By Srirupa Dhar
Amrita was excited for her next trip to Kolkata, her home town. Her marital home is in Morgantown, New Jersey where she enjoys the beautiful shift of seasons and an unfettered freedom to run her house the way she wants. The cozy nook in this home of twenty years has never been able to conquer her nostalgia for Kolkata, though. The ugly anomalies of everyday life, the fatiguing heaviness in the air, the stark absence of a clear blue sky and lush green trees are all parts of Kolkata life. Amrita is well aware of that. But she has an unwavering longing for its people, its sounds, and its food. “Life throbs in this city,” she tells her husband and two boys. Her men never agree. Her husband, Arnab, has no intentions of romanticizing over a “dead” city. And Amrita could never reveal to her sons the little Kolkata girl that still lurks in her inner core. Or perhaps, Amit and Abir did not ever wish to perceive her as anyone but a loving mother. Amit, about to graduate from high school, couldn’t care less about Amrita’s fetish for a city that means nothing to him. Abir, 12, finds Kolkata a bizarre place where people just strive to survive. They don’t live. He cannot relate to his parents’ home country. But there is something that he likes about the place. He cannot but admire the warm hospitality of the people there. So, here he was on his last connecting flight to Kolkata with Amrita. His fatigued eyes after all the long flights and time changes failed to beat the exuberant sparkle of his mother’s . The enervated Abir could not help but smile at Amrita’s joy. She was after all, going home! Her 12-year-old wondered how this visit to Kolkata without Amit and Arnab would turn out. His mother would tag him along wherever she went. But Abir did not mind the warm smiles of the Kolkata people who he knew, were eagerly waiting to see him after a gap of three years.
The first week was always physically the most exhausting. The jetlag was an added punishment after the long, unending travel. The weird spell of those lazy afternoons would invariably tire Abir and slide him into the world of deep sleep. He would wake up at around 7:30 in the evening to see his relatives drinking tea and munching on some street food. Amrita would be gloriously sipping her Darjeeling tea and savoring a sumptuous potato chop or chicken roll. Abir could not fathom how his mother relished these greasy snacks so late in the evening, which was past dinner time by the standards of her New Jersey home! Often Amrita’s preteen was confused as to whether his mother was a split personality. Or, was she just being her real self here? Was the Amrita he saw every day in Morgantown simply a persona acting her role in a staged play? The little boy was yet to solve the mystery. He had enough time at his disposal to do that. For, his overdose of afternoon siestas endowed him with sleepless nights.
On the second week of their stay in Kolkata, Amrita started her daily visits to her husband’s and her extended families. Abir was ready for it too. One of the visits was to Amrita’s paternal aunt’s place. Abir remembered her vaguely from his last visit. She was old, but back then looked quite slim and fit. She spoke too much and there was something about her that left an indelible impression on Abir’s mind. She repeated the same questions. If she’d already asked Abir his name, she would ask him the same after a couple of minutes. Abir still recalled being somewhat annoyed with her onslaught of repeated words. Amrita told him that her aunt was in the early stages of the lethal disease of forgetfulness. The old lady’s state of Alzheimer’s had definitely worsened and her health grown frail since Abir’s last visit.
On their way to Amrita’s aunt’s place in Bagbazaar, Abir noticed the crammed alleys and stocky houses. The pedigreed homes cast a classic charm to the place. They had a sense of promise about them, thought Abir. The age-old houses and the narrow constricted streets held generations of people together with a solidarity that could never be beaten by time. They had the dependability of a mother and the austerity of a wise old hermit. All of it looked so different, so foreign from the street in Morgantown they called home. Abir also noticed and loved how young boys carelessly played cricket on the streets with no one in the neighborhood protesting against their loud excited voices. There was a promise of freedom here as the boys simply enjoyed their game oblivious of everything around them. “Can I join them?” mused Abir. The next moment he felt frustrated. He did not know the rules of the game at all. He knew soccer, basketball, and American football but cricket was never his domain. As he suddenly felt an urge to learn this sport, he realized that their car had brought them to their destination. Abir carried with him his box of LEGOS so he could pass his time while his mom chatted with her relatives. Abir didn’t complain about boredom during such visits because he always enjoyed the genial and welcoming nature of the people.
