Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 13, 2016

Roddy Doyle and my mother’s death

I am sitting here wondering how to manage my grief at the sudden departure of my mother. Shehnaz teases me. “Sudden? When is death not sudden?” Like me, she has lost her husband and both her parents one by one in the last decade or so. “Well, when you know that someone is going to die,” I say. “I don’t know about that,” she laughs. “One day we are alive—one moment we are alive, and the next we are dead. What could be more sudden than that?”

She knows what I mean and is just trying to make me feel better. Just as Gautam Buddha did with the woman with inconsolable grief who had lost her son. He told her to collect a grain from every house in the village who had not lost a loved one. She came back with an empty bowl. But an uplifted spirit, knowing that so many hundreds of people were exactly in the same place that she was, sharers of her grief.

So last week I focused on Buddhism. I read a lovely article which explained how there were different ways of thinking, and that to go on our perception and inference was simply faulty, as it was to have concepts and essences. That there was a temporal, fleeting quality to everything and that was all we could, finally, know. Of course I am not even beginning to explain it, since at the heart of it, language is useless, and there is a different way of thinking for us and for those that are enlightened.

I got some solace in thinking that my mother was not, after all, essentially my mother. As I had known for some time, she was at heart a little girl who had gone through a lot in her childhood, good and bad. The bad, and some of the good, had hardened her to become precociously adult, thus turning her into a ‘mother.’ But even then she had her crazy side to her. Then she became older, a grandmother, and a President of an organisation, and gradually her beautiful straight figure got bent over. There was no essence in her life….and that continues in a path after her death.

What I could not quite evoke in my imagination was, what was the path after death? All I had in my mind was the pot of ashes that a picture showed Sunil, Umang, Nandini throwing over a bridge into the Gomti. My mother a pot of ashes? My imagination and my whole brain would screech to a halt.

Where the Buddha could not hold my hand and help me over the chasm, Roddy Doyle stepped in. He creates a woman, Anastasia, called Tansey (I forgot to add, formally, in his 2012 book A Greyhound of a Girl, Amulet Books, New York.) She has a little daughter called Emer who she has just started learning to be the mother of. She is twenty four and her daughter is three. Love fills their relationship and brims over. Tansy loves to hold Emer and Emer loves to be held by Tansy. Within a few minutes of one day sitting together, Tansy shows signs of catching the flu, takes ill, goes to bed and never arises. She dies without Emer ever seeing her live again, just her dead body and still face, the eyes covered with coins.

Emer grows up on the farm they live on and meets someone in her early twenties and marries him. They have a daughter called Scarlett. He is from Dublin and they move there. Her husband dies and as an older woman she lives with the grown up Scarlett and her husband and daughter, Mary. Emer is old and hospitalised as the story begins and the family visits her everyday. The husbands are not sketched out much, and often they only read the newspaper, go for a walk and smoke, or ask questions. There are brothers too in each generation and they are real people with real problems but they too are on the side.

The story is about the four generations of women: Tansy, Emer, Scarlett and Mary. The story is told from Mary’s eyes. She is worried about her grandmother’s death. Scarlett is worried about her mother’s death. Emer had already lost her mother when a child and is haunted by that. Tansy died without fully being a mother and is therefore a ghost, someone who did not die a natural or easy or final death.

There are so many differences between this story and mine. I have just lost my mother. She did not linger in hospital as Emer did. Emer worried about dying. She would close her eyes and wonder if she would ever open them again. But was that why mummy kept her eyes wide open, even at night? Why she could not sleep well and yet dozed off at all times of the day and night?

Mummy was very disturbed when she lost her mother, unexpectedly, after routine hospital tests. This was back in 1981. When she visited us in Banaras we took her to the grandest Ayurvedic doctor in the city. He discussed her case with her for a long time, as they do, and he focused particularly on her mother’s death, which at that time made no sense to me.

Like Tansy, I too have daughters that I worry about leaving. I am three times older than her when she suddenly died, but my daughters are like the children to me that she left behind. I can see their sad faces as they look at my closed eyes and unbreathing chest the day I die. They are not helpless, however, and I don’t need to hang around as a ghost. But I can definitely worry, and know that it’s all right to worry, and that with all the worrying and love, it will be all right for them. I have to act the ghost now and rid them of the fear of death, of the loss of a loved one.

Of course, in order to do that, I have to first accept the ghost of my mother telling me the same thing.

There are four generations of women I live within. My biggest questions “What does it mean to me that my mother left me?” and “What will it mean to my daughters when I leave them?” are miraculously answered. Different as it is to mine, the Roddy Doyle story tells me.

It means, to be reductive if I may be indulged in being, that I will manage, and they will manage, because of the love already given. We will all “be grand.”

So, being what I am at home, is that in addition to having some answers, I swim in a sea of love for Ireland and Roddy Doyle. Though I can transport myself back to Buddha territory, thanks a little bit to some brilliant Manga, I can transport myself still better to Wexford, Gorey and Dublin. The places are alive and well and I know them!

Posted by: Nita Kumar | February 6, 2016

Mummy’s obituary

How I hate and protest the term; how angry I am about her letting go; how I want again the sheer physicality of her, to bury my face in the folds of her sari (her at 25) and to lead her by her soft hands, her many layers rustling besides me (her at 85). No one has the right to transform themselves into a pot of ashes. Sunil could participate. He joined in her decision and said, “Mummy, you should now let go….” But I wasn’t there. I was not asked. I was tricked. Having not thrown a tantrum when she was twenty five, I want to throw a tantrum now.

But I did throw tantrums, several times over. Mummy was no exemplary mother. First, she managed to severely discipline my brother and me. In each case she ensured, through her own cunning, that we emerged as solemn scholars, unfitted for any other kind of work. Our foundations were laid as good students, who read with pleasure, wrote easily, loved to enquire, talked and debated endlessly. Talked and debated, h’m. Mummy must have realised that she had done too good a job. She loved discoursing as well, but was often impatient with our style of discourse. She thought it pedantic and futile in its meandering endlessness. We thought hers savoured of prejudice and superficiality. She may even have re-thought her commitment to our scholasticism. It led directly to, in my case specifically, a neglect of my appearance, my home, my possessions. She spent a major part of her life trying fruitlessly to reform me and bring me back to the path of cleanliness, decency, feminine attractiveness, and severe domestic planning.

