How Do I Fish…

By Mitali Chakravarty, First Published in Different Truths

How do I fish? Let me count the ways.
I love to fish to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

(With due apologies to Elizabeth Barret Browning1)

Fishing is an activity that has always fascinated me.

After reading Huck Finn2, I realised the best way to meditate would be while fishing. You would put the bait in water and wait. Wait. Wait for the fish to bite. And when they bite, you would drag him or her (fishes have males and females) out and then roast them on slow fire! Or fry the creature, as my father would have recommended, in hot mustard oil after marinading it with salt and a smear of turmeric — typical Bengali cuisine! He even had that implemented at a family wedding in an air-conditioned hall without cooking or special exhaust facilities. As he was given responsibility for the menu, he wanted the very best for his beloved niece. So, the hotel staff was ordered to fry fish in mustard oil in front of the guests and serve it fresh! That the guests had to put up with gusts of smoke indoor and had streaming red eyes provided fodder for humour and very importantly, also served to imprint the wedding dinner in the minds of all the attendees. But we are not indulging in a discussion of wedding memorabilia or culinary recipes. We want to focus on fishing experiences!

In front of my house now, there is a river or a sea inlet — in Singapore most rivers are sea inlets. Now it is a freshwater reserve. They dammed the sea to collect rainwater — we have a number of them on the island. These collect not just rainwater but run offs too. I do not want to go into the water systems of Singapore but what I mean to say is, people fish there too. They stand with lines and the river is literally teeming with piscine life, turtles and otters. Sometimes you see the otters munch a whole fish. They just catch the fish with bare hands, rather paws, and have it uncooked, unsalted swimming in the river. You can hear the bones crackle as they bite. I watch some of them at play. They dive and disappear into the greenery on the opposite shore. They reappear again this time near their friends who are munching on fish. Their whiskers quiver when they eat. The latecomers try to grab the fish from him/her. The munching otters push them off and dive. The hungry bunch follows. Sometimes, the otters fight over the fish! Kingfishers and cranes too, dive down to fish. I do not know if the Brahmani kites ever eat fish, or, do they soar high to looking for mice or moles? Rodents scare me. But again, I remind myself, we were talking of fishing.

The monkeys I do not think fish. But they do occasionally swim in condominium swimming pools lining the river — like humans they prefer the privacy of clean chlorinated water to river water where monitor lizards, snakes, otters, turtles, fish live and eat. They once went into a home with open windows after a swim in an empty pool in the middle of tall stack of flats and munched on bananas on the table!

No. They definitely do not fish. But humans fish in the oddest places and postures. Sometimes, I have seen them leave their lines embedded in the sand by the sea or at an angle pitched on the shore while they sit nearby chatting with their friends or families. I have an uncle who I believe went fishing and he took lines and baits and wore a fisherman’s cap. He went, he fished, he returned home — except there were no fishes that rose to his bait!

My belief is fishes like humans are getting smarter as they evolve. While frogs continue to serenade me even in Singapore for cooking lettuce for tadpoles in China3 — that is another story where my sons told me to boil lettuce for ten minutes for the squiggly creatures they had adopted — fishes never react.  Or maybe, they have a grudge against me because I was part of a fishing crew!

Long ago, while attending a summer school in Oslo University, I was invited by one of my father’s local friends to Fevik4, a beautiful seaside town in Norway where people keep summer homes. At least, my father’s friend did. They would go there and catch fish and eat and relax over the summer. They had a toilet with a long drop that catered to all the residents of their summer cabin. Brought up with plumbing in India’s multi-layered society where homes like ours had multiple bathrooms in marble, I found living with a shared common long drop tough! But they were very kind and made the most of my quick one-night sojourn. They took me fishing. It was on a motorised boat that…

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Baboo and Sonia

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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?

 

 

From a hospital bed…

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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

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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.”

Vanda, Ms Joaquim

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First there was a name. Then there was a flower. Then there was a story… and a new story.

