I am not a successful man who owes it all to his parents and so sets out to thank them publicly. Nor have I inherited great wealth which since the inheritor obviously doesn’t help create and so there is cause to be grateful, in material terms so to say. So why would I want to write about my parents; the question had been propping up in my mind since the time I wanted to write this piece. Well, I have not found any obvious answer to that yet but since the subject won’t go out of my head I have decided to throw reason out. As a matter of fact this is not a great story. So please do not be misled into believing that I am going to disclose certain hitherto hidden feats of endurance or lessons on spiritual accomplishments. Sorry. This could most likely turn out to be a boring rambling on a lazy Sunday afternoon by a mediocre guy who vainly imagines that he has something worthwhile to say. So those of you who have something better to do, please proceed. Don’t waste your time and that’s a request. Finally this is not a judgmental piece about my parents. I have no rights whatsoever to judge them even though I am their son. However I wish I had known more about the childhood of both my parents. What were the circumstances and events that shaped their behavior, what kind of life did they live as youngsters and as they grew up. That would have given me a better handle to understand the how and why about their manner of coping with the mishaps during their adult life.
Babuji was from erstwhile East Bengal. Their family finally chose to give up their native land after witnessing senseless bloodshed. Having seen sectarian killings during his childhood, needless to say he grew up hating them. I have seen him make uncomfortable sounds in sleep and sometimes wake up with a frightening shriek. I have also heard him tell about how as a kid he used to move with his friends with knifes in their procession. Apparently to kill if the need arose, such was his mindset. But since he never mentioned, presumably he never did; kill. His brothers however vouch for the fact that he was a lively, fun loving and a jovial guy, a far cry from the person I grew up knowing. Babuji often was very bitter about his father. I heard from him that my grandfather was a freedom fighter and had to go into hiding often away from home and so could neither make for himself a career nor provide for his children. My grandmother died when Babuji was hardly about five or six years of age. Such a childhood devoid of parental love and support would have been disastrous for any boy had it not been for all the uncles and aunts and brothers and sisters. Theirs was a huge joint family. Inspite of such a troubled phase in his life he grew up to be sufficiently balanced in his views. He was reserved, yet fiercely independent and forthright; sadly tactfulness was not his forte. Partition and migration into West Bengal seems to have affected him badly. All the needs of the entire family were looked after by his eldest uncle. Not wanting to be an additional burden Babuji opted to forego higher education and straight away launched into a job, to become self-reliant. Initially it seemed worthwhile but in the long run he paid the price for lack of a college degree when all his brothers moved ahead in their lives while he remained blocked in his small job. The love hate relationship with his own family left him a sad and lonely man. He loved his brothers, hated his father, distanced himself with a job at a faraway place and yet occasionally tried to maintain contacts through letters, his was an unhappy existence. The absence of reciprocity in belongingness, love and support which he craved for from his family rendered him confused, bitter, afraid and short tempered, strongly self-protective and a stand-alone. Very soon he took to alcohol to drown his sorrows. Money was wasted, emotions were not shared, feelings were suppressed, anger ruled, misunderstanding and confusion ruled, and every bit of this affected us. Ma was from a similar yet better placed family. Similar because her parents and grandparents had moved in to West Bengal a shade earlier and so could settle down better. Her father was educated and employed in a government job. She too had a number of brothers and sisters and it was a happy and loving household where the fancies of the children were entertained. I personally vouch for this fact because I have been a major beneficiary of their love and pampering. Ma was rather too simple, wasn’t sharp at all and so did not pursue education. She grew up to be fun loving, playful, very talkative and extremely friendly. She had no inhibitions and was not afraid of anything or anyone. She had an amazing ability to get friendly with new faces; she could liven up a conversation, she was gregarious, and also loving and caring. There was yet another thing about her and I don’t know from where she got it from but she has a phenomenal capacity to bear physical punishment as I came to realize later on. As was the custom girls were married off earlier and so Ma got married when she had touched early twenties while Babuji was about thirty three years old. There is a story here; because of his difficult nature all the elders in his family were not very certain whether he would be keen to get married and so did not broach the topic, until he himself questioned them whether they were interested in seeing him settle down in life. Only then did the search for a girl for Babuji really start. The difference in age was not alarming in those times but with the aid of on hindsight which I have today the difference in individual psychology was tremendous or rather tragic.
