 to 2013
In the intervening years, we kept traveling whenever the opportunity came. In 2012 when visiting the older one in the USA, came the next big news. While she was comfortably settled in her academic career in one of the most prestigious universities, we were keen to see her married and wished for it. At the departure gate, she disclosed that she was seeing someone, upping our hopes. There the matter rested. On the flight hubby and I felt something was cooking. We were not wrong. In December of 2012, she called up announcing she had met the man of her dreams, an academician like her, employed in the same university. A fairy tale inter-racial romance culminating in marriage. Between us mothers of the bride and groom, we exchanged daily emails about knowing each other, our cultures, and food habits, and developed a friendship that could be termed as 'soul sisters', opening our hearts, minds, and even little embarrassing secrets of our kids, their fads and fancies, during their growing up years, and laughing over it. This friendship grew and is still growing now a decade old. In March, the older one with her beau visited us, for their trousseau shopping. There would be a traditional Bengali-style wedding followed by a Western one in the USA, followed by a reception we were to host in December for them to meet our side of the family. The USA wedding was planned to a T by the groom's Mom, in the minutest details. Hubby and I reached a couple of days earlier, to participate in the Mehendi ceremony and to meet and greet the groom's side of the family. Despite the cultural differences between the east and the west, we mingled with perfect ease. Our younger one flew down from Canada and her husband flew down from India. It was the grandest wedding, with the grandest band stirring up foot-tapping music. Sportingly the couple followed the tradition of exchanging garlands, smearing the vermillon and slipping on the wrists the traditional Shakha and Pola bangles, under the curious looks of an audience unexposed to Indian traditions. From Indian wedding attire, the couple changed to western wear and took the wedding vows in the presence of the legal authorities. An Indian banquet followed that had the guests drooling, along with the cutting off of the three-tiered wedding cake. A wedding that has left indelible memories.
One more time, teary-eyed we left for home our hearts filled with a mixture of happiness and sadness. Once again we acquired a son by default. From virtual friends, we Mothers became real friends. The December reception was going on in full swing, the venue selected, the guest list completed, and hotel arrangements made for outstation family members when we got the news of halting the plans because of the arrival of our first grandchild. Travel was not recommended in the first trimester. Were we feeling let down? Not at all. Yes, the families and extended families were going to miss out on meeting the couple and the reception to be held in their honor.
2014 to 2018
On the 15 of September, 2014 hubby and I became grandparents to our firstborn granddaughter and with it, life had come full circle. She had arrived two weeks earlier than the scheduled date. Reaching the USA and holding the little one, was a wondrous feeling. More wondrous than when we had become first-time parents in 1979.
This was a different wonderment. Hubby and I felt blessed and grateful for the gift of life from our gift of life. All the Hindi lullabies hubby used to sing to put our older one to sleep like a baby, were repeated, albeit with more enthusiasm. He enjoyed rocking her to sleep to the rhythmic tune of "Chanda Mama door ke" and other songs. Leaving them tugged at our heartstrings, as we boarded the flight homewards. Between us grandmothers, we decided to chip in with babysitting and helping our children. My bestest buddy stayed for six months, handing her over to me for care the following year in April, by which time she started resembling a doll, with an angelic smile, and the sweetest disposition. Grandparenting seemed easier and more fun than parenting. My daughter and son-in-law got back to their jobs, and just before I left, they had signed her up with a daycare where most of the University staff, sent their kids. Meanwhile, we were gearing up for receiving our second precious gift.
