Glimpses Of The Past
Glimpses Of The Past7 mins 395 7 mins 395
There she was sitting coyly decked in a yellow brocaded Benarasi, hands full of gold bangles, of different designs and shapes… bala, bauti, churis, jali (filigree) work bracelet, reaching up to her elbows. On her neck hung the longest Sitahar, (traditional long gold necklace) and several necklaces in concentric circles, ending near her throat, with the choker on red velvet. She looked choked. From her ears dropped the traditional Kanbalas, like upturned tulips. Her feet sticking out, from under the hem of her saree, was beautifully painted with alta (red liquid).
All the ladies of the household were admiring their handiwork of dressing up Didi on her wedding day. Her eyes were searching for Ma and us, her siblings, standing on the periphery watching the fussing in progress, our hearts constricted at losing her to another home, far, far, away. I wanted to scream…’ it is so unfair letting her go just like that, why couldn’t her husband stay with us in our home, as a permanent guest? After all, he wasn’t a stranger. He was the boy next door, in our ancestral home, known to the entire family. And as the story goes, he fell in love with her when she was barely three and he fourteen, totting her around on his shoulders while studying for his matriculation exam. When the joint family structure broke, with us moving out, we lost touch with him and his family. Coincidentally while Didi’s marriage negotiations were in full swing, he popped up from nowhere and claimed his right! No one protested. Even Didi, despite the decade long age difference agreed without batting an eyelid. A West Bengal Civil Service Officer, posted in Ranchi. And he was taking her away from us for goods!
I must have rushed through the barricade of women to rescue Didi from her fate and felt a drowning sensation. Didi was not there. Woke up with a jolt, sweat pouring down my face. Of course, Didi was no more. She had passed away four decades ago, leaving us bereft. An untimely death, leaving behind her husband and her twelve-year-old son orphaned. A recurring dream, perhaps because it was my first exposure to a truly Bengali wedding with all the bells and whistles!
Leafing through memory album, her wedding stands out, every detail sharply focused. The first wedding in the Banerjee Paribar (family) following Dad’s generation. The prep started months ahead of the actual event. We were living in an Industrial town, in a gated community, far away from Calcutta (Kolkata was nowhere on the horizon). The responsibility of shopping for the wedding trousseau was entrusted to Choto Kaku and Kakima,(youngest Uncle and Aunt) residents of the then Calcutta. No approval sought, everything left to their discretion within the budget allocated. They must have made multiple visits to Bowbazar Street. ‘No buying off from the display’ Dad had clearly explained. Had to be customized according to tradition. Everything followed the slow lane of tradition, the only departure was food which was to be served buffet style, keeping in mind, the guests invited were cosmopolitan with a sizeable number of Britishers. The menu was carefully selected to represent truly Bengali wedding cuisine, right from starters to dessert. Extra vegetarian dishes for the vegetarians. A meal that was the talk of the town, several weeks after the event.
Close relatives started arriving a week prior to the main event. Our Bungalow could not have housed all of them, so a few families were put up in the adjacent unoccupied furnished Bungalows, just for sleeping. The troupe assembled at our home from early hours in the morning till bedtime. Those seven days, the noise level rose several decibels, the house resonating with laughter, instructions, and merriment. Ladies sitting on the floor with ‘botis’(boat-shaped iron knife attached to a wooden platform) cutting vegetables, washed and neatly arranged on the ‘Kasha thalas’,(bronze plates) to speed up the cooking process. Pan (betel leaves neatly folded and stuffed with sweet accompaniments) box would keep making the rounds, emptied, refilled as Thakurma kept herself busy with this activity, the ‘jathi’ (plier to crush betel nuts) going crunch..crunch…breaking the whole beetle nuts into bite bits. Vegetable cutting had some norms to be followed.