Their marriage did not have the tiniest speck of a chance. It was a cruel joke by fate on them. They were two very different personalities, not emotionally equipped to support and nurture each other and as was inevitable, they destroyed each other. The marriage not taking off was understandable and yet they could not give up. They repeatedly made efforts towards picking up broken threads and to locate common grounds. It was funny as well as painful because they never succeeded. When too much bad mouthing happens, when the desire to emotionally hurt the other reigns, when the past cannot be forgotten or forgiven and when egos do not bend, then the same lousy story gets frequently re-telecasted and life at home becomes a loud torture cell for everyone living in it. Babuji was a minimalist while Ma was extravagant. Babuji was an introvert while Ma was an extrovert. Babuji lived in his own agonizing world unable to walk out of his mental prison. Ma could never relate to this because for her to talk, to be transparent and to simply ask for help were very ordinary things. Babuji felt that she taunted him and which added to his pains. He retaliated in excessive anger which left her numb and confused. She retorted too but childishly. Actually they both very deeply craved for acceptance, love and understanding, while all that they could give each other was fear, pain and sorrow. They were both very capable adults and rising above circumstances could have done them a world of good, but that was not the plan which providence had for them. However without doubt both of them were absolutely passionate people. As it is often seen with such people, they physically wound themselves rather than abuse their partner. Babuji took to alcohol while Ma took to not eating. Both suffered immensely. The other things about which they both were equally passionate were their three children.
Babuji had joined a British company selling and maintaining heavy mining industry machinery. He was a trained maintenance mechanic. The company was very soon acquired by the Birla group. When I was born, Babuji was posted in West Bengal. But since he was constantly on the move I was born in Mas’ parent’s place and spent a considerable part of my initial three years with them. Being the first grandchild I was spoilt silly. Soma my sister arrived in two years and when she was hardly a year old, Babuji was transferred to Goa. I wouldn’t go and made a lot of fuss. As I was pampered and very obstinate, I didn’t want anybody else except Didama my grandmother. But to Goa, we went. Both Babuji and Ma tried their best to turn me around, to forget my Didama, sometimes with kind words and sometimes with sharp ones accompanied with slaps on the face and back. I guess my inner sadness began in those days. I couldn’t understand why I had to be uprooted and thrown into a strange place with people without my Didama. I used to cry a lot and I still remember those lonely moments. Soma had no such hassles and soon she became the darling of Babuji. She developed asthma and needed extra care and attention. I apparently lost out during this bargain. Somehow Ma managed to befriend me and I reciprocated but I could never regain the lost grounds with Babuji. The distance between us continued to widen. Bikram my brother arrived after a long time. We were still in Goa at that time. Once again when he was hardly a year old Babuji was transferred to Chennai. We moved again.
Initially in Goa Babuji was relatively relaxed, was young and felt that he had a future to look forward to in the organisation. Over the years a lot of this changed after he felt being discriminated when younger qualified engineers were promoted and he got superseded. His frustrations increased and so did his drinking. There were several such bouts but on one occasion I have seen him at home; stone drunk, talking loudly to himself, cursing everyone, and on seeing me he started crying and pleading. I was too small to understand but Ma held me back tightly, not allowing me to go near him, as I wanted to hold and console him. To be fair to him, Babuji was an exceptional father during our Goa days. He loved cooking and eating and he most certainly was an exceptional cook. The taste of his non-veg preparations refuses to leave my tongue even today because I have never ever smelt such aroma nor tasted such a fare. Being Bengalis both my parents were partial towards fish, but Babuji could do magic even with dry fish. Once a month he took me along to watch an English movie. I remember watching movies like Tarzan, War of the Worlds, Hercules, Enter the Dragon along with him, just the two of us. On a couple of occasions he took me to restaurants for good food. He encouraged me to play football and cricket with the village boys. He took me along for the weekly shopping into the sunday town market. He taught me to distinguish between fresh and stale fish, to choose vegetables. Once at the weekly market I encountered huge strange creatures, he explained that they were tortoise and were being sold for meat. I was introduced to the ‘Illustrated weekly Of India’ by him. He used to buy various comic books exclusively for me. He inculcated the reading habit in me. However over time he became short tempered and I slowly started to avoid him. He was promised a promotion along with a training stint in America provided he shifted to Chennai. He grabbed it with both hands, and things improved slightly for him at the office, but then slightly. Babuji’s oft repeated declaration was “I can give my children only two things, good health and good education”. On numerous evenings after dinner he used to lecture the three of us about life in general. Those were not conversations and we just had to listen. Biki (my brother Bikram) took a heavy brunt of his dosages being the youngest and hopelessly without reasons to escape. After about nine years at Chennai, we shifted to Nagpur where he finally got a table job away from field duty but he was nearing his retirement. After his superannuation, Soma got married. Thankfully she chose her life partner because he would never have been able to. His life ended a bit early due to high blood pressure, liver cirrhosis and severe diabetes. He developed gangrene on one leg. The end of his life was lonely and painful.
