"I have a lot of dead people in my family now. They inhabited the stories my father regaled us( my sister and I) with as we went about not minding our own business. Stories of uncles and aunts far and near, stories of childhood squabbles and village life, stories of growing up, marriage, and becoming distant, stories of give and take, property disputes, and stories of gold jewelry and silk sarees during nieces’ weddings. Then many of them died, and I let them die in my thoughts too. But, you won’t find him here. Imagine a 12-inch pizza, a Neapolitan crust with your favorite toppings ( you could choose jalapenos, basil, olives, or bell pepper) divided into eight slices, four sides loaded with fresh mozzarella, hot, and lip-smacking. For me, he represented the four slices: the richest, the creamiest, and umami.
The day he died, I made love to my husband, the newlywed groom. Frightened by his death, though I knew it was coming any time, I found solace on a beige-colored darbha meditation mat on a marble floor with my husband. Clear as the Maldives water where we honeymooned; the day comes to haunt me now and then, precisely because I lost someone so important and yet handled it with carnal disgrace.
It was 9:00 am; I am not too sure about the weather; inside the tall glass buildings, the only light you know is a white LED light over your head until you step out in the deepening dusk and stand under the tawny light beneath the roadside lamp looking for an auto to ride back home. Busy shuffling resumes for the post of territory sales manager, I peered through the glass window at my pot-bellied boss with a weird dislike for women donning jeans on any day other than Friday, sipping lemon tea in his cabin, when my maternal cousin called and broke the news- Di, he is no more. Stunned, I let the information travel my auditory senses and lodge itself with a big thump inside the cardiovascular organ. I felt nauseous, and my vision blurred with water and sodium ready to slip on the carpet tiles with cubes of grey and dark grey.
Awakened by a recruitment consultant call, I let my bandhani dupatta soak the rivers flowing from my eyes and rushed to the restroom for some peace. That was a big mistake because a ladies’ restroom is never in peace. Minutes later, I slid out of the glass building, the sun shining gold, but somehow all I could see was grey. This man who passed away at 84 was my maternal grandfather, a self-made man from an obscure village in India, raised by a single mother, a freedom fighter who had experienced the joy of being imprisoned for his motherland, Delhi School of Economics alumni who slept on the classroom benches at night and had two sets of clothes throughout his graduation years; he was nothing less than sterling inspiration. Later, a bureaucrat, a Bhagavatam scholar, a lawyer, an author, Dr.Ramashish Sanyal name was truly akin to what it meant- someone who has the blessings of Lord Rama. Behind all the accolades was a man tall, frail, and meticulous about his grooming and daily routine.
Summer vacation at my grandmother’s place was filled with what any other grandchild does: gormandize the Alphonse, burst open the hot pooris with mango pickles, wander in carefree abandonment circling the pond crowded with frog bit, water hyacinths, and water lettuce. That left us with little time to interact with him, partially because we thought he was boring and dull and partly because he found us frisky and noisy. He maintained a strict regime of pranayam and bhujangasana, reading and writing interrupted only by lunch and dinner. That defied the holiday theme, and most of the cousins didn’t care much. Talking to him was more like a philosophy professor’s lecture whose class many students invariably love to bunk.
How it all changed is still a mystery to me; however, I am glad it did because, by adolescence, my vacations were more about him and less about what was cooking in the kitchen. I looked forward to being in his bedroom, seated next to his feet, accouterments spread on his desk as he scribbled on white sheets of paper, his ballpoint Reynolds furiously racing from end to end. By then, it was an open secret that I was the proud bearer of his genes. My academic success at school, my oratory skills, sincerity, and my poignant poems were testimonials of the treasure I had inherited, and that made me feel tall, taller than I was, and proud.
The stars be thanked because no one in the extended family far and wide possessed what I had inherited, also in terms of the spiritual inclination and, most importantly- words. My academic grades were important to him, and I never let him down. Did he have a similar curiosity for other grandchildren? What is it that he saw in me that he didn’t see in them? Not overly loud or exaggerated with praise, my Nanaji was a man of few words, spoken in a muffled voice which grew softer with age, discipline, and loss of teeth, all of them. There was a time in life when he had to give up on everyday food and sustain himself on boiled lentils, boiled papaya, and parboiled rice with a dollop of pure ghee. Just before the last few morsels, he would suddenly look at me and ask, “Mamoni, have you written anything new?” That was when I was 14. That was when I more or less recognized myself.