Thakurma the Doyen of the family, had her say how to cut the ‘potol’ (pointed gourd) differently for ‘shukto’, ‘macher jhol’, or ‘dalna’; potatoes likewise. Ma and all the Aunts, head covered with their pallu, looked up to the Grand Old lady for instructions. Boro Bouma……aka Ma…(second in command being the wife of her eldest) nodded in agreement passing on the instructions to the ladies lower in the family hierarchy. And to add spice to the conversations, witty banter floated in conversations, followed by barrels of laughs, recalling previous weddings in the family. Bangles had a chattering sound of their own, as the hands kept cutting vegetables, fish, meat, for the main meals.
The men were never too far away, always at hearing range to add their two cent bits to the wild jokes, with requests for ‘cha’(tea) rounds. Consumption of sugar, milk and tea during those days could empty out stockholdings of any shop! And it was understood ‘cha’ goes with saying, meant ‘ta’ (accompaniment) usually ‘beguni’ (brinjal batter fried) with ‘muri’ (puffed rice). A sense of bonhomie experienced only when the entire family got together. Crisis situations did occur. I recall Pishima (father’s elder sister), the eldest in the family announcing “Payesh will not be sufficient for all. Shall I add water to increase the volume?”. Baba replying..”Didi (elder sister ) your kanjoosy (miserly) attitude has become a part of your skin.
Nothing doing! Pour buckets of milk instead…”. Pishima (dad’s elder sister) and Baba (dad) two years apart in age, were as different as chalk from cheese. Former always cutting corners, latter overspending. Clash of the titans, with Thakurma (grandmother) acting as mediator. Kanjoos (close fisted) Pishima had earned her rightful name in the family, albeit affectionately. Except Baba no one could dare cross swords with this tall lady, her husband an advocate, owning vast properties in Kolkata. That all the more baffled others, of her miserly attitude. To cut a long story short, the payesh (Bengali dessert made of milk and rice with dried fruits) eventually served was finger licking. Pishima unruffled, kept herself busy pottering around in the kitchen checking out if the Cooks were doing their jobs as per her instructions. The chatter of voices was incessant till late night with family members foraging for sweets in the Sweet Room.
26th January 1966 dawned bright and beautiful. Remembered not only because it was her wedding day, but also Republic Day and Saraswati Puja. Now I get it, why they chose “chapa” color (yellow) instead of the traditional red color worn by brides, in keeping with Goddess Saraswati’s preferred color. Fragmented memories keep surfacing of that day. Didi being bathed in buckets of Haldi (turmeric) water, the Aunts having a field day rubbing turmeric paste on each other and stuffing sweets into their mouths…a celebratory cloud hanging resolutely over our house. Several blanks remain of the actual wedding ceremony. All those sticks are some heartwarming moments… groom’s party (just the Groom and his maternal uncle and a few of his friends) being driven to our home by my best friend.
All of fifteen, she had learnt driving and wished to bring the ‘baraat’ from where they were put up, to our Bungalow, in the blue station wagon. A proud moment seeing my friend (actually more a sister), entering the driveway in great style. The rest is hazy, with flashes of well-dressed ladies and gentlemen arriving in the evening to wish the wedded couple and enjoy the wedding spread. Heck! I don’t recall what I ate, or if I did eat at all, filled with misgivings for Didi being torn away from our family. And the tears that followed the next morning with her departure, throwing a fistful of rice grains, symbolic of paying back to parents for bringing her up. Ironic isn’t it? Then her climbing into the Government vehicle, waiting to drive them away to Ranchi. The happy cloud cover sailing away with her in an instant. And then the house returning to normalcy as relatives started leaving for their homes, in Calcutta.
Didi gave birth to her firstborn son in 1967 on New Year day. A joyous occasion, making Dad and Mom first time grandparents, and we siblings, first-time Aunts. And in 1979 when I gave birth to my firstborn, Didi lost her second born, a girl, she got to hold for a few minutes before she was wrapped up in white muslin cloth and taken away. That same year one came into the world, and two passed away in quick succession. Thakurma in October, and Didi in December, barely in her mid-thirties. A shock no one recovered from. Perhaps why these dreams keep recurring, willing myself to remember her as a bride, and not the inert body that was lifted and taken to the crematorium.