Abir made a friend this time. Suhashini, his mom’s aunt, was taking in his box of LEGOS. Once he took them out to play, Suhashini said: “I know those little soldiers. They come here every day.” Abir was taken aback! His initial shock on seeing her was not yet over. For, Suhashini embraced Abir the moment he entered her room. She said in a tone of unflinching joy: “So, you did come here finally! I have been waiting for you since yesterday. What took you so long, Sujoy?” Abir and every one including Amrita and Suhashini’s son and daughter-in-law were stupefied to hear the name “Sujoy”. Sujoy was Amrita’s uncle who passed away two years back. Suhashini’s memory had erased many things happening around her. How could she remember that her little brother was no more? She spoke what she believed and her beliefs were realities for her. Her mind was a world in itself that was impervious to the actual happenings around her. She lived an inner life, a life within, which was impenetrable and pure in its own way.
Abir did not know how to react to Suhashini’s words. He simply stared at Amrita feeling lost and strange at the same time. The old lady kept asking Abir why he made her wait since the previous day. Abir felt a kind of chill run down his spine when he was addressed as someone who was no more. “Perhaps people never die. They always live in others’ minds. They are never forgotten,” thought Abir. But the little boy couldn’t overlook the irony that Suhashini who suffered from the illness of forgetfulness remembered someone who had passed on to the world of oblivion! Life and death were such inscrutable puzzles! Life redefined life within the dead, remembrances within forgetfulness.
Suhashini didn’t notice anyone else in the room. She was totally ignorant of Amrita’s presence who had come to see her. All that Suhashini knew at that moment was that her brother Sujoy had come. When Abir started arranging his LEGOS on the floor to play with them, Suhashini sat down beside him to join him. Abir looked up at her and Amrita, not knowing what Suhashini would do next. LEGOS were Abir’s passion and he was anxious that Suhashini might inadvertently damage them. Amrita signaled Abir to just take it easy and play with the LEGOS in his own way. Abir hesitantly started building his super hero set.
Suhashini sat there with a gratifying smile on her face. “There is Narendra trying to run away from the police. He is a hard core Naxalite who would never give away the names of his comrades,” uttered Suhashini, her eyes wild with tension. “Narendra’s grandmother comes to me every day crying about her son. She knows that Naren will be caught and killed by the police in no time,” continued Suhashini. Abir was absolutely clueless as to what the old lady was rattling off. He was both annoyed and shaken. Annoyed because Suhashini was intruding into his imaginary world of the interlocking bricks and blocks, his LEGOS. He not only built the LEGO blocks but also created his own imaginary space with them and weaved a story, a kind of drama in his innocent mind. Suhashini’s unfounded comments were invading Abir’s imaginative space. So much for the annoying part! But Abir was also shaken at the way in which the frail lady so easily and unobtrusively shared Abir’s creative energies. Abir was stirred out of his self-centered game to a collective imaginative journey. Gradually, the boy conquered his anger and started enjoying the story- building of his accomplice. And he went into fascinating conversations with her as he asked about Naren and his grandmother. Suhashini immediately started talking of how all the young men in the neighborhood were randomly arrested by the police even if they were not Naxalites. Abir was not aware of this political turmoil in Bengal history. He bubbled with curiosity and asked about the Naxalites. Of all the adults present in the room, Suhashini was the most enthusiastic in answering his questions. Everyone could see that Abir’s little toy figures transported Suhashini to her early youth when Kolkata was ravaged by the Naxalite movement and its aftermath. The old, ailing lady was suddenly sizzling with an energy that was very surprising to her son and daughter-in-law. They had almost forgotten that Suhashini was once a woman full of vigor and life. The few hours that Amrita and her son were in their home suddenly bought back that ardor and liveliness of Suhashini. Swarit and Piyali hugged Abir and wept with joy.
