In a surreal, predawn hour as I sit holding my mother tight, I suddenly remember the story of the perennial bloom. Rain or draught, snow or bush fire, the eternal flower always held its own in a garden peopled by seasonal beauties. I don’t know at what precise point this tale jumped out of Thakuma’s repertoire of bed time stories and settled into a deep groove of my subconscious. With the sagacity of a six year old, often misconstrued as precociousness, I had dumped the story as a make-believe yarn.
But now as a grown up woman, in the melting darkness of the dawn, as I look into my mother’s hand clutching a sepia tinted photo of Baba cutting the ribbon at the inauguration of the Bengali colony in the capital, the fragrance of the eternal bloom suddenly becomes palpable. And it is no figment of my imagination.
Only, the flower in question is a death defying love that bloomed like a thousand petalled Brahma Kamal, a rare mountain bloom that lives a lifetime in a day. The love between my mother and Baba was rare like this flower and it lasted through life and beyond it.
As a child, I found it most natural that two people married to each other should obviously be so in love. Only later as a battle scarred woman did I realise that the love and commitment my parents shared was a miracle not available to the majority of us.
Ma was 17 and Baba all of 22 when they got married. And Ma fainted on her saat phera. Our grandfather attributed this to her day long fasting but once the newly weds were alone, the true story behind the fainting spell and weeping came out.
Ma having grown up on Sarat Chandra and the Bronte sisters made the dramatic statement that this marriage was against her wishes and her heart belonged to someone else. The groom already besotted by his dusky bride took the punch on his chin. Being a man of principle he did not find her statement blasphemous.
A truth should never be swept under the carpet, he believed. He asked, ‘Then why the hell did you not get married to that bloke?’ Ma playing the perfect tragic heroine said her Prince Charming was in prison for his alleged involvement with the anti British, nationalistic movement.
Instead of feeling scandalised, humiliated or hurt, Baba took his bride’s hand and solemnly promised that he would give her so much love that in a year’s time, she would have forgotten ‘her imprisoned hero.’ He used the same diligence to win his bride’s love that had fetched him five gold medals and record breaking marks that could not be bettered for thirty years in his law school.
Our parents loved me and my siblings to distraction but somewhere they had created a niche for themselves that noone could encroach upon. Even after a life time of being together, it was not uncommon for Baba to hide a surprise gift for Ma under the pillow with the active connivance of his children.
Despite his high profile, government job, he never forgot to call her up from office at least three times a day just for a chat. And Ma whose intuitive powers were always very piquant, uncannily read Baba’s mind or some impending ailment that was yet to plague him. Reading out poems to each other or writing evocative dedication on their favourite books were things I thought all married couples do!
My most cherished moments in childhood were the evenings when Baba would gather us around him and tell us the story of Gajendra Kumar, a man who prized away the earthling wife from her merman husband with whom she lived with her children in a sea grotto. A great story teller, he would reduce us to bouts of uncontrollable laughter or heart wrenching anguish as the story straddled the alternate happy and sad world of the merman. As we would get immersed in the life and times of the merman, Ma would sit in a corner and grunt that Baba was sending wrong signals to the children. We would label her a spoilsport for not joining the jam session.
When we grew up we realised that the Gajendra Kumar story was Baba’s adaptation of Mathew Arnold’s famous poem The forsaken merman. ‘Apparently Baba had never forgotten his wedding night slight.
Later ofcourse, Gajendra Kumar alias Shantu Mama, Ma’s teenage heart throb along with his wife and family became an integral part of our life. In fact Mama who had fallen into hard days became the recipient of government of India’s pension scheme for freedom fighters -Tamra Patra—thanks to Baba’s tireless efforts.
Baba passed away, a broken man after the sudden passing away of his favourite son. His loss was a part amputation of our collective consciousness. But at that moment our pressing need was how to protect Ma from her twin bereavement. As usual it was our narrow blinkered mindset that made us feel that Ma needed protection. Because she always said, ‘Don’t worry. He has just gone on the other side of the veil. He is with me now, even more than ever before’.
It was no truism but a rock solid truth. Two days after Baba’s passing away, the secretary of the Bengali colony of which Baba had been the driving force, called up to ask if we had Baba’s photo. Not just any photo but the one clicked at the inaugural ceremony. They had misplaced their copy and could we please send them ours?
They wanted to use the picture for a memorial ceremony in his honour. There were so many pictures of Baba but that particular one was missing. We went into a tizzy and turned the house upside down to find it but without any luck.
All through this, Ma sat impervious. Her only comment was, “When the time comes it will surface.” On the third day in the wee hours of the morning, Ma shook me up from sleep.
Her exact words were, “He came and told me where to look for the picture.” She smiled at my obvious disbelief and said, “But he is always there.”
Then we went to my brother’s military chest that had been referred to in her dream. Ma unhesitatingly reached out for the top drawer that had been returned to us after our brother’s death by his regiment. The photo, lay there, waiting to be claimed.
Today as I write this, my vision is blurred and there is an obstinate lump in my throat. I hear Baba’s voice, “Come dear children , let us away Down and away below Call her once before you go Call once yet Children’s voice wild with pain Surely she will come again.”
The forsaken merman has finally been reunited with his soul mate.
(This piece appeared earlier in Chicken Soup for the Soul -Indian Women (published by Westland) If you have a uniquely personal story about life, send it to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org with your picture and personal details)