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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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).