Baboo and Sonia

FullSizeRender 2

 

The person Sonia most wanted to tell the news to was Baboo.

He had been so scared, so apprehensive when he had first heard.

He had called up all his friends in a state of panic.

Baboo was what Sonia called her father. He had been a doctor, a well- known and prominent one in his own field. After retiring far from the city to revel in Himalayan grandeur for the rest of his life, he became a widower. That is when Sonia first started interacting with Baboo on a daily basis. Everyday she would call up and they would talk.

“ How are you Baboo?”

“ Today my blood pressure was normal. I had coffee and Sita made me some mushroom soup with oats in it.”

Sita was his housekeeper. She cooked, cleaned, looked after him. In fact, her whole family who lived in the outhouse helped take care of him. They were a hill family, from Nepal. They had no identification or money when they had come to Baboo and his wife for work. Sita and her husband were illiterates. Their children started school as they worked in Baboo’s house. Their children learnt to read. Eventually, Baboo had them register for an adhar card (identity card in India) and had seen to it that they had a bank account when the prime minister initiated the bank wave for the downtrodden.

“The papayas have ripened in the garden. And the mali (gardener) harvested a few kilos of litchi… I will give some to Jaya Das and Captain Singh,” he would go on to say.

Jaya Das and Captain Singh were his friends.

Sonia would just listen.

Another day would be full of complaints.

“ I do not want to live. I feel very alone… very lonely without your mother.”

Sonia would listen with a wringing, helpless heart.

“Do you want to move back to Delhi like Saurabh suggested?” Sonya would ask. Saurabh was her cousin in Delhi and the person she felt closest to in India.

“ I cannot afford it. And physically it is impossible you know. I cannot walk.” Baboo was fiercely and proudly independent. He would not allow anyone else to spend on him, not even his daughter and son-in-law or his nephew.

Sonia would say, “We can organize everything for you.”

“ How? While sitting in Singapore?”

Sonia lived in Singapore with her husband and two children. She had moved back from Bangkok two years after her mother died. Sonia and her husband had been out of India for more than two decades, shuttling from one country to another.

“Saurabh said he would do everything…”

“Impossible! Impossible!” Baboo would shout into the phone. “I came here for spiritual succor. I do not want to move. You will not understand because you do not read Ramakrishna or any of the scriptures…”

Yet at some other times, he would complain of high blood pressure, dizziness and sometimes, he even said he fell down.

Sonia was worried. She did not know what to do…

She spoke to his doctor friends. They recommended scans. But he refused to go for scans and tests. He would say: “I just want to die.”

One Sunday, Sonia had acute pain in the stomach. Her husband rushed her to the hospital. They found a growth in her kidney. Probably cancerous, the doctor said. They did not want to do a biopsy for the fear of infecting other parts with the deadly cells.

Baboo had to be consulted because the urologist spoke of removing the affected kidney. Baboo agreed that was the best option. But he was scared. He did not want to outlive his daughter. He did not want her to die.

In five days, the surgery was performed. Sonia’s brother- in- law, her husband’s younger brother, flew in from Nigeria to be by their side. Friends poured in. At a point, the nurses grumbled because there were ten people in Sonia’s room the evening after her surgery.

But Baboo, he struggled with his emotions alone. He wanted to be by his daughter. Physically, it was impossible. He could not walk because of the huge fibroid on his spine. He felt shattered and helpless. He had called up his grandson during the surgery. His son-in-law had spoken to him later to reassure him. But not his daughter!

At last she spoke to him. He wanted her to rest and recover.

Sonia felt she was doing well.

Two days after her surgery, Sonia sent birthday wishes to an old school friend. They had all crossed fifty. He too was a cancer survivor. And the next day, she discovered, the announcement of his death on Facebook.

That stunned her a bit! She sent her condolences.

She still remembered the date 18 th August.

Sonya had drifted into nostalgia… recalling how in high school, they had all travelled to Almora and had a whale of a time during their school trip… and suddenly, he was gone. She had a surgery but he died. Strange were the ways of God!

A few days later, she heard her one of closest friends from University had died of breast cancer. She had been so out of touch with her friends that the news came to her as a shock. Whenever she went to India, she was visiting Baboo or her mother-in-law who was a widow. She had no time for friends. She spoke to her mother-in- law too every other day. She did not tell the old folks about her friends’ deaths. They would just get upset!

When Sonia returned after the surgery, Baboo spoke to her for long.

“ It may not be cancer you know. After all, you had no symptoms till the pain. And cancer is normally not painful…”

Two weeks later, the doctor met Sonia and her husband. He confirmed the tests had shown the growth to be cancerous, “T2 stage with a focus on T3” read her report. However, the cancer had not spread anywhere else by all parameters tested. The doctor urged her to send the report to her father so that he would not worry anymore. Of course, she would have to do PET scans for the next five years. The pain had been from another intestinal infection which had been treated by antibiotics during her hospital stay.

Sonia returned home jubilant that she was going to be fine. But Baboo could not let go of his apprehension… what if… his child died? His mother had died. His wife had died and now his daughter…

Sonia tried to convince him on Skype.

“Baboo, I am not going to die. I have been cleared off cancer. I sent you the report. You yourself have seen I will be fine. Many people live for years with one kidney. I am a survivor.”

Two months after the surgery, the ‘survivor’ went for a walk at night with her husband, she again had an acute pain. This time, she noticed a lump near the wound. The next day the doctor sent her for a scan and a hernia was confirmed. It seems there had been a rupture in the mucus membrane when the doctors moved her intestine to pull out the bagged kidney during the partial laparoscopy. She would need another surgery four months later. They needed to give six months time for the wound to heal.

Baboo was furious. “All this would not have happened if they did an open surgery. I had told you to tell the doctor not to do a partial laparoscopy. It is entirely the doctor’s fault…”

Sonia had no choice but to agree to go through the surgery. She could not fight medical decisions. She was at the mercy of the doctor’s scalpel. She did not even want to get into the blame game. The doctor put her state down to her obesity. Sonia had more than doubled as had her chin in the last almost three decades of happily married life.

