Ma left us today. A while ago she entered the mouth of the electric stove. Burning. Rapidly getting erased from the world.
I still can’t believe it. When I left for office in the morning, everything was okay. As usual.
The day had begun like any other day. The cold had set in pretty firmly this time. Didn’t feel like coming out of the quilt in the morning as usual. In my prostrate state, I could hear Supti busy with the household. Like everyday, Mampi and Gogol were complaining about the milk, making quite a commotion. Supti gave the children a good scolding, served me tea and gave some order to Ma’s attendant. The sounds in the house went on as normal. The attendant was heating the water for the sponge; there was some conversation with the domestic help; Supti was making tiffin for the children…. In the meantime, Mampi’s and Gogol’s school-bus arrived; I jumped out of bed and went to the market, and came back and had a quick shave, a brisk shower in ice-cold water…. Supti handed me a little list at the dining-table. There was some sports event at Mampi’s school, the day after tomorrow. The girl needed a pair of socks with red border. Ma was getting bed-sores despite lying on the water-mattress… have to get an ointment. And must remember to get the tea from that shop at office-para.
After that it was the line for the mini-bus, entering office by narrowly escaping the late-mark, moving to and from the GM’s room twice or thrice, files, computer, and softly conversing with colleagues in between… Tapanbabu was marrying at forty-seven, and whether we ought to present him a wig or false teeth caused some mirth.
Everything moved on at the usual rhythm. Or somewhat without rhythm.
The picture changed at noon. All of a sudden.
I was at carom during tiffin hour. Nowadays, it was impossible to enter the recreation room after office. Supti would nag me if I was a little late — I am a prisoner in the house, and you are frolicking around…! Really, the poor woman is now totally confined. On the one hand are the children, the household, on the other her paralytic mother-in-law, bed-ridden as if for ever. Supti is completely sandwiched. Going out, films and theatres, everything has stopped; and how many days could she spend at her father’s when she had a sick mother-in-law back home? Even when she went, she would be anxious to return every moment. Therefore, to keep peace, I too have to squeeze myself into the cave early.
So today, I was just playing the second board, when Robinda called –Amit, your telephone.
The red was at the pocket, almost suspended. Setting the striker, I asked — Whose phone?
|— From your place. Sounded like your wife.
I began to have misgivings. Supti doesn’t ring up except on emergencies.
The red chip remained. I came hurriedly and took up the receiver, Hello, what happened?
— Hey, listen, Ma isn’t normal.
— What? Why? What’s the matter?
— Severe breathing trouble… her eyes are rolling.
— Good Heavens, from when?
— Just now… I had gone to Monicadidi’s flat, Rama called me. She says, she was behaving queer after having the rice.
— When did she feed her?
— At the usual hour. Twelve, a quarter after twelve.
— Why didn’t she tell you earlier?
— She says, she didn’t suspect anything then… Ma’s hands and feet are turning cold too.
— Have you called the doctor?
— He’s coming… You come home. I think its pretty serious.
Even then, the thought of something drastic hadn’t entered my head. While returning by taxi, I kept on thinking — Why did this happen? Lung infection? During one of his routine check-ups, the doctor had said that with prolonged inaction, the muscles of such patients slacken, and then chances of some food- particle getting stuck in the lungs wasn’t unusual. From that stems infection. He had mentioned some name of this disease. Some pneumonia. Of course, even by catching cold….
So many nights, did Ma lie unattended after wetting her bed. Rama would not get up but simply snore away. Callous woman. And now there was trouble again. If it gets serious, she may have to be removed to the nursing home. How much money do we have at home? Today is the nineteenth — at the most a thousand or two. How much would that help? The bank is almost empty… should I take a loan? Again? Damn it, I’ll be bowed down with debt. From whom can I ask? Prabirda had once warbled, if you need any let me know. Supti however is averse to ask her brother for money. One could approach Khukudi. Even though a niece, she was like a daughter to Ma. Ma had gifted jewellery made from her own necklace at Khukudi’s wedding. Khukudi wouldn’t probably refuse, but how would I return the money? A P.F loan again? Or should it be the hospital instead of a nursing home…? Then the expenses could be within bounds.
Nothing was required. I came home and found everything over. A few neighbours from the adjacent flats stood with glum faces. Supti stood inert clutching the edge of Ma’s bed, Rama at her feet; Mampi and Gogol hadn’t come back from school yet.