On 29th December 2015, the small gap in life circumference got filled with the arrival of our grandson, making us second-time grandparents. This time grandparenting took a new turn, with us staying with them and watching him grow day by day. As a working Mom all that I had missed seeing when my girls were growing up got fulfilled. Hubby had by that time taken off from his mentoring/consulting commitments and we shared the joy of taking care of our grandson. Soon the little one found his best friend in his grandad. And grandad was the happiest person giving and receiving all the attention. Just a few months before his first birthday, in September 2016, I went under the knife. All the pre-diagnostics tests were duly done and the 'go ahead' signal was given by the cardiologist, given my heart condition. The anesthesiologist, however, had requested more tests, which we ignored and the surgeons too opined it was unnecessary. Post the surgery, in the recovery room, in that semi-conscious state, my brain told me something was going wrong. The anesthesiologist stood by my bed adjusting the monitors, setting off alarms, with a concerned look on her face. My younger one stood by my bedside urging me to take deep breaths. More medicines were pumped into the tubes and in between consciousness and unconsciousness, I saw hubby hovering near the bed looking equally concerned, my son-in-law and daughter tight-lipped as the doctors and nurses kept doing what they had to do to keep me alive. Later I was told of my near-life-end situation, post that surgery, because the mandatory tests had not been done. A mistake that would have cost my life, as the anesthesiologist later reported. Once I was up and about, grandparenting was resumed with even greater joy and gratitude. I felt I had got a new lease on life and meant to enjoy more days on this earth.
All that ended after he turned one and his parents took the decision to put him in a daycare center closer to their workplaces. Our babysitting days ended. Our interaction with him was restricted to the weekends, as we were living in different parts of the city. It was then, on the insistence of the younger one, that we moved residence to be closer to them, to allow us more grandparenting time. Shifting to a new home was a hard decision, but some perquisites came with it. The advantage of having our grandson over more frequently. With his parents going back to work, for a year the school bus dropped him off at our gate. Peering from the school bus window, he would be watching out for his Dadu's (grandfather's) face, and even before the bus ground to a halt, he would be at the door, ready to spring into his arms. Tired as a puppy, he would love all the fussing he received, changing his school uniform, being fed, and then playtime, till his parents on their way back from work, arrived to pick him up, and the evenings stretched for us in his absence. In 2017 he met his sister living in the USA for the first time, in November. He was a few months short of completing two and she had completed her third birthday. That was the last time our whole family, of two daughters, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren met to celebrate hubby's milestone birthday. Fun-filled seven days, that goes down as the happiest chapter in the book of my life. Our interaction with him was restricted to the weekends, as we were living in different parts of the city. It was then, on the insistence of the younger one, that we moved residence to be closer to them, to allow us more grandparenting time. Shifting to a new home was a hard decision, but some perquisites came with it. The advantage of having our grandson over more frequently. With his parents going back to work, for a year the school bus dropped him off at our gate. Peering from the school bus window, he would be watching out for his Dadu's face, and even before the bus ground to a halt, he would be at the door, ready to spring into his grandfather's arms. Tired as a puppy, he would love all the fussing he received, changing his school uniform, being fed, and then playtime, till his parents on their way back from work, arrived to pick him up, and the evenings stretched for us in his absence. In 2017 he met his sister living in the USA for the first time, in November. He was a few months short of completing two and she had completed her third birthday. That was the last time our whole family, of two daughters, two sons-in-law, and two grandchildren met to celebrate hubby's milestone birthday. Fun-filled seven days, that goes down as the happiest chapter in the book of my life.
We traveled extensively domestic and international, starting with Bekal fort in Kerala, Greece, and Turkey in April, Japan in October, and Vietnam in December. Exciting holidays with a few setbacks thrown in. Like the time, our wallets were picked and passed on from hand to hand so quickly, leaving us stumped at their professionalism. The Police played their cards well, shifting the onus of reporting to other stations. And that brought to mind, that why do we highlight this activity in our country alone. Nothing can surpass the way pickpockets work in Athens. They target the most vulnerable which are senior tourists. We were equally shocked to learn that "this is an organized criminal business with the rich hand in glove with the slick operators. The booty is a shared percentage of the lootings. The Government is aware but has had little success in breaking into the system, resulting in a dip in tourism, and consequent loss of revenue. Once bitten, twice shy, as the saying goes, made us more prudent about keeping personal belongings safely tucked away in private places inaccessible to the long hands of corruption. It was during this trip, that my knees buckled, and the rest of the tour continued with leaning on the third leg, aka my walking stick, downing pain killers, but not willing to miss out on the planned vacation. Hubby would not hear of cutting short the trip due to the mishaps, providing all the encouragement and support to complete it. And complete it we did, with a short visit to Cappadocia,(Turkey) famous for its distinctive rock formation, historical heritage, and scenic hot air balloon. Our local guide not only did his assigned job but insisted on breaking bread with us. And we became forever friends, with him sharing his religious sentiment ‘once you break bread with someone, those friends are for life'.
