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shilpic

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  1. One winter I was soaking up the mellow afternoon at our backyard when someone pressed the door bell so hard that the jarring sound almost knocked me off my feet. My mother went to answer the door. It was one of my Jethima’s neighbours. “Didi (Jethima) is very sick. Her sons are bringing her to the city. They have asked you to make arrangements at your hospital,” the man said. My mother worked as a supervisor nurse in the best government hospital in the city and had connections with good doctors. When she rushed in to take her purse, I asked her to take me along with her. At first she refused saying that it was not the right time, but I was obdurate. The strong smell of bleaching powder and disinfectant hit my nostrils as I walked through the hospital corridors. The sepulchral atmosphere, cries of patient, downcast faces of the people standing outside the hospital wards and the palpable tension hanging heavy in the air, made my legs heavy as lead, and I didn’t feel like moving an inch. I knew something bad was awaiting us. I saw her lying in a white cot like a lifeless log. Her gray hair was splayed out over the pillow; her body looked like a shriveled yellow lemon, and her bones were jutting out from under her skin. Was she really my Jethima who as far as I remember was always big and rotund, or someone else? I thought. It seemed that somebody had sucked the fat out of her body and what remained was a skeleton covered with a thin layer of skin. She asked me to sit by her side. Her voice was frail and strained. She asked me how I fared in my exams and where my younger sister was. I saw she had great difficulty in speaking, she paused after a few words and her breathing was ragged. Tears were stinging in my eyes, but I didn’t want to cry in front of her. My cousins told my mother that she had been suffering from jaundice for the past few weeks, and though they took her to the doctor, there were no signs of improvement in her health. A few days later, I heard my mother telling my father that Jethima had been diagnosed with liver cancer, which had spread all over her body, and only a miracle could cure her. That night I cried. I balled up the corner of a bed sheet and thrust it into my mouth as I didn’t want my mother to find out that I was crying. It was also for the first time I experienced pain in my life. It seemed that something was gnawing away the edges of my heart. It was difficult for me to come to terms with the fact that in some months time Jethima would be no more and what would remain of her was an earthen pitcher of ash. According to her wish, she was taken back home where she breathed her last. My parents went to her funeral ceremony, but I stayed behind. For me Jethima was strong and stoic women with an amazing jest for life. I didn’t want to replace that image, no matter what. I remember her at all the time. I remembered her when I passed out of school, I remembered her when I got a job—she would have been so proud of me—I remembered her when I married the man I love— she would have been so happy with my choice, and I remembered her when my son was born. As the tiny pinkish bundle suckled at my breasts, I wished only if Jethima could be a part of his childhood just as she was mine.
  2. I watched the rickshaw puller bobbing up and down on his seat, his soot black body swathed in sweat, his legs struggling to pedal the worn out vehicle as it made its way through the narrow streets of Nagoan, a small town in Assam. The seat of the rickshaw was too small for us—my father, my mother, my younger sister and me—to fit in, even the rickshaw puller had told so when we hired him at the bus station, but my father managed to convince him saying that he would pay him a little extra. My father held me tight as I was often sliding down from his lap. I wanted to stretch my legs but there was no room for it. I felt like being trapped in a magician’s box and was waiting for the journey to get over. We were visiting our paternal uncles’ on our summer holidays. My father carried the luggage and we walked behind him holding our mother’s hands. As we walked down the ribbon-like lane, lined with cluster of houses on both sides, people stepped out to greet my father. My grandparents had migrated to this place at the time of Independence, leaving all their precious belongings in Bangladesh. My father was born here and he spent his entire childhood in this lower middle class locality. Later, he moved to the city where he got a job and bought a house but he still had fond memories of this place. I looked at the kids scampering around; their clothes the colour of dark monsoon clouds, their bodies plastered with dirt, their crude accent grating to the ears, they were unlike us. My sister and I were clean, smelled of talcum powder and looked like little angels in our mulberry-coloured lacy frocks. Yet, we loved this neighbourhood. This was because we enjoyed unbridled freedom here; we were like those domestic animals let loose for a few days. We played from dawn to dusk, walked into anybody’s house without any invitation for a treat and here we were feted as princess as we were Kanu’s daughters. But the foremost reason why we wanted to visit this place again and again was because our beloved Jethima lived in this neighbourhood. Jethima was the wife of my eldest paternal