I was feeling somewhat dazed. So suddenly had such a protracted and tiresome phase come to an end?
Ma had been bed-ridden for two full years. If one took into account the day of the cerebral attack, it would be more. Almost twenty-five months. Seven hundred and fifty-four days to be precise. During this time, let alone sit up, Ma couldn’t even move on her own; one had to help her turn over. Not a single sound escaped Ma’s lips these twenty-five months, not even a moan. I too had taken it for granted that Ma would remain like this. Each day I felt, Ma has stayed with us today, she would be here tomorrow, and the day after….
Or maybe such notions never occurred in isolation. Deep in my heart, there was only one thought — perhaps Ma would live on for eternity as a mere existence. Perhaps nothing could happen beyond this.
The relatives arrived one by one after hearing the news. By evening, the house was teeming with people. So much like those group visits to the nursing home. Or maybe more.
Perhaps, things happen this way. Distress has its appeal to people. Even death. Their anxiety had abetted as the chances of Ma’s death was getting distant with the passing of each day. Even to us. Even to the relatives. How many of them had come to see her in the last one and half years? Sometimes a phone call, or an occasional visit, that was all. Yet today there were so many people at my side at the crematorium. The sons of my father’s brother, my mother’s sister’s son, my father’s sister’s son, brother-in-law, my wife’s sister’s husband, friends….
Now they were all scattered here and there, after putting my mother inside the mechanised pyre this winter night. Prabirda was talking and gesticulating at Khukudi’s husband. Kishore and Shomu were loitering around. Paltu and the others went to have tea.
It is colder today. Or did I feel the bite in the open? There was a thin blanket of fog all around; the halogen lamps appeared dim, almost dying. A few seasonal flowers grew in the area surrounded by railings. Even the flowers looked dismal. Was it because this was a crematorium? A matador roared into the compound; a group of young boys were hauling down a bed in the midst of their grotesque chanting. Someone shouted for somebody. Sounds of laughter could be heard from somewhere afar. A loud wail arose from the inner hall. And stopped.
Chandan and Ronida had left my side, and have returned. Ronida was smoking. He knocked off the ash from his cigarette. Placing his hand lightly on my shoulder, he said — Why are you here, shivering in this cold? Come, let’s sit inside.
|— No, no, its okay out here. Its stinking in there, commotion, crying… I could hardly breathe.
— Then wrap the shawl properly. Cover your ears. It wouldn’t be useful to catch cold now.
— I said I’m okay. Don’t bother yourself.
Ronida didn’t press further. He sat beside me, on the cement bench. He raised his eyes to the sky for a while. He lighted another cigarette and began to puff deeply.
Suddenly he said — Wasn’t Pishi looking different, Bablu?
I sighed and said — Hm.
— There was no sign of disease on her face… it bore the complexion exactly as it had earlier. It seemed, she was the same old Pishi.
Chandan spoke up — Did you notice a smile playing around Kaki’s lips?
— Hm. What an end to so much suffering.
— Of course. She couldn’t speak or express herself, it was awful ! Couldn’t make myself look at her face when I visited her after the Pujas last year. What a person, and in what condition !
— Yet, Pishi never interfered in others’ affairs. Ma was saying the other day — God didn’t do justice. Such a nice person, and suffering such distress — she had to struggle so much her whole life. No ailment, nothing, and Pishemoshai just passed away… a bolt from the blue… Bablu was in half-pants then. But Pishi survived that shock and remained upright. She worked and brought up Bablu alone. When she had her own house, her grand children and had a glimpse of happiness, God gave her this blow.
— We used to fervently pray, let Kaki go, let Kaki go now.
— Really, was it some existence to live on like a vegetable?
— Not entirely a vegetable. Kaki had sense, even in that hapless situation. That was more pathetic.
— Ah ! What have they started now? Is this the time to discuss such things? What Ma was, what she had done for me, were all bygone issues. Everyone, even I know about them. I too have tried to repay Ma’s debt. I have done beyond my resources. When Ma had that stroke, I rushed her to a big nursing home, without bothering about the expenditure. From there, Ma returned, an inert object; still did I give up hope? Physiotherapy for six months at a stretch; morning and evening in the first three months. Along with this, the doctor, nurse, attendant… That a mother will love her offspring, sacrifice herself, is spontaneous, but did I love Ma less? Wasn’t I anxious? So many sleepless nights did I spend at the nursing home; going to this neurologist, rushing to that neurologist, roaming around the whole city in search of a rare medicine… Still if Ma wasn’t cured, it was her fate. Even so, whatever consciousness she had regained, was a result of my endeavours. Surprising that no one mentions this.
