Maa- Few memories

My first memories of Maa are of a woman in a Taant saree, wrapped in Bong style, fussing around the home. Always associated delicious aromas with her. Cooking up a warm meal for us in the cold Jodhpur evenings, Dadabhai and I would finish the chapatis before the next one came down from the stove. She was not a great cook in the strict sense of the word, but she fed us enough and proper, home cooked, rice in the day, chapati in the night, even when I try I still can’t get the same taste. I guess she poured a dose full of love in her creations.

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The beauty of the youth

Maa, beautiful and declared incompetent, mostly because she bore the brunt of Baba’s wrath, was a philosopher and quiet personality. Her passions in life were literature, drama, music and God. A person who went about her tasks quietly, unlike most other Indian females of that generation, but who was mentally strong enough to fight with her husband for her rights and later with Cancer. A person of few words, she could act, write, recite, direct and sing beautifully in multiple languages. Quite an opposite personality to the extrovert Baba, she would be mostly found immersed in a book or smiling indulgently at his loud bong jokes. As I grew into my primary school days, I adored her multiple facets. She was a fantastic storyteller. Her recitation of Tagore had me mesmerised and at times I would cry uncontrollably as the story ended, feeling the pain of the characters along with the undulations of her voice. I wish I had recorded that treasure house. The next generation in our family was equally blessed with her stories of “Ek Haath lamba Aadmi” (The man as tall as the arm) and so many others.

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In her college days

A few years later I started taking advantage of her gullible nature. She could never say no to me, I would play for ever, lie to her face, did whatever I wanted and she indulged me. But at times influenced by the interfering neighbours, she had this incredible vision of a docile daughter. One day, she stated, today you are not going to play with the boys, sit at home like a girl. I fell from the seventh heaven, what happened to my docile Maa, what’s wrong with you?  I begged, cried, please, I must go; my friends are waiting. But she was determined. Finally, when all means of persuasion failed, I was dramatic enough to fall on her feet (actually) and begged her to let me go, today is the last day of my happiness, I am ready to stay a prisoner for the rest of my childhood. She just laughed her hyena laugh (at least that is what It felt that time) and proclaimed, No. To hell with all niceties, I got up, opened the front door and walked out to play. She still never said anything. I sometimes think she was incapable of scolding us kids. When Dadabhai and I used to fight, she would come and make a feeble attempt at scolding us and we would start laughing and forgot the reason why we were fighting in the first place.

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Playing an old woman in her thirties

The Banerjee family had the tradition of falling ill one after another, first I would start with the cough, followed by Dadabhai running away with his nose. Interestingly, when we got the flu, as they say, we would be firmly put in bed, covered with three blankets up to the neck, temperature measured every 3 hours with the thermometer stuck into the mouth between coughs and sneezes; while Maa would be coughing away, cover herself with a thick shawl and stagger to the kitchen to cook up something bland for us. And then my dear Baba, would fall sick, all he would do is hold Maa’s hand and cry that this time he was definitely dying and he wanted his entire family around him for his last few precious moments. I guess he got the man-flu that made him sicker than the rest of us mere mortals. But finally when Maa succumbed, we all would have recovered and just left her to tend for herself. What a selfish family we were!

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The Banerjee’s in the 70’s

I used to share everything with her. The bond that we had can’t be explained. We spoke about sex, love, philosophy, books, life, anything under the sun, no taboos. In the 70’s and 80’s, where majority of India was so prude, I had such a great thing going where I could ask my questions to my friend, philosopher and guide. I learnt compassion from her, the caring nature that she implicitly had, I got in my genes. Now people say I also look like her, that is probably the best compliment I can get. There are times when we did not need words to communicate. We just understood and the eyes would twinkle, and lips slightly curl.

Of course she had her weaknesses. She was hopelessly inadept in household work, couldn’t see dust under her nose. Had no idea of how to manage money, having been patriarchally shielded by my grandfather earlier and later by Baba. A working woman throughout her life, first as an English teacher in school and later in a college. M.A twice over, she never knew how much she earned, never bought jewellery in her entire life and rarely bought expensive sarees. As I grew older, she started relying on me to manage gifts for relations, buying a bra for her, getting household items, because she would not go to the market to buy for herself. She was superstitious to the S, sit down, if you have sneezed, black cat crossing types. Any gift had to be vetted for a week. If anything, even slightly negative happened, the gift would be wrapped up and go into the extreme gut of the almirah, never to be seen again.

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An epitome of simplicity- even on her daughter’s wedding day

She was so into culture and literature, I gave her a rude shock when I declared I wanted to marry my now husband. Her first and strongest reaction was “How can you marry a non-Bengali?” In her mind it was clear that there were only two classes- Bongs and the rest of the world. And of course, Bengalis are the elite ones, how can anyone even think of competing with Rabindra Nath Tagore and Uttam Kumar, Shuchitra Sen, the literature and एकला चोलो रे and the rich history? How could I stoop low enough to give up the cultural heritage and other such blahs for matters of the heart? When I said it doesn’t matter to me- she could not believe her ears- are you my daughter? Is this the संस्कार that I taught you?  Her next problem was “he is so dark; your kids will not be fair”. Long story short, she relented after a long time and was quite happy with the prodigy produced.

