Autumn Without Mashi

My mother has an older and a younger sister of her own and yet she was the only one who I called Mashi; no proper noun as a prefix which I usually have for my mother’s friends. Just Mashi. Plain and simple Mashi. I have no idea when it was in the haze of my childhood days that Mashi and Ma became friends. I have always seen them as being friends. Ma tells me that she and Mashi became friends when Ma called out to her from her balcony across the lane and asked her to drop by for an evening cup of tea. That was such a simple start of their friendship that bonded a life time. Ma told me once long ago that she had been observing Mashi for a while before that evening when they had tea; Mashi would often stand in her balcony in the golden sunshine of the western sky all by herself crying. Ma had plotted it for some time that she would make the lady her very own friend.
I was in a dream world of fairy tales when I formed a memory of Mashi. She always looked to me as Cinderalla. I don’t know why but it was so. Like Cinderalla she had relatives who were jealous of her, looked down upon her, and insulted her. She was very beautiful and whenever I read if beautiful women like the princesses of Europe or of beauties in the fairy tales I found her face implanted upon these characters. She seemed to me like a fairy tale character. But like all the beautiful and delicate characters she too was battered and badgered at home, left to fend for herself and her children without adequate food and rations. Her saris would be worn out and dull and her feet had deep cracks. It was not that she was poor but she was supposed to be brushed aside and relegated right into a dust bin. This was because she was very very beautiful and her mother died young. A well settled and cultured man who had come to look for a bride in the extended family took fancy to her while she was all in her teens and still wore the frock and insisted that this child would be his wife. Mashi was thus pushed into matrimony when she was still in a daze of her childhood. Her husband, again the only one who I called just Mesho was wary lest her beauty would show him to the world as a character unworthy and undeserving of a woman like Mashi to be his wife.
Mashi was made to live in a vacuum, cloistered and imprisoned like Rapunzel but she talked, chatted and gossiped with whosover she encountered from the little open space she had. Mashi had a strange confidence in her; her interactions were graceful. She never fumbled or floundered when she had to meet people who were in a way strangers to her; her son’s school principle, a living terror was kind and affable with her. My grandfather who did never liked neighbours dropping in for a casual chat welcomed Mashi as his very own kindred. Mashi brought in a lot of joy in our house; as children we loved to talk to her because being a child at heart, we easily reached her.
Mesho lived in a small and cramped flat though his family home was just down the lane. The kitchen was like a cupboard. There were two children and when Mesho became a dog breeder the flat contained three pups not yet potty trained and poos would be dropped and puddles of urine would emerge every now and then. Yet, the flat was spik and span. Walls laden with books gathered no dust, curtains were washed and pressed even if Mashi’s saris were not and despite the fact that her larder had practically no stocks, we always got heartful to bite and chew and drink; Mashi could transform simple muri with raw onions, or rev up the tea with cloves and ginger and sometimes even offer us a spoonful of potato stew. She was a good cook and must have been rather good given the lack of ingredients and above all the lack of exposure. No one really ever called her; battered by her husband the world at large chose to keep her trapped in her cinders. She was indeed Cinderalla. Sometimes when she had to attend a wedding or a party, Ma would descend with her own sarees and jewellery like the fabular Fairy Godmother and dress Mashi up. She changed as magically as Cinderalla.
Mesho was a different man when he was out of his own social circle; he was once posted in Siliguri and here Mashi looked rather happy and comfortable. I suspected that there was some pressure on Mesho by his family to treat Mashi the way he did. Siliguri was a place of anonymity and here Mashi’s life and status improved. But they had to return to Kolkata when Mesho was diagnosed of cancer. He lived long after his surgery and collapsed slowly into a relapse years later. By this time his son was earning and even married, the daughter married and settled well. Both the children were in the USA where the dollar was only rising against the rupee. Mashi was the surviving parent. Soon Mesho’s siblings were dead too and the large family house was left without an occupant. With a generous inflow of the US dollar and a large mansion to herself, Mashi finally emerged as the true Cinderalla.
