For me 16th November is the death anniversary of Thama, my father’s mother, known to the rest of the world as Nihar Dasgupta nee Gupta. Thama died after being in a deep coma for three days as her organs started to fail and she progressively slouched into a deep slumber as her life slowly left her. I was only seven years old then and Pam, my brother just over two years. Both of us were shunted out to my mother’s home in New Alipore to get out of the way of the adults as Thama’s condition started to get critical. I never realized the consequences of illnesses and always welcomed when Thama would fall ill and I would have a chance to be evacuated to my mamabari. So when Ma came and packed Pam and my things in a bag saying to me that this time round the stay might be longer, I could only be happy. But Pam, I remember felt bad at leaving Thama behind and stood at the foot of her bed repeatedly calling out to her his goodbye. Only when Thama barely opened her eyes and nodded in acknowledgment did Pam move away.
When I was having dinner on the evening of the 16th November in New Alipore, no one told me that Thama had died late in the afternoon on that day. I was surprised however to find that none among my seven cousins who lived there shared the table at dinner. They were all removed from my vicinity lest they blurt out the news of the death to me. Bachi and Nomama were the two persons who were with me as I tore the rotis to dip into my daal. Dida was serving me the food. Bachi was staying back to look after Pam and I while Nomama was holding fort to take care of the children while all the adults were at Dover Lane, our house. Everything was cleverly arranged to keep me uninformed of the loss. However, in the following morning Tutun found a way to break the news to me. She insisted that I call Dadu up and ask his permission to extend my stay at New Alipore and just to please him with excellent manners, I was to ask how Thama was. When I dialed up home, Dadu answered the phone. He agreed immediately to me staying on in New Alipore and sounded very relaxed and casual, so unlike him. Then I asked about Thama and he said that she was fully recovered and was doing very well indeed. Her back ache, the swelling in her feet, the bedsore, were all gone !! It sounded unrealistically good for me and it was then that I sensed something to be very very wrong. I spoke to Dida saying that I wanted to return back immediately and when Dadu, my maternal grandfather returned from work, I insisted that I be sent to Dover Lane. He agreed and as soon as I finished packing Pam’s and my things into our bag, Bachi who was just back from office escorted us back home.
I reached home to find the main door ajar and lots of people moving about in the house. All the lights were on belying the usual economy in using electricity; I could hear some voices singing songs, fragrance of flowers and incense filled the air. Everything looked so different and unusual in the house. I ran upstairs to look for Thama but I found her room empty. Her bed looked nicely tidied up with a framed photo of hers in her brilliant flashy smile that would light up her eyes, resting against her pillows with fresh covers on them and a thick sweet smelling garland of white flowers. What happened to Thama, I asked totally puzzled. All of a sudden Ma emerged out of the milieu of people moving around, talking among themselves in low voices. She took me aside and sat me down on the steps of our staircase. Then Ma told me of the grand spectacle I missed. Thama was suffering and so God wished to relieve her. There descended a fairy just like in Cinderalla in a beautiful glass carriage full of flowers. With a magic wand she dressed up Thama in a lovely sari, garlands, perfumes and jewellery and then as sweet music played and fireworks went off, the fairy lifted her up to the sky and flew away spreading lights as they went. 16th November that year was Guru Govind’s Birth Anniversary and due to some Sikh families and a Gurudwara in our locality celebrations were on with shabad, lights and fireworks. The glass carriage of Cinderalla in my mother’s story was the hearse van. Ma made death appear to me like a fairy tale and even till this day I have felt sad when people die but never have been able to look upon death as anything but beautiful. Thama’s death is always a beautiful event in my life, a day to remember; just the way my mother described it to me. 16th November is a day when fairies came to our house.
