By Amita Roy
The smell of incense assailed Sangeeta’s nose. It does so occasionally even without the physical presence of the source of the smell. It brings with it the gloom and aura of death.
It was not so before. The fragrance of incense had always been evocative of fond memories, that of life and celebrations, colour and abundance, puja being one of them. It was only after 15 December, 2015, the day she lost her mother, that there had been a merging of these two sensibilities.
That December night the chill of the lifeless hands which Sangeeta clutched in hers, far exceeded the cold reigning outside. She shuddered at the gradual transformation. The very same agile hands had baked her favourite cakes on her birthdays; the nimble fingers stitched her birthday dresses, darned her socks, and above all lovingly caressed her umpteen times. Now they were numb, cold, and stiff, sandwiched between her palms, while she tried in vain to infuse warmth of life in them. The whole night she stayed by her mother waiting for her younger sister to fly down from Delhi, after which the last rites would be performed. At about dawn the dying embers of the bunch of incense glowing in the room laboriously let out a smell which had seeped into Sangeeta’s entrails, nauseating her very being like stench. Since then, the odour ushered in remembrances of bereavement.
The death had left Sangeeta totally shattered, enshrouded in a pall of gloom shorn of even the will to live on. It was not just that the loss of one’s mother creates a void in a daughter’s life. It was something else. Of late, she had developed an inexplicable bond with her mother, a proximity better defined by empathy than sheer filial love. She was younger to her mother by nineteen years. When Sangeeta stepped in the threshold of fifties, she could pick up her vibes with much alacrity. It seemed to her that fifty years was a landmark age. After fifty, the numerical demarcation ceased to exist. The years after traversing half a century of one’s life span were the same to almost all women – existential crisis looming large coupled with a gradual waning of material wants and desires.
The childhood of Sangeeta’s mother was spent in a village of Narayangung in erstwhile East Bengal. Their house was situated at a stone’s throw distance from the river Shitalokkha. Little Sangeeta and her sister would listen to their mother with wide eyed interest as she unfolded her past. The free spirited life of Sangeeta’s mother was nurtured in pristine surroundings, bathing in the village pond with girls of her age splashing water on each other, bounding down the dusty road in puerile pleasure, attending the village pathshala under the canopied shade of trees, scouring the countryside to collect nuts for her pet rabbit. Her freedom and joys were suddenly cut short when India gained freedom. The country’s freedom dealt a blow to the child’s innate freedom and dreams when her elder brother (Sangeeta’s maternal uncle) wound up his business hurriedly in Narayangunj and the entire family migrated to Calcutta, West Bengal, anticipating the bloody days ahead. They came to a distant relative’s house who was magnanimous enough to give them shelter. The house was situated on Harrison road and from the roof-top attic allotted to the refugees, Sangeeta’s mother could view gory incidents of a riot torn Calcutta. The agony of displacement and acute trauma took their toll on Sangeeta’s mother who was then barely fifteen years old. Education was denied to the girl child as her elder brother struggled to make both ends meet with a family of six members in an alien land. The immediate necessity was to lessen the number of mouths to feed and thereby also seek a secure life for Sangeeta’s mother. What better means could it be other than marriage for someone who had lost her father at a tender age and had ever since been a burden in her elder brother’s family? So the young girl when just sixteen acquiesced in the marriage and all her dreams were crushed giving place to abysmal despair. But then, given the conventions and circumstances of those days, very few girls were fortunate enough to pursue and fulfill their dreams.
It took her quite some time to come to terms with her fate. Remembrances of her life in a village of East Bengal haunted her without respite. She knew there would be no return to that forlorn house by the river. Her heart ached for her playmates, many of them Muslims. There was an exodus of Hindus from East Bengal, people who abandoned their hearth and belongings and radiated in all directions – West Bengal, Assam, and Tripura. Many a times Sangeeta had noticed a distant look of yearning in the eyes of her mother as she dwelt on those childhood days. Many years after, when a new nation Bangladesh was born in the year 1971, a flickering hope of visiting her birthplace bounced back only to be smothered by the thought that the village house might have disappeared due to the spate of plunder and destruction unleashed by Pakistani soldiers. The sweet memories of the good old days would have to remain untarnished!