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One of my most treasured moments- smiling away

Oh, I love her so much. When she looked after me, and when I looked after her. When I lived with her and when she lived with me. When I was her child, and when she was my child. I don’t want to talk about her later years. She lost interest in God after multiple illnesses that ate her away. She would say, if God did this to me, enough though I prayed all my life, I am denouncing God. And she did. She stopped praying, looking at the idols. She stopped crying. But she felt, how she felt, her looks said it, her writing said it, she was strong enough never to break down. She lived on and fought on for almost a decade. Fought on till her last breath. Then she gave in. Last year. The morning after Dusshera. But never once did she say I am in pain, always “bhalo achi” (I am good).

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The waiting room

Reminds you of the railway station, the crowd and cacophony, the chai and the stink. Train whistles, the incomprehensible announcements and the strain to listen for your own train. But this is a different waiting room.

Here only those people wait, whose trains have derailed, or are about to. They are trying to repair the tracks, push and pull to get the train back on track and somehow make it run, so they can leave for home. A few never do. 

Here they dont say ” train no so and so has arrived on platform number so and so.” Here it is ” Bed no 102″ and Kamble and Banerjee, the names and the numbers, and the call to feed or meet the doctor or sign something you have not read.

I am in the waiting room of an ICU. All around me is chaos. Sea of people, waiting to catch a glimpse of their loved ones, waiting for that ray of hope, that word from the doctor that can change despair to a smile or bring a frown and a tear. Noisy, crying, sharing, yet so distant from it all. Hearing it all, but not absorbing.

Hospitals are a part of life. And death. I am at the same place I was slightly more than two years ago. Same hospital, same ICU, same waiting room. I lost Baba here. He was already lost, but here I lost his physical being. All around me are faces, in despair, but still hopeful as they cross the nights of nightmares. 

When you think it cant get any worse, it does. And we get used to that and then there is a new low. How much the human mind can accept and get on with life, feels like a trial and error test.

Why does she have to suffer so much? In the past so many years, I have seen her lose her speech and her smile, her walk and her zest for life. A vegetable, that breathes and swallows, with a beating heart. That is about it. Just pain and more pain, which she doesn’t feel, or maybe feels and does not  express. Cancers, and then free from cancers. But not from this hell called dependence. Not from this journey that is a constant struggle for survival.

Who will I take home from here, a whole being or a part? A person who always smiled at me, now closes her eyes and shrinks away as I talk to her, or touch her.

Do your job, dont worry about the consequences. I was reminded today. Do your best, dont expect anything. Maybe that is the learning. And emotions? That are ready to flow, that have to be pushed back because there is so much to be done.

I try to work. In an effort to remain sane. Not break. I have to be strong and stronger, specially when I am powerless. Someone else pulls the strings and we dance. I do- the biggest fallacy. Who are we? Who am I? My face is expressionless, as I listen to the doctor’s verdict. Impassive but with a storm inside. 

Life sucks. Death sucks more. But maybe it is the end of suffering, pain and despair. But can’t it be painless? Among so much pain and pleasure, something goes on- that they call life, as it sits in the waiting room, for death. Somebody give respite from it all,  she needs to rest. In peace. 

The final journey

It is not easy. To be 80, weak, not understand what is going on, feel pain and not know the reason why. But life takes you there. If there is one absolute truth I have learnt in the past few weeks, it is that pain is universal. Pain does not leave you till your last breath.

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A few weeks ago, we brought my parents’ home. Settled them down in a nice airy apartment with attendants constantly managing all their needs of food, sanitation, entertainment and health. I would see them every morning before leaving for work and every evening after coming back home.

First week was relatively good. Baba kept on “Umaji’ing” for a while, he would want to watch “romantic movies” on the television, would want to go to the bank to get “taka” since he knew he had to pay his attendant when she shaved him. His diet showed a marginal improvement.

Second week he had mild cough and the doctor gave him some antibiotics. He was weak but his diet was ok, his fever subsided quickly and he was ready to start his physio end of the week.

The physiotherapist took one look at him and said he is too weak, but we can try. And he did try to stand on his bony legs, did all his exercises mostly passively, resisting when it pained making a grimace. That was the last week he stood on his own two legs.

The fourth week everything changed. He was drowsy. He slept through the day and the night. He slept like never before, like a child who had been deprived of sleep for ages. For a person who mostly needed meds for sleeping this was absolutely alarming. You had to wake him to feed him, he would open his eyes with effort and promptly go to sleep again with his mouth open. I knew this was not good. We got his vitals tested. His physician said he should see a neurologist. We spoke to a couple to come home but then nobody was willing, and we toyed with the idea of taking him to the hospital for a proper neurological checkup.