The following year (2019) travel accelerated at an even higher speed. I sometimes wonder if it was because of a premonition of what was to follow the next two years. Practically every month, we flew to different destinations, ticking off places on our bucket list, covering nine European countries in 42 days during May/June, starting in France and ending in Hungary. We were happy campers, hopping in and out of fast-speed trains, taking down copious notes of personal impressions of each place, more beautiful than the other, meeting people of different countries, some exuding warmth, some indifferent, some hostile towards the tourist invasion. And what struck me was the poverty existing on some of the fringes of East European countries. A battle for survival in countries where nature too seemed to join hands with the politicians. In Dubrovnik (Croatia) a beautiful town resting on the Adriatic sea coastline, we heard stories from Bus drivers and from the owner of the Airbnb where we stayed for five days, of the hardships faced by the locals. Most of the younger generation were fleeing to neighboring countries and the far west, with the scarcity of job opportunities. The older generation was hanging on, their livelihood solely dependent on tourism.
Back home, we caught up with domestic travel. First to Amritsar to the famed Golden Temple, further north to McLeod Ganj, where I was fortunate in holding His Holiness's hand and receiving His Blessings, then through the Kangra Valley visiting famous temples, stopping by at the tea gardens, driving through a variety of topographical changes. We ended the year at Malayasia, covering Kuala Lampur, Penang, and Malacca, bringing in the New Year in Kuala Lumpur.
Wanderers such as us, experimenting with the unknown remains high on our priority list. Be it food, be it engaging in wild activities. One such activity was bathing in the thermal Friedrichsbad baths, existing for over 140 years, one of the landmarks of Baden Baden in Germany. The thermal water has its source on the slopes of the Florentinerberg in Baden-Baden. The temperatures range from 56 degrees C to 68.8 degrees C. Disembarking at Baden-Baden station and finding our way on foot to the entrance of the Neo-renaissance architectural building took forever, till a young lady offered to walk along with us all the way. At first, we were suspicious of her intentions, but that gradually waned as she reminded us of the last train timing, after we reached our destination. That out of turn favour reinformed our belief that good people are found everywhere. A pricy bath, but one that we would not have missed for any amount charged. At the reception, we had to sign the consent form on the dress code applicable for bathers. Dress Code: birth suits without exception. Shedding all inhibitions, which means returning to our birth-time attire, we joined other bathers, spending the allocated time in each bath, followed by a massage, and ending up in the lounge to relax over cups of warm herbal tea. Two home truths that emerged from this experience: a) shorn of clothes, jewelry, wallets, and egos, only the oneness of humans is visible and b) there is no racial discrimination, all colours, and all races are provided with the same services and same facilities. Here is where life is a straight flat line.
There were many incidents when we lost each other during our travels. The one that still makes my innards tighten was when out sightseeing in Madrid. I waited at a designated point for hubby to catch up with me, as he had to urgently attend to nature's call. Waiting for more than forty-five minutes, fear antennae raised themselves hovering over my head. I asked every walker if they had seen an Indian wearing khaki short with a white t-shirt No, was the answer from all. I knew the way back to the hotel and thought it best to report him missing to the hotel staff. They were helpful and assured me of help. Sitting in my room, overlooking the square, leaving the entrance door ajar, I cried and prayed for his return. My prayers must have been queued up in God's list as it took another hour to reach His ears. And then he walks in looking all flustered, asking 'where were you? I've been searching all over and was going to report you as the missing person'. "Wah! you were the one to take a leak and asked me to wait, and then disappeared " half crying, half laughing, I threw it back to him. We swore never to let each other out of sight and that included waiting outside the washrooms if needed.