uncle. My father was born after her marriage to his brother and so she was more like his mother, though he called him boudi. I saw her bent over a clay oven, blowing air through a pipe to make a big fire. When she saw us she dropped everything in her hands and ran towards us, and soon my sister and I found ourselves ensconced in her sturdy arms which smelled of ash and sweat. I dug my face deep into her bosom and I felt like I was sinking into a baby quilt, soft and comfy. Jethima was a mass of lard but solid as a rock. I looked up at her face. Her hair was now thin and silver grey, there were a few creases crisscrossing her round face but her other features were so very perfect-- her nose chisel sharp, her eyes small but beady and her complexion like the blond dolls I had back at home. Unlike my mother who was very particular about the way she draped her sari—she would make pleats of the same width with her deft fingers before tucking it in neatly into the petticoat and let the long pallu fall becomingly over her shoulder--my jethima being a widow was custom-bound to wear only white saris which she would wrap it around her waist three or four times, bunch up the loose end and throw it over her shoulder haphazardly. Yet she looked ethereal, it seemed time couldn’t play much with her beauty. “I missed you so much,” I said, meaning every word. “I missed you more,” she said cupping my chin in her callused hands. “So what did you cook for us today?” “I made green jackfruit curry, bok phul bhaja, and mango chatni, all your favourites,” she said. After she became a widow she prepared and ate only vegetarian food. But no matter what she cooked, the taste was always sublime. She was a master chef. The kitchen was her lab where she conducted fascinating experiments with vegetables, its peelings and an assortment of aromatic spices of different hues. I often saw her hunched over an upright blade (boti), meticulously cutting vegetables into cubes, long strips, and fine slices as per the dish she was preparing. She would then ground the spices herself on a rectangular stone slab, and play it up into a perfect concoction. I had an aversion to bottle gourd, but when she cooked it with yellow lentils garnished with fresh sprigs of coriander; I would eat half of my rice with it. “Come with me. I have a few surprises in store for both of you.” My sister and I followed her to the backyard. There in one corner I saw a rusty cage. She unlatched the door and a few chicks came scurrying out. Being city-bred we had never seen live chicks from such close quarters and we hopped up and down like frogs seeing the yolk-coloured balls of fur, flapping their tiny wings. “Let’s chase them,” I said to my sister. “You can do that later. There is another thing I want to show you all. Come let’s go in.” She pulled out a box from underneath her bed and opened it. “I made some clay dolls for both of you.” The last time I visited this place I saw many girls playing with clay dolls as their parents couldn’t afford to buy the plastic dolls that were sold in shops. I also wanted one desperately, but Jethima couldn’t make it for me for some reason or the other. We couldn’t take our eyes off the dolls. They were just like the clay idols which were made by the professional artisans during Durga Puja, though a lot smaller in size. Each doll’s dress was sewn by hand. I couldn’t believe she had taken so much pain for us, despite her failing eyesight. “Now you two play. I will go and finish my cooking. Your father must be ravenous.” She disappeared into the kitchen leaving us to play with the dolls for hours. All of my uncles lived in the same compound. It was a big joint family before but after my uncles got married they moved out to form their individual set ups. Now my uncles lived in pucca houses which had all the trappings of modern day life. But my Jethima and her two sons still lived in a house made of mud with straws on the roof. Every day Jethima had to light a kerosene lamp before day light faded and thick cloak of darkness shrouded the house. My uncles knew how used to we were living in comfort so they asked us to spend the nights at their houses, under the cool whirring fan, but we refused politely as we wanted to be with Jethima. At bed time as she lay down between my sister and me, we entwined our legs around her stomach as if she was a giant side pillow. Jethima was a treasure trove of fascinating stories. From the bed, I could see the silver moon peeping through the window, as if it too was straining its ears to listen to her tales. She told us one story after another, and soon I was transported into another realm, where I came up and close with magnificent kings, beautiful queens and princess in the razzmatazz of courts, malevolent magicians, evil witches, giant-sized demons and kind-hearted fairies. I didn’t know when I fell asleep. I heard her calling out my name in soft whispers. “Do you want to go flower-hunting with me?” she asked. I sat up with a jerk, and rubbed sleep off my eyes with my knuckles. I had asked her to wake me up early in the morning so that I could go along with her. We walked out of the house on light feet as we didn’t want to disturb others. She carried a big bamboo pole and I walked by her side holding a flower basket. The sun was yet to fill the sky with its light so the street lights in the neighbourhood were still on. To my surprise, I found my senses heightened. I could