Friday 3 July evening, Baba started sinking and perceptibly gasping for breath, his oxygen level and pressure started dropping and we had to rush him to the hospital. He was put on ventilator and taken to ICU. He stabilized for a while there, BP and saturation came back to normal but he was unresponsive, drowsy, kidney functions not normal, creatinine was rising, sodium was high ( Having dealt with multiple patients at home, I am an internet-trained-quack myself). His Brain MRI spoke volumes. It basically explained why he sometimes thought he was 40 and sometimes 90. Part of his brain were not functioning (lacunar infarct) due to some emboli that may have happened maybe sometime in the past 3 months.  My brother, husband and I, all silent witnesses to everything, there was nothing we could really do.

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ICU is terrifying. I witnessed two demise right there in those fateful 5 days. Heard stories of people with serious illnesses, dealing with far more issues, people who were there for weeks and months, people who had still not given up. It is all so morbid and makes you feel completely helpless. What can I do? Nothing except wait day and night outside the door to see the doctor and find out how he is, any better, with hopeless eyes. Go in and see him with multiple tubes sticking through him and machines living the life for him, swollen arms and feet, drowsy eyes, haggard cheeks, blank eyes. The sight was drowning me, and then saying with a smiling face- Good Morning, holding his cold hands, reminding the nurse to give him 2 blankets since he would find the place very cold, gazing into his eyes to search for that spark of recognition, which never came.

Tuesday evening 7.30, his doctor gave his verdict. He did not mince his words. He said Baba is terminal. Multiple organs were failing and he did not expect a recovery. And then he asked- what do you want to do. And we said unanimously – we want to take him home. I had promised my mom I will bring him home. She had been looking at the empty bed every day with tearful eyes and a questioning silence. The doctor said- That is what I wanted you to say. And we brought him home the next day, with little hope, but a strong resolve. I have been told that is a very brave thing to do but I did not really feel brave, I knew he was slipping away and I wanted him next to Maa.

8th, we brought him home for the last time. We were so relieved that he was breathing well without the ventilator, he opened his eyes, looked at everyone and everything. We had so much food that day, like we had been starving for days. Got his meds and air bed and oxygen concentrator and everything else he would require for the next few weeks. Wishing for a few more days of life.

He had his feed and medicines, all through the pipe and went to sleep at around 9-9.30 pm. We went for dinner. 9.40, the nurse called, he is not breathing. We rushed. His pulse was normal, his oxygen level was normal, but we could not see his chest heaving. None of us had witnessed death, we kept on looking for the heartbeat, trying to feed him water so that he would pass urine, shaking him to see if his eyes would open. He looked so peaceful, and I could almost imagine him suddenly opening his eyes and smiling- Oh I gave you a scare, did I? But that is filmy. 10.30 the doctor came. The world had turned hazy and timeless by then, everyone was talking but I could not hear a thing, it is like I was going through a sound barrier. The doctor did his duty. My mom did not cry. She still has not cried.

I have been haunted by the if’s and maybe’s. If I had brought him here earlier, if I had seen the issues early enough, maybe if we did not bring him home and was still in the hospital. Running to Jodhpur every month for the past few months had become a habit. People tell me he is at peace, he has handed over Maa to you and he has seen everything with his own eyes and hence he is relaxed. But I am on a guilt trip, guilty because I breathe, eat and sleep and work and watch TV and go about my normal duties. Guilty because it is too soon. Guilty because I always focused on Maa more and refused to understand Baba’s depression. Guilty because I was powerless to do anything. This was not my will.

Looking at him just before cremation, and then what was left of him post that, I finally understand the meaning of dust to dust, ashes to ashes. I don’t know how many times I touched him that night, went to see if he was feeling cold, maybe he will wake up and ask why is the room so cold. As he was tied down to the – I don’t know what it is called- I was thinking it would hurt him, but he is beyond pain. As he was put into the electric pyre, I felt the burning sensation that he would feel. But he is beyond feeling. The realization dawned that I am never going to see him again.

Last 10 days the rituals have kept us all busy. Leaving with no time to think and mourn. Maybe that is the intention. That is what human nature is like, we move on. There are more important things, like taking care of my mom. So many people turned up at Jodhpur, his old friends, colleagues, the Bengali community and family. Oh he was so jolly, relived the pain  with them again as they spoke about him, cried and remembered all that was good about him. Crying is easy. Crying is selfish. I am not going to be selfish.

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It is strange to see everything around so normal. The sun still shines, the traffic is still the same, same serials on TV, but smiling is a little tougher, especially when I am alone. We talk normally, eat and sleep. I look at Maa and smile for her. She does the same, mentally we are both giving strength to each other. I know I will watch movies and go out for dinner and start enjoying life all over again. With my son here for his holidays, it is important to take care of the people who are alive and who need me.