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Chhobi

SPECIAL TO THE EXPRESS: Writer-director Neel Chaudhuri on coping with grief and learning to live in the now

New Delhi |
January 4, 2022 10:00:51 am
photograph, family photograph, family, nostalgia, chhobi, what is a 'chhobi', death, dealing with death, short story, shorty stories, Eye 2022, Sunday Eye, indian express newsOur home was too small but we needed her to be close for my daughter, Ruki, and for us. A narrow lane runs between the two buildings and Mum-mum and her baandor (monkey) granddaughter spent long afternoons. (Photo: Getty/Thinkstock)

She has drawn lines on the photograph.
“Ruki, why have you placed Mum-mum behind bars?”
“No. She’s outside a window.”

I take a step back and consider my mother (1998, Darjeeling, “Don’t get my double-chin”). My brother had quickly taken this picture of a photo from an album, and a small part of the image actually had his shadow on it. It falls on one side of her forehead and hair. It makes them look darker.

“Why is she outside the window?”

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“Why, because, okay, next to her chhobi is that window, the real window, right? And either I have to draw Mum-mum on the window or I have to — understand? — draw the window on Mum-mum. I currently do not have the goodly to make a good Mum-mum.”

“Goodly” is sort of a family code for talent or skill because my parents never liked the way those words were employed. To do goodly in something or to have the goodly to do something (it was both adverb and noun) was not necessarily to do it well, but to do it with confidence and joy.

Chhobi (picture/photograph) is also the family code for a dead person. “Accha — so you said to me Bulu Kaka was now a chhobi and then there he was on Facebook, at Dona’s live wedding telecast, alive and kicking.”

“I thought he’d become a chhobi, Ma, but maybe that’s Gomi Kaka.”

“Check properly next time. I almost sent Jonty my condolences the other day, can you imagine!”

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Seven years ago, my mother moved into the house next door. Our home was too small but we needed her to be close for my daughter, Ruki, and for us. A narrow lane runs between the two buildings and Mum-mum and her baandor (monkey) granddaughter spent long afternoons speaking across their adjacent windows.

“Why don’t you just come over, Ma?”

“Na, re, doopoor (afternoons) is a sacred time. You all should rest a bit because you work so late into the night.”

“Well, it’s impossible to get a wink with Ruki speaking so loudly (“Mum-mum can’t hear me otherwise”) so …”

“Can’t meet her school friends, to. Baandor has a bit of surplus energy.”

The baandor’s predilection for drawing on things is recent. She has a dozen canvases of varying sizes stacked underneath her bed and one waiting expectantly, blankly, (“the painting must come to it”) on an easel in her bedroom. Her online art class at school has been ineffectual, with her teacher in low spirits over how “the colours are all wrong and the figures too small on Zoom”. For the past few months, she has been practising sketching with Mir, the son of our neighbours who has used the current circumstances to tell his parents that the pursuit of an MBA is outside of his artistic ethos.

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“Can I show the picture to Mir?”

“No, you can’t … you shouldn’t take it off the wall, Ruki. And you need to wipe the lines off the frame.”

“Mir da told me that if I am goodly, then, I can make anything in the house as my canvas.”

“Yes, I know and I have spoken to him about that (“there is a giant red rabbit or kangaroo — I can’t tell — on my fridge door, Mir!”).”

My focus shifts from the window drawn on the chhobi to the one beside it and then to the one in my mother’s home across the lane. The curtains are drawn open. I can look into her apartment and see Tina, our help, in the corridor, in between rooms, and in between the routines that she performs there to convince herself (and us) that it is still a living home.

The day my mother died was also the day Tina was due to take a flight to Assam, to see her family after fifteen months. Mir and his father offered to drive her to the airport but when they returned she was still in the backseat of the car.

“Aunty, she said that she was not able to do it. I didn’t believe the reason she gave (“scared of flying”) so I made a tattoo with a marker of the real reason (“G.R.I.E.F.”) on my arm here because I thought it sometimes helps to put a word out there. I thought I could show it to Ruki but it’s smudged …”

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I’d stopped listening but stood there long enough for Mir to finish his sentences.

“Ma, could you see if… Mum-mum’s things that they brought back … Is there the drawing of the Baagaan bhooth (garden ghost) that we made together because — Tina says that Mum-mum took it to the hospital?”

“I don’t think so, Ruki, because they had to get rid of everything, because of the virus, so her clothes, her, you know, slippers and toothbrush and cream, and the personal things …”

I stop speaking because Ruki has nodded and looked at me in a way that makes it unnecessary to simplify the truth, to tread gently around the G.R.I.E.F.

“I can make a new one but Mum-mum — she is more goodly with eyes and fingers and toes.”

My darling mother is a chhobi but for Ruki, this picture of her behind a window has kept her in the present tense. That seems enough for the moment. For her. For us.

(Neel Chaudhuri is a playwright and theatre director based in Delhi)

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