Na Mama, Na being pronounced as in naughty, a name for the fourth born in a family, implied something very specific when he said that he was seeing someone off. He used the term see off to mean one who is off abroad aboard a plane, or taking an aircraft to go on some official duty. In those days, travelling by plane was not within easy reach of one’s pocket and when one took a plane it meant that she would either be flying abroad or going on some work of a great deal of importance. Such people, the successful ones, the chosen ones, Na Mama would see off. The others, if one went from Kolkata to Patna, or to Deoghar, s/he would deserve only to be “put on the train”. Na Mama was my mother’s fourth brother.
Born in the early 1930’s, he belonged to a generation that took the projected dream of India’s Freedom very seriously; believed in modernity led by technology, economic growth led by enterprise and corporations, and sincerely believed that India’s sovereignty also meant a sovereign public sphere where equal opportunities awaited anyone who had the talent to cash on it. He also believed, far ahead of his times, that the middle class was meant to become prosperous, catch up standards of the richest of rich and that every honest bhadralok had a right to the finest quality of life. While he lived, he constantly fought to establish such beliefs as the truth. Na Mama believed in sudden turn of fortune, spectacles in everyday life, drama in even the most unpromising situations and had an unyielding optimism. His was a world of the saxophone and the band, of flood lights and glitter, of ornaments and livery, of grand cars and huge sofas. In many ways, he was my mother’s family’s dreamer.
His discerning tastes were literally put to use when he was employed by a global tea auction company to be a tea taster on board. We listened with wide eyes and gaping mouths stories about how tea tasters put benchmark prices to be auctioned at the Calcutta and London markets. It was for one such assignment that he once spent a few months in England; returned and then told us all about moving staircases known as escalators. My mother tells me that this trip was before he was married and how he saved up every penny to get presents for everybody except himself. In all the Marks and Spencers he shopped in, he did not buy anything for himself. He was a team man, who knew how to put everybody else’s interests before his.
In many ways he could see far ahead of his times, nurturing fantastic schemes for business. He quit his job and joined a business in Nepal that blended and packaged tea to be put up in the retail stores of supermarkets. But the tea business collapsed worldwide, auctions crashed and spot markets replaced benchmark prices, something for which Na Mama used his tea tasting skills. The world rendered him redundant. This was a trough from which as long as I kept track of him, he did not seem to recover.
As a child, Na Mama wanted to create fairy tales for us. He seemed to be the one to have seen it all, done those things. He took us on trams, on minibuses when they first came, he took me to my first ever circus; he always bought the latest fire crackers, went to Circarama, installed one of the first television sets when the telly came to Kolkata.He had magicians and ventriloquists to entertain us at home when we gathered for his children’s parties. Once he also organized a puppet show by placing sets in the lobby of Indulok. My mother’s was a joint family with as many as ten children living under the same roof. Na Mama ordered and designed cakes from Flury’s shaped like a motor car, or a ship or a circus arena, and sometimes a pink and mauve Doll’s house. He introduced me to marzapine and the stick jaw, the latter was to help me chew and take a loose milk tooth out.
A joint family has a way of creating some trouble shooters; Na Mama and Chhotomama being the two youngest of the five brothers were floor managers for the large family. They would coordinate how children would spend their holidays; the hobby classes they would attend, make lists for the family’s Durga Puja paraphernalia, organize feasts, manage events such as weddings, and if need be beat up thieves who dared to step into the kitchen garden darkened by long shadows of the papaya trees. They took the elderly to the hospitals and call doctors when children fell ill. In many ways they were the pillars of the large household known as Indulok.
My special interaction with Na Mama was in the stories he told me; he could narrate a story with sound effects so vividly that I got a feeling as if I was watching a film. My Ghanadas, Motadas, Bantul The Great, Hnada Bhnoda and Nonte Fonte were heard from him. He could describe in minute dramatic details the football match he saw, or the catch Solkar took the fine bowling by Chris Old. He had a fantastic memory, never forgetting even the most insignificant detail he heard. He had a great ear for music, an eye for art especially sculpture, knew how to make images by pressing aluminum foil, to fold colour paper into shapes of animals. He decorated the Goddess during Saraswati Puja, designed the lighting when his youngest sister got married.
