Thankfully she was out of the intensive care unit after over a week. Now shifted to a general ward of a well-established private hospital chain in New Delhi (Read, super expensive), it was a space she shared with four other patients, partitioned by curtains to give a sense of privacy and personal enclosure where sound waves could criss-cross freely through the visual barriers. So while we could hear painful grunts or rant of an irritable patient testing his caretaker's patience, from her corner there emanated a constant chatter of three generation women, one being the patient and the other two taking turns to be with her.
She was fully conscious and talkative. "Maach khabo," (Want to eat fish, in Bengali or Bangla) was a constant demand, after morning tea or wholesome breakfast and through the day, and to whoever came to her bed, nurses going about their daily chores or doctors on daily rounds. Basically proving that you can place a Bengali anywhere and under any circumstance, but you cannot take away their desire for fish. Doctors were happy that she had not lost her appetite and we were happy that she was talking non-stop after being unconscious for almost 10 days.
But not everything she said was adding up, sometimes it would but at times it won't. She kept
confusing me with my mother, for instance. At times she would say, 'Badi jabo.' (Want to go home). And when you asked where is her home, she would say, 'Oyi toh, ekhan theke shoja gele toh Hingooli gram." (If you go straight fromhere that is where Hingooli village is.)
That response alarmed us all. As some of us rushed to update the doctor of this new development, the remainder pursued to quiz her some more. Given she had not been to Hingooli after mid 1950s, when she had travelled with my mother and uncle who had barely started going to school on a passport, back then it was in East Pakistan and after 1971 in Bangladesh, for her to out of the blue to refer to it as home 50 years later and not remember her address for decades just few kilometers away from the hospital in South Delhi's Bengali hub, C R Park (Chittaranjan Park, named after prominent Bengali leader Chittaranjan Das and a colony built for East Pakistan Displaced People), was worrying.
She was 81, could be 80 or 82 as well. After all there is no birth certificate and when you are
one among eight children (seven daughters and one son), back in the day, not many bothered with keeping records or cutting cakes annually on birthdays. So we never quite knew when she was born, exactly. But there was a rough estimation done by extrapolation in terms of being born fourth in line, after two daughters and the lone son in Hingooli gram's Nandi family, "Bod didi
was five years senior to me and mej di was roughly three years and dada was little over a year senior to me, so I must be around ..."
A better or more accurate reference of age, was actually her marriage. Apparently her father, my great grandfather, a learned man of his times with a formidable reputation as a lawyer in Chittagong district and great responsibilities of seven daughters, who were known to be one prettier than the other, had to take a lot of flak for being rather tardy about giving away my grandmother. "She is way past marriageable age!" "Who will marry her, now!" Apparently all this hue and cry when she was all of 18! It seems her two elder sisters where all married off and ‘well settled’ barely in their teens, so by that parameter my grandmother was really breaking tradition and with four more sisters after her to wed, what was my great grandfather thinking!
The ‘undue delay’ was not because my grandmother had some academic ambition or career to pursue, she barely studied up to class four and was just literate enough to write her name and a basic letter, if a need was to arise. The delay was because my great grandfather wanted a well-educated, qualified groom from a good family background and lineage (which basically meant a good caste, not brahmin necessarily because my grandmother's family was not brahmin
but still belonged to the higher echelons of the Hindu social hierarchy, it seems).
"Where is your home?" my mother persisted. Suddenly almost like a snap of a finger, my
grandmother recovered her bearings and said, "B-XYZ, C R Park. Why are you asking me this?"
My mother: Can you recognise me?
My grandmother snapped, "Birokto korishna toh, boka boka proshno kore." (Stop irritating me with your stupid questions.)
My mother heaved a sigh of relief that all is not lost. She is fine. It must be a momentary lapse
after all she had been through a lot in the last two weeks. A sudden collapse at home, a blackout of sorts, then my two uncles rushing her to the nearest hospital of little repute and what we suspect was a botched up preliminary diagnosis and then we rushing her at midnight to the super specialty hospital, in our frustration and panic at the way the earlier hospital was dealing with the situation - bordering on apathy and listlessness.
It seemed like a stroke brought on by sharp dip in sugar levels, a risk that every diabetic faces. But she had pulled herself through quite well and responded to treatment steadily through her ICU stint, giving everyone hope of full recovery. Once in general ward we, as a family, were hoping to see her walkout of the hospital soon with little support like she used to before her collapse. But she was currently unable to stand without help and even then was so unsteady that we had to seat her almost immediately. Then there was this added worry of her lapses in
'How many children do you have?' questioned my mother after one such lapse.
