"God knows where Mom keeps all her documents," grumbled Manish as he hurriedly delved in the shelves of his mother's steel almirah.
Today he must submit the medical bills in his office to get timely reimbursement. It was true that Mom paid all her medical bills, but that did not stop Manish from submitting her bills along with his own and get reimbursed for both. Ironically, he never parted with the money he received against her medical bills, neither his Mom asked for it.
Manish was not happy with the way life had treated him. In school, he was an average student. He got an engineering degree from a private institution and was now working in a private firm in Kolkata with an average salary. His wife Shreya was a primary school teacher and his son Ritam, like him, was a mediocre student. They lived on the upper floor of a spacious two-storied house that his father had constructed ten years back. The ground floor was rented out to an office.
His father Avanish Datta was quite a successful man who possessed both wisdom and foresightedness. He saved enough money to lead a comfortable life with his wife after his retirement. Everything was easygoing for the couple until Mr Datta succumbed to cardiac arrest six years later.
Being the only child, Manish had expected to inherit his father's house and bank balance. But Mr Datta's will gave him a rude shock. According to it, Mrs Datta would be the sole beneficiary of her husband's movable and immovable property as long as she lived. Even the rent amount would directly go into her bank account.
Manish was crestfallen. He and Shreya had been making plans since his father's death. Shreya's promoter uncle had offered a very lucrative price for their house. He was also looking for them a duplex flat in South Kolkata at a reasonable price, and a cheap old-age-home for Mom. They had also talked to a tour operator for booking a package tour to Singapore-Thailand-Bangkok. Now all their plans came to nothing!
For the next few weeks, Manish and Shreya felt so angry that they didn't even talk to Mrs Datta. They even prohibited Ritam from going anywhere near her. To them, she was now a villain and the biggest obstacle between them and their inheritance. They continued to live under the same roof, but the kitchen was divided.
Manish and Shreya lacked the guts to think of murder, but day and night they wished for their 'enemy's death.
Mrs Datta was deeply hurt. She had never expected such inhuman behaviour from her son. In the absence of her husband, he was the only resort in her life. But she did not complain. One of the things that life had taught her was to keep faith in the strength of time that heals all wounds.
'This too shall pass,' she thought stoically and engaged herself in other works. Now she had a lot of time which she could devote to herself. It was something that she hardly got the chance to do before.
Her husband had gifted her a new android touchscreen smartphone on her last birthday. But she never got a chance to learn to operate its different features. Now, with the abundance of time, that mobile became her constant companion. She opened an account on Facebook and reconnected with her old friends and acquaintances. From Messenger, she got their Whatsapp numbers and added them to her friend list. She started going out for evening walks and became a member of the local library. She made arrangements for homemade meals to be delivered to her house by a neighbouring lady who ran a home delivery system. For the first time in life, Mrs Datta was experiencing the taste of independence.
But life was not so easygoing for Manish and Shreya. Earlier the kitchen was managed by a salaried cook. On the days she was absent, Mrs Datta cooked the main dishes and Shreya only helped her in cutting the vegetables. But now they could not afford a cook. Shreya hated to cook every day but she had no other alternative.
Shreya and Ritam had different school hours. Earlier there was no difficulty as Mrs Datta took care of Ritam during Shreya's school hours. But now there was no one to look after the poor boy after he returned from school. But Shreya had no face to complain as it was her idea to alienate her mother-in-law from her family to teach her a lesson. At that time she had no idea that it would boomerang on her.
Shreya now nagged her husband to patch up with Mrs Datta so that her family could run smoothly as before. It was a difficult task as Manish hadn't spoken to his mother for more than two months. One night, after boosting up his courage with a few pegs of Rum, he entered his Mom's room and tearfully apologised to her for his earlier misbehaviour.
Mrs Datta was no fool. She understood the truth behind this 'sentimental' drama and acted accordingly. She accepted her son's apologies and agreed to pay the cook's salary. But she refused to take charge of the kitchen when the cook would become absent. She refused to discontinue eating home delivery food, saying that it suited her. She agreed to take care of Ritam after he returned from school but refused to do it on a duty-bound basis.
Manish and Shreya were surprised at the sudden change that had come over the old lady. She was no longer the familiar motherly figure who was always approachable and could be taken for granted. Independence and financial security had given her new confidence. She was no longer answerable to anyone for her actions. From demure white cotton saris, she switched over to salwar kameej and long skirts, gave herself stylish hair cut and occasionally visited the local beauty parlour. She attended functions and friendly get-togethers and occasionally invited her old school friends over to her house for lunch or dinner. Manish and Shreya criticized her for all this but she did not bother.
Manish asked for financial help from his mother now and then. He still believed that she was unethically enjoying the property that justly belonged to him. Mrs Datta fulfilled his demands if they appeared justified to her; or else she outright refused him. Manish didn't dare argue with his mother lest she should stop giving any money to him at all.
That morning Manish was in a foul mood. On the previous night, he had informed his Mom that he'd collect her medical bills before he left for his office. And now, when he entered her room he found it empty. The cook said that while coming to their house she had seen 'Mashima' (aunt) entering the local bank. That meant she would be late in returning home.
Manish cursed under his breath and started looking for the bills. He knew that she kept them in her steel almirah and also knew where she hid the key. Knowing that she wouldn't return immediately, he opened the almirah and shuffled through the shelves in search of the bills. Luckily he found them under a red leather-bound diary.