Ma’s brain had revived somewhat, though the motor system of her nerves had become almost inactive. I noticed this three months after bringing her back from the nursing home. There was however, only one sign of her regaining consciousness. Her eyes moved whenever she saw me. Wherever I went, right, left, to the window, at the door, Ma’s eyes followed me everywhere. Yes, only me. Supti took so much care of her; Gogol and Mampi were their Thamma’s soul. Yet Ma’s gaze was never so animated as when she saw me.
At first, I used to feel a bit uncanny. So many times have I sat beside her and asked — What are you looking at Ma? Will you say something?
A strange flicker would be discernible in the two eye-balls; as if words were trying to gush forth, but couldn’t. Just struggling for release.
Gradually, I got used to it. Afterwards, the whole thing became a game. Whoever came to visit Ma, would say — Go and stand beside the cupboard Bablu, lets see where her eyes would go… Go behind the bed, now her eyes cannot find you out… Oh look, look, how Renudi’s eyes are following Bablu out of the room… the apple of her eye, poor thing !
Nowadays, I rarely had time to sit with Ma. What was the use? Besides, didn’t I have my children, my wife, my office? Even then, would I go to her once or twice as per routine. I would stand by for a while, check the pulse-rate, ask the attendant about her condition. I had recently bought a machine to check her pressure. I handled it myself. For how long could one spend ten rupees everyday? Rama was the typical attendant. She didn’t have the inclination to learn, and one couldn’t rely on her to do such jobs. Even before setting out for office, I would peep into Ma’s room for once.
Did I visit her today? Can’t remember. There was a shoe or a handkerchief which I couldn’t find; perhaps in my hurry… Damn it, is it possible to remember such minute details? Especially regarding one who lived on in the same condition day after day, month after month?
Another dead body arrived. In a glass hearse. Aged lady.
Ronida mechanically touched his forehead and said lightly — We were lucky.
I turned around — What do you mean?
— We brought Pishi just in time. Can’t you see what a line has formed? If we were late by ten minutes, you would have had to wait for three hours.
Even in this grave situation, I was amused. What difference would three hours have made to a long twenty-five months?
Shantuda and Dulu were talking and walking towards us. Past fifty, Shantuda had an amazing quality. No matter where he was, he would arrive immediately on hearing the news of the death of some relative or friend. He would voluntarily take up all responsibilities until the rites were over. Today also, he arrived as soon as he received the phone call, with Badamamima and Boudi. He made all immediate arrangements on arrival. Glass hearse, flowers, parched grain, incense, perfume… if the Gita had been placed on Ma’s breast, if coins had been put inside the packet of grains — Shantuda had his eye on every little detail. In the crematorium, he was as busy. Rushing to the Corporation, haggling with the priest… He was beside me while I was circling round Ma’s body, fire in hand.
Shantuda was carrying a plastic packet. He gave it to Prabirda and came to me — Bablu, your clothes have been bought. They are with Prabirbabu; wear them after your bath.
— Will he bathe in this cold night? No, no, he can sprinkle a little Ganges water.
— Aha, am I asking him to dive into the Ganges? He can bathe at home. Hey Bablu, can’t you do this much for Pishi?
Of course, I was doing only this much !
Shantuda didn’t notice my facial contortions. He said again — Pishi’s death certificate is with me, do you understand? I will Xerox three copies and give it to you; keep it carefully. You won’t get Pishi’s belongings if you lose it.
Alas, as if Pishi had a lot of property. Whatever she got at the time of retirement, had been spent on the flat. I tried to dissuade, she didn’t listen– What will I do with all that money Bablu? Rather, pay as much cash as possible, your bank loan will be less. Don’t be angry, your house is mine; will you drive me out? So, went almost all of her savings. Still, with whatever was left as residue, she would spend on a gold chain for her grand-daughter, or buy a cash certificate in Gogol’s name… If she had saved that money it would have come handy in times of need.
Paltu and Deepu had come back and entered the hall. Now they are calling — Bring Bablu with you. We have finished ours.
Shantuda was immediately alert — Come, come,… it was pretty quick I see.
