19 April 2021

Never a “daal” moment!

This story is rather embarrassing for me. I was too young to remember this. But my dad often told this story to razz me. And it usually worked.

So, this goes back – way, way too many years… 51 to be precise. Now to fully get the story, I have to give a little background here.

Back in India, all my life I grew up having my meals while squatting on the floor. In fact, even in Kalyani, when I would be with my parents – including my last meal with them – we would all sit down on the floor and eat.

The next thing you might want to know is that when we were growing up, we were sufficiently modest in our income that a square meal meant rice, lentils – called “daal” – and some vegetables. On a couple of days in the week, we had fish and then we had some special Sundays when we would have meat (always goat meat those days).

So, now, to hear my dad’s version… Apparently, we had finished lunch one day. And by “we”, I mean my parents, my sister and myself. My brother was not yet around. Mom had cleaned up the floor with a wet cloth (“nyata”, as we referred to it). Apparently, she missed a particular piece of lentil that had flung afar. That piece of lentil, over a couple of hours, had turned from a juicy bit to a hard and dried morsel well stuck to the floor.

My sister, ostensibly crawling around without any rhyme or reason, had spotted that hapless bit of lentil. And as every kid of that age does, she promptly decided that the lentil needed to be transferred from the floor to her mouth.

Like those best laid plans of mice and men, she was completely stopped in her tracks by that rather stubborn (“thhnyata”, as we would say) piece of lentil. It simply refused to budge. After giving it a few heave ho-s with her tender fingers, she decided to call in for reinforcements. In this case, her reinforcement refers to yours truly.

Like a knight in a shining armor, I appeared on the scene. After carefully evaluating the scenario, I apparently also proceeded to dig with my fingers. Except that my fingers were not that tender. At least not as hers. A few determined attempts and I succeeded in uprooting it!! The “daal” (lentil piece) was in my hand. I have no doubt that I was as proud as proud could be.

And this is where the story gets a little murky and somewhat anti-climactic. In an alternate universe, I handed over the dirty lentil to my sister who put it in her mouth and savored it as she dotingly looked up to her brother shimmying out of the scene.

In this real universe however, that knight in shining armor decided that since he took all the pains, he should get all the gains. And promptly put the dirty lentil in his mouth!!

In this universe, my sister bawled a lot, my father told me!!

20 March 2021

“Aapnader candidate esey gecche” (Your candidate has arrived!)

Things could not have been scripted out any better. After resisting going to India (my biggest fear being if I came down with Covid and needed hospitalization, that would be messy for everybody there) waiting to get the vaccinations, I finally got my second shot on my birthday. Immediately applied for an emergency visa that day. (I have a tourist visa to India and that is not valid during Covid period).

Indian consulate was very efficient and helpful. Within 24 hours, they approved my case and asked me to FedEx all my papers. Which I did in a matter of hours. All I needed was to get my passport back, put my mask on and jump on to a flight. Incredibly, within 48 more hours, I had my passport in my hand – with a new visa allowing me to make two emergency visits to my dad in the next few months. I immediately kept the passport back safely in its place.

And ever since, it has been safely sitting there. Never bothered to look for a flight ticket. The guy I was so eagerly waiting to go see had taken a different emergency exit a few hours before the passport could arrive!

Last year, out of a sheer premonition, I had asked him “What if mom died first?”. “I will die the next day”, he had confidently commented. And that is pretty much how it played out.

I consider myself fairly measured in how I let myself grieve. Slowly, but over a much longer period of time than most. But this one-two punch within a matter of a couple of months will call for the best in me to internalize.

Many moons back, sitting at a bar in Milton, Sharmila and I had decided that we will never let it be said that “we did not get to see our parents for a whole year before they died”. That resolution resulted in me seeing my parents every three months – year after year after year. The irony cannot be any richer or more cruel that after all that – it all ended exactly the way we were trying to prevent!!

Yet, what I did not get pales in comparison to what I did get. For somebody to be a father figure like he was to me when he had no role model for himself growing up (lost his dad when he was two and a half) – it could not have come easy to him. Growing up, I remember mostly the tough guy side of him. Only once did I see him break down – that too for a brief half minute – when he saw my grandmother’s dead body (my parents tended to my grandma when she had cancer and she took her last breath with me literally standing next to her). In his entire life – he never hugged me.