In short, as a non-exemplary mother, she did not try to find out ever about my or my brother’s preferences or choices. We were always wrong. When I erred as an adolescent in my choice of friends, including of what went for boyfriends in those early days, she was un-forgiving. When I eventually had real boyfriends, they had to be a secret from her. When I brought one home, she as good as chased him out. When I sent over another to meet her, she presented him with a pair of ‘platform’ shoes because he was shorter than me. When I married him, it was years of nagging at me as to what he did not do well and what was wrong with him and how I should make sure to bring him to heel, or equally, to play the game of pleasing him.

But then there was a miracle. At a certain turn in her life, she accepted me and then began to celebrate me. She boasted to her friends once that when I had joined my parents for a summer vacation, I had arrived with a suitcase full of books. She sat and read every book I wrote from cover to cover. She did not allow me, suddenly, to dabble in any domesticity, even to serve her a meal, because I was now, clearly, seen as meant for higher things.

At every stage I, the non-exemplary daughter par excellence, kept up a running quarrel with her. I was never right, but she was certainly never right. That quarreling kept us friends. It also kept us smart. In all the chaff of the things she threw regularly at me, I learnt to find the wheat, and it served me well. In her later years, she often sat me down for advice on her office work and listened carefully, separating no doubt the wheat from the chaff in what I was pouring forth.

Mummy taught me to dance. At four, my lanhga slipping off my navel, my feet tripping on the sudden silk underneath them, I remember swirling to mohe panghat men nandlal chher gayo re, mohe panghat me…..And whose is that shadow that towers over, now holding my hand, now turning me around, keeping the beat, teaching me where to put my arms to hold an overhead pot…? My mother must have danced with me. She was only twenty-four, practically a child herself.

Whenever music played, she sang quietly under her breath. I was surprised a thousand times over as to how tuneful she was. I was angry with my grandparents. She was taught a little dance, a little vocal music, a tiny bit of violin, some art. Then, like good puritan kayasthas, they married her off before she could even graduate. And they instilled a fear of the arts in her, so that she not only could never continue to learn, she could never let me learn after, each time, a few years. The longest I learnt anything was the piano, thanks to the nuns.

Given that, it is a miracle that she tolerated, and indeed got along so well with, a musician son-in-law and two artist grand-daughters. She sat behind him and played tanpura and told everyone grandly that her son-in-law was a professional sitarist. She would have desperately liked to see me perform, I am sure. She came in enthusiastically on hearing the strains of tabla playing coming from our room and could not help saying, “Oh, it’s Som! I thought it was Nita!”

She painted scores of oil colours. I will never have space for even half of them in my home. I have seen them all my life, and they are totally inside me so maybe I do not need them at all.

Nor do I need all the fancy, fancy crockery. At a memorial for her, if I wanted to serve everyone in her style, I would need beautiful plates, heavy silverware, starched embroidered serviettes, a table for lords and ladies….I start doing that, motivated by being true to her memory. But I can’t. And the truth, whatever it is, lay between us, her proposing, I disposing, her: this is not correct. I: yes, it is! Her: let’s fix this. I: no, mummy, it’s fine. Thus it continued until I learnt a lot (or a little?) from her, she a little  (or a lot?) from me, and we came to a stable equilibrium.

I am getting over my anger as I remember little parts of our lives together. I see us more as equals. If I do not romanticise her, if I remember the many years we had together, that is, remember my age, then parting and death becomes more normal, more manageable. She was so herself and she lived to the last as she was, never yielding the process of going on learning and learning and learning. Never giving up the stubborn, curious child inside her. Never stopping to sing and dance.

 

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 22, 2016

The many deaths of my mother

My mother would cough and I knew she was going to die. All little boys and girls expect their mother will die and so did I live in that constant fear.

In my childhood she had a permanent cough that appeared immediately when she uncovered her chest. So her bath times comprised one long bout of coughing. I would be studying or playing and could hear the call of doom in the background.

There are many ways of coping with death, and one way is to prepare for ages by constantly imagining the death to come. In this way my mother died several times for me before her actual death last Saturday.

A horrible tumour grew in her stomach sometime in 1967. Her stomach swelled unnaturally. She had to get sari petticoats made with a special slit on the waist so that they could be pulled up. Some were passed on to me and I still own them, and because I once unthinkingly gave one as a model to a tailor, the feature took soil and now all my petticoats have a slit originally designed in 1967 to cope with her stomach tumour.

She had to have a major operation, during which we, the children, were shipped off to cousins for the summer. I thought I may never see her again. But there she was, recovered, now slim and more beautiful than ever.

One time I thought she was on the verge of death by suicide. My imagination went on a rampage. The occasion was rather interesting. My young brother, Sunil, maybe nine, had swallowed a piece of a blade and there was a chance that he would be internally injured. I came home from school to be told this news. Then I saw my mother laughing at something. I thought, “She has gone crazy. She cannot cope with the possible death of my brother. She is laughing madly. Next she will commit suicide.” Sunil was given cotton sandwiches to eat, which successfully surrounded the piece of blade and the dangerous object was expelled ceremoniously. No one died, or even went mad.

There were other times I thought my mother might die of heart break. When not more than five, I made the mistake of inviting her to a school play on a certain day and time. She dressed up and applied her makeup. I stood and watched. But I had got it all wrong. The play was over and there was nothing to see. My poor mother. I was sure she would not survive.

Then she had a collar bone fracture and seemed to not get cured for ages. She lay in bed, helpless. All the power and charm that characterised her for me disappeared somewhere and she stopped figuring in my life for uncountable days. Maybe she had died? a voice whispered. Maybe she is going to? Because my father, like many fathers, did not know what else to do, he bought me books as a present. That seemed to me a sure sign of the impending fate of losing my mother.

