May 8, 2022 10:13:58 am
When I saw my mother-in-law for the first time, I was reminded of a tube of toothpaste that one tries to resurrect by squeezing at the right places, particularly from below. I touched – and gently even pressed – her small and swollen feet. Like the recalcitrant toothpaste settled at the bottom, my mother-in-law didn’t react. It seemed like she was used to it, this being pressured from the bottom and the sides. What I didn’t know then were two things: that acute arthritis had robbed her of the ability to respond promptly with her body, particularly her limbs; that this woman, petite and graceful and intimidating, and, who, to my 19-year-old eyes, looked like she had been aged for a long time, would go on to become my mother-in-law.
It was, in fact, she who decided that she wanted to be my mother-in-law. She never tired of saying that to everyone. “Only this girl will tolerate a person like you. You will marry this girl,” she’s supposed to have said to her son after meeting me for the first time. Not content with such a prediction, she, frail in body and solitary in this ambition, set out to orchestrate this. In doing so, she did not try to be what is common in such circumstances: sweet. In fact, she was quite the opposite – she belonged to a generation of women who did not care for what we now recognise as a saccharine quality that is supposed to feminise women. She had a very bad temper. But it wasn’t the temper of a mother-in-law, one aware of the power of her position in the social hierarchy. It was mostly the silly and inconsequential anger of a family’s first-born daughter, one used to being indulged.
By the time I met her, only a few remained who called her by her nickname Khuku. An affectionate word for a “little girl”, it was a common name of those times – for a daughter in the family, whether they came first or last. Though more sisters and brothers would follow her, her sense of being a leader, of showing the path as it were, never left her. Her parents, more hopeful and liberated and free than the generations that would follow them after Indian independence, sent her and her brother out of Siliguri, then a tiny town, to Calcutta and Santiniketan for an education. There she discovered her privilege – the privilege of her talent. And though, when she would return to her hometown and take up a job as a teacher, it was in music that her heart remained.
Monika Biswas married late, well into her thirties. The reason was hilarious: there were no suitors or proposals for “a well-educated and free woman” in this small town. Motherhood arrived late too – 30 years after that moment, when she would recount her difficult pregnancy, she would tell me about the child she desired to have: fair and tall, and all that she thought she was not. She had been bullied by her husband’s family into believing that she was unattractive – it was the colour of her skin, darker than her husband’s. It was at these moments that I felt closest to her – everyone in the family made unkind remarks about my uneven teeth; she argued with all of them. It wasn’t her protective instinct that moved me at such times; it was the sense of freedom with which she argued, one that she had inherited from her parents and those freewheeling times. They were feminists, she and her parents and brothers and sisters, though none of them probably ever used the word.
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I called her “auntie”, a fact that disturbed her and my parents. It was the address I’d used for her when we’d met, and I continued to use it. Anything else – difficult and imposed as it would have been – would have felt dishonest. She would turn that into a joke sometimes. “What will your children call me then? Grandaunt?” That sense of humour was an inheritance from her family – a crazy group of people whose only ambition in life seemed to be to derive “ananda” from life, even if an ambulance was shrieking at their gate.
A talented singer of Rabindra Sangeet, she sang with freedom, uninhibited by her training in Visva Bharati. By the time I met her, she had stopped singing – COPD had taken over her lungs, she could barely walk without difficulty, and she had lost her favourite brother, the most talented singer in the family. I would discover her singing in old recordings – she did not care for them. It was a mark of the family: not one of them took their talent for singing, painting, writing, and the crafts seriously. I did notice her old self return from time to time though – when I would see her shaking her head in disapproval while listening to a very popular singer of Nazrul’s songs, or making a face, as if she’d been forced to eat something distasteful, if someone sang out of tune.
Almost every Saturday morning, for more than a year, I would take her to a dentist. The removal of teeth and the acclimatisation of dentures would take some time. Because I could be free with her, I told her about my first image of her – as a tube of toothpaste. She laughed uncontrollably, repeated the story to the dentist, and said “Khoob dushtu (very naughty)”. The dentist looked slightly confused, as if she’d made this remark about him. We enjoyed a laugh about that on our way back home.
As her mobility began to diminish and she found it difficult to even move out of her bedroom, she would wait for her world – her sisters, brothers, nephews and nieces, old colleagues and friends, her students – to come to her. Manu and Kunu, her two sisters, visited her unfailingly every afternoon. One day, I overheard her say to them, “I have become a tree. I can’t go to people, they have to come to me.”
When I think of it now, that might have been the first time that I heard the sound of what would become the title of my first book – How I Became a Tree.
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