Fifty years before now, my maternal grandfather, Saradindu Gupta built his house in New Alipore. He called his home Indulok, after the suffix that all the male members of the male side of the family bore. They were called Amalendu, Dibyendu, Nabendu, Soumyendu and so on. It was my mamabari and hence my space of utmost indulgence and leverage; I called it as the Palace of the Moon. It was a sprawling bungalow of about 8000 square feet on each of its two floors, a long train like servants quarters that had three rooms. The house also had patios, porches, balconies, verandahs, French windows, lawns, flower beds, kitchen gardens, pump house and a fountain!. It had large rooms, living rooms, a study room, an office room, formal dining area with brass grilled partitions that marked it out from the rest of the space, There was a pantry and a huge kitchen zone with a store, washing area, a family dining room with an attached toilet and a veritable fireplace in the ostentatious drawing rooms, one in each floor. On the drawing room of the ground floor was a piano forte that my very musical aunts and uncles played. The house had two sets of staircases, a smaller one at the rear wing and in the front a wide one that curved down into a reception area over which hung a chandelier. There were built in woodwork in the rooms, almirahs with sliding panels in the bathrooms, glass panes in the windows, concealed lights, and plaster of Paris coats on walls and rich designs on the ceiling. Sometimes the house had as many as thirty members in it, waking up, sleeping off, eating, bathing, studying, going to work, playing, singing, dancing, partying or just chatting or telling stories to children. In this house, every space contained Dida, my mother’s mother, who was exactly 50 years of age, my present age when she became the sole mistress of this estate.
It is interesting that I should associate Indulok so much with Dida when it had all my cousins, Bachi and Bulimashi, with manis and mamas in it. I hardly spoke to Dida and she to me. She picked me up from my home in Dover Lane on Saturday mornings on her way back to New Alipore from Gariahat market, her weekly chore. That was the only time I looked forward to her. Through the drive back to New Alipore, she and I hardly spoke. I was not afraid of her, because I knew that she would never raise her voice with me, but I knew all along that she and I had no common interest. Yet, every frame of Indulok, whenever scenes from those years flash past me, has Dida in it. Dadu sold off Indulok after Dida died; the house was too much hers to have a life of its own without her. Indulok could possibly have no memories without Dida being the centre of those.
I see Dida in the kitchen, organizing meals, I see her serving us food in the dining room, I see her bringing in the caramelled doi from the fridge, pounding chhana for her sandesh, stirring soufflé, laying out paan, mashing kuls for pickles, cleaning prawn for malai kaari and blowing into hot milk to bring it to the right temperature where I could drink it. I see her winding up after a very long day’s work, shutting one door after the other as she walked the long corridors, with her paan in hand, retiring to her bedroom with the large bunch of keys clanking heavily. I see her in the evening, doing aaroti in her very large and thoroughly untidy room. When we would go for the pujos to Nirole, Dida would be the most visible and omnipresent person in the kitchen and in the mandir. What my mother and aunts do together, Dida would do it all by herself and run things so smoothly that no one ever had to lift a finger. She had an enormous capacity for work, almost like the genie, definitely not normal, and in fact downright eerily supernatural.
She was a small woman, petite and light, almost thin and we all wondered whether she had a wound from slinging that heavy metal of the keys over her shoulders with the aanchal of her saari. She wore her saari draped and not pleated; she had a huge family to look after and hardly ever had the time to look after herself. I suspect that she never combed her hair; she oiled it well and the natural fall made it appear well-groomed. But that was all. She never wore ornaments and only two thin bangles perhaps as a sign of her husband being alive hung limply on her. When in the penultimate years of her life she fractured her wrist, the bangles had to be cut out. That was it, the bangles put on her wrists before the aeons of time had no other reason to return to her when the plaster was taken off. Her cupboards were stuffed with expensive saris that she got as gifts from her children and her bank lockers had ornaments that only a few can ever have. But she remained unattached and indifferent to all her possessions. If she valued anything at all then they were old saris which she could recycle as bandages and the borders that were useful in setting up mosquito nets.
Dida worked as though everyday was the last day of her life. She knew everything; cooking, removing stain from cloth, ironing woolen suits and silk sarees, stitching, darning, tying bandages, dressing wounds, opening locks, fixing plugs, tying immersion rods, tuning in radios, baking, roasting, grilling, garnishing and decorating food trays. She did tire herself out, she fell down from the steps of Kamakhya Mandir in Nirole out of sheer exhaustion and the soles of her feet were punched by hard corns and stiff calluses. But she went on, like a woman condemned doing so, as if like the mythical Sisyphus she was carrying out a sentence. When she had her hysterectomy, she soon had hernia because in a family as large as the one she always had, there was never any rest for her. The only story she ever told me on one of our journeys to New Alipore in the wide black Dodge with its immaculate white seats was that of Sindbad the sailor and of that man who was cursed to forever ferry people from one end of the river to another and never had a chance to free himself. I was only seven years of age then, but I remember clearly that I thought to myself for a long time that morning why Dida ever told me that story.