Mashi’s life was sad for most part of her life but she sailed through her dark days because she lived in a world of her own. This world was made up of ghost stories, Western classics, travel encyclopaedia and above all the Bengali novel. We have a well-stocked library in the locality and Mashi is the only one I know who exhausted its collection. She was simply mad about reading and would gulp down many of the books I issued from my school library hungrily as I would gorge on the rest. Mashi lived in a world of books; she is perhaps the only one I know who knew the history of England backwards. She loved the stories of Knight Templars and the Crusades; she read every kind of historical novel she could lay her hands on. She read Bengali with greater ease than she did English but language was never a barrier. But what she would love most were tales of horror and the unexplained. She hated violence, romance did not interest her and though she regaled in gossip about her neighbours, she had little interest in film magazines. For Mashi, reading had to come with flavour of literature. Once her sister sponsored a trip to Europe for her; the experience of travelling to a land she had savoured through the volumes of Lands and People and Life Travel series from our home collection was a lifelong cherish.
It was in this family home all to herself and deprivations behind her, Mashi revealed her true self. She had excellent taste in home décor, wonderful idea of colours, her taste in artefact was elevated and expensive; these betrayed Mashi’s aristocratic legacy, drubbed in by a fate so long adverse to her. Her garden grew wonderful just as the pictures in a fairy tale. Ma sourced the bel leaves from her garden henceforth. Mashi’s health failed her when she was diagnosed with cancer just as life was opening up to her. My brother who never enters a temple walked all the way up to Thirupathi frantically praying to the Divine that life cannot be snatched away from her just as when good times were coming her way. Mashi survived her illness and slowly one by one she used her years to fulfil her dreams.
Her children looked after her very well. Mashi used her new liberation to give generous gifts and treats; mostly for the servant maids with who she had a love-hate relationship. Sometimes she bought herself expensive things, but these would mainly be food to be cooked and shared mainly among her servants. Ma would despair and but I would see in such gestures a secret side of Mashi. She was playing the role of a Robin Hood now, she was now the Fairy Godmother to those who she felt were the less privileged.
Mashi had to travel to the USA quite a few times and having known the sari all her life, she indulged in buying salwar kameezes for travel. Ma was outraged at her garish taste in apparels but Mashi loved these pieces of clothing precisely because they were old designs which her Muslim friends often wore to school. Her school days were before the Partition where a Muslim elite lived in Kolkata and their girls abound the better schools of the city. It was in moments as these that I got that sudden glimpse into a life that Mashi was born into, a normal, comfortable life that any one of us would take for granted but which Fate made so elusive for her.
We never really had to take time out to visit Mashi nor did she need special slots to visit us. The two homes were continuous. We lived in times when a locality was a social space, people lived in communities and not in circumscribed and enclosed space guarded off by security gates and registers. Our day and time were continuous and one did not need to call the other to drop by. If there was some spare time, I would walk over to Mashi and ask her maid to prepare a foamy and frothy coffee for me. We took one another for granted, just as we did the neem tree which drooled on our northern wall or the gulmohur that sprayed its colours on the black tarmac on the front road. Everything and everyone is a part of the geography of the locality we grew up and have known as our roots. There are no especially mentionable moments with Mashi; there are no memories without her.
It has been a while that Mashi is no more, her progressive fragility rather than age claimed her. There are some who are just part of every day, the blue sky, the first rain, the setting in autumn and the late spring. They are ingrained into the daily phone call, the daily chores, the engrossing concerns and the immediate sharing of thoughts and emotions. It takes a while to realize that they are no more because with such losses, unwittingly you also lose a part of your life that was so inextricably intertwined with theirs.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
This entry was posted in Obituaries and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Autumn Without Mashi

  1. junotalk says:

    This is so dear to my heart

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