She sat on the sofa, propped up with some cushions. She had been sitting on the same spot for so many years that there was a depression in that spot. Everyone had noticed this dent, except boudi(elder cousin brother's wife). Or was it because she preferred not to notice, boudi never noticed anything that involved an expense or made others lives easier, without exception of her own children. Boudi was a character; she walked with a strange limp and a walking stick; she stashed away the cash in the newspaper folds in the cupboard, firmly, as if she could take all of it with her after life. Money was not the only thing she stashed; she stashed away gifts that people had given her jamai (daughter's husband)–during her daughter's wedding, 20 long years ago. She still took these gifts out and gave them to her jamai on each jamai sasti. (The festival that Bengalis celebrate to honor their son-in-laws, once a year). Banyans and t-shirts came out of the various cupboards all over the sprawling 3-storied house.
She also stacked away the day's unsold fruit and vegetables the fruit –seller sold to her at dusk at discounted prices; after he finished his rounds of the neighborhood and sold all he could. These spare vegetables were neatly put into the fridge, for Pushpa to take out and cook from time to time. Pushpa was the mad maid, who was deaf and looked very strange, wearing her sari in an adaptation of the Bengali way, though not quite the typical Bengali way. Shakespeare had clearly met someone like her when he wrote about 'the method in the madness'. Seemingly mad Pushpa accompanied boudi on her customary walks every evening to the neighborhood temple. Boudi was extremely ritualistic – fasting on the appropriate days, following all the customs to the t, and making sure she visited the temple everyday. Somehow she felt it absolved her of all her sins, as she cowered in front of Shiva or Ram. In her spare time, or just after she had sparked off a controversy she would disappear into her puja room, pretending to be immersed in prayer. Here, she hid all her choicest snacks and treasures. These were put away in the trunks under the murtis beside the lamp. This ensured that no one else had access to her objects of desire; also while the world thought she was lost in devotion, she could always steal a bite of misti (Bengali sweetmeats) that Pushpa had quietly purchased for her from the Ganguram shop nearby. She lived like a thief in her own house. Or perhaps it was because it wasn't her own house - that kept her in a perpetual state of fear. It had been built by boromama and cleverly appropriated by her from her bhashur( her husband's elder brother and my boromama), with active support from her wily father, through a stellar emotional performance at the time of her husband's death.
Sumi heard the clanging of the degchi (cooking vessel) in the dismal kitchen next to boromaima's room. It was Pushpa's way of sounding the dinner/lunch gong. Alpana, boromaima's young maid breezed in with boromaima's lunch plate – on it was placed some boiled vegetables – a combination of ladies fingers, potatoes and pumkin, rice and a piece of fish cooked in the Bengali macher jhol style (fish in a light gravy of turmeric and other spices) . Boromaima's lunch was served. Sumi thought of the past – how boromama and maima lived in 8, Ballygunge Place in beautiful I.C.S. quarters with Bahadur sounding the dinner gong to announce that he had served a 3-course English meal. Such had been boromaima's training.
Now, Boromaima lived in one room of the 3-storied house, where she lay down on a 4-poster bed, sat up on the dented sofa and ate her lunch at a small wooden table. How ironical that she was relegated to a solitary room, given that boromama (boromaima's husband) had actually built this house. Boromama was an I.C.S. officer and boromaima had lived in great style during his lifetime. She had been the perfect wife of the I.C.S. officer – well bred, extremely intelligent, beautiful, convent educated and an avid social worker. She could drive, play tennis and go ballroom dancing with equal ease; for a woman brought up in the 1920s, it was no mean achievement. What was even more fascinating about boromaima was that she was a prolific reader – Shakespeare and politics, Marxism and feminism attracted her equally. She could converse with almost anyone, leaving her grand-daughters' friends impressed with her pleasing personality and her wealth of knowledge. The only thing that Sumi had never seen boromaima revel in was cooking. She ate very little and was so measured in her eating habits. The most fascinating thing about boromaima however was that she never complained – and I mean never. No matter how unwell she felt, how rotten the fish tasted, how often the maid bunked or how cruelly boudi behaved with her. This was especially commendable because she had lived through 4 deaths –boromama's, her son-in –law's, her only son's and finally her only daughter's. In spite of that she never complained. This was what impressed Sumi about her boromaima the most. How could anyone be like that; in the 38yrs of her own life, Sumi had found so much to complain about – demanding parents, an asshole of a boyfriend, a thankless job, irritating maidservants, the weather, her friends who had drifted away, the slow bank manager and so much else.
Sumi sat on the chair in front of boromaima. She was Sumi's boromaima. As Alpana placed the plate on the table, Sumi lent a helping hand for boromaima to get up from the sofa and go and sit at the table. The table was a wooden one, from dadu's time; the chair seemed to belong to the table – Sumi thought, it had been a set forever. A few leaves from the aam tree that grew outside the window, had been stuck into a used medicine bottle for decoration. A calendar bedecked the wall, though not turned to the right month – in nineteen days no one had bothered to flip the calendar, in a house full of people who had nothing to do. This made Sumi furious and she tried counting till ten to calm herself, a tip boromaima had given her ages ago. A bottle of water was placed on the windowsill, next to a jar of horlicks and a steel glass. This was the sum total of boromaima's minimal needs.