Those numerous trips for the last decade helped me see a completely different side of him. I got to know a lot more of his early childhood life that he had not divulged to me. For example, I did not know that he had a sister who died on their journey to grandma’s brother’s place when his dad died. He once surprised me by giving me his thoughts about adoptions of orphans and donation of organs! But the best moments were when we bonded over his sense of humor.

His ability to make light of a moment was only matched with his full throated laughter at a good joke. Nothing exemplifies his sense of humor more than that story of my visit to a nearby crematorium with my siblings!

In a full circle of life, eight years later, that was the exact place he was cremated ten days back. Frankly, knowing him, I would not have put it past him if he had raised his head one last time, looked around and assured those guys “Aapnader candidate esey gecche” and then went off to his eternal sleep.

I did not realize I will have to make this request of you so soon again… but please join me again in raising a toast to celebrate his life! For, what a life it was!!

31 January 2021

The “sparks” of music

The exact day escapes me. It was a Saturday morning. Somewhere in the summer of 1980. Around 11 am, if my memory serves me right. I was sitting up in my bed studying a subject – which I have no recollection of, but surely my body was gently oscillating to and fro as it tended to do when I would read out a subject book aloud. It was like I was trying to shake out some space in my memory cells so that I could jam in some more of those confounded facts I was supposed to remember.

All I remember is my dad coming back home in his bicycle (the trusted Phillipps bicycle that he bought in 1964 and clung on to till 2012 when he moved out of Durgapur) and peeking into the bedroom and mysteriously declaring “Ki enechhhi bol to?” (Can you guess what I have brought?).

Not used to getting any excuses from our parents to leave our books alone, the three of us made a beeline to dad who, by then, had started unwrapping a cardboard box and out came a vague looking black box – the likes of which I had never seen before. What particularly caught my eye was the prominent red button in the corner.

That was how I got introduced to what I learnt later to be a “tape recorder” (cassette player). Dad proceeded to connect the gadget to 230V of power, fished out a small rectangular looking thing and pressed a button. Voila! a small door swung open and dad fit the rectangular thingy in it and shut it firmly.

Then I remember him pressing the red button (which had caught all my attention and fascination just by the way it stood out with its color) multiple times. But you could see from his reaction that things were not going as he expected them to. A quick look into a small sheet of paper later, he figured out how to “record” something. Apparently, you had to press the red colored Record button AND the “Play” button (second from right) together.

It was an “Anand” branded tape recorder. I do not believe I have seen that brand ever after. However, surprisingly after quite a few days of searching Google images, I was able to grab a picture of that tape recorder. Exactly like the one we had.

In the meanwhile, mom had brought a cup of tea for dad. Dad took the cup of tea in his hand and triumphantly started his maiden recording. It was the first line of “Tumi je amaar… ogo tumi je amaar”. He rendered it as off-key as he could muster with a voice that would stop a train in its tracks. But he gave it his all. And then, he took a long sip of the tea with that hissing sound we make back in India when we drink tongue-scalding hot tea – considered very uncouth in the Western culture (the hissing sound, not the hot tea). And pressed the Stop button.

The next 15 minutes was like the “Rewind” and “Play” button had gotten stuck; we listened to him over and over and over again. We were mesmerized by how that puny black box could remember what dad did and play it back faithfully. Too faithfully, I might add. The recorded voice was as awful as his original rendition.

I was awe-struck enough to momentarily consider a change in career ambition from being a steam locomotive driver to somebody who can make those black boxes. Not for long though.

But then, dad had to go for work. “B” shift, as they called back in the steel plant he used to work in. He carefully packed the recorder up and put it in the “locker” of our “almirah” (safe). I guess, being new, it was that valuable.

This is where things get a little more interesting. In the evening, unable to get over my curiosity, I brought the box out of the safe. My mom pointedly asked me not to do so. I deliberately disobeyed her. And tried to do a dad. I hooked up the instrument to the electric power and tried to show off to my siblings. At this point, I was a hero to them.

I did everything I thought I saw dad do. All I remember is there was a big spark, a dull noise and some smoke coming out. The small red LED on the right went off to sleep slowly as if in a disapproving way. Panic got written all over me. In a matter of seconds, I went from hero to zero. I may not have understood technology then. But even I knew smoke ought to come out of a steam locomotive – not a tape recorder.