It was the month of Sravana of the year 1949 that the marriage of Sangeeta’s mother took place. That auspicious evening when the coy young bride left her footprints for the first time on the threshold of her in-law’s house with the red sari draped indulgently over her head, the sky had opened up to a relentless downpour. There was no mother-in-law to welcome the bride with customary rituals. Though very young, she was aware of her responsibilities and duties as a daughter-in-law from the very first day as her mother-in-law had died during child birth. The spirit of sacrifice and sustenance was a legacy she had inherited from her own mother. The bridegroom, a railway employee from a small town near Kolkata belonged to a middle class family. His ancestors had also migrated from East Bengal but long before the partition. The bride’s simplicity and uprightness endeared her to one and all in no time. After two stillborn male children, she gave birth to two daughters, Sangeeta and Arpita, in quick succession. A lady with hardly any material wants or temporal desires, she was tied down to her household chores and looking after the needs of everyone in the family assiduously. Her joy knew no bounds when her children excelled in academics or on those rare occasions when her husband took her out for an Uttam-Suchitra starrer. Sangeeta also noticed the benign glow in her eyes when after lunch she would take care to feed the stray cats with fish bones and leftovers as they punctually thronged at the backyard. Joy in little things of life was what she sought. She would laugh like a child when the family sat together on a lazy Sunday afternoon chatting, cracking jokes, and peanuts from their pods. Time and again her puerile pranks during those days spent at Narayangung would sneak in their conversation. An occasional pleasant surprise would also elate her. Sangeeta remembered the day years ago when her mother won a lottery, though the sum was paltry. The money was spent on buying an aquarium, a long standing demand of the children. The colourful fishes dashing up and down in the water was redolent of her carefree days of childhood when she would splash from one end of the pond to the other while bathing. In the midst of all her love and laughter, trials, and travails, a part of her existence seemed to be lost in some indiscernible longing. It was as if her very soul was partitioned: torn between East and West Bengal. Was it a longing to return to her birthplace which she always referred to as “Amar Dyash” (my country)? She clung to her native language of Opar Bangla much as a way of defying an imposed identity in displacement. The partition could not make her part with her native language. Did she find herself a misfit on this side of the border though she was a devoted mother, loving wife, a dutiful daughter-in-law, multitasking and toiling day and night ungrudgingly for the happiness of the family?
Sangeeta could recollect the day when she first disclosed her love for Sanjay, to her parents. Sanjay’s parents disapproved of the match because their family hailed from a higher caste. The other significant reason was a deep-rooted prejudice which lurked in most of the original inhabitants of West Bengal; apathy for people hailing from East Pakistan disparagingly referred to as ‘Refugees’. Sangeeta’s mother stood like a rock beside her, when she was down with a severe bout of depression as a result of it. Without her mother aligning her, Sangeeta couldn’t have endured the mental turmoil she underwent. It was her unbiased mother who confronted embarrassing situations while trying to negotiate, convince Sangeeta’s would be in-laws to give their consent. After much rigmarole, the alliance was sealed. However, the conjugal life of Sangeeta and Pratik was a happy one till that fateful day when the latter was mowed down by an errant driver of a public transport. The mishap again brought the duo, mother and daughter, together as Sangeeta being issueless chose to stay with her mother. The middle-aged widow again needed the close companionship of her mother, who with her unflagging spirit put her back on the track of life, instilled in her the virtue of resilience which Sangeeta pathetically lacked. Sangeeta’s father had died of a sudden heart attack a couple of years back. Since then, the wilful and unflappable lady preferred to stay alone on her own terms ignoring the repeated entreaties of Sangeeta and her husband to stay with them. Gradually the ashen days of Sangeeta gained colour; the architect of the miraculous change being her dear mother.
After her mother’s death, the days lumbered on. The grief at the bereavement of a dear person does not mitigate with the passing of time; it just mellows, seasons, giving one the strength to carry on. So was it with Sangeeta and then, her first birthday after her mother’s death arrived. Sangeeta didn’t believe in decking a deceased person’s portrait with flowers and garlands as a show of love and respect. Moreover, garlands are usually coupled with incense sticks, something which she now loathed. She had a photo of her mother in her bedroom. She would sit in front of it during her leisure hours and pour out her heart with the belief that they would transcend and reach her mother in that unknown realm. Surprisingly enough, some little happenings and inklings reinforced her conviction and she considered these to be nothing but her mother’s blessings. That birthday, she woke up overwhelmed with grief. This would be the first birthday sans her mother’s mundane presence with her handmade birthday cake together with her blessings. This would be the first birthday she would not be lovingly hugged by her mother as she would stoop to touch her feet. Tears welled in her eyes and she felt a lump in her throat as she dwelt upon her birthday celebration as a child. Arpita, her younger sister, had called her up from Delhi to wish her. Then she opened her laptop to check her mail. Her eyes glided over the list and suddenly got stuck on a mail sent by an NGO. Sangeeta had been passionately involved with a non-government organization in Kolkata, which worked to empower and rehabilitate survivors of trafficking and violence. Recently it had expanded its programme to other places in India and was reaching out to neighbouring countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. She read the mail and was speechless! The executive director of the NGO had conveyed that the board of directors was pleased to appoint her as the chief personnel to oversee the Bangladesh chapter of their endeavour. So she had to attend a meeting in Dacca the following month.
Sangeeta was awe-struck! To her, it was a divine blessing from her mother; the birthday cake in the guise of an opportunity to visit the country, where her mother dwelt physically during her childhood and notionally throughout her life thereafter. Would Sangeeta visit the village beside the river Shitalokkha which Sangeeta had often heard of? Or would she live with the picturesque image of it as delineated by her mother’s effusive narration? She remembered that her mother had basked in the joy of those days of childhood before partition and was reluctant to visit it after Bangladesh was born apprehending a scarred change over.
She suddenly visualized the aquarium of her childhood days; the angelfish in it gasping, almost choked within the confines, trying to reach out to a nebulous haze.
Sangeeta whispered under her breath, “So be it Ma….as you wish!”
Amita Roy is a retired Associate Professor in English at Uluberia College, Howrah, West Bengal. An academic of varied interests, she is a translator and writer of short stories, which have been published on different platforms.
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 ‘Women as the ‘displaced’: The context of South Asia’, edited by Suranjana Choudhury, academic and Nabanita Sengupta, academic, India.