As my children and I sang to honor my mother’s memories, a song about standing at the eternal crossing between life and death, the ethereal gap bridged only by music, ( A song of Tagore’s), it inflamed my imagination and became a balm to my soul. I remembered holding hands with my frail mother, in 2015, the year before she fell grievously ill at evening prayers. Mother and daughter had darkened the room, sat on her bed, facing each other, singing at her request, this same song. It had been a favorite of her mother, my dida as well. As we held hands and sang, I had imagined a bridge in ascent across this tremulous silver rivulet of life, with dida standing at the other end, her hands held out to clutch, not ours, but the strains of our adoration as they drifted heavenward. I felt as though she, my mother, and I had connected at that instant, for a moment, because it appeared ma had experienced something equally moving. Her eyes welled over, her face crumpled, and for the first time I, her adult daughter took my tiny mother in my arms, to console her, as she cried for hers. Memories of her head of grey-black curls upon my bosom, our hands tightly intertwined, were now my heavenly memoirs today. I hoped that evening; I had lightened her grief and longing for her mother. Today, feeling in my bones I had indeed done that, that my dida herself stood at the gates of heaven watching over and blessing us, lightened my load. In tears I smiled at ma’s photo, beseeching her presence now, at the other end of the bridge, to hear her daughter’s adoration.
Trembling, I got a glimpse of another moment soon when I too shall ascend that bridge, to greet my beloved matriarchs at the other end of the crossing.
My eleven-year-old lisped through the harder Bengali words longingly eying the tempting platter of white sweets. And I smiled as their darling Rina Dida, (My mother), would have done, indulgently with gentle, gracious humor.
“Let us leave the room, honey, for a few minutes, let her receive our dedication in privacy, and then you can have a sweet. Or two.” I smiled at my two loyal imps.
Josh smiled at me, blushing, and I locked my little boy in a tight hug. So like my mother to look at, he was a constant reminder that they never leave us, our beloved parents and grandparents. They are always there, in the touch, the smile, a word, expression, or gesture of our children.
On that afternoon of March 3rd, 2019, I received a call from the hospital at 1:36 pm that my mother was no more on our earthly plane. I had expected it in a day or two, but we were fresh back from the hospital just after visiting her and had not expected the call to come so soon.
The night before, I had said my goodbyes to her, taking my eighty-four-year-old father upstairs to her secluded room, to sit outside and bless her. He could not come in contact with her because of the Acinetobacter she had contracted from the ventilator. His immune system would be too frail at his age to resist its contagious power.
I went inside, in dad’s presence, and stroked her head and sang childhood songs, that she had taught to me, as loudly as I dared, (There was a patient in the next glass-enclosed room), hoping against hope, that though she drifted in her coma, in her “brain dead vegetative state”, as the doctors had pulled me aside to describe, she could still hear my voice, and know her “little old woman” as she called me, was standing watch over her, was still her faithful, devoted girl. I belted out all the Tagore songs she had taught me, loud and tuneless, in an agony of love.
“Don’t rescue me in times of trouble, lend me the strength to overcome them,”
I brokenly shrieked. In a desperate bid to reach her innermost soul, I sang the millennia old Sanskrit chant she had taught me, in adoration of the Sun.
“Om Java kusuma sankasyan, kashyapeyan mahadyutin…dhantaaring sarv paapagnang, pronotoshmi divakaran, om…”
Hail to thee, O crimson visaged, son of sage Kashyapa, In whose purifying flame all sin is destroyed, I bow to thee.”
I felt more than saw the creases and wrinkles on her pain-stricken face relax and smooth over, and she seemed to be at some peace. Later, others who had visited her, both before and after, remarked upon the same. Afterward, a dear friend told me, in comas, hearing is the last of the five senses to go.
As father sobbed outside, I went out to be his faithful shadow, to prepare him for the final goodbye to a fifty-two years old partnership. The travesty of having to sanitize my hands as I crossed the threshold of the door to the world of the living caused fresh tears of indignity to sprout at the fearful humiliation of being mortal and human, yet daring to love like the immortal gods.
Baba, though a staunch Hindu, had married his Brahmo wife according to her rituals, similar to that of Christians, taking marriage vows. I do not mean to say that Hindus do not have similar vows, we do, but my father chose to honor his wife by exchanging vows in her religion.
“Shampade, bipade, sukhe, dukhe, susthatai, ashusthotai, aami chirodin tomar mangal sadhone jatnoban/jatnobati thakibo, ebong dharme, arthe bhoge, aajiban tomar shohai thakibo. Aamar je hridai ta tomar hoyuk, tomar je hriday ta aamar hoyuk, O aamader ubhoyer milito hridai parameshwarer hoyuk.”
The gist of which proclaimed the couple’s declaration of unity, in wealth and affliction, in happiness and sorrow, in health and illness, and promise to work for each other’s supreme wellbeing. That ceaselessly they would stand by each other’s side in worldly pursuits and spiritual ones. And that their hearts were no longer their own, but each other’s, and a unified offering to God.
Fifty-two years of mutual prayers, hopes, wishes, sorrows, the birth of children, grandchildren, were to be looked bravely in the eye, by an ardent now aged lover of his once eighteen-year-old child bride, and peace had to be made, with her departure. As I once had stroked her gentle head, I timidly did the same for my silver maned lion-hearted father.
And he honored her memory and professed his love with tears, as he lifted his hands to bless her.
