Last night a friend of mine and I were talking about Kolkata and the fond memories we had of it and I was soon enough taken back in time to those long summer holidays that I would spend at my grandparents’ house.
All my aunts and uncles and cousins would descend onto the two-storied house at Salt Lake. At that time Salt Lake was not as crowded as it is today and we would play cricket on the streets and take long walks towards Nicco Park. Unthinkable, I know!
During those days along with my grandparents lived another very petite old lady, almost doubled up by age, she was Pishima, my grandfather’s widowed sister.
Kolkata was always fun, I could be upto all the mischief, that I wouldn’t normally do, and they would all go unnoticed, rather everyone turned a blind eye to it. Yes everyone except Pishima. And that’s where all the problems stemmed from.
We were always at loggerheads with each other. I could, according to her, never get anything right, the epitome of imperfection. Moreover, she had announced, my activities were all around ways and means to trouble her and make her anxious.
Though initially that was not the intention, later I would deliberately defy her and do exactly the opposite of what I was asked to do by her. My mother was at her wits end. She would tell me a million times to behave myself, and that Pishima had had a very hard life and I shouldn’t be adding on to her troubles. I would promise to her that I wouldn’t but somehow the very next instant I would forget about it and go about bothering the poor old lady.
When Pishima yelled at me, my grandmother would always come to my rescue. She would chide her for being so impatient with a child.
“Didi, come on, you are behaving like you and Jhumjhumi are of the same age. Why is it so difficult for you to indulge her sometimes.” And she would scold me too, “Is this what you are learning at school, don’t they teach you to obey and respect your elders. Off you go to play and don’t do anything for which I get complains about you.” I would mutter a soft, “sorry” and run away, only to be back with a few more tricks to drive someone crazy.
Sometimes I would call ceasefire and play ‘ludo’ with her yet the moment I won, she would scream that I had cheated, which I actually did, and turn the ‘ludo’ board upside down on the bed and the ceasefire would go for a toss.
“No, I didn’t cheat, but next time I will.” The only revenge I could think of was to steal food from the kitchen and wipe my hands on her ‘gamcha’ (a thin stripped cloth to wipe off water). In those days the elderly would generally use a ‘gamcha’ instead of a towel.
Pishima’s ‘gamcha’ was the most sacred piece of cloth in the house and she would go raving mad to hear that I had touched it, let alone wiped my dirty hands in it.
“You little dirtbag, you never wash your mouth and hands after having food. You are supposed to wash your mouth even after drinking water.”
“Here I am drinking water, let me now wipe my mouth on your saree,” I would scream with an evil grin.
One day my cousins decided to stay up quite late and try smoking in a secluded room. Pishima got the wind of it and barged into the room at that opportune moment when I had the ciggy in my fingers, trying to make circles with smoke I was puffing out.
She was aghast to see me like that. She howled and woke the household up. By that time of course, we threw the pack of cigarettes out of the window. My mother and my aunts came in with worried look on their faces. “What are you, people doing?”
“Nothing,” I piped in, “ She is blind as a bat, cant differentiate between paper and cigarette.”
Had I said I was smoking I wouldn’t have been beaten up black and blue but calling Pishima “Blind as a Bat” had a greater effect. Though my grandmother tried to stop my mother from spanking me, she was unstoppable. Calling names was not acceptable.
Later as the years progressed, Pishima became increasingly quiet and ill. When my grandfather passed away, she went off to stay with her daughter and grandsons. Later she moved into the village to stay with a maternal uncle of mine, who was eyeing her small piece of land. My grandmother sorely missed her; they were good friends and would always look out for each other. Since her health was giving way and she was becoming frail with every passing year, Pishima did not want to impose herself on my grandmother anymore. We would only hear about Pishima at times from her daughter and it was always about how unwell she was.
Many years later, when Pishima got my wedding card, she wrote a letter to my mother saying that nothing would stop her from missing her Jhumjhumi’s wedding. She was the sweetest creature she had ever laid eyes on. Despite being weak and in poor health, she came for the ceremony. She sat with me for all the wedding rituals that took place. I saw her feeble, frail frame deeply involved in the little nitty gritties of the ceremony. There was pure joy and happiness written all over her face.
A few months later Pishima succumbed to her illness. Though I was sad to hear about her I still couldn’t make it to her funeral. My work and new life didn’t allow me to go home for her last rites.
Many a times I sit and wonder about our relationship and what she saw in me. Maybe she saw herself and all the missed opportunities, maybe she saw the endless possibilities that couldn’t be hers or maybe she just saw a little girl and doted on her in her own eccentric and quaint way.
Last night as I was reminiscing the days gone by, I prayed silently, asking the Almighty to give me the strength and the power to love; to love unconditionally, just like Pishima.