Panic quickly gave way to fear. I was deathly afraid of my dad’s reaction. He was kind of short tempered to begin with. And he was not going to be happy at my misdeeds. I was going to be skinned alive, I had convinced myself.

That evening was a living terror. I could not put my mind to any studies. I just sat there petrified by what my dad’s reaction would be. I remember going off to bed and then not being able to sleep. My dad returned around 10:30PM. I remember the gate opening, the knock on the door, mom opening the door and then she said something.

I have no recollection what happened after that. I had panicked myself to sleep.

Woke up next morning and in about a jiffy, remembered everything. It was a Sunday. Could not even escape to school. I lay there in the bed refusing to get up. But something assured me a bit. It was the tone of my dad’s voice as he talked to mom and then the maid servant who had dutifully showed up.

Eventually, of course, I had to get out of bed. Those maid servants wanting to clean up beds could be really irritating at times.

Funny thing, dad did not mention anything about the recorder. Which was worse, frankly. I was wishing that he had said something. By the way, you could not have seen a young kid focused on his book as fervently as I was that morning – even if you had tried to. If you did though, you might have noticed that I might have been holding the book upside down.

Then dad left home at 9am. With the box. I assumed he had gone to see what could be done.

Came back on his faithful bike at 11 am – again with that same box. And summoned me and my mom. That is when I realized – this is going to be it. I am going to get some stern lecturing. Perhaps worse. And mom will be dragged into it for letting me do it too.

Much to my surprise, he opened up the box and asked me “Chalao ebaar”. He asked me to operate the machine. And told my mom to sing a song. Of course, I was like “No, no, no, you do it. What do I know about these things?”. Would not touch that dratted thing with a barge pole, if I could help it.

Dad, though insisted. Which, with trembling fingers, I complied to.

Mom sang the song “Ekti gaan likho amaar jonno / No hoy aami / tomaar kaachhe / chhilam oti nogonno”. I believe the original singer was Pratima Banerjee. The song means

“As trivial as I might have been to you,
Please, do pen a song for me”

Turns out the “transformer” (whatever that was) was defective and the shop had changed it. The recorder stayed with us for a long time after that without ever blowing up again. That first cassette stayed with us for a long time too. I have heard that song play over and over again! That was the first song that I remember my mom singing.

Much later – in December of 2012, I had sat down for a music session with my mom. My first and last one with her. I had reminded her of the incident. She sang that song while I played the tabla with her. This time, I let the nephews do the video recording.

For some reason, after my mom passed away, that song has played in my head repeatedly.

It is like that Rewind-Play button in the tape recorder has gotten stuck again…

27 January 2021

A great tribute to my mom

This is by my first cousin once removed – Shreya. (I know my math now from here).

I got this from her literally on the one year anniversary of the day I saw my mom last.

Why my cousin does computer science instead of doing what she is so good at, I will never know. But then again, this is from a guy who wanted to be a steam engine driver but did computer science because his parents heard that the topper from the previous batch in high school had done so.

So, there is that…

25 January 2021

Was that a premonition?

Last time I visited my parents, which was today, one year back, I had written up this about my mom…
“The biggest fear I have in life? For all the attention I have paid to my dad, what have I done for my mom? It is so easy to take the role of the caregiver for granted. I try to even bring up the topic of “what if mom dies before dad?” and I am summarily dismissed by everybody. My dad’s response is simply “I will die the next day”… continued here

Who knew life will play out exactly as I had feared?

21 January 2021

Every road in life takes its own twists…

Six years back on this day, I had managed to get my dad to visit his birthplace that he had left at the age of two and a half (when he lost his dad). There was a poignant moment when he sat down and tried to remember the day he saw them carrying his dad’s body down the road from his house. You can read the whole story here.

In any case I had ended the story with the following lines…
“And then it hit me again like a ton of bricks. This will be far more personal to me some day. There will be the long road for him too. And I will have no ability to hold back my emotions. I know that for sure, because I can feel that lump in my throat even as I write this story out…”

Re-reading it today, I suddenly realized that I had never prepared myself for my mom to go first. The last roads in your life can throw some unthinkable twists…

9 January 2021

The train. The letter. And how life came back one full circle.

Circa 1972. I seem to recollect it to be a cold December day. Which is why the door was closed. I was barely 6 and my sister 4. Brother was too small. My sister and I had drawn up “keet keet” (hopscotch) boxes on the concrete floor with chalk that mom got for us from her school and we were busy playing.