Ma was a mixed bag. She had several great as well as weak qualities. At times she would soar with the eagles high in the sky and then on another moment you could find her crying in anguish at all her troubles. Over the twenty-five odd years that I had come to know her, I developed love and respect for an amazing woman. Finally I saw her disintegrate in front of my eyes. Language was never a barrier with her. She knew Bengali well, and a few words of Hindi but that much was enough for her to strike friendship with the local women folk in Konkani Goa, Tamil Chennai and Marathi Nagpur. She could talk for hours at a stretch, understand and make herself understood, with gestures and other means. Astonishingly the local ladies would always meet up with her and liked to talk to her. The initial years in Goa were her best years. Atleast twice a week in the evenings she took Soma and me to the only garden in Margao by bus. Once a week she had to run along with Neela didi with us in tow to the movie theatre. The rest of the week was reserved for visiting some Bengali friends place or they would come over. After the initial years the difficulty of living with Babuji got to her. She started to sink inside. She started to skip food, she would remain unhappy and tense, she lost her sleep and moved on to sleeping with the aid of pills which later turned into an addiction, she took to chewing betel-nut leaf with zarda (tobacco) so as to induce a sleepy state, slowly she progressed into chronic depression. The shift to Chennai brought out the best in her. Babuji dropped us off and proceeded to America for the initial few months. I remember moving with Ma from school to school for mine and Soma’s admission. The three of us did not know Tamil, but we travelled by local city bus or just walked kilometers after kilometer with Biki in her arms. Ma learnt to operate the Bank account, got to learn the Tamil equivalent names of essential commodities, to shop and cook and take care of all three children on her own. When Babuji came back home, Ma relapsed into depression. At Chennai Babuji suffered his first heart attack on the eve of the day when we all were supposed to leave for Ranigang (Ma’s maternal place). He simply accused her of poisoning him. She fought back vehemently against the accusation but ultimately gave up. Chennai was a huge city and the cost of living was high, so she had to give up her love of Hindi movies. Ma taught me to laugh at mistakes, to accept things as they are, to cook, to sew, to wash and clean. She also took a lot of anger and frustration from me, without a murmur of complaint, when infact they were directed at Babuji. She was the person by my side when I shaved for the first time just to appreciate the clean after shave look. She was the one who arranged cash to buy my first bicycle by asking her father to send it. She was the one who every year without fail organized the Bhai-Phota celebrations between us siblings, which we still continue. Ma was a shadow of herself when we moved into Nagpur. She wanted me to grow up fast and become self-dependent, so that she could stay with me and away from Babuji. She was at her breaking point when I decided that I wanted to take up the CA course and study for another three years. I never realized this but she saw her only chance of survival evaporate in thin air. One day soon after, she simply set herself on fire, to put an end to her agony. I continue to remain with the guilt that I lost Ma because of my selfish reasons.
I end this piece here. It has been a story of ordinary human beings, of their tearful memories, of my paradise lost. It has been an attempt to shed some load of my chest. It does not matter whether anybody reads this, nor does it matter if anybody mocks. I have gained by writing this, some insights and some more space to absorb.