This whole medical journey had been stressful for her whole family. But she was proud of the way her children and husband had handled it, making her feel cherished and wanted at every point, yet not weighing her down with a sense of helplessness or fatality.

Sonia just wanted to get well and be out of the hospital.

“I just want to get well doctor as fast as possible,” said Sonia during her pre-surgical visits. “I have no time to die.” The doctor was amused.

Baboo continued inconsolable. He felt he was being punished for not having stayed by his mother as she breathed her last. It was retribution, he said. He still remembered her crying and begging him to stay back. But he had to take his wife back to Dehradun. He had always chosen his wife above all others, but he had not attained moksha (freedom from cycle of birth, a Hindu belief) and now, he had the additional burden of worrying about his daughter. He wanted to die, to die before his daughter… He was scared that cancer would creep through her entrails to snatch her away from him. She was all he had!

Baboo wanted to die but most feared death.

He always worried about what would happen after death. He tried giving detailed instructions to his daughter when she exclaimed in exasperation, “In my current condition, I am more likely to die than you!”

That day Baboo was very sad and worried.

Sonia insisted Baboo come to her every year for a couple of months so that she could look after him in her own home ever since he had become a widower. It was impossible to move him out of India at eighty permanently, given all the health issues and his attitudes. (He liked to tell the doctors what medicines to give him without conducting any tests and hated to be crossed!) This was the best she could do. Baboo had his passport renewed and tickets in his pocket when he flew to Delhi.

Sonia’s surgery was done and she would be back home in a couple of days. It was a big surgery with thirty per cent of her guts sticking to the wound. Two hours is what it took for her to be out of the surgery, which was still lesser than the five hours that she faced during her last surgery.

Baboo had reached Delhi. He was fine.

Sonia had asked her Indonesian housekeeper to buy three kilos of fish as Baboo loved fish and would be with her in a couple of days. She felt elated. She was being released from the hospital that day. She was going to get well! Her father would be with her as she recuperated and all would be well soon!

And then, a call came from her uncle. Her father had collapsed!

Sonia’s happiness collapsed!

Baboo was staying in the hospital he had made in Delhi to get his medical check up done. The night after he reached Delhi, he was found senseless on the floor by a senior matron. The doctors said severe septicemia. They tried to revive him. He spoke to his daughter when he could. His family, largely in Delhi, cooked his favorite foods for him. They stayed at his bedside as did his friends and staff. Everyone loved him, adored him and cherished him… He spoke to Sonia… she said she would come… as soon as she could.

Baboo collapsed again. And then he was in the ICCU. Sonia flew down with her husband, three weeks into her surgery… there he was. She had been given three days by her doctor — three days to see her father.

She tried to talk to him, to wake him up. But he just lay there with all the pipes sticking out of him — once he opened his blue grey eyes but there was no acknowledgement in them. The doctors said that it was a reflex. Sonia felt she saw a glimmer.

Did the pipes hurt him, especially after they drilled a hole into his neck to pump out the phlegm? Was such a procedure necessary… the desecration of his body? Would he want it? Sonia wondered.

After those three days, Sonia had to fly back to care for herself. She did not know how much longer he would linger… or maybe, recover… If he were well enough to come back to his senses, what would they do to the hole in his neck, the pipe inserted by tracheostomy? Could he live with that? How would he talk to her on the phone? Or talk to anyone?

As the airport staff in Singapore, wheeled Sonia on the wheelchair, she checked her what’s ap. There was a message from her cousin, “ Baboo has passed on peacefully.”

Had the cycle come full?

Sonia was not there when he died as he was not there when his mother had died. Had he been scared? Did he know he was dying after the last collapse?

Three months after the second surgery, the doctor announced Sonia cancer free following a PET scan. She still had four more scans to go… but she was sure she was a survivor.

But where was Baboo the person who should have been jubilating her cancer – free results?

 

 

Advertisements

To believe or not to believe…

IMG_0434
John Barrymore as Hamlet (1922)

To be, or not to be, that is the question

— Hamlet, Shakespeare, Act 3, scene 1

 

To believe or not to believe has become the dilemma of the twentieth century intellectual with Stephen Hawking paving the way to disbelief.

As we bow down under the weight of existentialist dilemmas and develop six packs and slim abs, we profess not to believe what we cannot see. Some even trace it to religion being divisive, creating barriers and brainwashing humankind with ritualistic and typified role playing.

The term atheism has its etymological roots deep in 5 th century BCE. However, it came into play only around the French revolution. And then as the disbelievers grew in numbers, people did surveys. According to studies done in the last decade, less than fifteen percent of the world population do not believe.

Looking at the historic evolution of disbelievers, I would say they have been and continue to remain a minority, except perhaps in China where the red revolution wiped away all gods except communism. Even if the current government is restoring holidays during older festivals along with Mao’s birthday and Chinese new year, the wounds that lacerated the theists will take time to heal. After Mao and free thinking took its toll, a survey taken in 2015 stated 61 per cent of the population were atheists!

I feel in most of the non-communist world,  disbelief has remained the privilege of those who have the education and time to debate and question.

However in China, where I spent eight years, my Ayi ( my housekeeper, literal translation aunty) from Xian told me how she remembered the soldiers coming and destroying their family altar and asking them to replace it with Mao’s picture. That must not have been a very easy situation for believers. The post Mao university educated youth in China mostly informed me they were ‘free thinkers’. I really do not understand what that means since all of us are free thinkers. We are all free to think what we like. Though I did notice one thing, the mass sterilization of religious beliefs made people more docile and tolerant; or was it centuries of subservience, first to emperors and then to political ideology( twentieth century guru Harari called communism a ‘religion’), that had made them docile?

I wonder if Mao could have converted all of the population in the area we label India now into becoming disbelievers or free thinkers as in China? Would the people have forgone centuries of belief and spiritual quest to take on the yolk of a new belief system?

The vehemence with which people react to belief and disbelief is in itself astounding. Mobs form, political parties make it their agenda. There have been Klu Klux Klan-like reactions all over the world towards religion or the lack of it. The nineteenth century white supremacist group was not only anti-black but also developed sentiments that were  anti-Catholic and anti-immigration. Though there were laws to subdue the hate group, did these sentiments die out or are they still simmering secretly?

