Dadu, my father’s father died on this day, i.e the 13th of August in 1976. This is thirty five years before now. I think that with every passing year, his presence just grows on the family; each year Dadu seems to actually become more alive.
My father being the only child of his parents, our small nuclear family was essentially very close knit. And my father being an only child in the days when families often would be large attracted a strange kind of attention from his parents who I called respectively as Dadu and Thama. This attention was a curious mixture of minute monitoring, compulsive control and obsessive affection. My father had to be protected from everything in the world and in order that the world would never rise to disturb father, that world needed to be controlled as well. Hence Thama and Dadu extended their parenting to the world at large. Servants, drivers, washerman, garbage collectors, office peons and assistants, kins people and friends, neighbours and the family doctor and his family, income tax accountant and his family and friends were all subjected therefore to this kind of obsessive affection which was actually a covert form of control and monitoring. When mother married into the family and when I was born, we were both subjected and subjugated to this kind of affectionate panoptic and disciplining control. My brother Pam four and a half years younger to me was partially a recipient of such regimentation.
Our home was run like a corporation. Menus were fixed; begun pora on Wednesdays, Keema cutlet on Fridays, bread pudding, custard, (I forget which days). Timetables were set tight and calendars followed for winter and summer makeover when fans would be tied with newspaper, or unwrapped and oiled and window panes shut or open depending which season we were getting prepared for. Notebooks and files were maintained for everything, there was a system of regular paper clippings with scissors and bowls of “lei” especially when Byomkesh Bakshi’s Benisanhar was published weekly in the Sunday edition of Anandabazar. Bookcases were dusted, geysers repaired, electrical switches changed with the routine of an office.
As a child, strangely, I felt quite reassured with such all encompassing and all enclosing affection. My fierce autonomy that I developed later was not so much of an independence of the spirit as it was a refusal to acknowledge anyone else’s authority upon me other than those of Thama and Dadu. My parents and we were more like siblings under the ferocity of love from my grandparents. When Thama died in 1967 and Dadu crashed emotionally, one of the ways he coped with his situation was to become even more obsessive about everyone around us. My tutor Dola Aunty, our family friend Madhuri Mashi, Dadu’s driver Srikanta, his barber Ram, the family compounder Barunbabu, the fishmonger in Gariahat market, the scrap collector, Jalil, all came into the ambit of Dadu’s concern. None of us were allowed to catch colds, develop coughs, get fevers and fall sick; everyone’s well being was of utmost importance to Dadu. He was a man with a strange recognition of mutual interdependence; he was imperial and he knew that an Empire could not run well without everyone of us being in states of perfect health and happiness. His deep and honest desire for everyone’s happiness emanated from a much larger understanding that viruses of sorrow can be very contagious; the world needs to be generally happy in sum if it has to guarantee an individual’s happiness. He firmly believed in a perfect world and he also imagined that he had the power to make it that way. But all of that needed a huge mental energy that manifested itself in a state of nervous excitement that was Dadu’s usual state of being.
After his retirement from Calcutta University, Dadu was the curator or Victoria Memorial. He often chased lovers on its grounds insisting that they come inside and visit the galleries; he repeatedly declined Lady Ranu’s requests that the building be lighted for he feared that a short circuit could burn the precious museum down and on evenings and nights of heavy shower and norwesters, Dadu convinced himself that the windows of the Central Hall were not closed properly. Mr Nair, the museum’s resident manager would be woken up in the middle of the night on the very few occasions when the telephone was working and insisted that he open all those tall and heavy doors with torch in one hand and inspect whether each and every window is properly sealed shut. Those were the days of high Naxalism and Dadu too was gheraoed once. But he chatted so much with the rebels, became worried that a few among them would be dehydrated and organized tea and shingaras out of the Victoria Memorial Canteen that the belligerent boys soon forgot all about the gherao and became involved in the beauty of the cannas around the ponds.
Dadu tried to cultivate my mind. I was to see museums, read biographies of famous men, learn about epics, read fables, watch puppet theatre and learn Rabindrasangeet. I had little interest in the above list. Dadu soon discovered sworn enemies in Enid Blyton, Kiriti Roy, Tenida and even at a point of time decided that Bankimchandra and Sarat Chandra were not all that noble. I was also growing fond of classical music. I started reading Soviet authors late into the night. I decided to flee into what was Thama and Dadu’s bedroom now lying vacant because Dadu could not bear the loneliness of Thama no longer being with him. It is here that I cultivated my mind quietly and surreptitiously and used those as arsenals to challenge Dadu in his opinions on history and politics. Dadu was anti democracy, which he termed as ochlocracy and he was very far from being a socialist. Dadu had been a student and a teacher of history in Presidency College before he joined as an administrator of Calcutta University. I loved to argue out themes in history and culture with him. When in a recent academic debate some scholars asked me where I knew of the various religious sects who were neither Hindu nor Muslim such as the Nirmohi Akhra, I realized that I learnt so much just by arguing with Dadu across the dining table. He was also very Westernized having being brought up in a pucca sahib family of his own father. He was never comfortable eating with his fingers and it was here that I loved to surprise him by showing how well I could debone a piece of Ilish peti.