Well, the longer I write in this vein the more stories I will churn up. Soon, fact, fiction, memories clear and hazy, will all mix in a cauldron in the bigger discourse of “the death of my mother.” It’s nothing to go on about—because it has now actually happened. This one strategy of preventing it by pre-imagining it did not work at all.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 18, 2016

The half-done and the half-finished

Mummy is not one to say, “Stay with me.” She is always “all right” as she is. On the phone she says with extraordinary brightness to “Kaisi ho?” “Bilkul think hain.” Without directly lying, she manages to give a twist to her report on blood pressure, foot swelling, night’s sleep etc that makes it always seem all right.

On the 10th too, she did not stay “Don’t go” as I was getting ready to leave. But there was something new in the air.

First, she got her diary and began flipping through it. She often got one of her diaries out, to remind herself of something or note down something. In one she had pages and pages of her accounts. Everything was meticulously updated. She tried often to explain the figures but sheer disinterest and the seeming irrelevance of it prevented me from ever paying enough attention. In another she wrote down the dates we ever mentioned to her. They were many and confusion was natural. “When did you say you are coming in December? How long will you stay? When will you be in Lucknow? When will you go to Delhi?” The standard answer, “I haven’t got my tickets yet, but around—“ made her write down tentative dates several times over and check and re-check to remove the blur.

This time when she got her diary, I assumed it was more of the same thing. I did notice, fleetingly, that she continued for longer and seemed more determined. She even gave a little laugh as she came to a grand total of some kind with her savings. She even said something like, “— lakhs.” At which I imagine I turned more determinedly to the book I habitually kept in my own hands.

Then, mummy began to talk about keys, cupboards and objects. She mentioned jewellery, both in her bank locker and her safe at home. She talked of the water pump and the tin sheets on the garage—because with her usual alertness she had overheard a conversation I had with people back in Banaras about these two things. In each case she said, “You must take….”  I turned further towards my book.

She continued to talk about furniture and bigger objects. She gesticulated to everything around in the TV room, such as a wall cabinet, fondly designed for different-sized books, videos and photographs, TV and music system. All I had always begged her for was the old photographs, claiming I would copy or scan them and bring them back. She had been cautious. I was careless with the few I managed to take. She never stopped reminding me about them. She remembered every little object in any case and I had long lost any even mild interest I may have had in anything in her house. So when she began to talk about her things, I was surprised. The statement that “Most of these things will have to be sold here” was brand new. The last time that we had discussed any of her larger objects, photographs aside, was at least ten years ago when I, with perfect self-centredness, had suggested that I might take the piano to Banaras since I played it and she didn’t. She had growled at me and I had been reassured that everything was normal.

On the 10th, all this talk of mummy’s must have made me nervous. So nervous that I pretended she was being silly. I was sure that something strange was up with her when I found a movie on TV and discussed it with her and she was not listening. I asked her, “Which is your channel? What would you rather watch?” And for the first time in her life she said, “I don’t feel like watching anything.”

All I had to do was to probe her feelings. What do you feel? What are you worrying about? Then I should have talked to her about the three big things on her mind: her retirement, her house, her health. On each we had substantial thoughts to share. She had just decided to retire after a total of twenty nine years of work, twenty five in her present organisation. Of course she needed to talk about it. We should have talked for two hours, not two minutes as probably happened.

When I think about it, I blame her again. Why so stoical? Why so strong? Why not jerk me away from my silly book by saying, for once, “Nita, talk to me.” Instead, she wanted the world to be normal, which meant that I would sit and read, talking briefly to her now and then, eat, and leave for the night train, and she would throughout take care of me, not I of her. Yes, to the last drink. She said “Will you have a scotch?” She ordered soda. She gave keys for the bottle to be brought out since the scotch was kept only for the likes of me. I sat there with my drink, my legs crossed in a manly way, exactly as Mother Bernardine had warned me I should never cross my legs.

The previous day we had gone to her office and the retirement decision was made final by talking to her secretary. He argued and she listened, but when I argued back, she stuck with me and the decision. He was trying to work on her emotions, saying things like, “How will we all manage, madam? The organisation will go to pot.” I finally said, “Fine, let it. My mother needs a rest.”  She did not deny it, to my surprise. But I should have relieved her worries with talk the rest of the evening. What would she do now? How would she make her time meaningful? Where would her bountiful energies be channelled?

The next day I organised the house papers, had them copied and handed them over to a cousin who was going to look into a legal settlement for the house. Mummy was going to leave the house she had lived in for thirty five years, the house she had made from a ruin to a jewel. She did not express a moment of wonder at the size of the decision, at the emotional cost of the move. We did not talk about it, just did all the practical work of arranging the papers that had all fallen on the floor at the copier’s and were a merry mess. We should have spent another two hours in discussion of all those plans I took for granted but we never really went over in detail—that she would come and live in Banaras, that she would be made comfortable there, that she would have things to do, that we were so looking forward to it, that we loved her presence amidst us.

If only, if only, if only I had talked about all this. I had the whole evening, wasted on TV, two scotches, some book. Those damned books. I hate my books. They are the real drug. At the time my mother needed me most, they left my work with her half done and half finished. So what if I took care of her retirement announcement and the paperwork for her leaving the house? I never took the trouble to reassure her mind of the many, many questions that it must have harboured about these major changes.

So what that she did not once say, “Nita, don’t go. Stay with me. Talk to me?” It would have to be a different kind of mother to say that. I knew that was what she wanted. I knew. And I was punishing her for her inability to say it. I was abandoning her to her fictitious strength. Oh, mummy.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 17, 2016

Mummy, 16th Jan.

Then there was a second meeting that led to mummy’s loss of the will to live.

This was with my cousins, mummy’s nephews and nieces, on the subject of decisions about property held jointly under that majestically named edifice, the “Hindu Undivided Family.” You ‘start’ an HUF. You start it with the hope that inspires all namers, that by naming a unit by this name you will magically create an entity that will remain ‘undivided’ and a ‘family.’ The ‘Hindu’ is irrelevant, unless you count the image of a tulsi plant blooming in the courtyard of the HUF property.

