Chronicles of a Life In Death Remembered

On the 20th April 2014, Sunday, at 11.30 pm my Jyathamoshai, known to all as Montu and to us as Jethu passed away in Chennai. Ma and I had just rushed in the last ten minutes of his being alive and watched him slowly breathe his life out into eternity. Jethu had once told me that the most painful episode in a human’s life was the drawing out of the last breath. I see Jethu’s breath grow calmer and shallower and as a small tear drop forms on the corner of his eye and drops off the edge of his cheeks, I know that he has lived through the most painful moment and breathed his last. Shubhradi, his daughter, a medicine wizard pronounces him dead, disconnects the life support system all of which she had placed right inside Jethu’s bedroom in her flat. Jethu had lain in a vegetative state for the past nine years waiting for the inevitable; he has been through highs and lows of failing pulses, liver and kidney infections and sometimes near cerebral strokes. Each time we have been informed by one or the other member of the family and quietly prayed for his pain to become more bearable. But this time was different because Shubhradi herself spoke and said that Jethu was in the penultimate hours of his life and so Ma and I rushed off in the evening flight to Chennai without a second thought. Some forty years ago, also aboard an evening flight to Chennai, then very much known as Madras, I had my first ever experience to fly in a plane while visiting Jethu’s home at Avadi.
Visitors had dropped by in large and small batches and many only knew of Jethu as being ill for a long time. Few who knew Jethu in his hey days were already dead and some of their children surviving with the memories of Jethu’s grand personality came in to accompany his corpse to his funeral. Jethu was the oldest boy in his generation of the Dasguptas and did something that no Dasgupta ever did; he joined the Indian Army as a soldier in his artillery. Jethu opted to be a gunner in command of tanks and companies, planning operations in the deserts of Sind and in the high mountains of Kargil and Ladakh. He travelled and lived almost all over the country and brought back his tales of long travels and varied adventures which we as children gulped down with gaping mouths and bulging eyes. These stories seem so different to me today for they appear to me not as war tales but fables of the human conditions, especially parables of morality and wisdom. Once Jethu narrated how he rather mercilessly punished some jawans of his own unit when they were caught stealing in the civilian homes in Pakistan; he had their heads shaven and tied them on to tree trunks and left them without a drop of water of drink for an entire day. He had very high standards for soldiers and how they would have to conduct themselves during war.
The army taught him many skills; how to tie different kinds of knots on a rope, what to do when food runs out, how to hunt in forests, how to burn meat with amloki and tamarind. He knew mountaineering, horse riding and could hang upside down on all fours and cross rivers and gorges. But what he knew best was to fire out of guns mounted atop large and heavy tanks which were very tricky to drive. He could drive a trawler and also a pithy scooter. On our way back from Tirupathi, Jethu’s car lost its brake; he steered it back down the sharp hairpin bends of the mountain. We came back late in the night, totally exhausted to a meal of baked beans, tinned ham, some toast and poached eggs. It was one of the best meals of my life.
Jethu never built his own home; he lost his parents, Dhirendranath and Usharani very early in age and lost his dwelling in Khulna to the Partition and thereafter he lost his home in every sense of the term. His siblings, the oldest being over ten years his junior were raised in homes of relatives and only when Jethu found a job with the Army and married Jethi that the orphans reunited into some semblance of a family. May be his sentiments never made him feel settled anywhere other than the house at Khulna and since he lost Khulna he never felt the need to return home ever. Jethu has always been a probashi, a man who lives away from home, an eternal traveller. But wherever he lived he made it his home. Everyone in our family used to say that Montu was a true family man; indeed to Jethi and Jethu the home has become a sacred grove. Even as Jethu lies in his last moments, Jethi becomes more concerned about our dinner and bath and bedding and clean towels. I feel the sense of a warm welcome even in the times of their deepest crisis.
Jethu would say to us that one must always be prepared to face any eventuality at any moment. I can see the calm with which Shubhradi, her husband, Sobujda and their daughter Sumedha go about anticipating and attending to every detail of arranging a funeral. Jethu insisted that we write things down and his home at Avadi was generously stacked with pens, pencil, pairs of scissors and notepads. Subhradi’s home is organized in a similar manner and on one of these notepads, I write down the list of things required for the rituals at the cremation. The members of the family change their night suits into formal clothes to face the day which has already begun by the midnight. Jethu would insist on the right gear for the right occasion and he was especially concerned about the footwear. We leave aside our leather shoes to put on our rubber sandals for soon the period of mourning would begin during which we must shun our leather footwear.
