So Hard to Say Goodbye
She called up her daughter everyday without fail, around 10.30 in the morning. “Have you had breakfast? Has the girl who helps you in the kitchen turned up? Have the children left for college and work?” The questions were predictable and rarely varied. As were her daughter’s answers, as she waited impatiently for her mother to move on to the next step of their conversation. The monologue would invariably centre on the kitchen help who gave her a toast that was too hard and the tea that that had been brewed for too long or was not hot enough or the cleaning woman who came in too late, making her and her gods wait endlessly for her morning ablution, only after which she would be able to get down to the ablutions of her gods.
She had followed the same regimen for the last sixty years. As had her mother in law before her. She would give the gods a small bath and dry them with a soft red hand woven gamchha procured specially from the small shops in the narrow lanes of Calcutta. A towel just wasn’t the same. For one thing, it was too thick, making it too difficult to dry it, especially on a humid day. Moreover, it was difficult to hold a towel in her now aging fingers and dry the gods with it. She would pick the gods up from their beds (her Gopal had a bed complete with a pillow, a bedsheet, two bolsters and a bedcover, while at night, Gopal’s throne doubled up for a bed for the Shiva lingam in her temple), wipe them with a wet gamchha, change the frock and the panty, all hand stitched by her, put sandalwood paste tilaks on their foreheads and give them a little bit of sugar on a tiny silver or brass plate and water in small glasses. A few flowers, a couple of incense sticks and an oil lamp completed the morning rituals.
It was much more elaborate on Thursdays though, as that was the day for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth. On Wednesday evening itself she would start making arrangements for the next day. Flowers, a banana, sweets and paan leaves for the goddess. Not plain sugar or nakul dana (little sugar nuggets) as on other days. She would also blow the conch shell thrice to dispel all the evil spirits in the vicinity and fill the house with positive energy.
Of course, now her gods were confined to one corner of her already cluttered room. She remembered the vast expanse of the room on the terrace of the old house, dedicated exclusively to the myriad gods and goddesses, and even fitted with a fan and almirahs to house all the utensils etc., kept exclusively for them. Her gods, as all others in this day and age, had been reduced to shrinking spaces…….
Her own lack of mobility had confined her to her room. She loved going out but her legs pained so much that of late, she would voluntarily opt out of weddings, movies or going to restaurants. Now her only companion was the television and she spent several hours of the day watching drama serials and the news. But always in Bengali. She was quite updated about the news in Calcutta, the approaching Durga Puja festivities and the rising prices of hilsa fish in the Calcutta market.
Even when her daughters called her while they were visiting, “Ma, we’re here, will you please come out to the drawing room?” “Yes, yes,” she would answer but go out only after the main characters had played out their parts for that episode. Her younger daughter would tease her, “Ma, they’re closer to you now than we are!” It seemed funny but maybe, it was true.
Her children were married and now there were grandchildren. And at last, it seemed that the family would be growing. Her only grandson was to get married and there was a lot of activity in the house. The girls were excited about their new clothes and of course, she would also need a few new changes. Matching blouses and petticoats with the new sarees. Then there was the jewellery too that needed to be brought out of the locker. She would need to get her hair coloured and her nails painted!
Although she herself was a Bengali, she advocated that as a bridegroom, her grandson should sit on a horse, even if briefly. After all, it was the Punjabi tradition. But no, though half a Punjabi by birth, her genteel and squeamish grandson said that he was afraid of smelly animals! He would prefer to go by car to bring his bride back. As had his father before him.
The wedding arrangements continued in full spate, there were so many things to think of – the flowers, the sweets, discussions with the decorator, the gifts, the bridal trousseau. Amidst all this activity, one day, she slipped and fell down rather badly in the bathroom. There was a lot of confusion and everyone screamed and shouted at her and at each other because they couldn’t get her out of the bathroom easily. Life seemed to be becoming increasingly difficult for her because of her aging problems and more so, because everyone was in such a tearing hurry and nobody had enough patience.
Lately, she had become even slower than before. She couldn’t understand why. She would go through the morning activities painstakingly but by the time she managed to finish and sit down for lunch, the maid would scream and tell her that it was late afternoon and close to four. Everything seemed to be slipping by. She seemed to be slipping in and out of various time periods. To the others, it seemed that she was moving in slow motion.
She called her younger daughter, whose son was getting married, and asked her to buy her some underclothes. Her size was written in the diary she had taken to London. Her daughter looked perplexed, “Why look for such an old diary, Ma?” but obediently, she rummaged and rummaged through the cupboards and finally found the diary. The size notation, however, could not be found. “Anyway Ma, don’t worry, I’ll get you the right size.”
“What a lovely shawl,” she caressed her daughter’s new shawl lovingly. “This one I would like to keep,” she said like a playful child. “But Ma, it’s part of my outfit. I will need this outfit for the next few days as I have many odd jobs to complete before the wedding. Moreover, Ma, I have to go back and I need it for today,” her daughter countered, wondering at her mother’s childish demand and tried to make it up by, “I’ll give it to you after a few days.” “You could always take one of mine; there are plenty in the cupboard to choose from." She offered but didn’t push it further, accepting her daughter’s explanation.
Ma left us soon after, and forever. She didn’t recover from the fall in the bathroom. She became slower and slower and increasingly more disoriented and slipped into a coma soon afterwards. We didn’t understand at first and were our usual impatient selves with her. She didn’t get to attend her only grandson’s marriage. She didn’t get to wear the new sarees with matching petticoats and blouses or paint her toenails or colour her hair. She didn’t get to see her grandson go in a car to bring his bride back.
But she waited till he got married and her children hosted the reception party. She waited till her only grandson said a final farewell to her and boarded the plane for his honeymoon.
And she didn’t get to use my new shawl which she had so lovingly caressed. I draped it on her still body when I met her for the very last time.