‘Syed Bhai aap ko kuch yaad aa raha hai?’ I usually ask as we zoom past the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial hospital at Kalamboli in the middle of the night on the Mumbai Pune highway. Syed Mirza has been driving me back home in his kaali peeli taxi for the last sixteen years. We have discussed almost everything on earth in our journeys. The hospital building is like a memory storage device on wifi, always triggering off memories of my mother when I come into its range. Ma, had gone into coma for two months after her blood sugar played havoc. Syed Bhai and I used to stop by to see her; it was my turn to look after my mother in the night, as we children divided time amongst us. The nights were peaceful; her face sometimes deep in thought and sometimes a smile appeared, maybe she was seeing a happy memory pass by, I used to wonder what went on in her head.
Young medical college students took good care of her, they used to always comb her hair and tie them up into a simple braid every day. Whenever I went to see her, her hair strands looked beautiful, clear and sharp, greys and blacks and whites, they seem to be talking with my mother, transmitting thoughts and memories back and forth. “Can I take a picture of you?” I asked one day. “Can I capture the conversations you are having into my camera?” “Will it be intruding on your privacy?” “Will my pictures qualify as art?” “Am I supposed to show it to the world?”
Conversations I overheard
I was a child. Maybe nine years then. There was fear all around and uncertainty. People were packing their belongings and leaving their homes hurriedly one day. The family somehow managed to reach the railway station. The train arrived to take the refugees back home and the big black steam engine, nervous and anxious was waiting for the signal to go back home. And I held onto my mother as we managed to get onto a seat. I heard a scream ….somebody had got stabbed in the darkness. Did or she die? Who was it? Was he or she a Muslim or a Hindu?
Images went back and forth. Shadowy figures in the dark black night, smoke, gleaming daggers, railway platforms, big tin trunk boxes, fearful eyes, wooden seats with cracks in it.
Where do I belong? Undivided Bengal? What was in the trunk boxes? Memories? Or was it full of recipes? Books? Money? Clothes? What was it in there? Or was it food…the cabbage dish? Toys? What did I bring along?
The cabbage dish
It had remained the same for years, it tasted the same, and my children loved it. Did they know that the recipe was from across the border? I said to myself, ‘They must have come home, after work, I must keep the food ready they may be hungry’ ‘my daughter loves Wada Pao, let us forget the old style of cooking the Bangladesh style and lets just have Wada Pao’ or how about some Methi Baingan? Or, dal in Marathi style? ‘or maybe a fusion by adding neem leaves into Methi Baingan? Your Thakurma (father’s mother) always used to look for vegetables which was easily available in Bangladesh (pre partition Bengal). That country was different, vegetables grew on garden patches and on the roadside too; it did not need to be tended. We must adapt to different cultures. Your father kept shifting homes he was in the Indian Navy. Thakurma did not realize that. How do I explain to her?
I was the eldest of the nine brothers and sisters. The kitchen was the place where we fought our battles, right from cooking from a very early age, to studying. Lighting the choolah needed expertise, collecting the ghutey (cow dung) another interesting chore. But, I always wanted to be a working woman and with a career of my own, a nurse maybe, and I wanted to help my father who was a doctor. Dr. Basu, inspired by the independence struggle, went to the border villages to spread healthcare. His life was a constant economic struggle. Baba never made any money unlike today’s medical practitioners. I wish I could help him. Since, I was the eldest daughter he wanted me to get married early. Bengal was going through difficult times. I wonder how my mother managed to keep the family together. She was always in command, a very beautiful lady, she fell in love with her doctor husband and it was a ‘love marriage’ as we call it now. My Ma was very good with her art works and embroidery; she used to always stitch beautiful dresses for us. And she had so many children…how did she manage?
My husband went away to Ireland immediately after marriage, he was sent there to do his engineering by the Indian Navy. The country had acquired its first aircraft carrier INS Vikrant, and the sailors were being trained to maintain it. He went around the world and I was left on my own, unknown to the new place, I was young, good that I insisted on doing my matriculation. But it was difficult, i did not know the local language and the culture was so different and I was pregnant too. Sometimes, I wished I had a career of my own.