Ronida held me on one side, Prabirda in the other. Taking me towards Ma’s ashes. Why are they holding on so tight? Do they fear that I may fall? Break down?
Passing through the hall, we got up on the raised platform. We stepped over four dead bodies waiting to enter the fire. Heat emanated from the stove. A peculiar warmth pervaded my body,
Warmth? Or lightness?
I can’t exactly figure out.
Half-reclining on the bed, I was running my eyes over the list. What a list had the priest given me! Rice, lentils, oil, salt, vegetables, flowers, fruits, leaves from the wood-apple tree, sacrificial grass, sesame, barley, myrobalan, clarified butter, honey, sugar, banana leaves, betel leaves, betel nuts, spices — what didn’t it have? The list of giveaways wasn’t too short either. Plate, bowl, tumbler, umbrella, slippers, saree, vessel, tub, lamp-stand… The size was mentioned beside ‘ladies slippers’, the umbrella had to be a coloured one too; still he hadn’t mentioned the bed, mattresses and pillows; he would take the price. God knows how much I could save.
How much would it all cost? Hope it wouldn’t exceed the budget. I had withdrawn the last ten thousand from the bank, borrowed five from Prabirda –will this suffice? Three thousand will go for the pandal. Why are they charging so much, when all they have to do is to cover the terrace of the building, and that too with white cloth? Nine hundred for chairs and tables — around a thousand. Ninety people have been invited to the shradh ceremony. Ninety into fifty five
— approximately five thousand. Thirty guests on matsyamukh. Eighty into thirty, almost two and a half. Gross total, eleven and half. Hope it won’t require more than three thousand. The ghat ritual will also involve some expenses the day after tomorrow… hopefully it will be sufficient. Still, if required, one type of sweet can be reduced on the shradh. Five rupees can be saved per plate. A total of four fifty. Not a mean amount. Every farthing counts.
All of a sudden I was amused. What a childish thought ! Lakhs have flowed out from the pot, and now I am looking for putty to save a pice. Forty thousand had been spent solely on the nursing home. Twenty, twenty- two thousand on the physiotherapist. For the first few months, there were two nurses both halves of the day. They would box my ears and milk me off one-twenty, one-twenty equal to two-forty rupees. It was to ease the burden of expenditure that I had to descend step by step. From two nurses, I came down to one nurse at night and an attendant in the daytime, then two attendants, lastly that Rama. She used to stay for nights and days and took her meals here. Let her, her pay was less. So much economy, so much struggle; still there was the provident fund loan, co-operative debt… Damn it, didn’t feel like thinking about them. Let whatever go, go, let everything end once and for all. Hope, me or Supti wouldn’t be left lying like that. If it happens, Mampi and Gogol will curse so.
Supti has entered the room. She opened the cupboard. Fumbling the shelves.
— What are you looking for?
— See, how she’s bothering me.
— Rama. She’s driving me crazy for a saree.
— Give her one.
— Not one, I gave her two. Ma’s saree. I said, what if they are white, you can get them printed. She isn’t satisfied.
— What does she want? Benarasi?
— Something like it . Supti made a face and said– She says, I’ve had to handle Dida’s dirt, shouldn’t I get a silk saree at least?
Everybody understands his own interest in this world. Where was Rama’s fault? My mother too, didn’t leave her dues. Didn’t she exact the price of her duty?
I said with a glum face — Do away with all the botheration. Give her what she wants.
Supti took out a faded murshidabadi silk which she had, and went out with it.
I placed the list on the table and lay down on my back. My eyes felt heavy again. Fatigue wracked my whole frame. There was a lot of running around from the morning. I had taken Dulu with me to get over with the invitations. We finished off with Manicktala, Shyambazar… north Kolkata. Some have been invited over the phone; still there are many who are not satisfied until they behold a bereaved face. Then a quick gulping down of boiled rice and ghee at two fifty and as a result, acidity. Even now.
But the fatigue wasn’t due to indigestion. It was somewhat different. It was akin to the feeling of the athlete who had just finished a marathon. My body had given away after returning from Ma’s funeral.
Was there a bitterness in this thought? No doubt, the sprinters would run squeezing their bodies out like me, but can one compare their touching the finishing line with Ma’s death? Did I want to reach this goal from the very first day? No, no, no, no, never. Rather , I swam against the tide, fought to save Ma. I prayed with my heart and soul for Ma’s recovery, so that she can walk at least if not like before, return to a more or less normal life. How does a man feel when there isn’t even the least improvement despite his giving up everything he has? Does it not seem that the racing track is gradually turning around, that one is traversing a long, circuitous way? Running on, while I bathed in my sweat, my tongue hanging out, calories burning. How long can a man go on?