In this case the HUF had been started by Rai Bahadur Babu Ram Prasad Verma. He and his five sons were members of it. He passed away in 1973. At the time of his death a list of some ten houses could be shown as part of the HUF. Today there are two, Kachehri Road and Kasturba Road. Of his five sons only one remains, the youngest, Suresh, and he was not present at the meeting. Of his daughters-in-law four had remained till just the other day, then there were three. One was in her nineties and indisposed. One was Suresh’s wife and like him, absent. The only one there was mummy. The only one from that generation of ten, of whom four were alive. In case one wonders, there were five daughters as well, apart form the five sons. But they do not have a share in the ancestral property. In those days daughters were given a fond but final gift at the time of their marriage and no legacy was expected.

Of cousins, there were the siblings Sunil and myself, and my two daughters, Irfana and Nandini; the brothers Dimpu and Bittu, Dimpu’s wife Neeru and Bittu’s son Angad; Madhu and her husband Sushil. Of the five brothers, three ‘units’ were represented, two had no one to represent them. We pretended that there was consensus and we somehow spoke for all.

The meeting was hardly controversial. We exchanged old stories as families do. We asked about each other’s health, work, children and grandchildren. We voiced love and caring for everyone of us, present or away. We collectively mourned Raman chachi and Anil dada’s deaths, both within the last week.

Yet this meeting must have been an amazing strain on mummy. Because she is always so full of strength it is difficult to ever know how she feels. But, if I could translate a subtext in the whole idea of the meeting at all, it was, “You, Suniti chachi, are occupying a house that belongs to the HUF without giving anyone else a share in it. We demand a share.”

Sunil and I set to work to deconstruct this text. I had done this in several emails and two meetings already, having taken on the mantle of the spokesman of our ‘unit.’  I repeated myself.

According to the documents in a fat file kept in my parents’ bungalow, called most often “Kasturba Road” by everyone (when not getting rancorous and calling it emphatically “my grandfather’s property”), the house was built around 1930 and rented out to the military. Perhaps such things were good investments. Almost fifty years later, the documents attest, my father, Naresh Kumar, petitioned the military to have the house de-hired from their use for his personal use. He, a Police Officer, indeed an Inspector-General of the Police, the highest rank in the service, was posted in Lucknow and needed a house to live in. He was then staying temporarily in two rooms at Kachehri Road, the ancestral property, and after that in a government bungalow.

Many letters follow. Daddy writes to various officers to help him with his request. They all reply, “Dear Verma,” etc., promising him help in his legitimate venture. The HUF supports him, my oldest uncle Ramesh, its karta, that is—another wonderful name—active head or agent. The letter writing goes on for almost two years. Naresh occasionally exhibits impatience and wonders why there is no progress on his case. He asks for more help from more people. They all continue to promise him help. No doubt the case is inching forward.

As all archives do, this one subtly produces a set. The times are gradually illuminated, letter by letter, as by lighting on a stage. The letter dated June evokes loo, the one dated January the cold fog. Dictation is being taken by the stenographer in his bush-shirt who then retreats to his office and hammers rapidly at his machine. Officers strut around, often in uniform. They meet on social occasions, followed up by letters that greet and congratulate, and then in the second paragraph, make the request for help. The requesting officer goes home, drinks his tea, smokes, does not talk in detail to his wife but enough to get over the day’s fatigue. Then he takes a walk, and as he walks up and down the back verandah, he recites poetry to himself. His poetic imagination often peeps through in his letter-writing.

The wife appears as an absence from the archives. Why was he asking for the house anyway? Only for his family, his wife and children. And when it does come through, she is the future of the archives. She single-handedly makes it habitable, then enviable. Thirty years later when the family expects a share in it, it is largely because it is not a prosaic cantonment property any more, but a jewel setting itself off in a green nest, all produced by the wife.

At that time, 1978-80, assorted people from the family must have lived in Lucknow. Tauji, the Ramesh uncle above, did, with his family. Daddy did. Mahesh and Durgesh chachas lived in Calcutta and Delhi respectively. Suresh chacha was in Calcutta too, though soon to return to Lucknow. Yes, daddy’s five brothers had the unmatched rhyming names of Ramesh, Naresh, Mahesh, Durgesh and Suresh, all called babus. Their wives had the pretty names of Lila, Suniti, Mira, Raman and Geeta. The photographs of the five couples at a Rakshabandhan lunch could shame the couples of the self-important Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham.

What daddy was doing could not have been done in any other way. He was de-hiring the house, that is getting it back from the renters, with the plea that it was needed by the family, that is himself. No abstract argument would have worked, such as, “The house is ours so give it back.” Only a concrete plea would work, such as his, demonstrating that there was he, a government official, there was no home for him, and then there was this house that could have been his home but was occupied by the same government (that he worked for).

His petition was accepted. He was given the key and the delivery of the house in May 1980. It was always cited by him and everyone else everywhere as HUF property. But no one in the family apart from him needed it. No one was there and the question did not arise. The cantonment board paid a few hundred rupees each month in rent and daddy continued to pay that, dividing it carefully between the four brothers who should each get their share. There is a letter to Raman chachi after her husband’s death asking her where he should send the rent cheque.

The letters are many, even if some are lost. They are in carbon copies, that is to say, very flimsy paper, when originating from him. They are on government stamped, linen paper when originating from the Auditor-General or other addressee or colleague of his. They are all typed manually and signed in a cursive that did not go beyond his generation. There are some drafts and superseded letters. After several forays into this archive, I began to know it and to understand the pattern in it, as with any archive. I love archives and I could see a sentiment originating for this one.That it was my father’s story made it all the more interesting.

The rest of the family, such as my cousins gathered at the 3rd January meeting, knew only vaguely about this history. Their allusions to it ranged from “Everyone deserves to have a share in this joint property but only one person is enjoying it,” and “We need to sell it and divide the profits, and here is a buyer I know,” to “We all love each other and there should be no problem in making a family settlement.”