Jethu would say that the stroke of midnight is the sign of having fully lived the day. Jethu chooses the leave the world at midnight, insisting that he has fully lived his last Sunday. Many years ago when I was not yet ten years of age, Jethu had bought his ambassador car, and worked on it through the long hot day of summer. In the late evening he bathed and had his dinner with us in Kolkata and armed with some stuff to last him a day packed by my mother, Jethu set off close to night for Madras. As I try to visualise Jethu’s soul leaving the world, I somehow recall his drive through the night to Chennai. Physical strength and a robust health were among his blessings in life.
Jethu insisted that one must be physically strong, emotionally tough and intellectually sharp. He had all of these in equal and admirable measure. It was not only that he survived wars, being pressed down by a heap of dead bodies into a deep trench for days, or the desert campaigns in the heat and dust and without water, but Jethu’s mind and intellect was one to reckon with. He had a strange capability; he could research into anything and everything from washing clothes to analysing temple architecture. He had a deep fascination for the classical arts, myths and legends, ancient dynasties and wars. A keen photographer, he also had a photographic memory. He clicked for a renowned scholar of temple architecture. He remembered names of places, distances between cities and could rattle off effortlessly names of artists and players. He had a long list of friends and relatives; he never forgot a face or a name and effortlessly picked up conversations from where he last left them. Tonight we need to keep many things details in our head, the people to be informed, death certificate to be collected, the crematorium to be booked in advance for a slot in the gas incinerator.
He loved it when Jethi learnt her new recipes, or Shukladi joined the art college. He loved to contribute to Rajada’s thinking on his complex engineering problems and was forever excited with Subhradi’s diagnoses of challenging medical conditions. He was not the richest of parents that a child could have but he was the most enthusiastic of parents when it came to inspiring his children to learn and excel in their studies and interests. Jethu spared no effort to create his lovely home which had abundance but not ostentation and was well endowed with intellectual inspiration and emotional assurance. The idea of a home was more of a happy family than an extravagance of lifestyle. Jethi was his perfect mate in helping him materialize his utopia.
When Jethu was still his joyous and charming self, with his keenness for life and all that it had to offer, he pledged to donate his eyes. The donation took place duly within an hour of his last breath. Shubhradi had ordered for a freezer box in which Jethu’s body lay waiting Rajada’s arrival from France in the morning. Jethu had a fascination for freezer boxes; I remember the first time I ever saw a freezer box was in his car, a thermacol container with heaps of cubes. I loved the cold bottle of Fanta drawn out of it and drank so many of them that I vomited violently out of hyperacidity. Jethu also introduced me to the habit of chewing mouth freshners and to the particular seed whose name I never learnt. Whenever I reach out for a packet at a restaurant I always think of Jethu.
Long ago when I still measured my height in the range of 4 feet, Jethu had been to Kolkata on work. One morning of my summer holidays he drove Dadu, Baba and me to our farmhouse in Sonarpur. The day was just beginning to break and Jethu taught me to differentiate between the various states of light, Usha, Arun and Prabhat as the purple night transformed into the red dawn and finally to the golden sunrise. This morning, the morning after Jethu is no more, while driving back with Shukladi and Rajada in the car, I saw the various stages of the dawn as Jethu had taught me. During this visit he also taught me the yogic arch, or the chakrasana and said that were I to practice this pose everyday I would never end up with backache. My back is paining excruciatingly as I try to rest it against a sofa in the drawing room where his body now lies inside a freezer box and I regret not having listened to him.
Death comes with its own formalities; forms to be filled up, signatures to be taken and seals to be put and after that sheaves of photocopies to be made. Jethu was compulsive in his photocopies. Newspaper clippings, articles from journals, quotes copied out in his own neat handwriting, or sometimes just notes made out with headings and sub headings from a long list of bibliography. One set of papers was particularly interesting; it had portions cut out from photocopied materials, then pasted on to white sheets and then photocopied again. So attached was Jethu to his photocopies that he often handed out sets of papers to his house guests as return gifts! Jethi was exasperated at the thought that he spent so much of his money on photocopies and despaired that the photocopier could built substantial assets while Jethi and he would live out of rented flats.
Jethu was one for inculcating good habits. He taught his children to write neatly, dress smartly and to keep things organized. Good habits, he would say, should become instincts. There is a mind inside the mind, he told, a mind that works when the conscious mind works and Mithua, you should try to embed things inside the automatic and reflexive mind, he would tell me. I confess, I have not been able to inculcate good habits in my life except perhaps brushing my teeth twice a day. But all this while that Jethu lay without speech and cognition, I often used to think of what that excellent mind must have been thinking of. In the last few days before he sank into speechlessness Jethu and Jethi had been to our new flat in the Delhi suburb. He was thinking of how the water pipes were connected to our bathrooms and kitchen – such was his instinctive engineering mind.