She lifted her right hand to say, "Ek-ta mayiya" and then lifted her left hand to say, "Do-ti pola". (One daughter and two sons, spoken in typical dialect of East Bengal).
My mother heaved a sigh of relief. Test cleared.
It was not as if she would talk gibberish, she spoke clearly and there was a sense of cohesion
in her sentences, except it was not all there, relevant to the present. And she would suddenly go back in time, way back. I was probably the first to discover these snap on and offs that she was going through. I would take her for her one hour physiotherapy every day within the hospital premises, just on a different floor. First she was lifted from the bed and then transported on to a wheelchair. She would be as excited and chatty as a child being taken for an evening outing on a pram. Once there in the room with the exercising cycle and walkers and other equipment, her excitement would diminish and anxiety almost like a stage fright before a performance, would set in. She would first be strapped and put on a machine where she would stand for some time. Just stand and do nothing. She would look around and see other patients doing different exercises. In front of this machine there was a full length mirror. On day three of this routine, once she inspected her surroundings during her standing practice, she tells me, "Aami yeh budo ke cheeni," pointing to her own reflection in the full length mirror. (I know this elderly person)
Me: Ota ke? (Who is it?)
"O roj aashe akhane. Aami dekhi oke." (He comes here every day. I see him every day.)
The fact that she couldn't recognise her own reflection was not totally surprising. That reflection
in the ill-fitted pajama and shirt given by the hospital, her disheveled hair more like an unkempt and unwell Einstein hairstyle, was a far cry from the good looking reflection of herself she must have been used to. She was always well turned out, liked dressing up and was very particular about being tidy in not just appearance but her surroundings. She was a perfectionist, almost finicky. In her well done up home nothing could ever be out of place and not a speck of
dust can escape her sharp eyes and duster. She could never rely on any maid to do anything and has always been this one woman army managing her household. She hated depending on anyone. It was only in the last decade that she gave up doing things herself but kept up the strict monitoring and was lethal verbally if god forbid, anything was not as it was meant to be. When it came to herself, she was immaculate to the core, never was she spotted with a hair out of the place.
In the hospital, obviously she was in no state to worry about her appearance and there was no
way of making her believe that the untidy old person was a reflection of her current state. Now with the help of two people she was placed on the exercising cycle, and more than cycling, she was busy chatting with whoever cared to listen to her. "Rama and I have so much fun every day."
Me: "Who is Rama, Boodi?"
(Boodi refers to old woman in Bangla. That is how I have called her for as long as my existence,
as opposed to the conventional Dida or grandma)
"Arre, aamar bheshon bhalo bondhu. O'er baadi aamar baadi'er kachhe." (She is a good
friend. Her house is near my house.)
Me, a little intently now: "Tomar baadi, kothai?"
"Kaino? Hingooli gram! Dhoom station theke..."
(Why? Hingooli gram! From Dhoom station...)
I got busy messaging all concerned that Boodi is again in the flashback zone. Strangely,
whenever she talked about Hingooli gram during her lapses, it was all in present tense, as if that is her current life. She could see it in front of her, Rama and she climbing mango tress and relishing the stolen mangoes, made sweeter by their act of stealth. When I picked up the thread of her chatter again, for she continued to talk even as I was distracted, I heard her say, "...Rama ja
shundor na..." (Rama is so beautiful…)
Me: Boodi, tumi'o toh shundor dekhte (Boodi, you too are quite a beauty)
"Ke aami?!" (Who me?)
She just blushed in embarrassment.
But she was. I have seen her black and white pictures and can vouch for it. A classic Bengali
beauty with long cascading hair, large eyes and a complexion that was a cause of envy among her contemporaries. In fact, family folklore has it that one of the reasons there was trouble finding a suitable boy for her was that while her father looked for a boy with brains, he was also struggling to find someone with the looks to match his third daughter's beauty. So when the match was
finally settled, a post-graduate in Mathematics with a government job in Delhi, and a Ghosh family of repute from Noakhali, needless to say, everyone expected an incarnation of Lord Kartik (Son of Lord Shiva and Goddess Parvati known for his good looks) to land up on the wedding day, in the summer of 1947. Boodi of course had not seen her prospective groom and was already feeling happy about the formidable credentials and how the same circle that had proclaimed a life of spinsterhood for her, was now going on and on about her good fortune.