2020 to present
Life was running on well-oiled wheels. And then from nowhere mankind was down on their knees. Just about the time nature was going through a wardrobe change, casting off the browns and greys, replacing them with greens and reds, an invincible and invisible war was declared on planet Earth. The news of the pandemic had people running helter-skelter to malls and markets to stock up on essential items. Never in my wildest dreams had I anticipated this situation. My first reaction was one of shock and then fear. Overnight everything changed, from 'living' to 'existing' in an unreal world. For a sexagenarian/septuagenarian, not having lived through the world war traumas, experiencing this abnormal life-crippling phenomenon, seemed like being punched in the face. Our Portugal and Morocco visit got scrapped, plunging spirits. Admittedly the first disappointment in a series of many that were to follow. Now looking back, we realize it was saving in disguise as compared to the expenses that would have accrued had we left before the lockdown, and like others, been stranded in foreign countries, cash strapped, anxious to touch the home ground. Comforting ourselves with the thought that whatever happens, happens for the best. What if we had run out of medicines, were evicted from hotels, and left to fend for ourselves? Questions for which there are no answers. Is this the life we want? Staying holed in a 2000 sq ft. apartment. Living in fear, fear even to making eye contact with 'across-the-door' neighbors. Masked, gloved, opening the door, one inch at a time, to pick up deliveries left outside on the door mat. A kind of maniacal fear afflicted everyone, superimposing all rational thinking.
What was worse, was with all services suspended, we were back to picking up from where we left, decades ago, on managing household chores. It was really hard, and painful but needs must when the Devil drives and so we drove ourselves to cook meals, clean the house, huffing and puffing, 'tired to the bone' dropping off into deep slumber at the end of each day. At some point, we just gave up and started online ordering for home delivery of meals from Kitchens that had started serving meals catering to all palates and dietary needs. Being a senior living in an apartment has its benefits and drawbacks. The association in consideration of our age, extended special services to us, by allowing the housekeeping staff to visit once a week to do house cleaning, at whatever price quoted, obviously double/triple of the applied daily rate. A dedicated team was available 24/7 to attend to any and every need of the Seniors living in the complex.
The doorbell stayed in mute mode. An eerie silence descended on the community. And to be truthful, this silence was getting to us, missing visits from family living just 5 kms away. Whatsapp calls did little to up spirits. Nothing compared to the touch and feel of a loved one. Exchanging notes on Sundays with family living in the USA was like reading a new chapter of the pandemic, a grimmer situation prevailing on their side of the fence, bodies bagged and left outside hospitals, waiting for burial. Festivals said, "I'll pass!." 2020/2021 all festivals lost their festivities. Cobwebs hung on shut temple doors, pews in churches gathered dust, Mother's Day, Father's day, was just another day in a world that had turned into a 'Ghost world'. Ramzan, Dusshera, Diwali, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year wore looks of forlorn.
The lockdowns were serialized Lockdown 1, Lockdown 2, Lockdown 3, and finally with Lockdown 4, came a sense of hope, with certain relaxations. And my first trip was to the hair salon, as I had started resembling a baboon. Every face 'Irwin Corey lookalike', anxious to transform to their former selves. albeit with some restraints. Shopping malls and theatres were out of bounds. And overriding all this, was the bigger concern for the millions of fellowmen, trekking, walking, riding on overloaded trucks, desperate to reach their homes, after losing their jobs. The 'migrants' and 'refugees' as the press alluded to people seeking to get back home. When did citizens moving within their country from one state to another, for better job opportunities, earn this nomenclature? Stories of their hardship broke cement-lined hearts. Donation drives were organized, and food cooked in home kitchens was supplied to fellowmen waiting at Railway platforms waiting to jump into the next train homebound. A pitiful situation. Cooks, restaurant staff, and those working in the service sectors, and other industries, were laid off. Yes...this pandemic brought out the best in some of us, and not so in others. Writers took up their pens and wrote novels and verses. Artists filled empty canvases. Housewives experimented with new cuisines with husbands pitching in to do the housework. Life took on a new turn. Goldilocks' principle of choosing between available options.
On the downside, children suffered the worst end of the brunt. Adapting to online studies for two whole years, killing the spirit of young minds, forgetting social skills they had learned. Many families adopted pups to stave off the loneliness with the work-at-home setup. Still, others lost their jobs, grabbing whatever was offered at salaries half of what they got.
