Chhorda the disciplinarian will become the new president of the country tomorrow,and his three younger sisters cannot stop gushing. Pranabda to the world,and Poltuda to his village in Kolkata,for the three 16,18 and 21 years younger to 76-year-old Pranab Mukherjee the veteran politician remains the brother who fussed about them returning home later and hiding novels in between their school books.
A day before Mukherjees swearing-in,his residence at 13,Talkatora Road,is abuzz with such recollections and a mounting excitement. Jharna Biswas,the youngest of the three sisters,earlier managed to somehow escape the TV cameras parked outside to bring in fresh fish from Gole Market. The other two were preparing to lay out an assortment of Bengali delicacies sent by Priyodas (Priyaranjan Dasmunsis) wife Deepa,in time for lunch.
Everything is being discussed in detail for the big day from the saris and jewellery to wear,to the sequence in which they will leave for the swearing-in. Mukherjee,it has been decided,will leave first,followed by his wife Suvra,then the three sisters,the children,and then his aide of many years,Hira Lal.
Almost all discussion veers around eventually to life at Rashtrapati Bhavan. How many days in advance do we have to inform dada before visiting? is a common curiosity,followed by How many rooms are there?,Can we decorate it our way?,Is the Mughal garden open 24/7?.
One thing they are sure they wouldnt be allowed to do is cook. Dada does not like any of us working at all. He wont let us enter the kitchen. Also,when it comes to food,he only loves Annapurna didis food. He cannot resist shukto and poshto (traditional Bengali vegetarian dishes),cooked by her, Krishna Chatterjee,60,a Maths teacher in a government school in Ballygunge,and Pranabs second sister says.
Annapurna,83,is elder to Mukherjee. She couldnt make it to Delhi with sisters Krishna,Jharna and Swagata Das Mukherjee due to her advanced age.
The huge age difference between Mukherjee and his younger sisters made him their de facto gaurdian. When he got married,all the three were still in primary school. Mukherjee and his wife brought them up,they say.
Chhorda performed the formalities for my admission in school and college, Jharna,55,a housewife from Howrah,recalls. Bowdi (meaning sister-in-law),brought me my first harmonium. I was always the pampered little girl,though I was the worst in studies dadas worst nightmare.
Mukherjee insisted his sisters return home before the evening,and never ever went out for movies. We have been terribly close since childhood but we have always looked up to him. When we were young,we dared not go against his word. Even now,if we have to say something in disagreement,we are careful, Swagata,58,a public librarian from Howrah,says. Dada kichu mone korbenna… kintu… (Dada please dont mind,but…) is the standard routine,whenever we want our way, she adds,as the other two break into splits.
Of their three brothers,Mukherjee most closely followed their Congressman father Kamada Kinkar Mukherjee,they say. He was always interested in politics. Be it the way ministers dressed,spoke and the decisions they took,he was keenly interested. My mother used to say he will be rajyer rajadhar (at the helm of the state). He has proved her right, Swagata says.
The sisters also remember Mukherjee walking miles to attend political rallies along with an elder brother. Not an exceptional student,according to his sisters,he always,however,managed to do well in exams.
They also remember his dislike for religious symbolism. During her hostel days at Sister Nivedita Girls School,run by the Ramakrishna Mission,Krishna recalls,Mukherjee repeatedly told her to avoid the mandatory puja sessions. He would say what is the need to spend so much time on puja? He kept telling me to use the time to study instead.
While Jharna says she got away with many demands because she was the youngest,Krishna admits her science background worked wonders in a family where studying was held at a premium. If I say I am his favourite,the others will get annoyed, she says coyly.
Swearing-in or not,the rules are still maintained. Its been two days since the sisters arrived with their families and Mukherjee has ensured that all meals are eaten together. In between the interviews and other visitors,he is terribly busy. But meal times are family times. He insists we all eat together,he plays with his grandchildren,reminds us how naughty we three were,talks about our favourite Rabindrasangeet songs,and how we could never be studious enough for him, Krishna laughs.
One strong memory the sisters have is of Mukherjee reading late into the night,clad in a vest and dhoti,at their native Kirnahar village. Before coming to Delhi,the sisters brought him dozens of boxes of the classic Bengali sweet gur sandesh reportedly Mukherjees favourite old Bengali novels and books on defence,considering his new role as chief of the armed forces.
Mukherjees much-talked-about love of books reportedly loves in the family. Swagata claims that despite all the heights he has reached,he always expresses envy for her profession of a librarian. He still says I have the luxury of living around books,something he never finds enough time for. Tomorrow,when we go inside Rashtrapati Bhavan,I will see to it that I beat him to the library there, she laughs.