I often heard my manis cringe at why Dida never delegated her powers to any of her daughters-in-law. She kept everything well under her control never wanting to share that control. I used to think of her as being power hungry, somewhat like Indira Gandhi, both born in the month of November, both Scorpions, as I learnt from Mejomani. But somewhere the picture did not seem right. I think that Dida had no idea of power, far less she thought of herself as the boss. She was a worker, who worked to earn herself an existence. She belonged to a family of all girls, her father having died very early and with that one catastrophe in her life, she was relegated into the category of being a burden. She knew that she had to work very hard in order to be fed and in that way, she considered herself a mere worker and not the mistress of one of the largest houses in the City of Palaces. I think that my mother has inherited this mentality because even at the age of seventy, she imagines that she has always to perform to earn her lunch. Dida was the first one from whom I heard the phrase, albeit in Bengali, that there are no free lunches.
She had some strange anxieties. There was large mezannine over a garage that could contain four cars and this mezannine was used up to stock potato and onions. Dida had a fear of the famines and wars, when food could run out. We used to laugh at her not realizing that she had seen the Bengal Famine, the Partition, two world wars, and when Dadu was once posted in the Afghanistan border she knew of snows on the Hindukush mountains that could cut off supplies for days together. And then, perhaps, just my fancy, she may have also known hunger herself as a wife and mother who had to eat only after a large family was properly fed.
Dadu and Dida had been to England. So did Boromama and Boromani. But among them, Dida was the one who told me of the escalator and the departmental store, the first time I ever heard of them. She told me of the Sanjha Chula, also the first time ever I heard of this evening culture of Punjab. These were sudden sentences that she would blurt out while sipping hastily through her evening tea which she poured out from the cup to the saucer to cool it off. She never had the time for leisure because of the enormous load of housework in a family that always seem only to grow through marriages and birth of children.
Dida had huge doses of nervous energy. She hardly ever rested, and I suspect she thought that resting would be a waste of time. So even when she would lie down for an hour after having been on her feet already for eight hours since the six in the morning, she would listen to dramas on the radio. She was also a voracious reader; the one thing I never saw her without is a book, or a magazine, or a newspaper. She read novels, short stories, and even poetry; often whatever she could lay her hand on. She read only Bengali; I was so surprised to learn from my mother when I was still a child that she knew no English because at that age I assumed that everyone goes to English medium schools. That was the only time I ever learnt of Dida’s life, as a living instance of a girl taken away from school and hastily married off in order to be reduced as a burden to her family after she lost her father. Dida, I suspect always thought of herself as a burden and the way she worked like a hag was to plead to all of us that after all she had a use for us and a reason to be sheltered.
Despite her huge presence in the house, Dida was a closed person. I never really knew her; I never knew what she liked and what she did not. She cooked much but ate very little, guilty always of her existence; she took from the world only that was barely essential. But of her preferences, the colours she liked, the songs she would like to hear, the books she would like to read and the places to would want to visit remain unknown to me. She was a workaholic and had an enormous capacity to focus on the job at hand; this is why she could manage a household of thirty members as though there were only three! But while she was into all of this physically, her soul was away somewhere, in a world of her own, a world that memories of only a few snatches of conversation made me construct much later. My mother tells me that she loved our home in Dover Lane because it was small and manageable; where the family was small enough to sit and have leisurely chats into the late hours after dinner. Dida once spoke fondly of her sister and her husband, an elderly couple who retired to Puri and how happy they were because they just had each other and spent time playing cards. I thought that Dida secretly hoped for a small family, where members lived closely with one another, with more time for each other and indeed less of drudgery.
I connect this what Boromani used to say of Dida and which is that Dida came from a family of ICS incumbents and actually she was from the creamiest of creamy layers of the society, fallen into bad times after her father died while she still was a child. The aristocratic education and the high society that would have been hers were denied to her by cruel fate. The large family ethos was more from Dadu’s world in rural Bengal, where more number of children mean greater prosperity. Dida came from the urbanized sophisticated background, where intimate relations in marriage and small but tightly bonded family were preferred. I think that it was Dida who brought in the “blue blood” of Indulok and raised her children to such heights; for she and not Dadu had the ethos of high society and high culture and knew of worlds of success and social status.
Ma tells me that Dida was a sensitive person, often like Bachi, Bulimashi and herself given to shedding tears in silence. Interestingly, I never saw Dida cry, not even when Bachi married and went away and Bulimashi went abroad after her wedding. I never saw her cry when her sisters passed away; she never cried when Pintu mama died so young. But once I did see her eyes glisten and go moist and that was when Boromama left Indulok to move to Jodhpur Park. Dida stood there with her hand on Nondini’s head as she caressed her and when she bade them farewell, I did see her fight her tears back. I never saw Dida attached to anyone or anything, the nights she stayed up for people, her nursing of the sick, her attending of the indisposed were done so much with a cold efficiency that she could well be a dedicated nurse. But on that day, I felt that among all of us, it was Nondini that she loved so dear; it was her leaving home that finally punched her heart. Dida never displayed any affection openly, but in my mind I thought that this was the only child who she cared for so much that she risked some expression.
When Dida died, strangely I was not sad. I was sad for my mother and her siblings, but personally Dida and I had little emotional bonds. Besides I remembered her telling me of a fantasy she often had one evening when we were visiting New Alipore that she would like to be in a vehicle, a train, a bus, or a car, anything that would just drive on through the cities, fields, mountains, and deserts and along the rivers and seas and which would never stop anywhere. This was much of what she was in her own life, always going on and never stopping; but in her death I could feel her live her secret life of a traveler who never would have to get off anywhere.