We didn’t yet know, of course, that it was the eve of her last journey on the following day. The next morning, at the ICU, I allowed my mother’s younger sister and a cousin to say their farewells, sacrificing the one hour of visitation to them. Mother’s sister had flown in from Guwahati, and in tears, she stood outside the glass enclosure as a nurse strictly ensured she didn’t enter forcibly. As she was escorted away, mommy’s diminutive cousin somehow slipped in, artfully opened the door to mother’s room, and threw puja offerings of flowers which propitiously fell on my mother’s chest. This aunt had offered prayers at the temple before coming, and she bade her goodbye to her younger cousin, with a shower of flowers. Mommy’s sister was tall, stately, imposing, and had grabbed all the eyeballs of the nursing staff. Nobody had noticed tiny inconspicuous Shipra mashi. And so mummy was bade her last farewell, befittingly with flowers offered at the feet of God, by her sibling and a cousin.
I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now, but perhaps at that very moment, her soul finally found release?
Regret crops up at times that I didn’t steal a few last precious minutes with her. But admixed with it is a strange serenity, a certainty that as her childhood companions bade adieu, she left for higher realms holding memories of her earliest days closest to her soul.
As I held my mobile phone tightly in my palm, a strange composure dropped on me like an iron curtain, shielding me from any display of emotion. Quietly I asked for the time of death and was told she had expired at 1:15 a.m. on that bright and lovely Sunday afternoon.
The next day was an auspicious Hindu festival of Mahashivratri, when all married women offered prayers to Lord Shiva for their husbands, and unmarried girls prayed for a husband of his stature and rectitude. My late mother had been a devoted and devout wife, who followed the Hindu tradition of regarding husband as God’s representative on earth. Despite her firm belief in science, her dabbling in arts and philosophy, the core of my Mother’s being had been simple, essential, and conservative. Perfectly attuned to my father, who was an extrovert, a modernist lover of western ways of thought, and yet with tender regard for his religious and cultural legacy, a rootedness and pride in ancestral traditions. I used to wear his old shirts from the sixties and seventies flower power era, tenderly stoke his collection of pipes and admire the silvery engravings of his Chivas Regal bottles.
But I also regarded awed, his bare-chested frame in a cotton dhoti, freshly bathed at five am, to perform our annual family pujas to Saraswati, the Goddess of Learning and Laksmi the goddess of prosperity and harmony. Effortlessly he straddled the worlds of tradition and modernity and showed us how to live our lives to the full, without petty judgment. And Ma had not only mirrored him but introduced him to her book, learned ideas, and taught us to be free of gender stereotypical roles and expectations from society. I donned my brother's old shorts, daddy’s cast-away baggy shirts, and played games, swam, and cycled with boys in the hot afternoon sun. She never asked me to take care of my complexion or to play with girls over boys. She gave me guidance and rules gently, only when as I grew older, sometimes hurt or puzzled, and when I needed them, and came to her asking. When my big brother’s tutor had got a little over-familiar, picking me up repeatedly as my brother and I took turns jumping into his arms from the staircase, to where he stood on the landing, she promptly ordered me inside. I was sternly told that I must be aware as a girl to be sure I am not touched intimately in certain places. Perhaps she was too protective towards her eight-year-old daughter, but today every school teacher, not just girls, but boys, differentiates between bad touch and good touch. I knew at least, as I grew older, I could always come to her with any troubling problem.
Which I did. When I needed money for a new dress, it was ma I came to, confiding that there was a sale going on, and all my friends had purchased one dress at least. I felt shy, but ma divined my dilemma and asked me how much the dress I wanted was for and handed me the three hundred rupees with a smile, and a word of caution not to ask for anything else too soon. Soon after I bought another dress, this time dad had indulged me. It was a bright orange sleeveless one-piece, which had a daring hemline above my knees. The lower half of the dress was a vibrant red panel. But it was sleeveless, and as I wore it for a party, I felt a frisson of apprehension. Was it too bold? I carefully combed my hair, applied a little lipstick, and stood in front of my naturally pretty dainty mother with unsure eyes. Perhaps she read through my eyes into my soul, because she gave me a simply divine smile of radiant approval. Eyes beaming, she put her hands around my waist, exclaiming, “How lovely you look!”, and twirled me around like her oversize doll.
In a moment all apprehensions were just wiped clean off my mind,. That’s the power of a mother’s approval, of her babies.
For babies we are to them, even when we are fully grown women, towering over them. My mind became a blank tabula rasa, as I merrily jaunted off to
my first college dance party, filled with only a sense of well-being and protection, sheathed in a dress that had got my mother’s sturdy stamp of approval.
That charmed dress got me a handsome admirer. Sadly, my mother didn’t approve of him. She was unfailingly kind to him, but… there was a but! Too gentle to interfere, preferring to remain non-judgemental, she never expressed her disapproval verbally, but through behavioral cues. I kind of got a funny feeling about him, thanks to the fact, whenever he visited, she would sit down in front of her gods, close her eyes steadfastly and start praying.
In hindsight, she was absolutely right, and I am grinning here. Though he was a sweet boy, he was just not right for me. Thank god I saw that before I was too deeply involved. And yes, I confess it was not easy, but thinking of mother praying, with her eyes welling up, helped me, in retrospect. Though I would have liked to strangle her then, for what I perceived as her trying to guilt me into giving up an “unsuitable” boy by her standards. Old-fashioned ones according to me, at nineteen or twenty then.
Mothers are like that, and I conclude today’s part here, thankfully, with a deep grateful smile. What remains is not her feeble transparent attempt at emotional blackmail, but that she cared so much.
So dear mother, though you are invisible now, you have left behind an invincible talisman dearest, your indomitable love.
And so armed with that, I will see this story through its three-part journey.
© Amrita Valan 2021
To be concluded.