feel the fresh and crisp morning air tickling my skin, I could smell the heady fragrance of flowers and I could also hear the dawn chorus of cocks, the strident cries of crows and melodious symphony of the nightingales. The whole atmosphere was so pristine; I never knew this part of the day was so beautiful. “Jethima, why are you plucking flowers from your neighbour’s garden without their permission, isn’t it as good as stealing?” I asked her. “No, of course not. We are not gate crashing into anybody’s garden. We are only plucking flowers from the bushes that are hanging over the wall, which is a common territory, right?” she said reaching over the wall and shaking vigorously a branch laden with jasmine flowers. A hailstorm of flowers fell on us and on the road, carpeting the whole area with white flowers. I was no one to judge her but I felt as if I was an adventure junkie, touring different localities and stealthily plucking flowers as the owners snored in their comfortable bedrooms. We came back with a basket full of hibiscuses, jasmine and yellow bell flowers, which she latter offered to an array of god and goddesses. Jethima got married at the age of fourteen and never had the chance to go to school. Yet she was abreast of all that was that was happening around the world and managed to pull an intelligent conversation with anyone. I wondered how an unschooled woman could have such a vast wealth of knowledge. It was later my mother told me that she was a self taught woman. In the hot lazy afternoons when most people preferred to take a siesta, she would sit near the window and struggle to pronounce the sounds of the Bengali alphabets correctly and later try to write them on a slate—at first the letters were fragile and wobbly as if it was a horrendous task for her to make her hand obey her mind, but with time could master the neat straight lines and the solid curves. Now she was an avid reader. After she was done with the household chores, she read books that she borrowed from her neighbours. Unlike other widows who confined themselves to the four walls of their houses, Jethima had a buzzing social life, which was frowned upon by my aunts but she was too free spirited to be tamed. Every evening she popped into someone’s house where they chatted and laughed over cups of tea and spicy puffed rice. In some evenings, she went to temples with her friends where they sang religious hymns. One evening she took me to her friend’s place. Jethima was proud of us and liked to brag about the fact that we studied in a convent school. “They go to convent school where they have these nuns from Rome, wearing hoods,” she said. “Really? So do they force you to go to Church?” her friend asked me innocently. “No, never, but we go anyway, every morning before the assembly,” I said. As I spoke I could see that the women’s eyebrows were almost touching her hairline, and her lips were curling downwards in disgust. “She can sing English songs too. You want to hear her sing?” my jethima asked. I was shy by nature but I didn’t have the heart to disappoint her so I took center stage ready to display my talents. To my surprise, the woman called her granddaughters, who were quite older than me, and her neighbour’s kids to hear me sing. I felt awkward as so many eyes were on me, but I sang anyway. I sang “Brown Girl in the rain”, my voice rising and falling as I twirled and shook my body the way my teachers taught me in school. My eyes were transfixed on Jethima, her face all flushed with pride and happiness. I wondered what was going on in her mind. May be she was thinking if only she had been born now things would have been so very different for her, may be she was thinking of the changing times, how it was no big deal anymore for a Hindu Brahmin girl to go to a church or may be she was thinking of nothing, just enjoying the moment. There was so much excitement around that I didn’t realize when the holidays were over and it was time for us to go home. She bid us adieu with a beaming smile and promised to come and visit us in the city very soon. Jethima did visit us quite often, at times twice or thrice in a year. She was quite fearless and had no qualms traveling alone, unlike the other women of her generation. We always had lot of fun when she was around. As we were too young to venture out alone, she accompanied us to our friends’ houses, zoo, parks, shopping, etc. She never felt out of place, she could fit in anywhere seamlessly and gel with anyone. At times she would walk with us all the way to school and back. She loved to see us dressed in our school uniforms—crisp spotless white shirt and pleated grey skirt that hit just above our knees. One day while we were walking to school she told me, “You are very lucky to go to such a good school. You must study hard and make your parents very proud.” Sometimes as she waited for us near the school gate, amid the chaos that generally followed once the school got over, I could see a wistful longing in her eyes, as if she wanted to go back in time and rewrite some episodes of her life. Later as we grew up, our trips to Nagoan became less frequent. Our cousins were married by then and it was altogether a different environment with our sister-in-laws around. She too hardly visited our place, whenever she came she was in a hurry to go back home. We never found out why, but it was not like it was before.
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