We observed my mother’s Shraddha. That day is blurry but I am sure that we blindly went through the rituals that had been codified more than two thousand years ago.
What is not blurry is the day leading up to her death.
Her sprightly chatter had fallen into near silence during the week leading up to her death.
My father had bathed and changed her, just like he had done every noon since the time she had gotten too weak to do it herself.
I had taken to brushing her thick long black hair. I liked how it felt wet, cool and heavy in my hands.
Like the past few weeks, her head rested heavy on her hand. Her eyes – sad, soft, downcast and faraway, even though we were sitting right in front of the mirror she had used to energetically adorn herself with a little gold and sindoor for about 32 years.
“কি ভাবছ, মা?” (What are you thinking about, Ma?)
“ধুত, কি আবার?” (Oof! What else?)
she replied distantly and irritably.
I loosely braided her hair even though her voice stung. Did she know that was going to die?
She ate a bit and lay down to rest.
I laid down beside her and stroked her still spotless, golden, beautiful back. I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t love stroking her back.
She was falling off to sleep.
Suddenly, she sprang up to sitting on the edge of her bed, her words tumbling rapidly into one another as she desperately tried to keep pace with her sudden burst of delirium.
“Can you hear them?”, she gasped.
“Hear what, Ma?”
“Those bells… the evening bells. Can’t you hear them? They have started to practice their dance. What are you doing here? Why aren’t you there, practising with them?”
“What bells? What dance, Ma?”
“There! There! Can’t you see them?” pointing to a corner of the room.
“Ma! There’s nobody there!” I was beginning to get very frightened as I looked into a pair of eyes that I could no longer recognize.
They looked manic, puzzled. Why couldn’t I see what she could see? She dropped her arm, let out a deep sigh and fell into disappointed silence.
For twelve years of my life, I had practiced dancing every evening. It was evening alright. But those practice sessions were long gone.
As my husband and brother frantically tried to get a hold of her doctor for advice, my father and I sat next to her, not knowing what was to come.
Little did we know that we would be watching death unfold.
Perhaps it was an illusion created by the emotional center of my otherwise pretty logical brain, but it wasn’t like she was alive one moment and dead the next. It felt like her life had become into its own being and was wrestling to set itself free from its physical binds.
How long did that last? A few minutes? A few hours? We weren’t scientists trying to study death with a stop clock. We were watching my mother die, and it felt like a really long time.
Strangely enough, the closest thing I can compare it to is birthing. Just as time, space and cognition collapse into one incomprehensible dimension when a baby is on its way to be born, this was no different.
Just like a baby forcefully and determinedly squirms and twists its way through the birth canal in no predictable pattern till the head, shoulders and the rest of her body slithers out into one slimy, bloody mess and a loud wail, my dying mother’s life was corkscrewing its way out through her death canal, a bit at a time to no set rhythm.
Like a baby unregrettably leaves the womb that had kept her alive for nine months, my mother’s life finally broke free from the body that had nurtured it for 51 years, leaving behind slightly parted lips, a stony blank stare, and a loud wail – my father’s, ” আর নেই রে! তোর মা চলে গেছে!” (She is no more! Your mother has left us) as he continued to stroke her limp but still warm shell of a body.
On Nov 19, 1965 two strangers got married, yet it is the best marriage I know of. Those strangers also gave birth to me, my brother and my sister. They, at the very least, showed us how to love. I miss my parents and their wisdom everyday. More on their marriage at “An Arranged Marriage, a Lifetime of Love”.
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. Yet it is the best marriage that I know of. Two complete strangers who couldn’t have been more different other than in their ability to love one another. 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 different instruments playing in perfect 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 were 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 at 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 soiled her bed. She was so broken and ashamed by it. 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.