Summer is almost over, as are the monsoons. The mangoes are most definitely gone, but here I am, still trying to snag one from the tree in the backyard of my childhood. There is nothing more delicious than a mango in the middle of the blistering heat of an Indian June. If this national fruit of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh can’t bring us together, I don’t know what can. Happy 70th birthday to India.
Almost everyone in my architecture school adored momos. We relished it often. Not satisfied with its war on Maggi, the Indian government now wants to ban momos. If momos were so dangerous, most graduates of the School of Planning and Architecture would have been dead well before graduation day!
There is that Sunmica table which bore our childhood meals, homework, board games, and many conversations – you know, that thing which humans used to do more of when they didn’t have TVs, smart phones, and very often electricity. Yes, many of our dinners during the sweltering summer heat were by candle light. Fancy!
The hard, narrow little beds on which my sister, brother and I whispered and giggled before dribbling off into innocent, delight-filled sleep.
The rickety study table with its giant shortwave radio whose knobs I twiddled all through my teen years to religiously tune in to Dave Lee Travis’ “A Jolly Good Show”. The very same one that my aging father also used to figure out the mysteries and workings of the laptop, the internet and a whole new world to email and Skype with us.
And, then there is that bigger bed, the one that my parents shared since their wedding day, November, 19, 1965.
Even though the furniture itself is of no great value by way of either money or design, I grew up in pre-Ikea days, when we bonded with our furniture like family. And, just like those people who never want to part with their mid-century modern masterpieces, I don’t want to part with these memory-drenched pieces either. I secretly hope that one of my relatives will adopt them, so that, when I touch them, it will feel like the next best thing to physical nearness to my parents, who, despite their extremely modest means, gave us an extraordinarily rich life.
They hadn’t met till their wedding day. And, they couldn’t have been more different. Him: a man of few words, and a home body. She: An extremely social extrovert, brimming with joie de vivre. Yet, I was never witness to the usual marital skirmishes, tensions and all-out wars. While my mother made friends, had them over for meals, my father sat quietly, contentedly and joyfully observant of the evening as it unfolded, mostly around my mother.
Many summers ago, on one dark evening, as my father and I made our way through the heady smells of jasmine, mangoes, decaying garbage and an unimaginable number of sweaty humans, as was common on our tropical, slum-fringed street, my father reflected on his time with my mother.
“I see so many marriages. I see how couples fight. I never felt that way about your mother. I felt like we were two separate instruments playing in harmony”.
I later found out that this hadn’t just come from a place of sentimental recollection. As I was cleaning out the cupboard, a few days after my father had died, I found a bunch of letters.
Should I? Shouldn’t I? My curiousity triumphed over my respect for their privacy. The first one was from my father to my mother, one of his earliest to her I suppose, expressing his desire to spend a couple of years getting to know her before starting a family. How could two virtual strangers be so intimate, I wondered? It is still a mystery.
I opened another, from my mother to my father. This was one was from a much later period in their life. We were teenagers and my father had to work in a different town for extended periods of time. It was about how much she missed him, normal parental concerns, ending again with her longing for him …. and then another… and another.. and another.. till the tears and guilt blinded me to the rest. They were so private and so full of tenderness that I wished that they had been written by some famous author, so that I could guiltlessly relish them.
Its not like they didn’t have their disagreements, but their love was apparent even to my little-girl-eyes that never saw them kiss, hold hands, or make any other physical display of affection in front of us. It was simply not a part of our culture. Yet, it is the best marriage that I know of.
It was apparent in how they looked at each other, in their little gestures of affection expressed through food, praise, and my mother’s absolute indignation when my dad would walk straight into the kitchen as soon as he got home from work to do the dishes.
It was apparent in the sarees that my father brought back every single time he came back from a work tour (even if they didn’t always meet her fashion standards), and, in the box of my mother’s favorite summer treat (raw mango sondesh) that he would routinely buy on his way back from work, during the short time that they would be in season.
It was clear to me when my mother tirelessly marched up and down the insanely crowded streets of Gariahat to find the perfect “letter stand” for his birthday. It was clear to me when I watched her giggle all afternoon as she tried to find the perfect spot for him to “accidentally” find it and burst out laughing as she imagined his surprise. “Bolish naa Baba key.” (Don’t tell your father.)
Their love was heartbreaking when my father bathed her, clothed her, fed her and helped her walk to the bathroom as the cancer slowly but greedily sucked away her strength. It was heartbreaking when one day he mumbled to God, “Please take her before the cancer takes away her dignity.” It was the day when my mother had, ashamedly, soiled her bed. Cancer had succeeded in slurping up her very last drop of energy and humanness .
He knew, from his 32 years with her, that losing her ability to always look fresh in a clean crisp saree, bindi, and a bit of gold on her wrists, ears and neck, was devouring her spirit faster than this beast of a disease could her body.
Just two days later, his wish came true. She sank into a deep delirium. I laid down next to her, stroking her still butter smooth back that always reminded me of La Grande Baigneuse , while my father stroked her hair and face and arms and wept and wept and wept and wept.
This song by Nobel Laureate Tagore does a better job of capturing their relationship than I can ever do.
I made this poster a few years ago as part of Patagonia’s Vote the Environment campaign. 30% of profits from sales will go towards supporting the project, 30% to HeadCount, a non-partisan organization that uses the power of music to register voters and promote participation in democracy, and 40% to the artist.
So, buy a poster, from the Creative Action Network, and take to the streets to support science and push for policies that protect the environment.
Yippee! The air is clear and crisp, and the skies are the closest they ever get to a California blue in the tropics. Its early February. We are all dressed in yellow. No books, no homework, no dance, or anything that bears any resemblance to learning. It is Vasant Panchami (the 5th day of Spring). We have gleefully surrendered all our pencils, pens, paints, brushes, books, instruments and any other conceivable source of knowledge to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning. She can take her own sweet time to bless them. We are too busy. Its a day to eat, play, eat… repeat! Luchi, begun bhaja, labda, bhaandhaa kopir chochori, khichudi, chaatni, papod bhaaja, and kool, lots of kool!
We are at one of my favorite “uncle’s” house – Chatterji Jethu. He wasn’t our uncle – but, growing up we didn’t call our elders by name or even as Mr. or Mrs. Everyone was an uncle or an aunt.
Chatterji Jethu was lean, energetic, a fabulous gardener, cook and best of all, he was always smiling. Every year we celebrated Basant Panchami at his house with all our neighbours and friends.
So here it is – my most potent memory of this festival. Me, up on a guava tree, watching the menfolk fry luchis. Yummy.