The rise of Modi in India has brought to the fore the large divide between the formerly voiceless non-monied and the monied with loud voices. In The Billionaire Raj (2018), James Crabtree talks of how the non-monied masses reacted to speeches directed against the divide that existed between the unschooled non-affluent masses and the elitist, affluent population, who despite being lesser in number were more vocal. Religion or perhaps, we should say practices and rituals, for the non-monied was a way of life and continued being so; the fanning of differences already having been instilled by the divide and rule used by the the erstwhile British Raj.

Dominique La Pierre and Larry Collins in Freedom at Midnight (1975)  talk of how independence for each Indian meant a different thing. Some rejoiced. And some wept. Eminent lawyer and journalist Khushwant Singh who had lost his home in the other nation recalled:“I had nothing to rejoice about. For me and millions like me (in both India and Pakistan), this Independence Day was a tragedy, They mutilated Punjab, and I had lost everything.” In this case, it was called religious rioting.

Did the difference in beliefs exist all along and, therefore, could be fanned leading to a state of orgiastic frenzy that ultimately led to mass killings? Was it any different from what the Red Army did in China? Historically, is it differences in faith that lead to war or is it a lust for power, land and wealth cloaked behind a system of beliefs?

The thing that frightens me most is the intolerant violence with which people believe or disbelieve — perhaps much in the tradition of big Endians and little Endians (from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels).

In China, the Red Army has been quietened. There are no strong reactions or mobs. These have all been outlawed. People seem happy. Once, in a while, the government subdues protests or anger against some people or situation. But, more or less, all is quiet on the Chinese population front, with due apologies to Erich Maria Remarque. But on the other hand, few young university educated free thinking Chinese friends told me that dilletante activities like writing books had also been purged in China… Intellectuals had been purged…

While my atheist friends continue to disbelieve, I wonder, is it only in God, or in things related to creation myths, to the existence of light and dark, to the existence of anything they cannot see or invent themselves? It is good to question. However, I do not fancy reinventing the wheel or the alphabet. I would much rather use one for travel and the other for writing out my ideas.

Sometimes, I wonder how ideas come into my head? Who creates thoughts? Who or what puts it there? Why is it I have an urge to write and Madonna sings like a lark? What is the phenomenon that created DNA? Who decides how and when life forms are created  to populate earth? Who or what made the Big Bang happen so that we all came into existence? Who or what creates and destroys life? Do we have right to destroy that which we cannot make?

 

 

 

 

 

 

In quest…

Vibrancy, warmth and colors are what Indophiles find in the India they love. Ruskin Bond, who went as far as to become an Indian, adds to it the love of the hills and the interactions he has with people in that region. He talks of tall swishing trees, hills that beckon and how he made a concerted efforts to return to the India where he spent his childhood from Jersey in the Channel islands, somewhere in between France and England, in his book, Rain in the Mountains:

“One night I was walking alone along the beach. There was a strong wind blowing, dashing the salt spray in my face, and the sea was crashing against the St Helier rocks. I told myself: I will go to London; I will take up a job; I will finish my book; I will find a publisher; I will save money and return to India, because I am happier there than here.”

Ruskin Bond’s own return to India was in quest of happiness much as Indian youth leave their country to adopt USA in their mythical search for a better life, and in that sense contentment. There was a time when those who dreamt big came to India for spiritual succor before conquering the world with the their humongous visions; Bill Gates and Steve Jobs were among these. I am not one to critique moves to different countries in search of happiness, for learning new things or just for survival. Think of it, if everyone stayed forever in the country where they were born, all the human race would have continued in central Africa forever with great to the power millions grandmother, Lucy, and her family…

Recently, I read an article in Hindu, which started with a blurb saying “Travelling in the 50s and 60s, Odia writer Chittaranjan Das realised that the only way to become an Indian was to first become an Asian and then a world citizen.” What a fantastic holistic thought from a writer who thrived in an era where mankind started to stumble under the narrow walls of partisanship and political nationalism!

The article on Chittaranjan Das makes me wonder what I, an Indian-born, consider to be the attributes of those populating the country of my birth.

The simple answer is I do not know.

With a cultural diversity that houses thousands of mother tongues (19,500 in 2018), India remains an enigma to me. Most cultures would have their own distinct rituals and beliefs and each one of them cannot be called anything other than Indian. A simple example would be the stories behind each festival. I know a few around the major Hindu festival of Diwali; some Ram centric, some Krishna centric, some Vishnu centric and, in Bengal, Kali centric — all these are different deities in Hinduism itself. Jainism and Sikhism have celebrations around the same period for different reasons. India hosts more than half-a-dozen major religions with myths and legends modifying the  rituals and customs by local needs. Indian cuisine too is of such a wide variety. It includes an IMG_0384indigenised interpretation of Chinese food, which can be had nowhere else in the world and is a favorite with many in India, a fusion of cuisine developed by Chinese who migrated during the Opium wars and Mao’s regime. Then how can one define food, values or a composite culture that is Indian?

When I read the travels of Marco Polo, I was struck by his mentioning Russians in India and how many races thrived within the region. Of course his concept of India has to be taken with a pinch of salt. We also need to understand his concept of the country could not be what was defined by Radcliffe five hundred years later and accepted by the billions living across India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the rest of the world without a question. Polo probably felt all cultures outside that of Italian were novelties when he started travelling at the age of sixteen. However, having spent a long time in the Kublai Khan’s court before making it to India, he was more likely to be open than most, even if he is regarded as a bit of a charlatan. But one thing that I understood with my reading of Marco Polo was that India was the melting pot of diverse cultures and the geographical definition of India varied, thus making it more a concept than a national entity.

Nationalism as a concept started to develop only around the eighteenth century in England and Europe, after industrialization and French Revolution became a reality. When Marco Polo adventured into Asia from Europe, such travel was rare and long- drawn. With the onset of jet travel, time has ceased to be a constraint for crossing distances. Now it is borders drawn by nationalism. All the borders, of nations, cultures, religions and races are ones that are defined by man, by what twentieth century guru Yuval Noah Harari would probably call ‘orders‘ or ‘tribes’.