Jethu always fascinated us with his engineering acumen. He could pull everything apart, reassemble with improvements. He repaired and renovated. When he had to teach Babbi Boudi and Sobujda, his daughter in law and son in law respectively, Jethu installed a dual control system in his car; I have never known of anyone who could do that. Indeed, it was his engineering talent that eventually made him into an engineer from a soldier when in the tank factory at Avadi, Jethu undertook the designs of one of Indian Army’s finest tanks and gun carriers used in the liberation of Bangladesh. In an appreciation of Jethu’s contribution to the design of the carrier of the Bofors gun, he was asked to name his progeny. Jethu called it as Vijayanta. When I asked him why not only Vijay, he said that he wanted Jayanta to appear as well because it was one of Arjuna’s many names. Jethu’s fascination for the Indian mythology was endearing.
My father is a great traveller and he would take us by car across the country. We took long drives from Kolkata to Delhi, sometimes to the hills of Nainital, or the forests of Ranthambhor. We went to Udaipur, Goa and Karnataka by road. On two such long drives, we touched Chennai; Jethu accompanied the four of our family on our trip down south. Jethu would call it the land of the Gods. Here we moved from temple to temple and Jethu with his bag packed with books would search out the temple legends and myths, draw out the lay out plans and also go out looking for chicken curry for lunch right in the vicinity of the holy arenas ! He loved his food and soon weight was a major issue. Jethi would scream at him, will you touch a 100 kilos? Jethu would in all earnest pursue the heights of obesity with enthusiasm. Mangoes and gur were his special weaknesses.
Jethu usually joked or sang when Jethi despaired with him and some songs like Kancha Re Kanchi Re or Dam Maro Dam are fixed as being songs of such moments in my mind. On our way to the crematorium I see road signs with arrows pointing towards the Poonamalle Highway; so many times we have been with Jethu on these highways and so many times we heard Jethu hum these tunes as Jethi would complaint sometimes of the putrid smell of stagnant water, or that he drove too fast. Jethu named his car as Saptarshi commemorating the seven soldiers who had died in ambush in the Indo-Pakistan war of 1967; they were his colleagues who lived on in his memory as stars in the infinite sky. Today, as we drive behind his hearse I sense that he too is joining his dead soldiers in a grand rally in the Milky Way.
Dadu would often tell Jethu, Montu come back to Kolkata and settle down here. But Jethu like some of the branches of our family never thought Kolkata as their home. In those days before Partition, East Bengalees looked down upon Calcutta as being a lesser Bengal and many of them settled everywhere else but in Kolkata. As the hearse van travels to Adyar Gate, Besant Nagar and I see the signage pointing out to Kalakshetra I remember how proud Jethu would be of Madras because of its high classical culture. He drove us down this place many times, showing us the Gandhi Ashram, the headquarters of the Theosophical Society and the Kalakshetra, the hub of every form of Indian classical arts. Jethu settled down in Madras because of its culture and not because of its facilities. He was the typical personality of Pierre Bourdieu’s imagination who pursued cultural wealth rather than material capital. Today when we think of cities as containing shopping malls, or flyovers or lakes and open spaces, high rise buildings promising a high life style, Jethu would choose his city according to its cultural wealth. His trips to Kolkata were packed with visits to the stage theatres; he was enamoured by Tripti Mitra and Shombhu Mitra and the Tagorean dance dramas. Jethi, Shubhradi and Shukladi participated actively in the dramas that Jethu so enthusiastically put up during the Durga Puja at the Bengali Association in Chennai. Jethu has not been the richest of parents; nor has he doled out prosperity to his children in the way many spoilt brats have got. But he leaves behind a cultural legacy of excellent minds and superior intellect and inspiring habits that make my cousins worthy of emulation and sometimes even subjects of envy.
There was the option of the cremation at Kilpauk but Shubhradi took the body at the Adyar Gate crematorium; perhaps this was Jethu’s favourite locality in the city. We had been here often, a drive through Besant Nagar, past the Ashtalakshmi temple and then onto the beach. I am walking carefully, heeding to Jethu’s tips that walking with rubber sandals on sand could give a bad footache. We are to immerse his ashes in the sea, on the same sea upon which the temples of the Pallavas were built around Mabaleswar and Kanchipuram. Every trip to Chennai was accompanied by a visit to these sites and we would come back to Jethu’s car with sand in our feet. I am desperately trying to get the sand out of my slippers, I don’t seem to remember how much of the grains would remain stuck to the wedge of my fingers and to the hem of my clothing.
We discuss the cremation back at home, with the details of how long Tamilians take to conclude their rituals. Then I surprise myself by rattling off a Bengali translation of the Sanskrit mantras which were uttered during the ceremony. My niece, Sumdeha is surprised how I followed so much of Sanskrit. I have no idea of it myself; I think that I have always found a lot of metal concentration and focus whenever I am around Jethu; I think that I must have focussed very well and at last reached what Jethu used to say, the mind within the mind.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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