My mother’s father, Tarabhushan, was in his prospective father-in-law’s house in the evening of his wedding. Astrologers had decided that the auspicious hour for the wedding was late in the night; As the night grew old, most of the invitees left, it was pitch dark beyond the vicinity of the Petromax lamps. Shortly before the nuptial ceremony, he came to know that without his knowledge, but on his behalf, a handsome dowry had been obtained by his eldest brother, who incidentally was much older, and the head of the family. Tarabhushan called his brother aside and asked him to return the amount if he wanted the wedding to take place.
In 1911, such an act was extraordinary for two reasons. Firstly, it was long before there was any resistance against the system of dowry. It was a social practice unquestioningly accepted by people and Tagore was still writing his many short stories on the evils of the system. Secondly, facing up to an elder brother and head of the family was not an accepted social practice.
Over time, Tarabhushan and Sushama Pal had quite a brood: four sons and four daughters. They would have surely had more, if my grandma hadn’t died at the age of 37 of complications arising from frequent child bearing. Of the eight, one boy died at the age of ten in an accident. My mother used to feel sad and shed an occasional tear for him even sixty years later.
All my uncles and aunts were exceedingly affectionate, and were the source of much happiness for my sister and me. Of them, the person we met most infrequently was the oldest brother of my mom, bado mama, Manas Ranjan Pal. He lived in the faraway small town of Karimgunj on the other side of East Pakistan and shunned travelling. His forays to the world outside were rare.
I was in the capital city of Kerala at that time (1990, for the historically oriented). My uncle’s elder son, Nandan-da was taking his entire family on a “South India tour”, which, incidentally, is almost mandatory for every middle class Bengali family at least once in their lifetime, just as the Hajj is for a devout Muslim. The typical itinerary for the tour is something like: Alight at Chennai from a train. Dash off to Bengaluru on the way to Mysore, Ooty and Coonoor. Drop in at Kochi for a quick tour of the Jew Town and a visit to Vasco da Gama’s tomb. Thiruvananthapuram (Trivandrum) for a day: including a few hours at Kovalam beach. On to Kanyakumari: offering puja at Devi Kumari Temple mixed with the secular pleasures of visiting Swami Vivekananda Rock Memorial across choppy waters and waking up early next morning to see the sun rise across the Bay of Bengal, only to be disappointed by the mist that hangs with metronomic regularity every morning on Kanyakumari. Go inland to see Madurai Meenakshi Temple, return to the sea again at Rameswaram. Then on to the picturesque Ashram at Pondichery. All this is normally done in about fourteen days. On the fifteenth day, the exhausted holiday makers board the return train at Chennai, for rest and recuperation back home in Bengal or Assam.
I don’t remember if Nandan-da had such a grandiose plan for his family. On reaching Chennai, which was then Madras, he phoned me. He said he would be reaching Trivandrum after seven days. But After three days, I received a call at my office. It was Nandan-da, ‘Can you please come to Trivandrum railway station? … I mean, … we have a lot of luggage.’
I asked with a touch of worry, ‘Is anything wrong? Is everybody all right?’
I had reasons to be worried. Among the group of six, there were two elderly people, my uncle and aunt, and Nandan-da’s little son and daughter.
‘No, not that,’ said he, ‘the only problem was that after reaching Chennai, baba refused to go anywhere. He went on saying “Aamare Santanur kase loia chal!” (Take me to Santanu!)’
Therefore, Nandan-da had to cut short his trip.
So there was my uncle, tall and thin, happy, in a lungi and an undershirt, sitting cross-legged upon the sofa, taking a long draft of snuff and following it with some hearty sneezes of blissful pleasure. For as long as he was with us, he wouldn’t budge from the house except for his walks, and remained steadfastly loyal to his native attire. His family did the mandatory touristy things like driving down to Kovalam and Kanyakumari, but the head of the family wouldn't join them.
Once, he seriously embarrassed my daughter, who was around twelve then. My daughter has been, somehow, an anachronism – a memsahib in the family. She was always prim and propah, and couldn’t imagine being seen in anything but a formal dress any time of the day. She also spoke propah English. Once she had asked a roadside shop-keeper, ‘Could I have a loaf of bread please?’ The man was almost knocked off by the English punch.