He pocketed the bills and looked at the diary with some curiosity. He never knew that his mother wrote a diary. The first few pages surprised him. He never knew that she had such command over the English language. He was late for his office, otherwise, he would have gone through a few more pages. He replaced the diary and closed the almirah.
Six months later-
It was a pleasant Saturday morning in the month of September. The festive air could be felt in every corner of the City of Joy. Boys of different ages celebrated Vishwakarma Puja by flying colourful kites in the azure sky. Durga Puja pandals of various shapes and sizes were being constructed in every alley of the city. Markets and shopping malls were thronged by men, women and children for buying new clothes to celebrate the approaching Durga Puja.
Manish was walking on the crowded footpaths of Gariahat market to buy T-shirts for himself and Ritam. He stopped at a roadside stall that displayed various types of T-shirts. He chose a few from them and then started haggling about their prices. Suddenly someone kept a hand on his shoulder and called him by his name.
"Hi, Manish! So nice to see you!"
Manish turned to look at his old friend and his face brightened up with a happy smile.
"Oh, Hi Amit! Nice to see you after such a long time!"
The two friends extracted themselves from the crowd and chose a quieter place to chat. The first thing that Amit said was,
"Congratulations yaar! Today you must be feeling very proud!"
Manish stared at his friend, unable to make head or tail of his words. Amit noticed the blank expression on his face and said,
"You look surprised. Haven't you seen today's newspaper?"
"No, actually I was in a hurry, so didn't get the time to look at it. Why, what's the matter?"
"Strange! The news was declared last night. Mashima must have been informed beforehand. Didn't she tell you anything? Or do you no longer live in the same house?"
"Of course we live in the same house. Instead of speaking in riddles could you be a little more clear?"
Amit let out a small sigh and said,
"Go through today's newspaper and you'll know everything. You can even type Mashima's name on Google and search. Tell Mashima that I'll go and see her one of these days when she becomes a little free. Anyway, nice meeting you dear. See you."
Amit crossed the road and vanished into the crowd, leaving his friend in utter confusion. Manish opened his mobile to search for his mother's name on Google. But what was her full name? Her father used to call her 'Manu' and so did her friends and relatives. 'Manu', 'Manu-di', 'Manu-Kakima', 'Manu-Masi'...he recalled how various people addressed Mrs Datta. But Manu couldn't be her official name.
It's true that until a decade back mothers' names were not mentioned in the official certificates. Only the candidates' fathers' names' were mentioned there. But that didn't mean that one shouldn't know his/her mother's full name. Manish felt a little ashamed for this. Finding a newspaper stall he bought a newspaper.
He found the news in the lower part of the front page. It was accompanied by a colour photograph of his Mom, looking young and pretty in a blue salwar kameej. The photo looked recent. When did she click it?
The headline read, 'Manorama Datta's book The Palanquin wins Sahitya Academy Award'. The news stated that the award-winning book had been a best seller for the past many weeks. A famous film house had recently made an offer to make a movie based on the novel.
This was followed by a brief bio-data and interview of the author. Manish was surprised to learn that his Mom, whom he had always underestimated as an ordinary homemaker, did her schooling from Loretto School and graduated with English honours from Presidency College. She got married while doing her MA but couldn't complete it as her husband had a transferable job. The interviewer had asked her why, with her superb writing skills, she hadn't joined the literary world much before? In reply, Manorama Datta said, 'A year after our marriage we were blessed with a baby. My son, not being a very strong child, needed special care. That's why I never thought of writing or taking up a job. My prime duty at that time was to bring up my son, who was the centre of my existence. Now he is busy with his own life, my husband is no more and I have all the time to myself. So now I could devote myself to the subject that's closest to my heart, that is, literature.'
Next, the interviewer had asked her to say something about the subject of her award-winning novel, 'The Palanquin'. In reply, the author said, 'Palanquin, or Palki in Bengali, was an old age mode of transport that was used for travelling by newlywed brides and other womenfolk, especially in the villages of Bengal. Since my husband had a transferable job, I got the chance to visit and briefly settle down in different places. These relocations broadened my views and enriched my experiences. I have narrated some of these experiences, especially the unique ones, in my novel.'
The interview was followed by different critics' opinions about the book, mostly written in superlatives.
Manish folded the paper and sighed. How little he knew about his own mother! But did he really ever cared to know her better? When his father was alive, he saw her as a common housewife who bathed in the glory of her successful husband. After her father died she became the main villain in his life. But Mom, as a person, remained unknown to him. Her novel had been a best seller for months, yet he knew nothing about it. She didn't even disclose that her novel had been published. Why should she? Did he ever talk to her without purpose?
Manish found a book shop and entered into it. Several copies of 'The Palanquin' were displayed on the front shelves. When Manish asked for a copy of the book the shopkeeper said, "This must be the two hundredth copy I sold this morning."
Manish wondered what the man's reaction would be if he said that he was the son of the famous author of the award-winning book. He also wondered how his Mom would react when he would open the book in front of her and ask for an autograph. He smiled and brushed off a tear from his moist eyes. He'd read this book as the first step to know his mother.
Throughout his life, he had been proud of his father. But it was nothing compared to the pride he felt now for his mother. It reminded him of the famous Sanskrit shloka, 'Janani, Janmabhumishcha, Swargadapi Gariyasi'.*
*(Mother and motherland are superior even to Heaven)*