Supti has re-entered, tea in hand. Putting down the cup on the table, she sat on the bed. Dusting the edge of the bed with her red-bordered saree, she said — Your Shantuda has won.
I frowned and asked — Why?
— Our wish has had no importance. The rituals will be performed in Ma’s room.
— Shantuda wasn’t wrong. Ma’s room is really small. It would be convenient if the rituals take place in the drawing hall; the people can sit… I have told the decorators to lay down the rugs.
— I have no objection to anything. But you know what irks me? Your Shantuda’s way of talking… Pishi’s room is a coop… so suffocating… no proper ventilation… what does it mean to say all this? As if we had purposefully kept Ma in a dark hole.
Supti had sufficient reason to be hurt. Before shifting to the flat, she had repeatedly entreated –Ma, you take the bigger room. Ma refused to comply. She stuck to one thing… I am a lone person, what need would I have for that room? Rather, you take the bigger room, the middle one for the children, let them stretch their legs and hands a bit.
I waved my hand and said — Leave Shantuda alone. He’s helping out… We know what we did for Ma.
— It would have been best if the rituals were not performed at home. Get a permission from the Society, rub your hands before this person, listen to that person — I don’t like it at all.
— What can one do? We already went on a round of Chaitanyamath, Gauriyamath, this math, that math. No vacancy anywhere. How would I know that people booked venues for shradhs before putting their parents on the funeral pyres?… Its good one way. No one can say that I finished off with Ma’s rituals by paying the math.
— Those who will speak, will speak. Only a while ago, your Khukudi tactfully said so many things.
— What did she say?
— You could have kept Mashi on nasal feeding; can the likes of Rama feed with caution… all in all, she tried to convey that we didn’t take good care of Ma.
— Let her say. We know what we have done — I burst out again — Don’t listen to outsiders.
— It hurts. You understand, it hurts. How I have curtailed the household expenses for two years. I stopped buying fruits for the children and fed Ma on grape and pomegranate juice. Did I give Mampi and Gogol more than one dress during the pujas? Debt and debt everywhere… Had anyone tried to find out how much was left at the end of the month? They had only clucked in sympathy from a distance. Tomorrow, Mampi would be in class nine; she needs a good tutor, could we afford one? We had to admit her into the cow’s shed of a tutorial. Supti sniffed loudly — there was always the perennial thought, is it time to buy Ma’s Horlicks, or Complan…
Had I found peace anywhere, on leaving Ma back home? When Natunmashi’s daughter got married, I showed my face in the morning, you in the evening. Why? For Ma ! Even then, your Jethima left saying — Were you not there Bouma, when Renu had her spasms?… How does this sound, tell me? Say?
— Leave it. It is those who do most are most criticised. This is a fact… I too, let out a little sigh — Okay, have your tea. Its turning cold.
Supti wiped her eyes and drank the tea in one gulp. She got up and entered the adjacent bathroom. Coming out, she asked in a listless voice — Will you eat something now?
I had lighted the cigarette. Poking the matchstick into the ashtray, I asked — What will I have?
— I can give you sliced fruits.
— Fruits, after having tea?
— Eat them after some time.
— How much fruits can I have? Even monkeys don’t eat so much fruits.
Supti giggled — Your Tushidi left a lot of bananas, apples and shabedas in the morning. Gogol and Mampi saw them and were horrified. Whoever came, brought fruits and sweets, fruits and sweets… Gogol used to steal sweets; now he isn’t going near the fridge.
|— Throw them away. Give them to the domestic helpers.
— How much can I give?
— Then sit and eat them yourself. You love apples.
— Used to . Now I can’t bear them.
— Then do one thing. To hell with the fruits. When you’ll fry luchis for Mampi and Gogol, make some more for me. I’ve had my meal in the afternoon, I won’t eat anything now; rather have an early dinner….
— You will have luchi?
— So what? I’m not having beef.
— Yes, and let one of your relatives drop in, and the word will go around that Supti is feeding her husband luchis to celebrate her mother-in-law’s death.
— Who cares? Do we live on others? Abiding by the rules of purification depends entirely on one’s mental outlook. Even then, I am… still because Ma believed in all this… I find this wearing of the loincloth rather awkward.