IMG_0379
Sphinx-like and griffin-like carvings in Ellora?

The other thing that struck me in my travels within India were sculptures of griffins and sphinx-like creatures introduced into the ancient frescoes of Ellora, an architectural marvel hewn into rocks between 600 to 1000 CE. In the midst of sculptures depicting Hindu mythological lore, a few odd looking creatures that resemble griffins and sphinxes blend into arrays of elephants. How and why did these get here? Did at some point a worker travel across to India from Africa or Europe, carrying with him the concept of a griffin or a sphinx and hew it into the rocks of Ellora? Was such travel to find work in multi- cultural India a norm in those days, when even Marco Polo had not set foot in China?

Again, I do not know… but I do love Chittaranjan Das’s perception that to be an Indian is to be a citizen of the world; Tagore’s perception of the mind being a fearless entity that would look for larger answers than just nationalism, being above narrow, parochial thought processes; Bhupen Hazarika’s concept of being a wanderer which he put to words in his well known song, Aami Ek Jajabar(I am a wanderer)

And in this spirit of openness and multi-culturalism, I celebrate my own humanness…

 

 

 

 

 

 

In Memoriam…

 

I would like to remember my father as a happy man, playing his mouth organ, sitting in the garden in Dehradun and savoring the snows ranges of the Himalayas that surround the Doon valley and the dream home he made for his retirement; the warmth of the winter sun would fill us to the brim as honey birds hopped and chirped among the lush flower beds and fruit trees…I would like to hear him call out to me in his warm cheerful voice so full of love, tenderness and kindness. I would like to think of him as a vibrant, content, kind human being who has lived his life to the full…

As I got off the plane in Delhi, I got a phone call urging me to ask the hospital to take my father off his life support. But I wanted my father to live. I did not want him dead. I wanted him to have every chance to come back to normal. I wanted him to call out to me, to touch me, to argue and fight with me, to scold me… I did not want to face the new reality that stared me in the face…

We halted to dump our luggage in my aunt’s house, use the washroom, have a cup of tea and rush to the ICCU (Intensive Cardiac Care Unit) where my father lay unconscious. My father was lying in a huge ward, plugged to all kinds of gadgets his enclosure curtained off like the dozens of others. This was not the dad I knew…his hands cold from having been in induced coma on a slab of ice. He was moved to a normal bed a few hours before we reached. I kissed his hand as it was the only visible part and his face was too far. The hand had blue dots and it was as cold as ice. My father breathed deeply, a troubled breath on the ventilator. A big ventilator pipe was thrust into his mouth. He occasionally bit the ventilator.

“We had to tie his hands as they tried to pull out the ventilator,” said the attendant nurse helpfully.

“Does that mean he is coming back to consciousness?” I asked against all odds.

“ No. This is reflex.”

I sat and prayed in the armchair near the bed. I thought he would come back. Now that I had reached his bedside, his only daughter, he would come to. I felt sad leaving him. Where was his mind? Where were his thoughts, his conscious will? Was it back in the garden soaring with the birds in the skies? Were they flitting into a new reality filled with light and sunshine? Or was it travelling a path of suffering and pain because he was in a place that he never wanted to be? Please help him get well, O God, I prayed.

My father, a man of compassion and kindness, one who had strong beliefs, a brilliant doctor who tried to demystify the medical profession and find ways of taking healthcare to less privileged masses in India, one who had been very against corporate hospitals which imported high cost medical technology into India to serve anyone who could pay, was now lying in an unconscious state in one such moneyed concern.

“ What will happen if he suddenly wakes up?” I had asked a doctor from his hospital. I asked the same question to the doctor in charge of the ICCU, the counseling doctor.

“ We would love to see that happen. I am waiting for him to wake up and argue with me, to fight with me,” said the counseling doctor.

We waited, leaving my father alone in that impersonal, cold ward where he was just another body to be kept alive.

I had thrown a few warm wears into my suitcase and flown into Delhi from Singapore within a day in the hope of reviving my father and having him back in his hospital, in a way my sibling, because this was a man who loved his ideology and work almost as much as he loved his own daughter. He had left his work and retired to Dehradun more than a decade ago because he believed the time had come for new blood to take over, for them to develop the same values and principles he had, for them to be fully convinced that all humans, rich or poor, deserve the right to medical care. I felt moving him out of his own hospital had been against his ideology, against his wishes. Was it right for a person to choose to what extent he wanted medical support to contain him in this life?

My father had looked for mokshya, a Hindu concept of freedom from birth. He wanted to go into samadhi, a state where a meditating mind is supposed to ascend to unite with the source of all creation or God. Had his mind gone into such a state? Was he talking to God?

I could never understand why people look for this state because life in itself is so beautiful and there is so much to do in this wonderful world. But that he could not achieve this state had been his pet peeve as he waited to die in Dehradun. He said his body hurt. He had a huge fibroid in his spine, his ankles were swollen, his foot was misshapen and my mother died. The last probably made his heart ache more as my parents had an idyllic retirement till she died.

I could never comprehend his move in his last years to a place where he knew very few in quest of God. I also could not understand why he forced retirement on himself till he died.

Yes. He died. With the finality of death, his life ended.

We had managed to move him back to his own hospital while he was still alive. Within a few hours, he passed on.

As I sit by my window and write, looking at the ripples in the river that flows by, I realize why life saddened my father.

He hated the growing divides that are ripping the fabric of healthcare, economy and religion in India. He was saddened by the media projection of the violence all over the world. The media rarely dwells on positive news in India. He was unhappy with how people focus only on their personal needs and development and not on the needs of mankind. He was frustrated that majority did not understand the need for human excellence, where man would through unstructured learning, find the best in himself to serve humanity. Human excellence, for him, combined spirituality, happiness, ancient learning, with unstructured and structured learning to create a concept of holistic compassionate health care affordable to masses. He wanted to write a book and create a center for human excellence, again in his dreamland of Dehradun.

But his declining health got in the way of what he wanted to do.

In his death, my father has convinced me that as his daughter I must continue to believe in human excellence and strive towards it in my own field…to show compassion to the aged and less privileged, to lead a life where I can share every word with the whole world.