So, Sunil and I, both historians coincidentally, hacked away at various unstated accusations and propositions to reconstruct how there would actually be no property had it not been de-hired by daddy, how the military had agreed to de-hire it on condition of it being returned after the particular use for which it was de-hired, and how “one person” was “enjoying” it simply because she was the spouse of the now deceased occupant of the house to whom it had been de-hired. No one else had ever expressed any wish to live in it.

But now that the HUF would like to sell it, some of this history had to be addressed. An important legal step had to be taken, hopefully less long-winded than daddy’s original one in 1978-80. The military had to be persuaded, or whatever should be the right verb here, to give it permanently back to the Verma family, for whatever the family wished to do with it.

The arguments and discussions wound around in circles and eddies. Mummy sat, mostly silent. She did not reply to every veiled accusation. She did not correct mis-statements. She could see that Sunil and I were active. But she must have felt—what?

I think that she felt, “Let me just pack up and depart.” Like Mrs Moore in A Passage to India she must have thought that the universe was too big and too grand for such trivialities as were being discussed in that drawing room. It probably occurred to her that God or the Supreme was manifest everywhere and that humans like us were truly blind if we thought that the distinctions we were muddling through actually mattered. She must have felt a gradual distancing from these petty concerns, a sense of “what will be will be,” a resignation to let actions face their own consequences. She must have experienced a little fatigue: “What does it matter?” Mrs Moore thought, “What a fuss about marriage! What does it matter—love in a cave, love in a church…” Mummy might have thought, “What a fuss about a house! What does it matter—live here, live elsewhere, in this body, in another….”

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 16, 2016

Mummy, 15th Jan

This is how it happens. The owner draws the curtains and closes the shutters one by one, removes the wares on display, takes down the hanging signs, switches off the lights….Anyone might think it’s a typical day and a temporary closing. But it does not open again. The place is vacant now.

I knew I was delaying everything too far. In another six months I’d come to India on my sabbatical and mummy would live with me. In another two years our house would start getting built. I blithely ignored time and age, darkly joking with myself that it was only natural to forget her age since it related totally to mine.

Mummy had a will to live. When did she lose it?

First, when Asha mausi passed away in November. She spoke of this angrily, the anger that arises from love. How could Asha? That’s how she always was, Asha. Don’t talk to me about Asha. Mummy closed up and did not talk much. Asha’s death was a piece of her carved out and flung away.

Mummy was always stoical. I watched her stoicism melt. I saw helplessness, even a shadow of terror surrounded by wonder, in her eyes. We had three tough meetings, all in two days, 2nd and 3rd January. On the 2nd we went to the lady and her niece of the family who owns the organisation that mummy has dedicated the last twenty five years of her life to. Mummy had discussed with me the questions she was going to raise, the worries that had made her seek the meeting. I interpreted her problems for her. “Just emphasise how concerned you are for the organisation. It’s not about you, or anyone else. It’s everyone together, worrying about the place.”

Mummy is one of the most serious people I know. If I have “done anything in life” as they say, it’s because from my infancy I watched her do every little thing with the utmost intensity. On the 2nd as well, she had her file ready, her mind prepared.

They didn’t give her a chance. They had their own prepared agenda, and unfortunately it was very hurtful. They divided up the world into the good and the bad, and there were all these people they gestured to in the organisation who were up to no good. Then they said something that no one should ever say to anyone. It was not that mummy was inefficient and should have weeded out these trouble-makers and had failed to. It was that she was old and frail.

They had no idea. Of how hurtful that was. Of the new wonder and terror in her eyes. Of how wrong they were. Of the power of my mother. I have myself failed to comprehend this power to this date, but I have  not the remotest doubt that it exists. I often look at the faces of the people she talks to, her eyes blazing, her voice dilating rhetorically. The faces always reflect her seriousness. None of them looks bemused, indifferent, evasive. The only reason that our hosts could under-rate her power and charge her with old age was because they were never there. They ruled long distance. They had some problem they wanted to correct and had found a scapegoat.

Mummy and I were across the room for each other. As the owners attacked away, she grew silent. Maybe she got a signal from me, maybe she recognised the ultimate perfidy. Instead of a dialogue with an equal, they were attacking her as a weakling, accusing her of wrong doing insofar as she was tolerating wrong doing. As soon as she shifted to reply, the speaker raised her voice in the non-engaging device that (uneducated) Indians often employ. If she began to speak, the lady said, “I can’t hear, Suniti.”

I had a beautiful china cup in my hand from their Victorian bric-a-brac used for visitors. I pondered the splinters were I to accidentally let it go and say with a polite smile, “Oh, I am so sorry.”

I didn’t and neither did mummy speak. We left soon. We told each other that it was all for the best and that she was well rid of a responsibility that did not merit bearing and that the family could handle their problems themselves. But I knew all the time that she had a twenty five year history in her job that would take ages to come to terms with, if the coming to terms could ever happen.

Because of course she was old. She had high blood pressure and this meeting was tailor made to spike it. When she phoned me the next few days repeatedly to bring up some detail or the other of her retirement, I knew that she was troubled. I did not want to put it into words but she had lost the will to live.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 16, 2016

Mummy, 14th Jan

Mummy took a bath with ease and joy. There was a total reversal of roles. If sixty years before she had helped me undress, mixed water for me, made me lift one foot at a time as she rolled off my pants, and then ensured that the well-mixed water flowed evenly over all my parts especially the ones difficult to access—now I did all this for her. She braced herself with a hand on my back as I bent down and rolled her tights off her ankles. She watched as I mixed the water and said the equivalent of a little girl’s “nice water!” She insisted on pouring the water over herself and I recognised myself in her stubbornness. I watched her body’s shape and felt her skin as I know she used to do mine.

The sentiments were a combination of assertion of autonomy, confident use of a slave, ease with physical intimacy (because with a slave) and annoyance at one’s occasional incompetence quickly disguised as idiosyncratic choice.

If it’s fun to be a little girl, mummy was that little girl at her bath today.

Her blood pressure is now 110/70 from 120/80 from 125/90 from way into the hundreds. In the morning before 9 am she had nine pills. The next round will happen now, around noon.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | January 16, 2016

Mummy, 13th Jan

Mummy is not well again. She had a stroke. I was told on the phone that she had trouble speaking and no one could understand her. Then they held the phone to her and I heard her indistinct speech for myself. One part of her face, they said, was ‘swollen’ or ‘twisted.’ Of course. Thats how it happens.