A few years later, I moved to Delhi, then to other places, footloose yet desperate, exploring life in expansive and intimate ways. The risky lure of the open road kept me wild and aloof, and I forgot to nurture the relationship from a distance. Vacations were the time to make a U-turn, and I would pay a visit( read homage, a personal one) and find him exactly how I had left him the previous vacation, in the rightmost corner room on the second floor of his three-storeyed house. Slumping on the bed while writing happened gradually over the years for him, reflecting erosion, the kind that leaves one with just the basic structure. Though I never saw a writer’s table and a chair in his room, which makes me believe he was more austere in his ways than he should have been. A plain quartz HMT watch with stainless steel buckle and brush folding clasp lay next to his single-size bed with a thin cotton mattress and floral pink bedsheet. Hanging onto an aluminum rod hung two pairs of shirts and trousers( did he ever get over the two pairs, I wonder? ), and next to it was an old wooden table in caramel honeyed hues and scratches on the legs, each scratch a symbol of the creative messes the family had put it through.
Now, it stood in peace, holding his bare essentials and covered with an elephant applique patch bedsheet in white and red. Is it for some reason that we find unique ways to recycle our old, faded, and worn-out? I am sure there is, though, my generation is more interested in the online and the new. On it stood an aluminum trunk that housed his other necessities neatly stacked. Other than that, the small bedroom housed a pair of Hawaii chappals in white and blue, a rack full of medicines, oils, and balms(The room itself had a strong smell of Zandu balm, which greeted me year after year), and a soul who kept himself alive on boiled food and words. That is the sharpest memory I have of my grandfather: his writing, so you can imagine how much it occupied a space in his existence.
One year, I also saw a spitting pan next to his bed and was informed that he was suffering from tuberculosis. When I would unbutton his shirt and take off his white vest to apply warm mustard oil with burnt garlic on his sore body, I could see surgery scars all over his chest and abdomen. Sometimes my hands trembled on his pencil-thin arms; other times, it continued in a swift circular motion trying to find some flesh to grasp and let the oil seep. One couldn’t find much difference between the shirt on a hanger or his body; it was pretty much the same. Even then, he never forgot to ask, “ Mamoni, do you still write?” Even then, he never failed to show his pride over my accolades: a premier college, a business school, a campus placement. Everything about me was important to him, and I wonder if it had anything to do with his accomplishments in life. Around him, I felt decompressed and much closer to myself.
Over the years, nothing changed in his room except his age which ensured the decaying process continued uninterrupted until one day he fell sick, so sick that he was finally brain dead. He died in two parts: first, brain dead, then body dead.
In my late twenties, I had moved on with my life, seeking soulmates that Shahrukh Khan had so ardently and earnestly beseeched the young blood to. -Someone somewhere is made for you. Work took its toll, and my visit back home became shorter, predominantly spent on the phone with friends and promising soulmates. And when you do that, a heartbreak or two is inevitable, a kind where you have to teach yourself to do the basic things again: to think for yourself, to walk properly, to hold yourself upright, to sleep, and to breathe. What made me not visit him is still a question to me. Burgeoning hormones change priorities, and I succumbed to them in not so graceful ways. I didn’t plan to go astray in ways that the agonizing last five years of his life is something for which I have absolutely no account. Transgression of such kind appalls me I put my needs ahead of everyone else’s and indulged in my independence. The only thing that still tied me to him was: my writing. “He was asking why you don’t write to him,” I heard, standing inside a yellow STD booth, my mother apprising me of his deteriorating health. Words kept slipping out of my hands until he breathed no more, and I wrote no more. It was a betrayal on my part.
Coming back to the day when he passed away, I hastened back home and informed my husband too. I was a newlywed bride who had joined work after three weeks of hiatus. Unwrapping wedding gifts of Corelle dinner sets and electric pressure cookers, bed sheet sets, and envelopes stashed with cash occupied much of my evening. That night amidst tears and muted pain, I hastened to make love, peaked twice, and collapsed in my husband’s arms, unaware of the new brand of anguish that had lodged in my heart that night. Settling into noisy domesticity, I almost forgot about him, just the way I forgot to write, just the way I forgot who I am."
Author's note to Mamoni
And then just like that, you became no one. We lose people to a place from where they cannot return and you wonder, without them, can you be who you are. The loss is real- both of the person and yourself. The world continues to add to the din and hopeful talks abound. You need time; it's never the same for all of us. But soon, before you realize it, you would start auditioning for the part; putting something down that's totally yours; earning your way to a place where you can start seeing yourself again and hear the voice that whispers softly over your shoulder-Mamoni, have you written anything new?