And somewhere, in the distance, I still feel that enigmatic smile and twinkling eyes fill my heart with happiness to soar with the birds and fly into my own distant realms of imagination…

 

From a hospital bed…

img_0301

And then there was Su Yin.

I never saw her full face. I could only see the eyes and the penciled eyebrows etched above a mask that hid the lower part of her face as her straight thick hair swung while she swept and vigorously mopped the floor. One day she did take off her mask. A pretty young face with pale pink lips perhaps colored artificially, a cheerful face that greets me each morning wishing me good health and offering me a purple orchid as I grapple with post-operative pain.

Su Yin is from Myanmar as are May and My Shine. May and My Shine are nurses. The names are like twittering birds and bring to my mind what I imagine Myanmar would be… green and yellow fields and muddy lanes below the vibrant blue skies. There must be so much sunshine there, enough to light up the whole wide world; only if the Rohingyas did not cry in pain, this time not post operative but of losing their homes and lands again and again.

I always imagine that the rivers in Myanmar will be thick and yellow because once, long before I started flitting in and out of hospitals, I went for a ride along the River Kwai (Mae Klong river) in Kanchenburi, Thailand. The river there ran thick and yellow. The boatman told us that on the other bank of the river was Burma… I like to dream of the people of the two countries meeting and greeting along the river as they do in the wards of Singapore.

There are nurses and caregivers from different countries in Asia, helping heal patients from all over the world. What a multi-cultural exchange it is when a young nurse from Phillipines takes my blog details and discusses Harry Potter with me, or a Malaysian nurse chats with me about travel in India or an Indian one, newly arrived out of her country, takes down the details of the shop selling goat meat in the local Tekka market. I even heard a strange retelling of the Rohingya crisis!

Then there are young girls who cheer one up by their sunshiny smiles and call the older nurses ‘ ate’ (elder sister in Tagalog), exuding a charm of old world courtesy and graciousness in an age where children have started to address their parents by first name, a thing that always bothers me. Some of the ates are so gracious, friendly and yet professional. Each time, you achieve a small target, they make you feel like you have won a Nobel Prize and urge you to take the next step towards total healing. There are some who you feel could have been a friend, especially the ones who are moms and have children in teens and twenties. There is so much you find in common and not in common, things you can talk about. Just having this friendly and optimistic atmosphere around helps lift ones spirits and take one towards feeling well and whole again.

The most important thing is that these women, these unsung heroines, did for me what I would not trust anyone to do and, most of the time, with a smile! They sponge, shower, change and give you endless care, without making you feel belittled, till you are able to totter on your own legs and walk back home. The lady from the pantry found ways of appeasing my appetite when mashed and pureed food were my sole diet! Each day, she found a way that I could eat. And that was definitely a challenge!

The biggest thing I noticed was the cheerful optimism that exuded from the women on a daily basis. As I stepped out of my drowsy stupor and started experiencing extreme pain and, subsequently, lesser pain, I had a word of encouragement from each of these ladies till I was ready to walk out of the hospital.

Sometimes, I wonder what drives these women to their profession, often in a distant land, away from their homes and families? They do for absolute strangers what the patients would not trust their own families to do for them. Could it be only money? I think not and, yet, there is a phobia about foreigners worldwide now!

In the wards of the hospital, you find patients and nurses of varied nationalities and faith, including upbeat, optimistic local Singaporean nurses, weaving an ambience of friendship and harmony to heal the patients back to health.

Perhaps, those who build walls between humans could take a page of these ladies’ book and try to see the world in a more global perspective. There is a world beyond making wealth. There is a world of hope, happiness, twittering birds (not tweets and oil and coal), a world in harmony, where as humans we help each other live.

 

 

Pages from the Past

IMG_0278

 

Somya was researching Partition stories with the hope of writing a book. Her fascination with the subject escalated as she delved deeper. One day, a friend, Paulomi Sen, invited her home to meet a lady whose grandmother had suffered from the throes of Partition, the great divide that ripped the Indian subcontinent into multiple nations. The ripping, like all acts of violence, was characterized by brutality and angst. The lacerated wounds refused to heal over generations. And all this happened in a land that had earlier, for multiple centuries, witnessed syncretization of different cultures, creeds and religions.

Paulomi introduced Somya to the grand daughter of the Partition victim, Mona. Mona was a PhD student in her mid-twenties. She had been born and brought up in Singapore. She spoke with a Singlish twang at times with a mild smattering of ‘lahs’ but by and large she stuck to Queen’s English, quite different from the expat Indians who flocked to Singapore in the new millenia.

Somya belonged to the expat category. Singapore had been a difficult country for her to fathom. People had seemed cold and distant when she moved to Singapore in 1991. But what she eventually realized that people just did not know enough about all of India. They were mostly focused on the Southern Indians who were very different from the Northern, Eastern or Western culturally and in appearance. The consciousness had started creeping into the Singapore mindset as the number of expats increased. Somya herself was from Eastern India, West Bengal. That complicated things further as they associated Bengali, her mother tongue, with Bangladesh and Bangladeshi workers. Culturally, she was closer to a Bangladeshi than to a person from Southern India as their food and habits were more similar. A little more than two hundred years ago, when the lines had not been drawn, her ancestors had been chased out of Dhaka by a ruler who historians have described as ‘depraved’ and ‘ cruel’. Her ancestors had made a home in the Dutch colony of Chinsura that fell into the portion of India when the country was sliced. Somya’s family continued Indians and others became East Pakistanis in 1947 and subsequently Bangladeshis in 1971.

Mona was a person of Indian ethnicity but a Singaporean. She valued a past, she said, because the country was young compared to the antiquity of India or China.

As they talked, Somya learnt that Mona’s mother had migrated to Singapore long before she was born. The story grew more and more complex and interesting.

She said, “My mother was a child of the Partition, born in 1948. Actually, my grandmother’s past had forced the family to move out of Calcutta and eventually many of us moved out of India… you know lah… how it is for some families…”

Somya waited for her to continue but Mona was clearly struggling to explain things that may have been unpalatable to her or her family. She was also fumbling with her bag and pulled out a diary from it.