None of us quite realized that behind Dadu’s hypertensive existence there laid an emptiness that gnawed at him day and night. So Dadu being Dadu decided that he needed something to look forward to. Soon he found one, his own death. The prospect of death now inspired a new meaning into his life. We had a family astrologer who Dadu consulted for everything, from whether I would pass in my maths, whether my cough will be diagnosed as tuberculosis or pneumonia, whether Boromani would survive her heart ailment and so on. One Sunday, Dadu returned from the astrologer cheerfully. By this time, Ma learnt driving and got Srikanta, Dadu’s driver sacked and drove him around instead. Dadu, who would always be agitated at the traffic while Ma negotiated the same at her own level of comfort, seemed, on his way back to be surprisingly calm and relaxed. Instead of a sweaty forehead wrinkled up with worry, Dadu walked contended into the house announcing that the astrologer predicted that he has only this very month to live. It was early July and the sky had been overcast for the entire week that year.
He suffered from prostate problems and decided that he needed a surgery. He also decided that he would never return alive from his operation. With him gone, he also anticipated that we would all be left rudderless and the home would crash. So he decided to do a final makeover. For that entire month, it was a preparation for a grand event. Cracks were repaired, electric cables overhauled, window panes cracked from crashing cricket balls replaced, the car was serviced, a new battery was put, dues to everyone cleared, a pair of gold bangles were made for me as a gift for my wedding that Dadu would not live to see. On Sundays of July, Ma would drive Dadu to visit every relative; Dadu would come and tick names off the list, a list that he called as a goodbye list. As soon as the visitations were done, Dadu called me to help him tear apart a pile of papers, letters, cards, appeals, complaints and so on. Now, he said satisfactorily, you can use my drawer for your notes. What about your things Dadu I asked; he said, no I will never be needing these things. He also told me to go ahead and use his soap cases and towels after he was gone. I laughed my heart out at his jokes.
Dadu called a meeting of close relatives, all women. Among them were Dola Aunty, Madhuri Mashi and Sovathama. He showed them a drawer in which lay washed, pressed and ribbed his silk dhuti and Punjabi set. Put these on me, he told them, when I die. Please comb my hair, put my false teeth and set my glasses. He was certain that we will cry so much that we will not be mindful of such details and hence relatives who would be firmer would be in charge of dressing his corpse. He approved the flower decoration of his hearse van, the design of the chandan on his forehead and reminded that the Yardley perfume be put on him. Having done all that, he booked his room in the nursing home, packed his bags neatly, packed also some biscuits, and sat back to have his last cup of tea at home. I was going to school then and wished him all the best. He suddenly clapped his forehead and pointed despondently at the radio, this, he said, I forgot to repair it. Now it will only be junk because none of you will ever get it repaired. Dadu never trusted us to ever behave like responsible adults.
Dadu died on his operation table of bleeding that could not be controlled. Baba was with him in the end, held his hand in the OT till he passed away. Ma, a very strong nerved woman really broke down. Her older sister who I call Bachi arranged for the hearse van and the flowers. The others arrived; Sova Thama dressed and clothed Dadu. Nomami and Chhotomami helped around efficiently. Dida came and stayed the night with all of us. Dr Pal, our neighbor informed the press and the radio and I think Boromama arranged for an announcement in the newspapers. Throughout the mourning period, our large extended family came in all the time, paying their respects to the oldest among them, brought flowers just as Dadu liked them. The house always smelt of fresh fragrance and perfumed incense. People, unknown to us dropped in, they heard it on the radio, or read the obituary, they would say, for Dr A.P Dasgupta as the world knew him, was a hugely popular man in his professional world and officialdom, known for his concern, love, affection, worry for everyone’s well-being, just the way he was with his own family. The stream of visitors continued well into the days to come, remembering a man who tried to hold everyone he ever met as his very own.
P.S We never got around to repair the radio; many years later I threw it off as junk.