Abir found this whole experience both poignant and engaging. He wanted to visit Suhashini again. During their stay in Kolkata, Amrita dropped Abir off at Suhashini’s home and went about with all her other visits. Abir took his LEGOS every single day to Suhashini and the two of them would happily enter into a world replete with imagination. Every little figure that Abir would build opened up Suhashini’s mind with some intricate memory. Memories that were long lost and buried deep within her consciousness. The layers of her befuddled mind unraveled themselves one after another, unceasingly. The LEGO blocks of “The Hobbit” and “Star Wars” all had new entities now. They were either the childhood adventures of Suhashini and Sujoy or some past of Kolkata loaded with history. Playing with LEGOS had never been so much fun for Abir. He also felt the grandmotherly love of Suhashini. She was truly a full human being with feelings of joy, enthusiasm, sorrow, empathy. She lived in a unique mental arena that had its own time and space. Unlike other residents of Kolkata, who Abir always thought, were struggling to survive, Suhashini “lived” in the fullest sense. Life had a special meaning for her because she has liberated herself from all stereotypes, all known parameters. Her mind did not live by the rules of mundane existence, but by her own selection of memories. These fragmentary recollections, no matter how disconnected with the present, still kept her sensitivities alive.
Being with Suhashini was a gift for Abir. Suhashini’s reactions to Abir’s LEGOS might have been strange and remote, but they did tell a story. And Abir found in them something he lacked in his New Jersey home. There was no grandparent in Morgantown to share stories with him. That vacuum was filled up here in Suhashini’s Bagbazaar home. This trip to Kolkata would remain unforgettable to Abir primarily because of someone who is wedded to forgetfulness.
Four weeks flew by so quickly this time! It was time for Abir to go back home, to Arnab and Amit, his seventh grade friends, Kung Fu and violin teachers. Abir was excited to return, but he felt that he was leaving something behind. He would never be able to enjoy his special moments with Sushashini Dida. Who knew if he would ever see her again? She was already eighty and might not be there on Abir’s next trip to India. Abir was goaded by a sense of emptiness. He desperately wanted to do something about it. He certainly could not change the course of events or destinies of people. The best he could do was to leave something behind for Suhashini to remember him. He decided to leave some of his LEGO figures with her. They might inspire her untrammeled mind with the color and rhythm of her memories. She might build more stories into them. And Abir’s tiny figurines shall breathe with a new ebullience. He did not hesitate to part with his LEGOS that were so close to his heart. Because he was assured of their lifelong vitality under the care of Suhashini. She cried when she saw him for the last time, especially when he left some of his LEGOS with her. She believed that Sujoy was leaving for good deserting her among strangers. She promised that she would take good care of those little soldiers.
She did. Until the last day of her life. Suhashini spoke to Abir’s LEGO figures, dug up her past while talking to them and cried and laughed at the same time. The LEGOS alone could express her vitality. She was otherwise dead. She could not recognize anyone, not even Swarit and Piyali, who lived with her. She did not care for anything save the LEGOS. Every night she would sleep with those LEGOS underneath her pillow. She continued to guard them even when she completely stopped talking. She forgot how to talk. She did not speak or laugh or cry with Abir’s puny toys anymore. But she did keep them close to her all the time and slept keeping them under her pillow. Suhashini died a year after Abir’s trip to Kolkata. She went peacefully in her sleep one night. Her hands were tightly holding on to the bottom part of her pillow. She clutched as many LEGO figures as she could. Just like those old houses of Bagbazzar that never forgot to protect the people living in them. Just like a mother never letting off her baby’s hands. Her children would never get lost.
Srirupa Dhar is Indian by birth and has been living in the United States since 1998. She completed her M.A. and M.Phil. in English Literature at the University of Kolkata, India. She obtained another Master’s degree in English with Technical Writing Certification from the University of Alabama in Huntsville, U.S.A. Srirupa taught as a Lecturer in the Department of English at Bethune College, Kolkata. She has also been a Middle School English teacher in Columbus, Ohio. She is a voracious reader and takes an avid delight in all genres of art. Occasionally, she acts in plays in Columbus, where she is part of an amateur dramatic society.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, based in New York City, USA. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘The Idea of the University’, edited by Dr. Debaditya Bhattacharya, University of Calcutta, India.