— When you are abiding by them, do it properly. Just a few more days. When you could do so much for so many days, would you lose patience for two-four more days?
The doorbell was ringing. Continuously. Probably Mampi. She had rushed to the coaching after school, and has returned. As soon as Gogol opened the door, there was pandemonium, thumping sounds in the drawing-dining spaces. Gogol’s shouts resounded with Mampi’s laughter.
I frowned and asked — What are they about? Why is all this commotion?
— What else ! Gogol was watching the cartoon channel. Mampi must have snatched the remote from him.
Both had been somewhat subdued after Thamma’s death; now they were back to their usual selves. Gogol’s voice was rising to a soprano, along with Mampi’s giggles.
Irritated, Supti said — Wait, let me give them a slap or two. Such a big girl, just see how she behaves with a five years younger brother.
— Leave it, don’t say anything. Let some life return to the flat –I blurted out. Let the suffocation of the last few days dispel a bit.
Supti faintly said — These few days? Or twenty-five months?
And she became silent. I too was fumbling for words. The afternoon light had waned a long time back; still the dying light penetrated the closed door and windows. Oozing through.
Today was the day of breaking the rules of purification. Everything had turned out well.
Almost all the invitees came. Except two or three. Chandan and his wife got stuck at the last moment. Their baby was still on milk and was vomiting and passing stool from the morning. And Shantuda’s wife didn’t come either. She had her Santoshima or something on Fridays, and wasn’t supposed to eat out.
After the meal, there was an informal gathering. This topic, that topic, and so on. Ronida had nine pieces of fried Topshe fish today, Shantuda had fourteen rosogollas — Tushidi and Khukudi burst into laughter as they told us about the anguished look on the poor caterer’s face. And discussions about the food went on — who had seen a stringy chap gulping down eighty pieces of fish at whose place, who had finished off four pots of curd at whose house; on one occasion, the groom’s folks had consumed all the sweets by smearing them with salt, and so on. There were loads of stories about burning dead bodies in Shantuda’s store; he narrated a few with extensive details. And in the middle of this, Ma would be remembered in sudden fits, as on the day of the shradh. And at times, she would be lost in the noise and jesting. Perhaps such things happen. The dead person fades out somewhat, amidst the extravagance of the shradh ceremony. Sorrow, even when it exists, hardly gets the chance to manifest itself.
The company dispersed towards evening. People began to take leave one by one.
While departing, Khukudi’s husband said — Bablu, I think you must all go on a vacation for a few days somewhere. Khukudi said — Yes, you must go if possible. What a time you’ve had for Mashi… You ought to freshen up your mind and body.
It would be good if we could go. I was exhausted, what with the patient, illness, medicines and doctors. But how could we go just now? True, Ma was no more, but the debts were.
I replied with a gloomy face — Lets see. Let a few days pass.
There was a lot to do after the house became empty again. The sofa and tables had been pushed against the wall from the day before yesterday. Shantuda had , to some extent, dragged them in place before he left. Now, we shifted them to where they were earlier. The kitchen was heaped with leftovers; some of it were poured into little bowls and put in the fridge. The fish fries were left outside; will they get spoilt in winter? The floors too, were littered beyond description; it was quite a task, tidying them up once again. In the meantime, I settled the dues with the caterer. Chandan arrived at eight. Though initially hesitant, he stayed on for sometime and Supti made him have the leftovers from lunch.
At night however, I didn’t touch anything. Even Supti didn’t. The fishy smell hanging around was nauseating. Mampi and Gogol were too tired; Gogol was dozing from the evening. Both ate a bit with Chandan and dropped off to sleep.
Before going to bed, I was smoking on the sofa. The T.V was on. Sports channel. An exciting football match was on, probably Spanish League. I reduced the volume and stared at the screen; I wasn’t watching anything. My head felt cramped. What a hectic time I had the last few days.
Supti had gone to the children’s room to put up the mosquito net. She came and sat beside me. Her eyes remained fixed on the screen for a while.
Suddenly she sighed and said –The house seems so empty all of a sudden.
I couldn’t catch her words. Why empty? Because it had been so crowded for a few days?
Supti sighed again — in whatever condition she was in, Ma was with us.
— What does it matter to you; you will leave for office. Wonder how I’ll spend my time alone in the house.