I am having immensely bad luck travelling to her. I learnt about her stroke at around noon yesterday. There is a train at 12.50 and I thought I could catch it. But I would have to leave that minute. Even if someone took over all the ‘pending’ work in Banaras, even if I rushed away as I stood—what about the ongoing journey to Claremont?

I ponder. I have a sabbatical in Fall. Could I not plead to take it in Spring instead? Then I would stay on and be with her. In Fall I would go and teach. “You’d have to teach the whole year then,” Nandini points out. “It would work out,” I reply. “It’s just a question of the maths.”

But I don’t follow that thought further. Much as I  would love to stay, I do not relish the lack of love I would engender as the Chair who left her position mid-way. With the tenure and search cases going on, no one would like to take over. I quietly check my course enrollments. The thirty students enrolled would not love me either.

So I pester Indica Tourist Point, my trusty rusty travel agents, for a train to Lucknow. There has not been a flight for decades between the two cities and all trains are slow. Gautam tells me that there is no seat on Bareilly or Varuna, that Inter-City is cancelled, and that only Kashi Vishwanath remains. It seems extraordinary to me but my brain has stopped working. Why didn’t I just drive? Why didn’t I take the Rajdhani to Kanpur, just an hour or two from Lucknow? Why didn’t I get into Varuna in the unreserved coach and just squeeze into a seat?

I know the answer to the last. I have just come back from Lucknow, from two visits to the railway station in two days. Each time I looked hard at the unreserved coaches as I went towards my own. I could feel the physical sensation in my body of the pushing, squeezing, crowd, the worse than mucky walls and seats of the coach, the dim lights and open windows with bars. Of course I could do it. I do not. Sunil tells me not to and says my Inter-City is all right, the same that manages to then get cancelled—and I make my choice.

I also, over the next day—for I do not manage to leave for a full day—understand the choice of living made by healthy people. I choose books to read on the way. What if I was mummy and had to lie there helplessly and not be able to read? I choose a suitcase and pack, even though very perfunctorily. What if, no matter where and why, I was not going to be able to travel any more? I plan whether I will pack my lunch for the train or just take a snack. I remember in mummy’s last illness how she could not be made to eat even one-sixteenth of a bite of anything. I linger over the memory of the fraction because I had worked on it upwards bit by bit. If she could be made to eat one-sixteenth, then I could aim at one-eighth, following that one quarter, then half—then a whole bite. Then from a bite we would begin to struggle with working up to a fraction of a meal.

My twenty four hours become an amalgam of the experience of the living and the non-, of the healthy and the ill. For every movement and every sensation and every plan, I tell myself, I can do this. She cannot. She is in the ICU with tubes all over, unaware and uncomfortable. She is not cooperating because she hates it, as any of us would. The possibilities when you are normal and alive are so extreme and so intense that I push my will as far as it can go.  Get well, Mummy. You must experience this again: the travel, the guavas, the books and movies, the family around and the conversation. Just get well and savour this happiness again.

When Daddy had been unwell I remember the rush of feeling that came, unbidden. I don’t want to be alive and healthy, if he is not. I hate life. I hate health. I love death. I love sickness.

This time it is different. I think, I love life because Mummy does. Let’s be alive together.

Posted by: Nita Kumar | November 1, 2015

Mahesh chacha

In 1926, when Mahesh chacha was born, Kachehri Road, Lucknow, must have been a gracious place. George VI was on the throne and had had a successful, indeed glamorous tour of India some years previously. This tour and its climactic darbar, helped fashion in upper class Indians an identity for themselves as special, with oriental glory. The patriarch of Kachehri Road, Ram Prasad Verma was given the aristocratic title of “Rai Bahadur” by the British. His children always quoted that. A prominent lawyer,  he worked for clients who occupied the topmost rungs of the social ladder. He lived in style and dressed like a gentleman.

His family flourished. There was one beautiful daughter, Sarojini, and two handsome sons, Ramesh and Naresh, before the equally handsome Mahesh, and two more sons, Durgesh and Suresh, and four daughters, Rishi, Nirmal, Santosh and Asha, to follow. All the girls were fair, the boys dusky (as girls and boys should be), with Kachehri Road noses that could not be missed, all tall and broad shouldered, with expressive faces, and a wit and an ironical style that set them apart. Only their mother, Binodini Devi, did not survive much after the last of them to enjoy this healthy, happy, burgeoning family of ten children.

I picture her as the essence of motherhood, giving out love, support, succour, food, literally the pallu of her sari for her children to wipe their hands on as they took their places at the dining table. I see her as a fount of energy and humour as she scolded and questioned, aided and improvised, living up to the name she was given by all, “Bhabhi (sister-in-law),”  more even than ‘mother’ which no one called her. Whatever every child became was largely thanks to Bhabhi.

Maybe Kachehri Road was the mother. A house that embraced you as you enter, then put you on one knee or the other, took you into its lap, let you climb all over and tumble down, all the time maintaining a serenity and bountiful generosity. You want to fly kites? Climb right up to the “fifth floor” on the roof, the platform reaching up into the sky. You want to curl up and read on a window sill? There are four beautiful spots with coloured glass panes to choose from, all fronting the magical street called Kachehri Road. You want to find some hidden treasure? There is rumoured to be some hidden in the puja room off the side room (belonging to Asha) near Baba’s bedroom.

The children must have run around from room to room, hiding, playing, studying, growing up in this mother of a house, observed and attended by Bhabhi, Papa, and sundry maids and servants. These last are all faceless to me except for Dhani Ram with his knobbly knees under his white dhoti, his gentle eyes, his warm smile; Moti; and the later Ram Awadh.