2021 brought news of the approval of two vaccines developed indigenously...Covishield and Covaxin. Doctors, Nurses, and the medical fraternity front-line workers were given the vaccines first. Media and politicians kept urging citizens to register on Aarogya Setu, a government-developed app to monitor the vaccination drive. In March, we took our first dose. Most did, but then many dissenters refused on religious grounds, and still, others declined in fear of loss of their manhood. Reading of families losing their near and dear ones, kept us on tenterhooks. So far we had been spared. In April the gavel fell touching our lives, with the passing of a close one, just retired from service, still considered young at 60 plus. Gridlocked life, did not permit offering personal condolences. A grieving widow had to depend on a few neighbors to perform the last rites. That she refused to pick up calls is understandable. That she went into a shell and since then has not smelled nature is understandable. Seeing her husband reduced to ashes and the burning smell of flesh pervades her senses. Like her, millions of families lost their loved ones, without giving them a decent funeral. Crematoriums were refusing bodies, with chimneys running 24/7. Out of desperation, many just left bodies to float in rivers, dragged by currents, sometimes washed ashore, food for eagles and hawks.
There seemed no end to the tragedies afflicting mankind. Sixteen migrants run over by a freight train, was numbing to say the least, replayed over and over again by social media. They were sleeping on the tracks, believing it to be the safest place since all train services had stopped following the pandemic. Having lost their jobs in urban areas, they were trekking back to their villages. Death visited in ways unpredictable, sparing none. The irony of it all was seeing nature in its unchanging mode. Flowers bloomed, birds sang, spring arrived, summer went by, ripe mangoes on trees hung in shame, rotting and falling off the trees. Monsoons played the usual games, and winter crops stood unharvested. Peacocks were sighted on streets, and rooftops, dancing unabashedly, and dolphins were found in shallow waters, up to their acrobatics. Animals, birds, and aquatic life took over the fields vacated by humans.
Whenever the numbers plateaued, people plucked up the courage to take short breaks. Hotel tariffs dropped, encouraging staycations to break even on running expenses. Hotels and restaurants bore the brunt of the worst hit. Deprived of interstate and overseas travel, to break the monotony, we stayed at almost all the hotels in the city, despite many facilities not being operational. Exasperated, and with the consequential attitudinal change, we accepted the invitation to attend a Christmas party in 2021 and a staycation in an upper-end city hotel, to bring in the New Year... anywhere away from the confines of the four walls of the hollow-grade fever, loss of appetite, persistent coughing, and throat congestion. Clothed in four layers, a hot bag under the blanket could do little to stop the chills. Soon the virus found a host in me. Two oldies completely stripped of energy, tottering between this world and the next. The road to recovery is at snail's speed. We continue to fight the fatigue that comes and goes. And travel is the only way out. With that in mind, we have lined up domestic/international trips for the rest of the year, now that the drama is over. And though most have done away with masking, we continue to wear it when stepping out of home, ignoring the sneers directed at us. Our life and whatever is left of it, we live it the way we think best.
Today our roles have reversed. There was a time, when I was up before the crack of dawn, multitasking, cooking, running household chores, and taking care of my elderly mother. With children gone and Ma resting in her heavenly abode above, now he is up before I, making the first cup of green tea, as we sit sipping on the balcony, listening to a birdsong, and watching the skies change colours minute to minute. He decides the menu for the day's meals, allowing me time to indulge in my favourite hobby, writing and reading. This togetherness is growing stronger with the rising age graph. There was a time when time didn't permit me to sit before the home altar in deep meditation and offer fresh flowers to deities. See the moon rise on Karthik Purnima. There was a time, when I'd forget to take my medicines, 24/7 on my feet, like a nurse, handing over pills. Now he fills my weekly pill box, and gently shoves it under my nose, before and after meals, as I do to him. Between then and now, so many things have changed. Togetherness in every respect. Our prayer said in unison, let our life journey end the same way. Neither of us would like to see an empty space on our queen-sized bed.