In the garden stood a maiden, a young woman in the first bloom of her youth… olive skin, dark-eyed, with a soft fringe and a pert nose. She wore a red dress and had red lips…then came a tall stranger from beyond the seas and swept her off in a whirlwind of romance…

That is how the story should have gone, but it did not. There was a garden and in the garden were many flowers. There was a young woman and she had scratches and cuts all over her knees, which she ignored. She was walking through the bushes and the thorns and twigs had left harsh imprints on her soft flesh. She was wearing a pair of shorts and a blue t-shirt. On her head was a straw hat. She was dusky, short and had hazel hair and eyes.   She was looking for something…

As she peered into the bushes, a football came and hit her, hard on the back. She fell. A group of boys playing football nearby had sent the ball flying into the bushes, unintentionally. But the young lady was angry, her dignity being injured. She started getting up from amid the bushes and shouting, “How dare you?! You vandals! You nitwits!”

A strong arm came and helped her up and a deep voice said, “Come! Come! It was not intentional… what were you doing in the bushes anyway?”

“ I had a keychain. It had orchids in it. I was taking my landlord’s dog, Chester, for a walk and had a ball in my hand too. As I flung the ball for Chester to fetch, the keychain with it’s bundle of keys flew out too and I could not find the keychain anymore. I dropped Chester back and came to look for my keychain. It has the national orchid of Singapore in it, Vanda Ms Joachim, but actually, of the Papilionanthe family.” She nodded her head fiercely trying hard to look dignified and offended.

The owner of the strong arm and deep voice started to smile and almost laughed for the spectacle she provided was funny. She had a smut of dirt on her nose of which she was oblivious and dry leaves from the bushes in her hair. He threw back the ball at the group of boys playing football and dug his hands into his pockets.

“Would this be it?” said the deep voice dangling a keychain in front of her. “I found it lying under a bench near these bushes and had picked it up hoping to drop it off at the nearest police post.”

“Yes. Thank God. Thank you so much!” said the owner of the keychain.

She smiled and stretched out her arms to get it. The owner of the deep voice was a young man in his late twenties. He gave her the chain and smiled.

“ My name is Michael,” he said.

“I am Madhu. I am a botanist and have come to research orchid hybrids in Singapore. This keychain holds my favourite. It is pretty and the flowers are resilient and sturdy. I love the colour. So, this was very important to me.”

“How long have you lived here?” asked Michael.

“Oh! For almost a year…”

“And do you like it?”

“Well. Yes. I miss my family though…”

“I live in the houses across the road,” said Michael.

“I need to run home now. Bye,” said Madhu. She had become a bit wary… a stranger in Botanical Gardens. He did make her feel shy though.

Michael looked at her receding figure, shook his head and smiled. She disappeared.

The next day he saw her at the bus stop. She was waiting for a bus. Michael was driving past, returning from work. He slowed down but the bus came before he could halt and she was gone. He smiled when he thought of her. She was like a whiff of fresh  spring breeze.

Michael had grown up in Singapore. His family was an old Pernakan one. Pernakans were Chinese immigrants who had intermingled with the local population of the Malay Archipelago during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Over the decades they had developed a Westernised culture and converted to Christianity. Michael’s family had a few Indians and Westerners too. They celebrated every festival and were culturally very open. They accepted all people, all customs. They were rich traders who had the money to acquire the best in the world. They owned real estate firms in Singapore and China and gold mines in South Africa.

Michael had studied in Singapore and USA. He was a businessman too, like his father, and contributed to the family business. He was in the habit of getting what he wanted but always with a smile and graciously. So, now when he found himself thinking more than necessary of the hazel-eyed girl who popped out of a hedge in Botanical Gardens, he really wanted to know her better.

Every now and then he saw her at the bus stop in the evening but could never catch her. One day, he returned home early and went walking to the bus stop at the time he normally returned home. He saw her coming at a distance and pretended to look at his mobile. When Madhu reached the stop, Michael felt very nervous.

With his heart in his hand, he said, “Hi! Do you recognize me?”

Madhu looked at him surprised, “Oh! You are the one who found my keychain! I did not know you came to this stop.”

“Yes. I live very close. Do you research at the Botany Centre in the Botanical Gardens? ” Michael asked.

“I do. What about you? Where do you work?” Asked Madhu.

“I am a businessman. My head office is in Clark Quay.”

Madhu saw her bus coming, “My bus is here. Bye!”

She got onto the bus and so did Michael.