After Bhabi died, the house changed, giving lie to the idea that it was the mother. Only she had been, and the house now looked only a reflection of the father. The woman’s touch went missing. Rooms has a ramshackle look, the tops of cupboards were never cleaned, window panes not scrubbed. Dhani Ram reigned more in the kitchen. The younger children, Asha, Suresh, must have felt half-orphaned and looked, sometimes in vain, towards their daddas and jijjis for parenting. But such had been the parenting that everyone did well in life. All came to be well employed and well married, “well settled” as we say, and started their own families.

Mahesh studied and studied. Like most good students, he played hard too. He could deliver a mean cricket bowl and badminton serve. He could apply English romantic poetry to the beauty of actual people around him. He could get transported by music and dance. All this seemed especially appropriate as he was joined in wedlock to the beauty Meera from Bihar, a singer and narrator of no mean standing.

Mahesh writes about the experience of being in the railways, an officer in the new India of the late 1940s,  with everything British in the structure he became part of save the British themselves. It took many intellectual, creative, talented young people like him most of their lives to restore the balance between the ‘West’ that had formed them—twenty one years after all, in his case—and the ‘East’ that they knew they were part of, that was all around, that was enticing and promising and equally them.

I am twenty five years younger than him. I knew Mahesh chacha as a child of course. Sometime in 1958 we visited Calcutta and stayed in a flat high up with them, and I went playing in the park downstairs. Going back from Calcutta is memorable because it was my first ever time on a plane, and Calcutta and my chacha’s place were all equally metropolitan and impressive. The first time I really spent time with him, however, was when I was 23, back after years abroad. I went and lived with them on Landsdowne Road in Calcutta for a full month. My chacha and chachi after all. I landed up uninvited, made myself at home, and stayed on. None of  my four cousins, Dimpu, Pappu, Bittu or Baby, was then married. The house was a gracious bungalow, reminiscent of Kachehri Road, as I am sure Mahesh chacha also thought. That the house was gracious meant that it had huge bay windows with shutters to look out of and stood upright three stories in old-fashioned Tagorean splendour. That the house was large meant not only that it had half a dozen bedrooms but that it needed constant dusting and tending. Meera chachi would go on a battle round morning and evening. Calling out to servants, she would get every corner of the house cleaned and scrubbed. She was a shy, bold, affectionate aunt, who left us suddenly and all too early, a victim to carelessness during trouble with diabetics.

What was extraordinary for me in this one month stay was not that I simply lived there with Mahesh chacha, Meera chachi and my cousins, happy to be a part of the family and being treated completely as one, but such was the one-ness that my father wrote to me when the month was over that he had heard (from his brother Mahesh) that there was some young man in Calcutta who I was apparently interested in. Such protectiveness. Such family-ness. I was surprised and proud to be the object of so much scrutiny.

It was not this young man but another young man who I had my eyes on, and once he and I got married, Mahesh chacha took us both under his wings. He was delighted that Sombabu was an academic and a musician. He organised sitar concerts for him, including in Birla Academy and at Rupali Talukdar’s house. He called us to his Club. He introduced us to people. He took us to Mamta Shankar’s house, of Uday Shankar fame. He knew everyone in the art and literature world, to say nothing of politics and commerce. He acted as our local guardian in Calcutta, finely in tune with our musical, literary needs.

There were lovely quiet moments too. He would sit in his book-lined study and gazed out. When you came, he would keep you for several hours, discoursing on ideas and authors. He may have been in the Railways, but that was simply an accident. His heart was in literature and philosophy. Like my father Naresh, Mahesh had been, but even more than him, he remained, a literary aesthete.

When my father-in-law died, Mahesh chacha came to my in-laws’ house in Srirampur. He sat in his dhoti kurta, solemn and ritualistic, eating his puri-sabzi. He and my father-in-law were one of a kind, solemn and ritualistic. I can see their respective upright figures gesturing regally, fingers poised over a pattal. Servers would hover around.

When Meera chachi died, he came to Banaras, the correct place to perform certain funerary rights. I have a picture of him with his head shaved, holding a little copper lota wrapped in red in his hands, his eyes closed, head raised to the sun in prayer.

He came again also, now to Sarnath  to attend someone’s book launch, now to an educational centre run by an old-time friend. He stayed with us, ate with us, sat on rickshaws with us, and spread his affection around. In Calcutta, his patronage of his niece was so undisguised that as he went around at a high class reception with ambassadors and councillors introducing me, a gentleman stopped him short at one point to say, “Yes, Mahesh, yes. I have met your niece already.”

When he retired I observed that he turned, not away, but also, from anglophile leanings in literature to a gradually stricter Vedism. Not only did he like to listen to chanting in the morning now, his speech was also peppered by an ancient Hindu bearing. It was all quite astonishing and charming and I often cited it in academic circles as a sign of the new India, more modern but more ancient, all at the same time.

Finally, about four years ago he arranged a fancy lecture for me in Calcutta. I was the expert on Educational Management. His intensity for thinking, spreading the word, networking, doing, was indefatigable. What I remember of the occasion is the special Mahesh chacha intimate touch on a younger team member’s elbow to make him bend down to hear an instruction. I thought, “In this gentleness, he puts the monks to shame.” We were in Ramakrishna Mission.

Mahesh chacha is no more. 1926-2015. Even if I live for several years more, I am diminished today.

“…never send to know for whom the bell tolls—it tolls for thee” (John Donne, 1572-1631).

Posted by: Nita Kumar | October 11, 2015

Birthday over!

If you want to feel special, the best thing to make you feel that, is your birthday. I am wrong—it is to have people who care for you make you feel special on your birthday. My absolute sweetest memory must go as far back as school, perhaps class IX. Another girl, in another class, had the same birthday. We felt special the whole day long, looking at each other, comparing notes non-verbally. The next day she said to me, “Birthday over!” That really put a seal on our pleasures of the day before.

And what were they? What are they ever? Cards, presents, birthday wishes, cake and food, giggling friends giving you a surprise, some hugs, lots of emotion.

But you were born. And it’s nice that people can fuss around you for that reason. IN this I am twice bless’d.

Yesterday, here’s how my birthday went.