"Hingooli gram theke shoja Dilli, ki bhaggo, Jyoti tor!" (From Hingooli village straight to Delhi, what luck you have, Jyoti!)
Normally, when expectations are high the disappointments are greater. Apparently, when the
groom from Delhi arrived the same circle started lamenting that how can a father do this to hisown daughter! Look at that oil dripping hair...look at those crooked teeth and that complexion, “Oh Jyoti! Your life is so doomed.”
Suddenly high qualifications, government job in Delhi, family of repute was not
good enough, after all what is brains without the looks to match!
But my great grandfather was firm that he is unlikely to find a better match for any of his
remaining unwed daughters and he maintained it till he was alive that Jyoti's marriage was the best match among all his children. Whatever apprehensions Boodi may have had about her husband whom she barely managed to get a glimpse of during the ceremony, were laid to rest a few months later.
After the wedding Boodi remained at her in-laws house in Noakhali and my Dadu resumed his duties back in Delhi after a few days leave. He was waiting for a government quarter to be allocated before getting Boodi to join him. In the interim, India attained Independence and trouble started. With communication being patchy whatever news was trickling in was worrisome. The country was divided and the husband and wife were separated by a new border. At that point Dadu decided to take a risk. He is said to have dressed up in a sepoy’s uniform and crossed over the newly formed border to fetch her and get her to Delhi at the peak of disturbances that followed Partition in August. I always find it hard to believe this rescue mission in khaki disguise story. For me it is too filmi. For the Dadu I had seen growing up, was a man of strict regime, disciplined almost to the point of being adamant and commanded fearful respect among family and friends. He was studious, passionate about Mathematics, and was very active even after retirement taking tuitions to stay in touch with his love for Math. So as clichéd as it may sound, I could never imagine a strict Math tutor, in a sarkari naukri (government job) taking on an adventure filled with dangers of communal riots and transcending international borders, to rescue his newly-wedded wife, whom he barely knew. That is what heroes do, in films. My Dadu and Boodi involved in such a plot seems like a figment of a fertile imagination.
Dadu never went back after that rescue mission. Not even with Boodi when she made that visit to East Pakistan with her two children to meet her parents and rest of her family in mid 50s. He never saw his family that got left behind ever again. Their only contact was through letters. All news of births, marriages, deaths would come via post. That was the only way to track the additions, subtractions and multiplications in that side of the family. Nobody from his side of the family managed to crossover to India, neither in 1947 nor in 1971, when Bangladesh came into being. The family was never united again. So for Dadu his only family was with Boodi. They had nobody else they could call family in Delhi.
Even the day before he died suddenly in 1999, he had taken her for her regular check-up to the hospital, because even at 81 he was fit enough to walk many miles on a daily basis and do most outdoor duties diligently like grocery or daily household shopping and it was part of his regular chores to take Boodi for her periodic doctor appointments. On that day while they waited for their turn, suddenly Dadu asked Boodi if she remembered their residence phone number. When Boodi said no, he just scribbled the phone number on the packet that had all her reports and just collapsed. So when everyone rushed to help and asked Boodi if there is anyone they can call, she just pointed to what Dadu had scribbled few seconds ago.
“Tomar ki biye hoyechhe?” (Are you married?) my mother was asking her while feeding her the dinner the nurse had brought in. Boodi was again rambling about Hingooli gram and their two ponds and Boikuntho (their man Friday) herding the ducks back from the pond at sunset, with clarion call, toi, toi, toi! And the ducks obediently form a line and head to their shed. Off late her relapses to the past had become more frequent and her narration more and more detailed. She remembered that they owned enough land to grow most of the rice, fruits and vegetables needed for their household consumption. Items derived from rice like Moodi (puffed rice) or cheeda (rice flakes) would be processed within the household premises. One of the main items they really needed to buy from the market was sugar and that too was acquired in exchange of rice or rice products, kind of a barter economy.
“Hoyechhe toh,” she responds to my mom’s query. (Yes, I am married)
My mom: “Tomar bor akhon koithaye?” (Where is your husband now?)
“Oyi je, okhane dorja’er kachhe dadiye acche.” (Right there, he is standing by the door)
My mom turned to look where Boodi was pointing. There was no one there.
Boodi left that night in her sleep.
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