“So, where are you going?” asked Michael taking the seat next to her.

“I am going to the national library at Bras Basah. I normally get a book from there and have dinner and return to my room every night.”

“What a coincidence, I am going there too…I want to pick some reading material too…”said Michael.

They chatted on the way to the library. They talked like old friends. Somehow, Madhu felt she could trust him and liked him.

Madhu borrowed a couple o Agatha Christies and Michael borrowed a Dan Brown. They ate dinner at the cafe outside the library and took the bus back home. Madhu had rented a room in a bungalow at a little distance from the Botanical Gardens.

The next day Michael was there again. Madhu accepted his presence naturally. This went on for almost a couple of months with a few breaks on weekends. Then one day, Michael invited her home to meet his family.

It seemed the most natural thing to do. Madhu bought some chocolates and flowers and went over one Saturday afternoon. The family was very nice to her. Aliya, Michael’s mother, gifted her a hand painted white silk scarf with Vanda Ms Joachim on it. Madhu loved it. They even had the hybrid in their garden. Michael’s father, Alvin, was very nice to talk to. He knew many things about plants because he loved collecting rare ones. Michael’s younger brother, Melvin, came in for lunch and went back to study. He was a final year student in medicine and had exams to face. They had Nonya chicken curry in honour of Madhu for lunch. The food was really nice. Madhu loved it. She ate with gusto.

The next Monday, Michael took her to the library in his car. Madhu was gracious about it. Then, they walked to an Italian restaurant for dinner. And as they waited for the food to arrive, Michael took out a tiny box from his pocket and opened it. In it was a beautiful ring with an orchid holding a cluster of diamonds. The orchid was of pink and purple gold. It was beautiful and exotic!

He held the ring up to Madhu and said, “Marry me!” in a pleading whisper…

“What?!” exclaimed Madhu.

“Will you marry me?” asked Michael.

“I have not thought about it at all,” said Madhu. “Can you give me some time, please?”

Michael nodded and tried to look understanding. Then he said, “You mean, you did not figure out even when I invited you home?”

“I have not thought about marriage as yet because I have my work and I am away from home. I know my parents want me to marry … an Indian boy and settle down in India… I have been running away from this whole thing… just give me some time… and then I will have to break it to my parents too… Can we just continue friends for some time…I do not want to lose you…”

“All right. I will wait and we will continue as before. Will you keep the ring?”

“No. I will accept it after I work out things with my parents. In India, marriages are between families,” said Madhu.

“I got the ring made for you. I ordered it at the jewelers a month ago and I received it yesterday… It is also a Vanda Ms Joaquim… only for you… no one else can wear it…”said Michael.

“I promise you I will wear it… but give me a little time. I have to go for a cousin’s wedding in a fortnight. We will talk after I return again. I will be back in ten days,” said Madhu. “I will be leaving in a week.”

Michael and Madhu met everyday of the week and tried to continue like old friends but there was an element of conciousness in their interactions. On Friday, Madhu told Michael she would be taking a flight on Sunday. Michael insisted on seeing her off at the airport. He took her address in New Delhi from her. She told him she would not be wirelessly connected outside her home… and during the wedding she might be unreachable… Michael felt a little apprehensive but he had to let her go to get her back…

Ten days turned to a fortnight, Madhu was still not back. Michael was now really anxious. He called but no one answered. After the first few days, Madhu had stopped responding to his messages. She was not active on Facebook… When he contacted the botany institute, they said that Madhu had extended her leave and would return at some point. They did not know when.

Enough was enough. Michael flew down to New Delhi. He had booked into Taj Mansingh Hotel. He took a car from the hotel and drove down to the address Madhu had given. He got off outside the bungalow in Hauz Khas and walked in through the gate. There was a lawn outside the front door. A little child of about eight was playing in the garden bouncing a ball. Michael rang the bell. The door was opened by a plump, middle-aged woman in a sari. Michael asked if Madhu lived there.

The woman cocked her head to one side.

“Who are you to enquire?” she asked in a gruff manner.

“I am Michael, Madhu’s friend from Singapore,” he answered. He could hear voices inside.

“Why can’t you leave her alone? She will be married to a nice Indian boy. His family is visiting. Go now. I don’t want them to see you,” saying this, she banged the door shut on his face.