At 8 am I made German pancakes in memory of my friends Gay and Eileen Haas. I was as close to them as I have been to anyone, especially Eileen, from 1972 to 74 while living in the same place, and then well until 1999 even while in many different places. The same place was Bridgeport-Faifield in Connecticut (today I read in the LA Times Obituary column of the death of Larry Brezner, producer of comedies, who had studied at the University of Bridgeport, as I have, a rare and unknown place otherwise). Sitting here in Southern California, my Connecticut seems like a dream. Gay and Eileen are no more and how I wish I could have met them once more before they died. On some of the many times that I stayed over at their place, Gay made German pancakes for breakfast. I can see them and taste them right now. Every now and then the memory gets overpowering and I make them.

We sat outside in our bower to eat. Disappointed with our brown-ing garden, we went out and bought plants and soil a month back and I have been watching and nurturing them more than if they were my children. They have responded with love and well-being. They were nodding all over our angan (atrium/courtyard/patio) and veritably singing a chorus of birthday hymns.

Then I turned to duty. Something was not right with our car and the plan was to drive to a beach and then to a show in LA. I had to get the car looked at. So, reluctantly, at 10 I went off to Sears armed with my laptop. Because I was willing to sit and work, they took their time. Two hours later, they told me that it could not be done on the spot, the problem was one that would take eight hours to fix. I went home and we looked up car rentals.

The nearest place was in Ontario, a good twenty minute drive away. As Irfana and I drove there, our car felt fine. It seemed to have recovered. Then I remembered that the Sears people had seemed suspiciously non-informative. Maybe things were not different to India where you could trust (!) a mechanic to tell you that something was grossly wrong and would cost you thousands because you simply didn’t know better. These people had said “Thirteen hundred dollars” and I had been too shocked to react, but now was feeling distinctly unsure that it needed so much repair.

However, the birthday spirit triumphed, by which I mean that it is supposed to bring out the best in you and it did. “You are prone to rashness,” I told myself, and told Irfana to tell me, “Don’t be rash now.” So we went to Hertz, then to National, and got our car, smelling, feeling and driving like all rented cars always do, that is to say, as smooth as butter, as clean as newness.

Irfana and Nandini had meanwhile put out the most artistic–gauzy, pink and white, with bows and trims–display of a pile of presents on the carpet! I had to protest. A woman of my age getting such a mound of mysterious, wrapped gifts! We simply should not be following this ritual any more! The first, littlest thing was a gift card to Yogurtland where I must have taken them all too often. The next two things were manga novels. I know I am developing a taste for these and I think I will soon be irrevocably hooked.

It was getting late. Google maps warned us that both our roads to the beach had accidents and would take double the usual time to traverse. Quick changes in plans. Disappointment sought to be converted into positive outlooks. We would just go downtown, to Grand Park and streets around. We would walk and dine in Petit Paris and go to see Hamlet by the Four Clowns, instead of just spending hours on the road.

So we left the remaining dozens of presents and drove off.

I got to sit at the back which is in itself a holiday. I got invited to talk about myself, about my sabbatical next year. What could be a pleasanter topic! I floated away on the dream of the book I was going to finish researching and writing. In the middle I was going to make a movie, “Murder in Mussoorie,” based on a novel that I had written years ago and was going to turn into a script.

We reached LA. We felt so much love for it as we walked around that another plan was immediately put into place. When I left for my sabbatical, I would leave Claremont as well, keep things in storage, and come back to take an apartment in LA. I would commute to Claremont and have the whole wonderful city to wander around in. When planning these things, one typically forgets that the part of the metropole one is enjoying is not the exact same part, or even kind of, that one will get to live in. But then I remembered my one year stay in Cambridge, Mass. and I had lived in an apartment right on Massachussetts Avenue, a five minute walk from Harvard, opposite the quantest second-hand book store. See my blog on an ethnographic train of thought on Cambridge!

We strolled around and watched children playing in their two inch shallow pool for a long time. Theirs was unadulterated happiness. Then to Petit Paris.

In some restaurants you can be left more alone than in others. In others there is more of a performance and the waiter with his niceness, in this case his strong accent and foreignness, can keep pushing you into co-performing until you either resist and return to your own conversations, or give up and do it, and later wonder what happened. Though not a foody, I love good food. I love the atmosphere of well appointed and well conducted places even more. Petit Paris was and had, both. So I was as happy as a humming bird. We drank expensive wine and ate wonderful dishes. And created various scenarios in which the waiter was a visitor from France on a J-1 visa, or a good actor at his evening job. Nandini’s lobster order got confused with another lobster order and straightening that out took some time.

If the German pancakes had been in memory of Gay and Eileen, I ordered escargots for starters in memory of Alice Thorner. On a visit to Paris in which I stayed with her, she took me out for dinner the first night and we ate escargots among other things. I awoke in the morning listening to birds outside, happy though my suitcase had been rifled on the way and my camera and leather gloves been removed, the taste of the diner in my memory. I associate happiness in Paris with buttery, spicy snails. Walt Disney has overdone the work of making all little creatures, many of whom we eat, lovable.

We hadn’t given ourselves too much time. We could have lingered over our meal a good hour longer. But we straightened ourselves, checked our phones  and realised we had to not walk fast, we had to run. Three dressed-up women tripping along deserted sidewalks that, shoot, went up. Midway to the theatre we realized that there was so much distance yet to cover we had better take our car. So we re-routed ourselves to the parking lot and reached the theatre in two minutes. Nandini and Irfana were sent in by me and I took over the wheel to park. I knew that difficult that it would be for me, it would be still easier than for them, especially with my additional dose of rashness and risk-taking. I parked, sshh, in a mattress store’s private parking. Nothing happened and no more tickets have been added to my collection.

Hamlet was a gem. The ghost of Shakespeare himself was present on the stage, approving of the slapstick. But the truth was that clowns and clowning is sad. The actor is presenting the dilemma and everyone is laughing at its absurdity and fallacy, but all the time he is also saying, “See? We cannot do anything about it. We will all still die. We can only laugh.”

Life is long enough for a laugh. I have decided to claim that I am seventy now, which will buy me some extra years. With which I conclude my birthday dissertation. And I still have the remaining presents to open!

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