“This is the diary of a tenant who stayed in our ancestral home in Calcutta for some time. There are only a few entries. I have book marked them for you. Most of it is just appointments and meetings. Perhaps, it is best you read it yourself… But please don’t tell anyone that the story is about our family lah. You know how people are lah… “

Somya assured her that her book was fictitious and the diary would only help her recreate a fictional character.

“It was brave of you to come forward with the story in any case,” she concluded.

“ No lah. I came forward because I think that people need to understand that holding on to anger and shame is destructive. One needs to let go of the angst and move forward towards the creation of a better world… you know lah… You can return the diary to me when you finish. There is no hurry. But my family should not be mentioned… please lah…”

“That is a promise,” Somya reassured her.

Somya returned home with the diary and started reading. The diary belonged to Mr Debnath Mukherjee. There were a few written entries only… it was mostly filled with cryptic time schedules for meetings, appointments and deadlines, as Mona had said, except for the entries made on particular dates.

The first entry was located in the middle… on the date of 25 th April, 1973.

Calcutta, 25 th April, 1973

I have decided to write down these strange occurrences in this diary to maintain a record. I have never experienced anything this weird.

I was praying in the prayer room upstairs today when I felt someone had entered. I turned around and stared in surprise.

Before me, stood a woman who looked like the Goddess Durga herself. She was of an indeterminate age; anywhere between twenty-eight and forty-five I would say, clad in a white saree with a red border. Her parting was filled with sindoor. On her forehead was a big bindi and her lips were reddened with betel juice. Hip length hair fell in dark ripples down her back. Her feet were defined by the alta on it. Her head was partially covered with the pallu of her saree. Strangely, her clothes seemed a bit damp though I never touched them. In her hands, she held a copperplate of offerings for prayers with flowers, sweets, a small brass or copper container with water and a lamp. She smiled at me and beckoned…

I felt compelled to follow. I followed the mysterious woman.

She led me to the courtyard. It seemed to have changed completely… what had happened? I moved as if in a trance behind her.

A huge bonfire burnt in the middle of the courtyard. And a sturdy Brahmin priest in a traditional dhoti was feeding the flames with papers and books and shouting, “Om Agni swaha! Om Agni swaha!”He seemed to be in a tremendous rage. He seemed larger than life with his pent up anger and violence. I could sense it…feel his bloodshot eyes and angst. Some women sitting and wailing added to the tragic and frightening effect. A woman dressed in bridal finery lay on the floor in a faint. She looked exquisitely beautiful too, so young and so innocent.

I turned towards my strange guide seeking an explanation. My guide had disappeared from my side…

Where was she? Was she among the wailers?

I looked around. Suddenly, I saw her.

There she was … by the side of the old brahmin…

I could not move or call out… what was happening?

The flames from the bonfire leapt higher and higher. Everything was covered in a haze of smoke and the chanting filled my head till I felt myself ready to swoon…

Suddenly, everything was back to normal. I could move. There were our potted plants and the swing and my birdbath. I could hear my wife’s voice from the kitchen calling out to check if I was ready for tea. My wife had obviously not seen or experienced anything different. I did not alarm her by telling her about my strange ‘encounter’.

I was intrigued and shaken by the whole incident. I decided to write to my landlord and ask him if he knew what was it that I had witnessed. Did this house have an unholy mystery concealed seething in the superficial calm of its ambience? Was it safe for my family and me? Or should we move house?

My landlord, Mr Avinash Bhattacharya, lived in New Delhi. He wrote back quickly, urging me to continue, saying there was nothing dangerous in the house and he would describe the incident to me when we met.

I decided to give him a chance to explain himself and agreed not to move out if there were no recurrence of such events.

New Delhi, 23 rd June, 1973

Thankfully, there was no repetition of the weird experience I had this April in the house I rent in Calcutta.

We are in Delhi for my children’s summer holidays. We are staying with my elder brother, Manibhushan Mukherjee, and his family, comprising of three sons and his wife. Today, I went to visit my landlord. My twenty-six year old nephew who works for a law firm in New Delhi came with me. He took me to the landlord’s house in Chittaranjan Park after lunch.

Avinash Bhattacharya seems to be a kind man. He had a strange story to tell.

It seems in 1947, his parents from Noakhali (now part of Bangladesh) took shelter in his home during the Partition, leaving behind their eighteen-year-old daughter, Gouri, to the mercy of ruthless kidnappers who raided and razed their home and their tol (village school, mostly religious). His father was the pundit (learned teacher) who ran the tol. Gouri had been married for four years but was childless. She had been visiting her parents during Durga Puja that year. As the flames of hatred and violence devoured the village and burnt their home, some of the Islamic hooligans picked up the beautiful Gouri and carried her off. The helpless parents were forced to flee holding on just to their lives. The father and mother managed to evade the fire, blood and fury and make it to the safety of their son’s home in Calcutta.

Avinash had just bought the home he had been renting. By then, he had a son and daughter. His twenty-two year old brother also lived with him. He himself was just touching thirty. His other sister was twenty-seven and safely living with her in-laws in Jamshedpur, Bihar. Only Gouri remained unaccounted for.

The family lodged a report in Calcutta. But the police could do nothing. Six months passed. The Bengali New Year was limping its way towards their home as the bereft parents tried to adjust to life in Calcutta. Mr Bhattacharya’s father could not stop looking for his sister, Gouri, on his own. Her in-laws, who had also fled to the safety of India, visited them. They assumed Gouri was dead. They praised her to the skies but were certain she was no more. Only, her own father could not stop feeling that she would return.

And then, one day, she did.

It was the 5th of April, 1948. The cold nip in the air had given way to flowers and blooms all around. But, the pundit, instead of visiting the gardens in Calcutta visited police stations and the railway stations in the hope of gathering news about his youngest daughter, Gouri. How could she just disappear?

That day, he found her at the railway station. It seemed that she was being sent to West Pakistan by her kidnappers along with two more girls. They were all made to wear burkhas. Despite that, Gouri’s father recognized her walk and managed to rescue her with the help of the police and crowds. The kidnappers were handcuffed and taken away. Avinash was a bit fuzzy about the whole episode, probably because he was not present.