Thama lived life kingsize. She was a celebrity, a socialite. She had a brilliant mind, Calcutta University Gold Medallist twice over, a witty, intelligent and an endearing conversationist who had no qualms about snubbing those who could not match up to her brilliance. She knew how to save money and yet maintain a standard of life that had holidays, restaurants, theatres, film shows and parties. She was a keen investor and believed in building assets. She had a great foresight in terms of how human beings would turn out, the mistakes servants could make, when water could run out, when land prices and gold rates would rise, who had the potential to succeed and whose business could fall into penury. She came from a modest social background but had friends in very high places; she was socially sought because of her sharp mind, sharper wit and her lashing tongue. She was intolerant of mediocrity, very exacting in her standards, ruthlessly organized and merciless of the careless. But despite her high spirits and arrogance, she was always fatigued, a trait that I seem to have inherited. She never worked because she could not manage a home and profession; I never married because of the same reason. In her times, Thama chose marriage over profession; in my times I chose my work over home. Physical fatigue seem to have capped capabilities in both our cases.
When I was born, as it is customary to gift gold to grandchildren, Thama gave me a golden crown ! She pushed me to be worthy of it and while she was around, I excelled in anything that I did. She knew how to get there and be there. A little while after she married my grandfather’s family fell into bad times. They were driven out of their homes which English interior designers had done up because their father died without having saved enough for lavish lifestyles. And soon in the Mallik Bazaar area, there was yet another family of the fallen Mughals, the Dasguptas. Thama’s pragmatism lifted Dadu up from this vortex of unpreparedness to face a life in cramped small apartment homes. She built brick by brick stability in finances, goaded Baba to study and perform well and supported Dadu like a rock in his career. She was very good at socializing and her social contacts and popularity along with her foresight in material affairs saw my grandfather find his feet again. Thama’s concerns for my studies, my well being, and my health gave me a hard time and I never felt myself free under her watchful gaze. No wonder then my sojourns into New Alipore were such escapes for me. But I never resented her; even as a child I could feel through her panoptic disciplinarian ways, her obsessive love for me. I loved being loved so intensely by her. After Thama died, my academic and extracurricular performances dipped, our family no longer felt pushed into any kind of achievement, relaxed and slopped off.
Thama used to be often irritable and even angry. She was sensitive to disorder, of things not being quite within her control. What rattled her most were people falling ill. Baba could never afford to injure himself as a child, because Thama would get upset; I used to run the entire length of the house to sneeze so that Thama would not catch me having a cold. She hated mundane things bothering her and illness used to be one such dispensable affair. She would spend time for herself, sitting in the sun by the window on the south writing letters to her woman friends, laughing while she wrote out her quintessentially witty lines. She was meticulous and systematic; everything had their place, all papers filed neatly, all clips kept firmly in their places and her fashion accessories that consisted of bags, slippers, parasols, jewellery, brooches and gem studded hair pins were immaculately stored alongside her saris. She had friends in Sri Lanka and Burma and good things were abundant in her possessions. She was a very fashionable woman, dressed ahead of her times, smelt good with expensive perfumes and the gajras of beliphool that she loved so dear. Unlike my paternal grandfather’s family, Thama was not westernized. She was a Bengali bhadralok, starched cotton saris, Bengali cuisine, Bengali literature, Bengali music and Bengali drama. She was even a bit contemptuous of the Brahmo culture that so marked the Dasguptas.
One day I sat with Ma and both of us were watching the monsoon clouds that were heavy with moisture slowly shed rain and become light enough to drift again. Ma said that when humans die souls mingle with God just like water evaporates into the clouds. Then it rains and in that rain one could no longer find that drop of water that had evaporated into the cloud. I was disappointed at my prospect of not finding Thama in her rebirth. Slowly as I am growin old, I am becoming more and more like her. I have a similar knack for intuiting about things to come, a similar agitation about my home and family getting unsettled, about people not performing well, the same irritation with silly clerks behind desks, the same way of keeping my spaces well organized, the same hyperactive mind but the phelgmatic and fatigued body with a tendency to tire out soon from physical exhaustion. I have the same way of sitting by the sun and writing notes for friends in the facebook. I think that the large cloud that contained Thama has sometimes rained on me.