I remember distinctly my parents sitting on the bed – perhaps drinking tea – and talking about our (me and my siblings’) future. I remember it mostly because they were speaking favorably about me and my future (I was still in kindergarten then) and I was trying my best to pretend I was not listening to them.

The next ten years – before I left home – that positive feedback or opinion was rarely repeated. Instead it got replaced by the common refrain of a train. Translated in English, they would keep repeating the metaphor of a train. As a first born, apparently, I was the engine. And my siblings were the compartments (cabooses). Whichever way I went, they would follow me there. And therefore it was incumbent on me to not go astray.

This was at an age when I was fascinated by steam engines. I used to sit at Kalna railway station (my granddad’s place) waiting for the Katwa local to pull up and watch those folks in the “engine” throw more coal into the compartment with red hot flames leaping. In one of those moments, on the spot, I had set myself a lofty goal to become a steam engine driver some day.

As you can imagine, this created a mixed metaphor in my mind – that of the fiery belly of a train engine and something akin to a choo-choo dance with me leading and the siblings following. Seemingly, strictly in decreasing order of age.

After I left home in 1983, I do not believe my parents ever mentioned that train thingy anymore. Although the exhortations to take care of my siblings all my life flew fast and thick anytime I met them.

Fast forward 48 years to 2020. Another cold December day. My mom had left for her heavenly abode a couple of days back. I remembered that about five years back, when I was visiting her (again, it was December), she had given me a sealed envelope and asked me to open it when she was no more.

Dutifully, I retrieved the letter from my vault upstairs and opened it up. There were a lot of things in it for me. Some that I knew. Some that I did not.

Remarkably, when it came to my siblings, her tone had changed. People who can read Bengali can attest to this translation from the excerpt in the picture… She mentioned that she had convinced herself that I had all the capabilities of performing the duties of a first born child!

Now, if only I could force my brother or sister to play hopscotch with me. Although, my more athletic brother is going to beat us hollow…

2 January 2021

“A mother understands what a child does not say”

So many of you have reached out to me upon realizing that my mom is no more that it has been downright humbling. If my mom ever got to know how many well wishers she had – many that she had never met – the shy woman that she was, she would have undoubtedly made a beeline for the kitchen to make some more tea before she could comprehend that you cannot serve tea over the internet.

At the outset, allow me to express my and my late mother’s gratitude for giving us the sense of how we are and were always among friends and well wishers.

I am personally going to miss her. As does every son. This hurts. I will leave it there.

For quite some time to come, every single morning after pulling out of the garage, I will involuntarily pick up my phone and then throw it back on the car seat realizing nobody will pick it up. Just like it happened on Dec 18th, 2020.

Her call had come. My calls will have to wait.

Being the eldest son, she pushed me away from the nest as far as she could in the hope that I will bring financial stability to a farmer’s family that struggled through the early years of existence. I left home at the age of 16. Every few years I geographically moved further and further away from her till going any further would have, ironically, brought me closer to her. The earth being round and all that.

Yet, years later, the same financial stability and technology brought us closer than she could have ever dreamed on that early dawn of July 10th, 1983 when she waved her first good bye to me. Fate and luck conspired to create a situation where we got to talk to each other nearly every day! Almost 4000 times after moving to Atlanta in 2007 alone. And we have seen each other every 90 days or so in that rough time frame.

She was going to be 77 soon. In the year she was born, every baby in India had a life expectancy of 33 years. She got to see three kids grow up and be successful in their own ways. She got to see five grand children growing up healthy and beautiful. During my visits, my brother, sister and I took her to visit her siblings and even her own birth place. Till the last day, she was with my dad to whom she had dedicated herself wholly and unequivocally.

She maintained an independent living till her last day instead of staying with one of her kids. Her biggest worry as she would narrate to me every single day was whether the sun would be up that day or not. Should it not, she would not know how to dry the clothes that morning. (She refused modern amenities like washer, dryer or for that matter TV or a microwave). Above all, she left on her own terms: without suffering or being a bother to anybody.

If you come to think about it, that is not a death to be regretted. That is a life to be celebrated!!

Join me and raise a glass to that life this evening!

All of you who have reached out to me with unfettered generosity, I remind myself that you are but a reflection of your own mother. And to that what your mothers have raised, I will raise a second glass for myself this evening.