Gouri had become shrivelled and dark with manhandling. Many men had handled her. But she was regaining her strength and looks under the loving care of her family. They rejoiced at her recovery. Her father decided to invite her in-laws so that they could take her back to her own home.

The Bengali New Year on 15th April was one filled with hope and happiness for the Bhattacharya family.

On twenty fifth April, Gouri’s husband, Mukund, and her father-in-law were invited to lunch. They lived in Vardhaman now. They took a train to Calcutta and it was only after resting and lunch that the pundit had sprung the joyous surprise on them. Only they did not find it joyous, they left without so much as wishing her well. Her father-in-law declared her to be ‘impure’ and ‘unclean’ for having survived the trial. Her husband, his father’s obedient son, left his wife for life in a lurch for good and followed in his father’s footsteps… except he had tears in his eyes when he left. Again Mr Bhattacharya was at work and he could not describe the scene exactly.

But when he returned from work a little early, around 3.45pm in the afternoon, he found the scene I described being enacted. The enraged pundit, who had tried to justify the ‘purity’ of his daughter by calling her heart untouched and clean, was burning all his religious books, which condemned the abused girl as ‘impure’. His sister was lying in dead faint dressed in bridal finery. She had been decked up for her husband and in-laws as she would be starting her life anew… but now… now there could be no fresh start.

Mr Bhattacharya saw the chaos and his heart wept for his young sister. He rushed himself to get a doctor.

The doctor had the girl carried to the bed and examined her with care. At the end of the examination, he congratulated her parents for their daughter’s pregnancy.

Gouri had been impregnated by the unholy seeds of a rapist!

Her mother passed out clutching her heart. The doctor stood there. He could do nothing. By the time he reached out  to her, she was no more… that was 25 th April, 1948, twenty-five years ago.

However, today, the biggest shock I had today was seeing the girl who had been decked in bridal finery and one of the wailing women, enter the room with tea and snacks!   They had aged but I could recognize them. Gouri was still alive as was her sister-in-law who had helped dress her. She was Avinash’s wife.

After Gouri came in, nothing more was said. The story had been related while the women were preparing tea. Gouri’s daughter joined them a little later. She had been watering the garden. She was really beautiful with fair skin and black hair and tawny eyes. I could see my nephew gape at her!

I was dying to know the rest of the story. After the women served us tea and joined us, there was no possibility of finding out anything. The conversation moved to generalities like the weather and how beautiful a city Delhi was.

I looked at my watch and indicated it was time for us to go. Mr Bhattacharya smiled and accompanied us down the drive to the gate. He lived in a bungalow with a garden. My nephew had parked his car outside the main gate. As we walked out, I could not help ask Mr Bhattacharya, “Was that not Gouri, girl in a faint decked in bridal finery?”

“ Yes,” he replied, “and her daughter. You mean you recognized her from your vision?”

“ Yes,” I responded. “How are they now? What is it they do?” I blurted out.

“ To conclude my telling… You will find all your answers there. We were forced to leave Calcutta because of the scandal. I took a transfer to Delhi and my younger brother to Bombay. My father died before we left Calcutta, before the child was born. We do not really go there anymore. I use my home as an investment. Here, we pass Gouri off as a widow and her daughter, Mala, has grown up believing her father was killed during the Partition… but there will be a time we will have to tell the child the real story…”

Calcutta,10th August, 1975

My elder brother is very upset. My nephew, Nikhilesh, the one who drove me to Mr Bhattacharya’s house, has eloped with Gouri’s illegitimate daughter, Mala. Mala was doing her PhD in History from Delhi University. It seems Nikhilesh had been smitten by her the first day he saw her! He met her again and now he has married her.

My brother is very angry, especially now that he knows the girl’s background, which has been explained to him by his son in a letter. My brother has sent me a photocopy of the letter asking me for an explanation if I have one. I am gluing the letter to the diary.

The letter

Dear Father,

By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore.

I am marrying the girl I love, Mala, and we are leaving for Singapore tonight. By the time you get this letter, I will be in Singapore. I have taken a posting here. I told you that I will be going on tour and left.

Mala is the love of my life. I cannot live without her. Yet, you are both so against a love marriage that I cannot even mention her to you. That is why I rejected all the matches you suggested.

I also need to tell you that Mala’s mother was a victim of abuse faced during Partition. Hence, Mala’s father is an unknown factor. Her mother passes herself off as a widow. Mala, as of now, still thinks her father died during the Partition, killed by Muslim mobsters.

Mala’s family will have already received the note that she would have left for them two days ago. I posted my letter on the way out as I wanted to take no chances.

If you find it in your heart to accept Mala and me, please write to us at my office address in India and they will forward it to me in Singapore.

We would love to live with your blessings, love and goodwill.

Regards, love and best wishes,

Nikhilesh

After that the entries ended.

Somya was left thirsting with curiosity to know what happened in the aftermath in Singapore.

The next Saturday, she contacted Paulomi again saying she was through with the diary and would like to return it to Mona.

This time Paulomi asked Somya to meet them in her office in the NUS campus. She was a professor at NUS and Mona was her student.

Somya reached there just as Mona entered for her discussion with Paulomi. Mona was surprised to see Somya, who returned the diary to her and asked, “ Would you like to share the rest with me?”

“ There is nothing more to share. My parents lived happily here. No one from both the sides contacted my parents. My mother did write to her mother and send her the address. In response, my grandmother sent her blessings by post, and died in 1980. My father received a letter from his uncle, blessing him but making it clear that the family was upset. My father’s family never contacted him.”

“Does your mother know her past?”

“ She does now. Her mother wrote to her all the details when she sent her blessings and said it was better that she stayed where she did, making a fresh start. By what I figured out she had not been much of a mother to mine… always caught up in her own world of angst and anger. My mother did not have a very happy childhood but she gave me a fabulous one… The outcome of the revelation, I have heard from my father, made my mother sad for a few days. I have only had love and support from my parents as far as I can remember. It was a wonderful childhood for me. I think my parents had too much happiness between them to let the past destroy the present.”