Michael’s head was reeling. He had to see Madhu once at least and hear from her that she was marrying another man. He sat on the steps of the front porch. After sometime, the little boy with the ball came to him.

“Who are you and why are you sitting here?” he asked.

“I am Michael. I want to see Madhu. I have a present for her,” he said. Michael had decided that he would in any case give her the ring as a keepsake… it was only for her, for his lover of Vanda…

“Oh! I see,” said the little boy. “You want to meet Madhu and she is not at home. But don’t feel sad for that. She has just gone to the Rose Garden with the man with huge moustaches. She is my cousin. And that was my mother! You can go there in your car.”

Michael thanked the little boy and asked his driver if he knew the way to the Rose Garden. The driver said, “It is very close.” And took him there.

Michael saw a huge garden full of roses and bordered by tall, slender Eucayptus trees. It crowded with people. He got off… how would he find Madhu? There were so many people. Groups of picknickers and then, there was an avenue going into a wooded area. What if she had gone off to the wooded area? What if he missed her? Suddenly, at a distance, he saw a scarf. The scarf was white and spread in a triangle on the woman’s back. It had the orchid Vanda painted on it… Madhu’s scarf! He had found her…She was sitting on a bench with her back to Michael with a muscular owner of fine moustaches… Her voice floated to him, “….my favourite orchid…Ms Vanda, is resilient and a hybrid… it is very unique because…” Her companion seemed a little restive and tried to put his arms around her shoulder and sidled closer on the bench. Madhu moved away. “I love orchids and my work.”

Moustaches and Muscles said, “You can have a garden to grow your flowers in our new home.”

“But I want to be back in Singapore… I can’t marry you,” said Madhu.

“Your parents said you could. Girls are shy, they say and always run away initially. So, I understand,” said her companion and sidled closer. Madhu jumped off the bench.

“Don’t you understand? I don’t want to marry,” said Madhu in a loud voice.

Michael felt it was time to announce his presence. He cleared his throat and put his hand on Madhu’s shoulder. She jumped up with a scream. Muscles and moustaches also jumped up and said, “Hey Mister! What do you think you are doing? That is my fiancee!”

Michael said, “Sounded more like she does not want you…”

Madhu turned towards Michael and hugged him, “Oh! I am so glad to see you!”

Michael held her to his bosom and said, “I will never let you go, Ms Vanda.”

He kissed her on her face, on her lips. He poured all his love into that hug and Madhu clung to him.

Moustaches and Muscles was angry, “You shameless girl, I will never marry you. Fancy, having a boy friend! Shame on you!” And he went off…

But never was a shamed woman happier than Madhu!

The owner of the Vanda Ms Joaquim scarf had accepted the exquisite orchid ring of pink and purple gold.

 

 

 

 

 

The Journey

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Sushma sat facing the ocean from her balcony on the thirtieth floor in Singapore. Her whole family, her two son and their offsprings, had gathered to celebrate her eighty-fifth birthday. She was now the grand old matriarch. Her grand children were just returning. She could hear their voices as the front door closed.

“Oh! Where is granny?” her fourteen-year-old grand daughter, Sheila, was asking her mother.

“I think she is in the balcony,” her mother replied.

“Alone?” asked Ron, her seventeen-year-old grandson.

“Yes,” and a discussion followed in muted voices.

Sushma knew her sons, their wives and children were planning something big… but she did not know what… no one would tell her. She played along.

The balcony door slid open and her two grandchildren stepped out. They were her younger son’s children. The elder one’s son was married and expecting a baby. He was posted in Singapore with his wife. They lived in a separate apartment and would be joining the rest of the family later.

Ron and Sheila plunked on chairs near her.

“How was your jog?” asked Sushma.

“Great!” replied Sheila as she sipped a cold apple juice from a tall glass.

“We saw a komodo dragon!” exclaimed Ron. He was really excited, as they had grown up in California where such creatures were unusual. “And Sheila was screaming with fear.”

“I was not. I was shocked seeing it cross our path so casually.”

“It was running too,” said Ron. “Obviously, it was scared of us too.”

Sushma smiled and intervened, “Good. I always love to hear of your discoveries.”

