The tears arrived much too early. Fifteen years before she died, I would spend numerous nights crying myself to sleep, wondering how I’d survive when she was gone. Later, I would laugh those nights away until they were hidden away in my secret box of shame, never to be revealed. That was until Thakuma did die in June 2010. That was when all pretence fell, all shame unravelled. And the tears arrived again.
She had had a scuffle with death the previous year and emerged victorious, but witheringly weak. Thousands of miles away, in another country, I’d see her surprisingly radiant visage swim in front of me as I somehow managed to pull myself through an endless stream of classes. I was told over the phone, in the initial days of her hospitalisation, to be brave and pray.
But Thakuma wasn’t ready to pass on without having seen me. When my parents later recounted the grim days at the hospital, they said she’d persist with a single refrain: “Ami aar Babu ke dekhte paarbo na (I won’t be able to see Babu again).” But she did. Despite two rounds of hospitalisations, she managed to get herself discharged in time for Diwali.
I reached, unannounced, a few days later. There were tears in her eyes as she lay silently recovering from the shock of seeing me (I hadn’t been expected until a couple of months later). I hid mine as I stood beside her, holding her frail hand. It took her a long while to utter anything.
She was terribly weak, a distant shadow of her former self. But my presence seemed to invigorate her. In the coming days, to everyone’s wonder and delight, she recovered marvellously and I went back to the happy place in my head where I believed my Thakuma would live forever.
I had always seen Thakuma in white. Even before my grandfather’s death, she’d only be dressed in her starched, white, cotton saris with narrow, coloured borders. Her small frame filled them with a singular grace. And against the white, her ridiculously black — with only the slightest hint of grey — hair would shine mockingly at the grey manes around her. Due credit, of course, to the coconut oil she lovingly pampered her hair with.
During her final illness too, I remember her as a vision in white. A bleak, stuttering vision, but impeccably white. Although she had recovered astonishingly well from the previous year’s illness, the scars remained. She hung on valiantly for almost eight months after that penultimate illness.
I was a stranger to the idea of Thakuma being severely ill. For years, she had been steadfastly present at the bedside of whoever fell ill at home, tending to them with gentleness and a tirelessness that belied her age. She had been my caretaker for much of my childhood. Headaches would be scared away by her bottle of Amrutanjan; ¸fevers would cower under her healing palms as they soothed my forehead. For years, her lap was my refuge: that was where I’d inevitably curl up to watch cartoons or to read a book. The bed would be too lonely, the floor uninviting.
In the last five years of her life, she was very happy indeed. One of her abiding wishes was realised in 2005, when we shifted to our new home, the largeness of which she delighted in and often exaggerated to those whom she invited home. She revelled in the lushness of the small, grass-rich lawn and the flowers that crowded around it. To her joy, an amrapali sapling flowered and produced a few mangoes that she would point out with pride to those who came visiting.
Now that she is gone, what do I think of? Which memories do I immerse myself in when I walk again through the 20 years spent with her? I remember playing cricket in the small courtyard of our old flat. I remember her sitting in her chair and throwing tennis balls — fast and slow — as I broke batting records of my single-player world.
I remember her “capturing” a dozen kites — many of which would have otherwise sailed over had she not caught their trailing strings — the year I first learnt to fly a kite. All so that I had enough fuel to drive my latest obsession.
Most of all, I remember her telling stories, usually during lunch, as she presided over the well-rehearsed ritual of making me eat more than I could. Pitch-perfect and mesmeric, her tales from near and far nourished and nurtured my imagination more than even the books I read. Her repository was, and remains, my favourite Thakumar Jhuli.
What do you do when a person dies? How do you mark the end in your mind? Is there a box you have somewhere, in which you put all your memories, the unbearable sadness tearing through you and stow it away for when you can bear to open it again? How do you suddenly start talking about that person in the past tense? Do you get used to waking up from dreams in which the person was alive and think, with a breath-depriving sadness, that your dream was better than your life now?
What regrets sparkle in the vermillion dusks when I often imagine Thakuma on the terrace of our old house, pointing out the Seven Sisters of the Pleiades slowly emerging from the veil of falling darkness and asking “Amar tomar kau chokh?” How many eyes, between you and I? Inevitably, I would say two. She’d ask again, this time more anxiously: “Bol na. Kau chokh?” I’d say four. She would smile and say: “Dushmon-er showa chokh.” The enemy has but one-and-a-half.
Of course, all this might suggest that she was a person without flaws. She wasn’t. Her confounding love for some of her kin (who were rather undeserving of it) at times hurt her immediate family, emotionally and monetarily. Misled by some of them, she was often at loggerheads with my mother, in an attempt to prove her dominance over the household. However, in retrospect, her failings have helped me remember her as a wonderful human, rather than the god-like person she was for me.
On quiet nights, when even the crickets are silent, I remember watching fireflies swim in the moonlit library at home. I look out of the window into the night. Thakuma’s gentle snores float into the library. A part of me wishes I was there beside her, to watch her sleeping peacefully in the cool moonlight. But then I turn and find her with me. We’re not bound by place or time anymore.