— Khukudi was right. We should go somewhere. Not very far off, somewhere near; what do you say? Suppose Digha or Puri, or Ghatshila, Madhupur…
— I understand. But from where will the money come?
— Don’t turn yourself crazy thinking about money. Supti was silent for a second or two, and then began in a low voice — Ma’s expenses have decreased…. Besides, we are not going now; let Mampi’s and Gogol’s exams finish; let the summer vacations begin.
A goal was struck just at the moment. The black striker has taken off his jersey and is running around the field, exultant. The spectators were waving flags. Dancing. Blowing horns, beating drums in glee.
I pressed the remote and switched off the T.V. The inaudible sound was gone too. A strange silence has suddenly come down upon us. The fridge groaned in the dining space. The groans went on and abruptly stopped again.
Supti has stood up. Stifling a yawn, she asked — Won’t you go to sleep?
— You go, I’m coming.
Supti went two steps and came back,— I was thinking of something.
— You have office from Monday,… I was thinking of re-orienting the rooms by tomorrow and the day after.
— Mampi and Gogol fight whenever they are together. Can’t we get a separate study space for Mampi? Suppose in Ma’s room…
— Can Mampi stay alone in Ma’s room?
— Who’s speaking of staying alone? We can put in a table and chair and make it her study room.
— Can the table get in there?
— If we can take out some of Ma’s belongings from that room… say, Ma’s sewing machine, small meat-safe, that huge clothes-hanger… I have tidied it up a bit; if some more things…
— Ah Supti ! We are not even sure if the person has reached the other world…
Perhaps my voice sounded a bit harsh. Supti is startled. She spoke in a hurt voice — I didn’t think of it that way. Sorry.
— Its okay. We’ll see what can be done.
Still Supti stood with a gloomy face for a few seconds.
I lighted another cigarette. Stroking my shaven head. What did Supti say wrong? Really, Ma’s room won’t remain unoccupied forever; today or tomorrow, Mampi or Gogol will take over. They won’t be able to do it now, they’ll be scared. Let two-four months pass. After that, we can remove the bed and cupboard and get the walls painted. Let what Supti wants….
I had got up, still immersed in thought. I came to Ma’s door in slow steps. Still in thought, I put on the light.
Immediately my heart jumped. Ma was right in front of me !
No, not Ma. Ma’s picture.
On top of the shorter cupboard shone her framed photograph. It was covered with flowers the day before yesterday. Today there was only a single fat garland. Of rajanigandha. The flowers had wilted a bit, but still spread a light perfume around the room. There were incense ash and an extinguished lamp in front.
How peculiarly alive was the picture. It seemed as if it was looking directly at me.
I moved a bit. Amazing, Ma’s eyes moved too. I went right, left… Her eyes followed me ! I stood at the other end of the bed; her black pupils had reached me even there. I went beside the cupboard, even there….
Exactly those expressive eyes. Looking at me. Only me.
I felt queer. Desperately I tried to reason myself. This is only a picture. A photograph. Taken by me. Close up. On Mampi’s fifth birthday. Shantuda got it enlarged for the shradh since there was no current single photograph. We looked at it constantly for the last few days. All eyes would look the same if directly aimed at the lens….
No, this was my illusion.
I steadied myself and put off the light. I was coming out, suddenly there was a distinct call — Bablu…?
Ma’s voice ! Ma’s voice of course.
Was this an illusion too? My feet were glued to the ground. I asked as if hypnotized –What is it Ma? Will you say something?
The familiar voice seemed to waver — Forgive me Bablu. My death was not in my hands.
My whole frame shook. Would Ma become restless to just utter these words? Had Ma found me out?
I felt a terrible urge to weep. For the first time after Ma’s death.
Translated from Bengali by Naina Dey.
SUCHITRA BHATTACHARYA. One of the prominent Bengali women writers of recent times. Her stories focus on middle class Calcutta and discuss contemporary social issues, conflicts in family relationships, and changing values. Her widely appreciated novels include Dahana, Parabasa, Gabhira Asukha, and Kachera Manusha. Her collection of short stories Bukera Katha focuses solely on women’s issues. She has won many awards including Manjamagudu Tirumalamba Puraskar, Tarasankar Puraskar, Sahitya Setu Puraskar, and Katha Puraskar.
NAINA DEY. Teaches English at Maharaja Manindra Chandra College, Kolkata. Her publications include several translations as well as her own short stories in English.