“Grandma, today you will tell us your stories. Will you again tell us the story of how you and your mother moved here?” asked Sheila. “I always love to hear it. Maybe, someday I will write it down.”

Sushma smiled affectionately and said, “I also love recalling my past. It rekindles my sense of hope and happiness.”

“I was born in an army cantonment in a city called Kanpur in India in 2014. My father was a soldier in the Indian army. When I was six-months-old, he was killed in a terrorist attack in his border camp. He died fighting and was declared a hero. My mother was only twenty-four and heartbroken. My grandmother was inconsolable. Medals were given to my father posthumously. But medals did not bring food to our plates or gladness in our hearts.

My mother was always sad. I do not recall much of the early phase in my life except everyone seemed dark and gloomy. There was no laughter, no sense of hope.

We were poor. We had to leave the army cantonment. My grandparents moved in with their second son, who lived in Bombay and my mother went back to her parents in New Delhi.

My mother’s in-laws did not want her and the baby as they said we had brought bad luck on the family. More than the terrorists, they blamed us for losing their beloved son.

I do not remember much of that time but, I believe, my mother’s family let her to go back to studies. My mother had been a bright student and had married at twenty under family pressure. She had not been allowed to complete her graduation by her family or that of her husband’s. There had been no time after all the housekeeping in her husband’s home. Her parents-in-law also lived with them and expected her to serve them, do all the cleaning, cooking and laundry.

Now that she was widowed and had no home to service, my mother went back to her studies. She bloomed, studied economics, got a fellowship to Singapore and we moved.

This time, her parents did not halt her progress despite criticisms from relatives and friends. My mother said they probably realized the pleasure she got from it was necessary for her survival. Also, her fellowship brought her so much money that her parents, who had come from a small town called Pilani to the capital New Delhi to seek their fortunes, were amazed. It sounded like a small fortune to them! Her father had been a clerk in the Indian Railways. He had three daughters, the eldest being my mother. The other two were married by the time we came to Singapore. So, he had very less left in his pocket after giving his daughters ample gifts and spending on the functions.

I was six-years-old when we moved to Singapore.

My grandparents did not come with us. They had been my main caregivers in India as my mother spent her time studying. For my mother, it was a very big and bold step. She had never travelled on her own. Even during her journey back to Delhi, her father had gone to pick her up. This was not just a trip. It was her first trip on plane and that too to the first country outside her own!”

“Amazing! Isn’t it? Imagine not having flown at all till the age of…how old was she grandma?” observed Sheila.

“It was not unusual for lower middle income families in India then. My mother was thirty. She was a strong woman and over a period of time had become quite an outstanding person. She was tall, fair and beautiful with grey eyes. Over the years, she had learnt to speak English well.”

“My mother had taught me the basics of English at home but my first language at the age of six was still Hindi. I did pick up English fast, though, as no one in the campus understood Hindi, not even the Indians as their ancestors were mainly from Tamil Nadu and they spoke Tamil,” continued Sushma. “ I remember we rented a room in a house in Buona Vista. There was a double bed and an attached bathroom.

My mother took me with her to the university the first day. People were very kind to us. Initially, she put me in the university childcare. Then she moved me to an international school. The university paid for it, I believe. Eventually, my mother was absorbed into the university faculty. We moved into our own home in the campus. The school bus would pick me up at eight and drop me home at four-thirty. My mother saw me off and was home when I returned. If I fell sick, she would take leave but then, eventually she kept a full-time Indonesian lady to help her out.

I had a good childhood from then on…fun, frolic, work and home…

When my grandparents came to visit us, they found it hard to adjust, especially to the fact that their daughter wore trousers, mixed with many races and ate all kinds of food. I remember how my grandmother harangued at my mother for an hour one day for abandoning what she called her ‘culture’. They also did not want a Muslim helper in the house. They did not want to eat food prepared by her as they were strict Hindu vegetarians. When they came, they would cook their own food. We also ate vegetarian and did not tell my grandparents that we did consume non-vegetarian food when they were not around, which was the larger part of the year. They very much disapproved of non-vegetarianism.

During their last trip, they left after a couple of weeks in a huff and never returned or entertained us. They never saw our faces again.

