–Tick Tock…Strike Two–
I hope you did not un-like what I had to say yesterday about my distant-uncle Death. I mean, I know you could not particularly like it. But could you really un-like it?
Read the previous episode if you haven’t. My infamous Lord Yama Uncle decided that it was time to show us how long he could stick around with us…uninvited, unwelcome, dis-un-disliked.
In Ma’s painful cancer death at the age of forty-two, he saw there was a gold mine to mine in this poor, God-forsaken, North Calcutta mezzanine household. He grinned, and he grimaced, and he growled.
And then he howled.
That evening, Ma came out of her home one last time. I didn’t cry, and I’m positive father didn’t either; but everybody else did. Poorna, my sister (whose Tagore songs you’ve perhaps heard here on my blog), wept hard, and Sova, my aunt, cried out loud. Kakima, our next-door neighbor, wept too. All our previous domestic maids over the years, who came to see Ma one last time, inconsolably sobbed. Slowly, with extreme care, we carried Ma and put her on the flower-adorned cot sitting on the earthen alley. “Bolo Hari, Hari Bol,” they all chanted out Lord Vishnu’s name in a familiar way, one I had heard numerous times in Calcutta ever since I remembered. Four of us hoisted the four corners of the cot up on our shoulders now cushioned with a cotton towel. In a few moments, all the male members of the family and friends, in the midst of the loud and subdued cries, set out on the final procession on foot to the Ganges, about five miles away to the West side of the city.
I believe about a hundred people came along with us.
But Subrato, my best friend didn’t show; he’d later said he didn’t because he couldn’t take it; my mother’s death was too much pain for him to bear. He came from a solvent family with both parents working and a reasonably affluent lifestyle. He was a very bright student, yet a very weak man – so much so that many years later, when his father suddenly died, he couldn’t take it either, and in a matter of days, during the obligatory bereavement period, he walked out of his house in his mourning garb leaving a mother, a sister, a wife and two young sons behind, and stood on the tracks of a speeding commuter train. He was killed instantly.
Somebody emailed us here in New York about his violent death. Not an agreeable way to deal with the sudden death of your best friend.
But much before that, in quick succession of Ma’s death, came small and big bolts from the blue. Uncle Yama had warned me long ago that I was going to see him frequently once I grew up. Now I knew I had grown up.
Just the next Sunday, about the same time in the evening, Jethu, father’s oldest brother who lived only walks away, died of a prolonged oral cancer. A chain smoker, he had been suffering for nearly two years, and got the disease way before Ma fell sick; in fact, it was Ma who first told me that Jethu got cancer. This is a man who lived with us for years before finding his own apartment, played the flute sitting on our narrow veranda in the evening, and took him out on leisurely spring-night tram rides. He bought me my first (and last) pair of cricket gloves.
In less than a year, my oldest maternal uncle Bishwanath died of a stroke; he couldn’t handle the enormous financial mess he got himself in by playing the Indian stock market, got bankrupt, and left four small children and a widow behind. I went to see him in his final hours at the Calcutta Medical College emergency. I remember he lay on a narrow bed in a very small room, eyes closed, and his upper body was all hooked up with pipes, monitors and tubes; his mouth was wide open, and he was fiercely and noisily gasping for breath like a big fish out of water. I saw his chest pumping like a balloon inhaling and exhaling air; I knew just by looking at his terrible suffering that he was not going to make it. This is an uncle who was a soft-nature man, a singer. He was a champion carrom player too. What niyati Lord Yama had set aside for him!
Two years later, when the men were not home, my middle maternal uncle Madhu’s wife Amita – a schizophrenic woman who angrily refused any basic medical help – screamed about her poverty and distress, poured kerosene on her body, and lighted herself up. Then, she ran fiercely up and down the narrow, dark, dingy alley next to their bedroom, shrieked violently in extreme fear and pain, tried to tear off her burning sari and blouse, and my poor grandmother and Sova ran back and forth to rescue her and away, and cried out and begged to everyone for help. In half hour, in front of practically all the helplessly onlooking residents of their neighborhood who did all they could to save her including a last-ditch attempt to blanket out the fire, a charcoal-black Amita got a heart attack, and dropped dead.
Madhu and Amita had been married for only two years, and she left a six-month old child behind. Sova now became the mother of that child.
And then the final blow came five years after Ma’s death, just two weeks before I was scheduled to take my TOEFL to come to study in the U.S., when on a Friday Christmas-eve night, Buddha, an Indira Gandhi Congress rising star, was found in his State Electricity Board office room in Central Calcutta, shot in the head to death.
The gun was never found. The assassins were never found either. In India, law enforcement and administration do not work for you unless you can force or bribe them. We could not force or bribe them: we were too poor and powerless to do it.
To me, Buddha was more like a big brother than an uncle, just like Sova was always more like a big sister than an aunt; when I was very young, I saw Buddha playing alley marble, street football and strike-day cricket; and I saw Sova playing jump rope, hide and seek and rhyme games with her teen friends. I accompanied them to their simple, frugal but fun winter picnics – on rooftops and at school compounds. I saw Buddha’s ambitious ascent, slowly assuming leadership in his friends’ circle and then in politics. I went to hear his speeches at political rallies; I went to hear him recite Tagore and Sukanto poetry at cultural events. And I unknowingly emulated him in my own political and cultural performances. I helped him write New Year greetings cards he’d send out to numerous friends and followers. I followed him on, and I followed him often.
Buddha’s death was a huge blow to us – our entire family. Even the entire neighborhood of that long, narrow alley behind the vegetable and fish market was completely shocked and frozen. The final ray of hope for my poor grandmother was gone.
It was as if as soon as Ma left, the force of love that held the family together melted away, and everything fell apart. And my grandmother had to go through it all, one tragedy at a time.
Before my grandma died, she had lost five children.
Enough for now. (By the way, this is all from my memoir I’m slowly putting together. Any takers? Let me know.)
You might ask, why in the world am I writing about it, especially when it is so personal and so painful? Am I trying to self-inflict pain into those covered-over wounds?
No. Seriously. I’m not trying to draw your sympathy and consolation — believe me. It’s been quite a while. I’m out of it…you know…sorta. You feel bad? Thank you. I appreciate. But that’s about it.
I’m telling you these stories because this is the India that you probably do not know or hear about, especially in today’s media glitz and superpower blitz. I know for sure many of you did not hear these stories from someone like me who actually lived them.
Lord Uncle Yama has been playing his cunning death games on us — the poor and the vulnerable in that little corner of the world — for eternity.
I feel I’m still a small pawn in his game.
(come back for more, if you still not completely un-like it.)
Brooklyn, New York