And the cow jumped over the moon…

IMG_0214

 

One of the things Preeti discovered early in her childhood is that cows that wear bells were rarer on streets as they belonged to someone. It was always the cows without bells that were an issue. They were the ones who stood munching on the open rubbish heaps and gazed menacingly at her when she walked past. One day as she gingerly skirted behind their flanks, one of them turned around and chased her! She ran screaming, “ bachao, bachao(save me, save me)… guy(cow in Hindi) guy…” but there was no one on the vacant street. A cyclist zoomed past looking amused and the cow, realizing probably that Preeti was not a competitor for the trash heap, went back to munching stale banana skins and vegetable trash… maybe paper, cloth and what not…

Unfortunately, when Preeti recounted the story to her family and friends they could not stop laughing. She added, the white cow had a hump and horns. By googling one can see such a species of cow exists… perhaps the Brahman cow. But her descriptions held everyone in throes of humor. A friend even punned on the word ‘guy’, saying no doubt the ‘guy’ found her very attractive and therefore chased her!

Preeti even googled the cow to prove to her friend that a cow could have humps and horns. She found the Brahman cow was exported from India to USA and mated with various species and is noted for it’s presence on dinner tables as a premier steak! Could it be that they found their way back to India… or was it an unlisted species? Preeti could not fathom. Cows were mysterious for her. Ironically, the Brahman cow, she found was named after the Hindu Brahmins. Perhaps, not unjustifiably as in the fourteenth century Marco Polo noted that in the kingdom of Bengal, people drank milk and ate flesh and rice and had bulls the size of elephants. Vedic lore also gives out…

 

“Fifteen in number, then, for me a score of bullocks they prepare,

And I devour the fat thereof: they fill my belly full with food. Supreme is Indra over all.”

— Rig Veda X. 86.14.

 

And there are many more hymns that talk of Hindus of all creeds and castes devouring meat and beef. Her friend, a ‘pure’ vegetarian, still persisted in humoring Preeti. Preeti often indulged in silent cogitations on bovine creatures for her abject fear of them and of being seen as a disbeliever in their divinity that put them beyond the reach of the dinner table. She often wondered and researched on these matters as she lived in an area where the fight for bovine rights consumes not only pages of print but also occasionally, human lives. By and large, she tried to give all bovine issues a wide berth, including the creatures themselves.

Her next encounter with a cow drove it literally to the doorstep of her grandparents’ home. She was visiting and volunteered to open the gate for her grandfather who had driven her in his car to buy some groceries. What she did not notice in her hurry to get to the gate was that there was another cow ruminating near the entrance to the garden. The minute the gate was open, the cow rushed in and Preeti rushed out screaming,” Bachao, bachao..guy guy…” .

This time her grandmother and the housekeeper chased the cow… but not before the divine bovine had managed to snack on a rare flower that bloomed once every three years to indulge it’s taste for gourmet fare!

Cows manifest themselves all over India, on roads, in homes, between traffic, near rubbish heaps, off dinner plates and on the plates as steak or the Keralite delicious spicy beef ularthiyathu or beef vindaloo. People worship them, people chase them out of their gardens, get chased by them as did Preeti. They occasionally block traffic by planting themselves in the middle of a congested or uncongested roads as do elephants and their calves in Kruger Park (South Africa) but the elephant is protected from the culinary designs of mankind by laws and the cow is not!

Oops! In India it is… by howling hordes… when they feel it infringes on their religious sentiments. They have such a penchant for saving the divine bovine that they can easily kill a boy or a girl or a child for it. After all they are not cannibals but merely passionate protesters who go scot-free by being a part of a maniacal mob.

Perhaps, cow protection by law will soon come into effect in India.

Preeti eventually moved out of India and lived in various lands where cows are only seen as part of dairy or edible products on supermarket shelves or in farms. They do not really roam streets or temple grounds anywhere else. She did once see tigers roaming temple grounds in Thailand but never cows. Their freedom is much curbed.

However, whenever Preeti visits India, she has a special encounter with them. The last she saw of them was in Lucknow, not just amidst crowds and cars but also from her five star hotel room. They seemed to drift out of a fog on the grounds of a temple near the hotel. Were they real…she wondered initially. But then, what she witnessed convinced her that they were not a figment of her imagination. She saw a cow chase from her room. Only this time she enjoyed it, as she was not the butt of the joke…

As the cows ambled on the temple grounds, one of them strayed near the gate and looked philosophically out. The person who could be dubbed the cow caretaker decided to enter the premises at this precise juncture. The bovine mind decided to make a bid for freedom and took the opportunity to run out of the gate. The caretaker started to wave and shut the gate and chased his errant charge into the receding mists of Oudh…

It was like an episode from a silent film, as she could not hear either the caretaker or the cows’ voices. She did not know if the ambling bovines were trying to call out to their galloping friend in different harmonies of cow song… But, this time, she enjoyed and laughed out loud at the cow chase.

Despite the smile that was brought to Preeti’s lips by the frolicsome cow, she has not been drawn back to her homeland but continues to roam the world where bovines are not worshipped and treated as divines but rather as veal cutlets and beef. She has friends from all over the world who indulge their palate with meats of the divine. Despite the sacrilege, she tolerates them, like the government of India, which is the largest exporter of beef (even if they are said to be mainly water buffaloes) and unlike the maniacal mobs who are intolerant of atrocities on cows but not on buffaloes, women, children and men. They can kill their own kind for desecrating cows! But do cows cry for the loss of their male counterparts? A difficult question to answer, I guess, seeing how their devotees adore and adorn them…

Meanwhile, while Nostradamus projected the future of all races, he left one page unturned, untouched… the development of bovine intelligence. The Greatest of Holies, Holycowbaba, has predicted that as the years move towards the annihilation of the universe, in the land of cow worshippers, the devout will have taken to defending the divine bovine with their lives and laws and the cows will dwell in peace and prosperity with their followers. Then, the prediction continues, the bovines will be so well looked after and protected that they will decide to repay man by taking take a leap of faith and trying to make true the projections in Mother Goose’s poem, Hey diddle, diddle. They will compete to create a world record and be the first cows to jump over the moon!

And when that happens, cows can be ridden to the moon. The race of cow worshippers will be the first settlers on moon.