But these were merely the tip of the iceberg; for Na Mama lived in his own world of enormous dreams; he loved success, spectacles, splendor. It is not that he had ambitions for himself alone; he imagined the moon for everyone else as well. But dreams do not go well with hardnosed middle class families where adventure is discouraged, risks avoided. Most of his ventures did not succeed because he had little idea that not talent but access to capital was the crucial factor in business and that access to funds was not something that the Bengali middle class in a Marwari dominated capitalist set up was ever likely to have. He then became the loser of the family; a category that the middle class disparages and fears. Rather than help him secure his finance, the family harshly criticized him for dreaming big. The more he failed, the harsher the family became towards him; he was emotionally harassed and ragged for being a loser, for not being like the rest. He never accepted his defeat, continued to be a defiant dreamer and on this high pitched ego battle, it became very difficult for him to go on. In the wee hours of one morning, he left home with his wife, his children being already away in other continents, without leaving behind a contact address.
I met Na Mama and Na Mami many years later when my mother located their address. They were then both much older and did not keep well. The children and grand children were both away and we politely inquired about them. Na Mami cooked some Murg Massalam, a dish she had perfected and this she did despite her extreme ill health. Both came when my maternal grandfather passed away, performing their duty, chatting dispassionately on neutral issues like cricket, cars, vegetables and fruits. He was, I observed, no longer interested in interacting with the family as family. I let them be, in their privacy, away from the competitive pressure of the Hindu Joint Family that needed one always to fall in line.
On the occasion of my 50th birthday when I sent each of the adults who mattered to me while I was a child, thank you notes. I composed one for him and did not know how to reach it to him. For then he had already shifted home again; somehow, through a long winded process I located his email and wrote to him. He was happy to have talked to me but did not wish to restring the thread of the family again; I knew that his interaction with all of us had become detached.
Last Sunday, my cousin called me up to say that someone quite unknown to him had sent a message in his facebook informing the family that Na Mama (his Na Jethu) had taken seriously ill. There were some phone numbers where he called to learn that it had been over an hour when Na Mama lay dead in a hospital that required a blood relative to come and claim the body. It seems that he died at an ATM while withdrawing money; it was a massive cerebral stroke. He was always the one to take people to the hospitals, but when it was his turn, he fell all alone. Since the police had recovered the body they wanted someone from the family to come; this is how, through facebook, we got to know that he had died.
When the members of my mother’s family visited Na Mama’s flat in Rajarhat, they were astounded at the plush of the apartment. His neighbours were most obliging, he was enormously popular, he was the President of the Durga Puja Committee. He always liked high class living, with cooks and nurses to help out; he liked socializing and he loved the Durga Puja. His strained relations with the family, their insistence on selling land in the ancestral village where they had a Durga temple had also estranged him from the annual celebrations which he loved so dearly. He used to take the cinema to the village, set up massive generators to put up lights, introduced taasha bands at immersion processions. I was happy that he had taken upon himself to manage a Durga Puja at his apartment complex. The concluding chapter of his life ensured that he got his kind of life style that he always aspired for, achieved sometimes but lost most of the times. Though his dreams shattered time and again, he fell into penury and managed to emerge out of it all on his own efforts, all did end very well. The net conclusion- his was a successful life. My brother said that he would be there for the cremation and I instinctively told him, yes, it is important that his nephews should “see him off”. Death is a “send off”, a “see off” for Na Mama, for like life, his death should also be an adventure.
I have been the one to usually convey any news of death in the family to my cousins. Never before now have I sensed such nervousness with which news of Na Mama’s death has been listened to. I think though he was away from home a good twenty years before now, yet there is a recognition that a load bearing pillar of the family has been struck down.