My only way, to keep in touch with my parents was with Inland letters. The blue Inland letters and writing was so much fun, with a fountain pen, I used to fill up every little space I could find, and even the folds were filled with text. We had an album with coarse mat black paper pages and transparent tracing paper in between them, which, my husband had gifted me. Me and my mother-in-law used to organise the black and white pictures, fitting them in with triangular blue paper corner stickers. Seeing the picture album was a favourite pastime at the Navy quarters.
After my husband came back from England, we went to Gujarat had another child and then we shifted to Nasik. I have had so many children, six of them. Lovely children they are but I always fear for them. Their father had lost his siblings and also his father at a very young age. I must feed them with good food i always thought. But the war had come upon us and then the drought. Everything was being rationed even the clothes. Thankfully we had army rations. The children at least had a full meal once a day and they proudly wore the curtain cloth shirts that I stitched for them with the cloth from the ration shop. Working at home is a full time job, there were no washing machines then so I had to do all the clothes, iron them, prepare food and also check on the children’s home work.
My husband was a seeker and he left the Hindu ways for a reformist sect. His becoming a vegetarian upset many of our fellow Bengali neighbors and relatives. The kitchen got transformed and so also our cultural habits. We did not have rituals at home. The children were getting exposed to different ways of life. There were Russians also in the township at Nasik and they celebrated the October revolution every year, we were exposed to a new culture again, their ways of life, cinema, food, songs, dances, the way they designed their exhibitions. We were soon being boycotted during weddings in Bengal for our vegetarianism and we were asked to sit with the widows in a corner of the dining area. My children also found it unusual when as a respect to elders I used to put on the ghunghat. ‘Ma never did that in Nasik’ they used to say, ‘why when we visited Bengal?’
I must give away some utensils and old clothes to that poor bhaji walli who comes home.
I have to save that child who has been kidnapped and forcibly made to dance in a bar. These girls stay in a bungalow next door. We must rescue them.
We must protect our maid so what if she has HIV.
These politicians we must not vote for them.
Why is the principal harassing my child?
Why have they raised university fees? We must fight it.
Why is that drunkard beating up his wife? Why can’t you boys do something?
My son was arrested what wrong did he do? So many people had gathered at the railway station to see me and his Baba as we arrived in that far away town to bail him out. Is this why we fought for freedom? Is this what partition was all about?
We have had three freedom fighters in our family and one was hanged to death by the Britishers. I used to tell my child and his activists friends ‘they will not let you do good work; it’s a difficult life that you are leading. Come back home’. One of my cousins had disappeared in the late 60’s in the Naxal movement and he hasn’t been found yet. My brothers are communist party workers; we know how it is to fight against the system.
I love these young activists; they may not have eaten for days, how hungry they must be. I must quickly cook for them. I remember the university fee hike agitation, the city was up in arms, and so many parents supported the students. I was a little nervous when they asked me to give a speech at a hall in Dadar, I had never done it before. I asked my son and his friends to help. There were so many big leaders on the stage and I just spoke what I had in my mind. Next day the meeting was reported in the newspapers. I only wish the children the best. And I hope they are safe always.
Why don’t the doctors listen to my son? I want to be here for a while. For me time is immaterial. Why do we have to be on the run always? Why do we have to condition ourselves so much that right from the time when the child is born we trap it in the cycle of time? She has to go to school on time, catch the train and bus on time, get a job on time, eat on time, sleep on time, get married on time, love on time, have children on time. Can’t we just let go and leave it to nature? The doctors are telling my son to take me home. This is my home, the earth. Why can’t they have a little more respect for human life? Why can’t they battle it out till the very end why have they given up?
Give me time. I have given so much. Mothers always give so much.
She took her time. She was always a fighter. And for her it was respect for an individual that was the uppermost. She won over hearts of many activists from all over Maharashtra and India as they came home. She always had a special relationship with them.
Pic 1: A picture of her which I like so much, her blouse having Japanese prints. And her glowing face, a smile and the beautiful thick dark straight hair.
Pic 2: A pen and ink drawing from her partition stories.
Pic 3: Portrait.
Pic 4: folder with my mother’s inland letters
Pic 5: a collage of all the above images