In less than a month I touch 70, an important milestone in my life. Readers would wonder why? Honestly, I never saw myself reaching there, specially after getting infected by the Corona virus. There is every likelihood of catching it again and again, having read of the much younger population repeatedly infected and passing away. So, when hubby asks me 'where do you see yourself in the next decade?'. My answer is, 'I cannot foresee living so far given that I'm not in the pink of health, with hearing gone, teeth falling off, hairloss, knees giving in without warning, but if I make it, I would like to continue with writing, sharing new ways of looking at a developing society, telling the world that as we grow, acceptance assumes importance. Accepting humans who are different in their sexual orientation, different in anatomy, different from what is labelled as 'normal'. That it is nothing abnormal in being a transgender, a lesbian, or a gay. That marriages between same sex is not abnormal. Thankfully, in my lifetime, I have seen the winds of change happen with the inclusion of 'others' as a gender apart from the conventional 'male' and 'female'. Through my written voice, I would like to erase the divisions of colour, caste, religion that continue to exists. As a writer, I consider it my duty to spread the word of a 'One World' with equal opportunities for all. High sounding stuff, but I tell myself, if my writing can open up the mind of a single person, I would have achieved my purpose.
Yes, I see myself travelling all over the world, ticking off places in my bucket list, accompanied with hubby, watching the sunrise and set in different horizons. And before finally exiting from the life stage, I would like to extend help to the abandoned children and abandoned elderlies, in whatever capacity I can. Said with all sincerity without sounding grandiloquent!
Another decade means, seeing my grandchildren as teenagers. Having long conversations with them, about how 'nutty and wild' I was in my younger days, and hearing them say 'Come on Dida (maternal grandmother), you were a trouper in every sense'. I foresee my end, holding his hands, looking into his eyes, to tell him 'without you life would have been boring and plain'. When I say him, you know whom I mean.
If I were asked, given a chance, what would I like changed in the life I have lived so far. My answer would be NOTHING, except wiping out those three years of intense drama following my marriage. Those difficult years have left behind deep scars in my mind. The humiliation, the blame game, and not fulfilling the role expected of me then. And even though thought processes gradually underwent changes, and the wounds got covered over with layers of scabs, they stayed embedded carrying the hashtag #memories open the wounds. Yes, I have a few regrets topmost being, that I could have been a better daughter to my parents... I could have been a better parent to my children. There were times when I overdid on the parenting role, by being over-possessive, backed by the past scary situations.
One such situation plays out in my dreams even today, a nightmarish one I cannot erase. That year in 1985, we planned a joint visit to Puri, with my twin and her husband. The girls were six and two years old. The younger one sat with her Grandmother building sand castles, while the older one was testing the waters, enjoying the sea waves crashing and foaming. With her enthusiasm and bravado, she went further ahead unnoticed, till I heard her scream with her arms outstretched "Mama help...I'm being dragged away". The fear on her face and my own fear locked me in place. My brother-in-law, six feet two inches, took three long strides and grabbed her in time, lifting her on his shoulders, and bringing her back to shore. That day, I would have lost her, if it had not been for him and his presence of mind. With that scene firmly entrenched in my mind, I was overly protective and refused to enroll them in swimming classes in school. It was the same with refusing their request to ride to college in a two-wheeler, fearing the worst. In exchange, I promised they could drive four-wheelers at the permissible age. And true to my promise, they did and are accomplished skilled drivers having the experience of driving on Indian highways and US highways.
Here I quote Elizabeth Gilbert's book BIG MAGIC and her views on how to deal with fears which echoes my thoughts. "Here's how I've learned to deal with my fear: I made a decision a long time ago that if I want creativity in my life---and I do---then I will have to make space for fear, too. Plenty of space. In fact, it seems to me that my fear and my creativity cannot take a single step forward without fear marching right alongside it. Fear and creativity shared a womb, they were born at the same time, and they still share some vital organs. This is why we have to be careful of how we handle our fear---because I've noticed that when people try to kill off their fear, they often end up inadvertently murdering their creativity in the process.