It all started when I invited my best friend, Lydia, home to surprise my grandparents. Lydia  loved chicken rendang . I loved chicken too. I had requested our Indonesian aunty to make chicken rendang, thinking my grandparents would be okay with it as long as they did not need to eat it. Also, as they were always indulgent to me, I thought they would not mind. When my grandmother found chicken meat in the kitchen, she questioned the help and me. She told my grandfather. They neither wanted to have Lydia home nor wanted meat in the house. My grandparents were really angry. They called up my mother in a huff. My mother was teaching and could not attend to them. They were even more upset when I tried to reason with them. I cancelled Lydia’s visit looking at the situation at home. They tried to lock me up but could not as all locks in Singapore opened from the inside. The helper, who I called aunty, texted a message to my mother about the uproar in the house. They told aunty to leave. Aunty went and stood downstairs, waiting for my mother. My mother had to take leave and come while my grandparents stood guard over their errant grand daughter. I was thirteen then. Aunty came up with my mother. My grandparents did not want aunty to enter. I was more attached to aunty than to my grandparents by then. My grandparents asked us to choose. They also would have us return with them then it self. My mother refused. My grandparents would not listen to reason. There were laws about foreign workers in Singapore. We were not allowed to violate them, my mother tried to convey that to them. They packed their bags and left for the airport. My mother was driving then. But they would not go in her car. They left in a taxi and that is the last we saw or heard from them.

That is how all my ties with India ended.

Initially, my mother wept but she would not have them treat me as they did. She wanted me to grow open and strong, able to take on the world. It had been a struggle for her to come this far and she was not going to give up!

Her sisters kept her informed through letters … they did not know how to email at all. They could not also afford air travel to Singapore!

After about four-five years, she heard from her sisters her father had passed away and, subsequently, her mother. Her parents had left express instructions that she was not allowed to visit or mourn them with the rest of the family. I know my mother mourned many years privately shedding tears. She turned at times to a friend called Major Diwan who consoled her and helped her get over her sense of rejection from her parents. She was sure of one thing … she did not want herself or me to return to the earlier life she had.

For our vacations, we explored the world. We walked the Great Wall together. We visited Disney Land. My mother even took me to India as she felt I should be in touch with my roots. My grandparents were living the first time. They refused to see us. We stayed in a hotel and had a grand time. My aunts did not live in New Delhi. And we were doing New Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay that holiday.

My mother’s sisters lived in Daulatabad and Bhopal. When we went to see Ajanta and Ellora, she did try to arrange a meeting with her sister in Daulatabad, but somehow it never happened. I think my mother’s family had cut her off as an errant one.

Anyway, we had a good life though my mother was every now and then sad about her family. She did have a strong friendship with Major Diwan. He was like an anchor for her. He was a widower and an orthopaedic surgeon. He used to visit us often. Sometimes, he even accompanied us on our trips overseas… He was very sad when my mother passed on… and in a year or two, he passed on too… Sometimes, I wondered if I had not been around, would my mother have taken the plunge with him… not that I would have minded if they did… you see, I had no memories of my father…

Life was smooth for me here. I did well in school and started university here where I met your grandfather. He was my professor, young and dashing. We married after I graduated. I continued with my studies and then you know the rest of it….”

“Thus, ended my childhood ,” said Sushma with a smile.

“Our great grandmother was really a brave and outstanding woman,” said Sheila. “I love to hear her story, how she made it despite all the ties that would hold back most people. She must have been a very strong woman!”

“That she was,” said Sushma. “ And she never let me feel left out. You know, the aunty who my grandparents wanted us to send back, stayed with us for twenty years! She only left when I married Paul. Then, we insisted my mother move in with us. I was lucky in Paul because he was so kind to my mother… and having her was an asset as she helped look after your father and uncle. She also loved Paul very much. She looked on him as a son she never had. Yes, our later years were filled with happiness … all for the one step my brave mother took!”

Ron looked away and wondered, “ Grandma why were they so rigid in India in those days? Why were the social norms for women so restrictive? Are they still that rigid?”

“I couldnot say my dear… in any case after the regionalization of the world, things have changed very much. Perhaps, you can go back to India again at some point and check out what it is like now….” replied Sushma.