The Doyen5 mins 320 5 mins 320
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. Famous Benarasi (city that time still carried the original name) cham cham sweets, no other halwai could come anywhere close to its taste and texture, packed in boxes and double packed in a muslin cloth knotted at the top, accompanied her baggage. And never forgot the boxes of coloured glass bangles with twisted golden threads, she picked up enroute from Mugalsarai station. All these and many more gifts she bought for us, her grandchildren.
The ringing bell of the cycle rickshaw preceded her arrival. And we waited anxiously bending over the verandah railings to catch a glimpse of her white hair, white saree, white chaddar, she always wrapped over her chest, whenever outdoors. She refused to be picked up from the station and had her way always. Stubborn streak that got deeper as she bent over with age.
On reaching, her arms would open up, like automated gates to allow entry into a home, and she felt a part of the missing home, returning every year to make it whole, as we clung to her chest. She was beautiful beyond expression, and as regal as her ancestral bearing, hailing from a famous Bengali Zamindar family of Kolkata. Once done with all the hugging and kissing with her grandchildren, Baba and Ma would touch her feet and receive her blessings. Her hand resting on their heads, seemed interminable, hands that could create magic out of nothing.
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 into all kinds of fun activities. "Khukhu, I hope you have collected all the cigarette packet silver foils? This time I'm going to create the Tree Of Life," she would ask didi, the eldest on whom the onus of collecting and ironing out the folds rested. And it did turn our amazing with her magic hands rolling, twisting shaping the foil over used match sticks to have the desired effect. Chunu two years younger than didi, had to collect, wash and keep in her custody, all the discarded clothes, sarees, kitchen cloth, piled up during the year, which she fashioned into rag dolls and colorful Kanthas. Kanthas which were the cynosure of all eyes, twinkling in the dark from the sequins she deftly stitched around the cloth patches.
We twins, being youngest, were mere observers of her arts and crafts, rather keen learners. Ofcourse none of us ever matched her creativity skills. She would regale us with stories of her childhood, of her marriage at the age of twelve, playing hopscotch with her step daughter, just two years younger than her, and then being catapulted to a mother by the time she touched thirteen. It all sounded 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 railway pension she received thereafter. Fortunate for her, her step daughters, and biological daughter were married off before tragedy struck.
Her life only started after she had got her sons married, delivered a few grandchildren, and then only expressed her desire to settle down in Kashi (Benaras). They resisted. She had her way. And in Kashi the 'little lady' flapped her wings and grew from strength to strength, travelling to Kailash, Uttarkashi, to meet Saints and Sadhus holed up in caves, seeking spiritual meanings. And we were graced with her presence during the summer when temperatures in Benaras sky rocketed.
During one of our conversations, which happened mostly at bedtime, I asked, "Thakurma, 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 one puts one's mind, heart and soul into overcoming life's stumbling blocks. There will be many, but that should not appear as the end of the road."
Her road didn't end anywhere. She was self educated, a prolific reader and writer, and a human with unparalleled humanness. Even the animal world was awed by her presence. As the story goes, there was a pregnant cow in her cowshed mooing in pain. Thakurma calmed her down with her soothing touches and explored her uterus to discover, 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 milk the lady.
Her indomitable spirit, her courage, her in depth knowledge, her social skills, are all testimony of her greatness. An inspiring woman, fiercely independent. She stands like a lighthouse showing me how to steer my lifeboat! And as I sit to write about her and her achievements, I find myself falling far..far..short of doing justice to her memory woven into a rich tapestry that hangs on the walls of my aging mind. I don't even measure upto her toenails.
Most people are inspired by famous leaders, authors, poets, freedom fighters. My inspiration, my muse, is my Thakurma (grandmother), the doyen, a legendary figure of her times. She lives on in my memories, though gone more than four decades ago.