Life has plateaued at seventy. And with offloading the past baggage, there is a sense of freedom, never experienced before. The freedom to wash linen, clean and dirty, in public dhobi ghats. I am no more concerned about how others will judge me, while I'm alive. Who cares what others think, after my demise. If I were to rate my life as of now, on a scale of 1 to 10, I would give myself a 7. That in my view is pretty good for an average person like me, sans any godfathers to act as a Stepney when I met with flats in my life. I drove with the flats, letting the wheels repair through the power of prayers. Born into a middle-class Brahmin household, praying came naturally having seen my parents never derailing from that track. I ran my life on similar tracks, with more openness, removing the caste, creed, and religious barricades, set up by an archaic society. The fact, that I chose to marry a non-brahmin, from another community is testimony to the beliefs I held and followed to the t. I am a Hindu by birth and faith and remain so, a proud Indian at heart, and respect all religions. In my mind, there is one God, manifesting in different avatars in different religions. Whenever traveling, I never miss the opportunity of visiting Gurudwaras, Churches, and Mosques, not only as a tourist, but also taking time to pray, and meditate, be it the Vatican in Rome, the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, or the Golden Temple in Amritsar. My dictum in life is, there is no need to wear your religion on your sleeve. It's personal and should remain that way.
I and hubby indulge in playing games of 'what ifs' just for kicks. He says 'what if you had married in your own community...you would probably have remained in your birth city, and not required to leave your career halfway...what if you had gone into academics instead of working in the corporate world, you would have been exposed to a different lifestyle...what if, you had remained unmarried and lived with your parents and taken care of them? All the 'what ifs' with different scenarios, don't match the fulfilling life, I have lived, with its pluses and minuses. In whatever scenario I see myself, this life stands out like the evening star in the night sky. I counter that with 'what if...you had not returned to India after your post-graduate studies and settled in Canada like the rest of your friends? What if...you had married as per your parent's choice to the girl from the famous Industrialist's family, with a factory in your name as dowry, a huge mansion, driven to work by a uniformed chauffeur, in a shiny black Jaguar, instead of our Creta...what if...you had married your American girlfriend and pursued a career in academics? So many brighter and bigger scenarios, at the end of which both of us fall back on one thing that would be missing in all these scenarios. Two beautiful girls we brought into this world, smart, exceedingly intelligent, successful in their careers, and who make us proud every single moment. This we would never trade for anything else in the world. The game of 'what ifs' ends there.
My passion for writing took birth early and grew as I grew. In the busyness of life, it got pushed to the back burner, simmering on low flame, till I was over with my responsibilities. My partner of 47 years, brought it to the front burner, turning the knob on full flame, believing in my abilities as a writer, and encouraging me to go ahead and finish the unfinished. In 2017 together we spent time, compiling my first book of poetry "EVOCATIVE RENDERINGS", available on Amazon. In 2018 I experimented with "TALES OF THE TWINS" a story written in prose/poetry. The fate of the book is unknown since the contract signed had no clause for marketing. With the lockdown, in 2021 my third book, 'MINDS UNPLUGGED" meant for the target group six to sixteen was published. In between, I kept sending poetry/prose/short stories to various online magazines and was happy to see them in print. During the pandemic, a new avenue of writing had opened. Anthologies overtook individual writing, having an edge over the latter, with no cost implications. More reason to write and get known as a writer and poet in the big writing world with exceedingly good writing skills. To reiterate, writing was fulfilling, therapeutic, and rewarding at times, but not a profession for me. I learned the hard way, that for small-time writers, like me, recovering the cost of investment in publishing is virtually impossible, leave alone earn any profits. Serious readers rarely buy books written by newbie authors. I ask myself... would I? The answer is Yes, only for works from family members and close friends, to lend support to a fellow writer. The outside big world doesn't care unless the writer is an academician with student support or a professional with colleague support. My advice, if the profit motive is not on your mind, write, get published, and enjoy having your book in print, even if a single copy is not sold. For a writer, there is no greater joy, than holding your baby and showing it off to the world, never mind the scale of appreciation. As in all professions, politics abounds in the writer's world as well. A well-known truth, but untold, because of fear of erosion of goodwill in the writers' market. All said and done, knowing the pitfalls, I continue to write and have no expectations.
The greatest lesson in life I have learned is that I have still a lot to learn.
I have lived.
I have loved.
I have erred.
And now that
End is near
There are no fears
Together had lead
Decently good life.
life without each other.
Copyright: Snigdha Agrawal/dated 28th June,2022
All rights reserved. No part of this autobiography may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means - electronic, photocopying, recording, or otherwise -without the prior permission of the author.