She was going out with some clothes to the laundry, which was less than 100 metres from our home. When mama-dadu offered to accompany her, she dismissed him airily. How could she be seen with someone in a lungi?
She handed over the clothes at the laundry, collected the receipt, and as she turned around, she bumped into an old man in a lungi and singlet with a doting smile on his face! She pretended not to recognize him and returned home running, much to the amusement of my uncle.
He was not much of a talker. I do not remember seeing him having a chat with my mother, which was rather unusual in an otherwise garrulous family. He was passionate about reading newspapers: in our house, he read The Hindu and The Economic Times from the advertisement at the top left corner on the first page to the printer’s name on the last. If he came across something interesting, he would share it with us, reading it aloud with a heavy, sing-song Sylheti accent, occasionally followed by a cascading guffaw.
Reading papers passionately is not the only trait I have picked up from the gene pool he shared with my mom. Once, when I shouted at my wife over a trifle, my mamima, that is, his wife, gave me a long hard look through her thick glasses, smiled enigmatically, and said, ‘Myazaz khan paiso mamago mato!’ (You’ve inherited the terrible temper of your uncles!)
One thing that I haven’t inherited from my mother’s side is their phobia of machines. All my uncles and aunts were/are technologically challenged. Three and a half of them spent most of their adult lives in Denmark, England and Canada, and only one of them can drive. My uncle who lives in London cannot open an email even now. In my childhood, my ma wouldn’t trust herself with winding her (mechanical) watch; she would get it done by her husband.
My bado mama was a compulsive early riser. He would get up before the sun rose, make a cup of tea himself, and go out for a walk. There was a kerosene stove in their Karimgunj home dedicated to this activity. He never managed to learn the complicated trick of lighting a gas stove.
When my grandma died, her oldest son was 20, my mom was 10, and the youngest was 18 months old. My grandpa, who was a successful lawyer, didn’t do the done thing of marrying again, neither “to take care of the children” nor for less altruistic motives. Hence the children had to fend for themselves mostly, except for my youngest aunt, who was adopted by her maternal grandma.
My grandpa’s finances took a hit after the Partition, when a number of Banks crashed in Bengal. My mother used to say that he had lost his life’s savings of Rs. 17,000. But fortunately for him, and much to the dismay of his Muslim friends, Karimgunj was included in India through a referendum shortly before the Partition. I do not know why Mr. Radcliff’s scissors were not arbitrarily applied to Karimgunj like most other borderline subdivisions.
Three years later, Tarabhushan died, leaving behind depleted liquid assets and the responsibility of four minor siblings on my bado mama’s shoulders. He was a junior employee in an insurance company then, it must have been a tough ask. And as was to be expected, he discharged his responsibilities with some success and some failure. I haven’t heard my mother complaining about him ever, but his two younger brothers gave him hell, perhaps with some justification, one can never judge.
But there was no effort on his side to fight back. In none of the post-cards – which ma used to receive from him regularly – did he complain about anyone. He had few demands and was at absolute peace with himself and the world. A disciplined person, he would seldom deviate from the routine he set for himself. He didn’t smoke or drink, inhaling snuff being his solitary vice. But he had had a binge once, a fact revealed by my father.
Dad and I were in Hyderabad then, quite lonely, as my wife had gone to Kolkata for a longish period. I was also going through a bit of hell at office. One day, my bosom buddy Joe Manimury dropped in unannounced from Kerala. It was an occasion to celebrate. I told my father, ‘Baba, Joe and me are going to have a drink tonight. I hope you wouldn’t mind?’
Dad said, ‘Go ahead. I too had a few drinks in my time. Once, your bado mama visited us. We bought a small bottle of whisky.’ Judging by the distance between his forefinger and thumb, I guessed he was referring to a quarter pint bottle. After a little pause, he added with obvious pride, ‘We finished the whole bottle within a month!’
Kolkata / Thursday, 18 June 2009