Sumi got up to change the page of the calendar and patches of dust got transferred from the calendar pages to her manicured fingers. Several thoughts were going through her mind. She wondered about the future and about the past. She thought of her days at 33, Shakespeare Sarani, where boromaima would religiously come to spend the day every Thursday and regale Sumi with age old stories and anecdotes , so much so that Sumi would beg boromaima not to return home. During the monsoon, sometimes her wish would be granted- when she would have to stay back due to the quick water logging in the building. She would spend hours with boromaima – not getting pampered; but learning. Boromaima was always active – stitching, mending all the torn clothes- the buttons that had come off from the school uniform; the pocket of baba's shirt and even the strap of ma's bra. Sumi was fascinated that it was even possible to mend a bra strap!!!
Boromaima taught Sumi one lesson –The objective of education my dear, she would say; is about how well you can adapt to any given situation that you find yourself in. Sumi never understood quite what this meant till many, many years later. Sumi was now a busy executive, working in a multinational company outside Kolkata. She earned a good salary, went out to eat often, watched Hindi and English movies for entertainment and often indulged in retail therapy. However, she was awfully lonely, and it was at times like this when she came and sat by boromaima's side in Kolkata that she felt secure, felt there was a life beyond Crossroads and Lifestyle, beyond Under- the-Over and ShahRukh Khan and plays at NCPA and Irish coffee at Prithvi. She understood how important it was to have a person in your life that you could look up to and love simultaneously, she understood how you could be the most generous to yourself when you actually helped others out- by volunteering work at a social service center, teaching orphans or sponsoring some students to study further. She had only begun to understand………
She had only begun to understand the life that boromaima had lived. She understood how someone who was a double M.A., blessed with a handsome and gifted husband, a son and a daughter, someone who had contributed so much to the society she lived in; could be like this. What Sumi could not fathom was how someone who had lost everything – glamour of her husband's position, coupled with the loss of both her children in sudden and uncertain circumstances - could be so pleasant, so disciplined and above all have no bitterness. This is what fascinated Sumi. Sumi experienced an invigoration that she had never felt before; she continued feeling this as she boarded the flight back to Mumbai. Her mind was elsewhere… she landed in Mumbai and took a taxi home. As soon as she reached home, she switched on the lights, poured herself a glass of iced water, switched on the A.C., a comfort she had suddenly gotten used to; the heat in Mumbai had not reduced one bit, she thought to herself. She washed her face with the soap - free cleanser her beautician had recommended and she took a deep breath. She dialed Palash's no. from her landline. Somehow whenever she needed to make an important call she used the landline instead of the cordless phone, somewhat like looking for security. Someone answered the phone from the other end – she could sense it was his mother who had come to visit him in Mumbai. She asked for Palash – in a manner that was matter of fact, without exchanging any pleasantries with his mother. He was in the loo, she would hold she said; she could hear the flush and the bathroom door open, he came onto the phone. 'Palash?', she said in a flat tone, expressionless and bereft of any feeling, 'Hi Sumi- welcome back to Mumbai', he said with feigned enthusiasm; 'Palash' she said again; 'I am leaving, I am setting you free and setting myself free from you as well'. The rest of the conversation continued as expected, Sumi thought as she smiled to her self a month later as she boarded the flight to Chennai.
It had been surprisingly easy – easier than she had imagined. She knew that she was never really meant for boyfriends, husband and marriage. There were enough and more girls in society ready to do that. She was made for better and bigger or let's say different things in life…she had been scared to admit this to herself, she had been convincing herself that she needed a man, she needed security, she needed love from a family, having lost her parents when she was very young.
But on meeting boromaima this time, she realized that she needed none of these. She wanted much, she wanted all those things that regular people don't; she wanted to make a difference, she wanted to be a vagabond, working on projects and teaching street children, feeling the wind in her hair and seeing the smile of a thousand children. It was surprisingly easy to pursue her dream, the words resounded in her mind 'education is about adapting to any situation'. She didn't want to empathize with Palash's mother's grief about her arthritis problem, or Palash's concern about where to store his family's black money. It was surprising how she had put up with all of this; she had almost succumbed to marrying someone who was alarmingly different from her, not just in family background, but in the basic values of how to live life. She wondered what she had been looking for, what she had been getting – one free dinner in a plush hotel once in a while and some necking in the taxi. Surely this wasn't what her life was meant to be. Surely there was a 'big picture' a bright picture that she was missing out on. Surely in her years at Presidency College, over cups of tea in the college canteen, when she debated about fallacies dialectical materialism; this was not what she envisioned her life to be? Surely, surely, not. As she looked at herself in the mirror, she was shocked- she was wearing a mauve and pink designer kurti, with polished nails and a Shieshedo face mask- ugh!
For the last 30 yrs she met boromaima, boromaima had been such an integral part of her life, that she had never noticed boromaima. It had taken physical distance from boromaima and the disenchantment of her current life to notice boromaima. Boromaima in her white starched sari, with short cropped hair, trimmed nails, flawless skin and her non-complaining 90 yr. old attitude sitting in a dreary house in Kolkata. Sumi changed into her freshly washed shorts and torn t-shirt, showered and slipped on her rubber chappals. She switched off the tube lights, switched on the red lamp and sat down at the piano that she had rented from Furtado's. Sumi started playing Mozart's 40 th Symphony in G Minor. In spite of the untuned keys of the piano, the staccato music reverberated in her dimly lit living room and in her now not so dimly lit inner spaces. Sumi's education at the late age of 38 yrs had just begun.