by Maskwaith Ahsan;
(Chapter 2 )
She stared into the abyss for a very long time, couldn’t accept the fact that she was now a widow. Television channels were on a ‘Breaking News’ loop about the country heading into Corona pandemic lockdown, military being deployed to maintain law and order as if in war.
In the fuzziness of the last couple of days her mind started to confuse time; this seemed to be the same house where she had taken shelter with her one-year-old son almost 49 years ago. “It’s 1971. My husband has brought us here using lesser known routes for fear of the military,” replayed her mind over and again.
Sometime during this confusion she was jolted back to reality by her Aunt with the request to have a bit of food. It’s not easy to swallow when you can’t feel the taste of food. But she tried her best, so her Aunt wouldn’t have another thing to worry about.
“Your uncle left us a month ago. I still can’t accept that the huge shadow of relief is no more in my life. We have both been widowed at this late age, but think about your grandmother who lost her husband in her mid-20s and raised two kids all by herself. I never saw her lose her nerve, not even once,” her Aunt reminisced.
That old, iron lady with her white dresses died long ago, but the thought of her courage strengthened her recently widowed granddaughter. She tried to hold herself together; her younger son sat beside her trying to hold back tears for her sake. “He seems to have grown up overnight,” she thought to herself. Without a word, he just sat there cradling her against her pain, trying to assure her that she wasn’t alone.
This was supposed to be the house of joy. Everyone in it had been trained by her grandmother to avoid melodrama and stay strong even in the worst of despairs. There had always been an underlying bond of maya, of attachment if you may, that held every member together, that ensured someone would always be there to lighten up a grim situation. “Strange that there’s no exact word for maya in English,” popped in a random thought.
She wanted to go back home after the funeral but her family wouldn’t hear of it. “There’s a complete lockdown, so you are not getting rid of us so soon,” smiled her brother, trying to lighten the mood.
Death has a mysterious way of bringing people together. Despite the fear of Corona, all her brothers and sisters travelled to be there for her, easily camped out in the twin house. They were all there to bid their brother-in-law goodbye with the memory of his smile hovering around them.
Bangladesh has a countryside where family ties extend beyond blood connections. Arani has been and will perhaps always remain one such place where everyone becomes part of the family the moment they decide to make it their home. So it wasn’t unexpected to see the whole town gather to mourn his death.
Their younger son tried to explain the dangers of coronavirus and the importance of social distancing but it proved to be an alien concept to the people of Arani. It’s a town steeped in socialization. Quarreling or shouting is unheard of. During the day men only come home for lunch and siesta, the rest of the time is spent talking to each other at the market square and playing cards or chess in the old club-house.
Arani is neither a village nor a town; it’s a place of its own kind like a painting by an ancient architect; a planned locality with a mosque and a temple on either side of it, and the space in between interspersed by shops, schools, colleges, libraries and the River Baral.
She recalled her father, her uncle and their friends performing for the local theatre in the early sixties. They were all businessmen but surprisingly more interested in books, music and movies. The ancestors of this locality had always tried to live a full life and that’s the spirit they left behind for their generations to follow.
Arani is strangely self-sufficient, in a way that boys don’t want to leave the place and girls only leave if they are married outside the area. That was her case. One day, her father told her of a friend he regularly met whenever he was in Kolkata, “We try to catch the latest film whenever I am there. It’s a strange sort of camaraderie. You will enjoy the company of my friend’s son. I can assure you it won’t be boring,” for he knew well that his daughter couldn’t handle boredom.
Soon came the day when she met the smiling young man who came to her house in a suit, looking absolutely suave. The marriage took place in this very house where today she sat a widow. Everyone had expected the groom in traditional wedding attire but he was far from traditional. His father, too, was one of a kind. On the day of the wedding, after blessing her, he had affectionately said to her, “I have only two expectations from you. One, you must finish your studies and, two, women in our family do not hide behind a veil.”
Her father had been right beside her during this strange blessing, “Don’t worry Sarkar, we are traditional but not orthodox.”
She was jolted back again by her grandson’s call from abroad. Nervous like never before, she didn’t know what to tell the 20-year-old boy, how to explain to him that the dada he spoke to every Sunday like clockwork was no longer around to take the call. It was turning out to be a Sunday of grief.
It was the first time she heard emptiness in her grandson’s voice. He was at a loss, trying to figure out death, what happens after death and how, just like that, he would never be able to talk to his dada again. Never again would dada take him for afternoon walks and rickshaw rides. The news of his grandfather’s demise left him hazed but he surprised his grandmother with the strength in his tearful voice, “I am trying to accept the reality Dida. As all flights are suspended I can’t come to you. But you have to take care of yourself. You must eat and sleep properly, you have to remain well.”
She was instantly relieved, “He has taken after his grandfather, a restless soul but absolutely calm in grave situations.” As soon as the call ended, she heard noises from the adjoining room. Some men were quarreling on TV over coronavirus. “At this early, unsure stage fighting and disagreeing over Covid-19 is like a blind man narrating an elephant,” commented her younger son.
A couple of hours later she received her elder son’s call. “Look at your father, is this a joke. He just left me in this scary Corona environment. How could he be so irresponsible, so whimsical! He’s done this all his life. In death, too, he whimsically left without any sign of illness. I am not ready to let him go,” she cried out.
“Amma, he faced the fears of 1947 partition, the suffering of 1964 Kolkata Riots and the horrors of 1971 war of Independence. How much trauma can a person take in one lifetime? He probably had enough of it and didn’t want to face the trials of Corona as well. So he said goodbye, left us walking and smiling.”
(To be continued…)