My father died when I was five, and my mother, 19 years younger than my father and 35 at the time, adopted the omnibus role of mother, father, friend and regimental sergeant major, determined that in deference to her late husband’s wishes, their only son be translated from a chubby, somnolent child into that arcane entity known as an “officer and a gentleman”. I’m afraid I never made the grade, but not for lack of trying on her part.
She enrolled me in an academy of equitation and horsemanship and made me by far the youngest member of the North Calcutta Rifle Range. The gym instructor at school was enlisted to teach me to box, and through a bruising penumbra of punches I would see her by the ringside, a tiny, indomitable figure in white. Afterwards, she’d dab alternately at my bleeding nose and her own tears and prepare both of us for the next bout.
But most of all, my mother told me stories. Stories of Rana Pratap and Shivaji, Jean Valjean and Bhagat Singh, Edmond Dantes and The Scarlet Pimpernel. The bedtime dark echoed with the rattle of Chetak’s hooves, the sibilant slither of duelling steel, the thunder of Javert’s racing heart as he relentlessly pursued his quarry through the underground maze of the sewers of Paris. And when she paused, I’d say, ‘And then? And then what happened?’, responding to the ancient catechism of narration, the secret pattern of the pulse of time. And then?
That’s how she tricked me into reading. Having led me into Edmond Dantes’ dungeon in the Chaeau d’If where by a twist of fate he comes to meet Abbe Faria, who becomes his mentor and his eventual means of escape, she suddenly stopped. And then? I asked. And then you’re going to have to read it yourself, she replied. So I read The Count of Monte Cristo and began a lifelong romance with the written word.
Her own reading, from which her stories were culled, was eclectic: Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, Sarat Chandra and Victor Hugo, in Gujarati or Hindi translation. The heroes and heroines of her stories were possessors of what the classical Romans called virtu, the capacity to harmonise adroit thought and audacious action; subversive Krishna rather than establishment Rama. I think she told her stories as much to herself as to me. They helped answer the exigent ‘And then?’ encountered by an orthodox Indian housewife facing early widowhood with three daughters and a son to cope with.
It was said that no one in the Kutchi community in Calcutta was allowed to be born, get married, or die without her approval. So she must have sanctioned her own ending, as unfussy as the closing of a book, while visiting her beloved Calcutta. With a storyteller’s sense of timing, she made the date of her departure coincide with that of my father’s, 39 years earlier.
Crossing the tarmac at Calcutta airport from where I was returning to Delhi after I had performed the last rites for her, I felt a sense of uprootedness, the loosening of a bond that left me as insubstantial as a scrap of paper discarded by a tired writer. There would be no more ‘And then?’ And then the words began to form, a flow bringing absolution, yet with it a twinge of remorse. But as I let them come even that was washed away. For hadn’t the storyteller always taught me that telling it well was the best revenge?
(Thirty years ago to the month, the storyteller came to the end of her own narrative. But she lives on in my thoughts, and not just in this column, but in all that I write.)
(Writer, columnist and author of several books, Jug Suraiya can be contacted at email@example.com)