It’s 5.08 on the dashboard clock. Bunty is purring along quite contentedly. She has just had a drink at the Shell resto-bar at the corner of Perrot and Grand. 87 octane, Bunty isn’t finicky. She appreciates the fact that I froze my butt off filling her up.
Bunty is my Corolla. Cars are female. Trucks are male. Yeah.
I didn’t have to pick up Pierre, my carpool partner. He is vacationing in Punta Cana, the sumbitch, while my tootsies are below zero.
I’m a little ahead of time and therefore I probably won’t be seeing Tommy this morning. When I’m on regular schedule, Tommy usually appears out of the gloom, running so close that it feels as if I could touch him if I reached out. Of course it only seems that way.
After keeping pace for a while, Tommy speeds up and heaves himself onto the Mercier rail-road bridge with his kids, the cylindrical tanker railcars, ‘PROCOR’ emblazoned on them between the image of two tilted barrels of oil. They sway and nod at me as they follow Dad onto the upper tier of the bridge.
Up ahead, the sun is just beginning to play hide and seek through the lattice work of the bridge girders as it starts peeping over snow-bound pine forests of the Kanawake Indian Reserve on the south shore of the St. Lawrence.
It is white everywhere, as far as the eyes can see and the temperature on the dashboard says -22°C and that’s without windchill. The blazing tunnel of Bunty’s headlights is losing its stark contrast as the gold of the early sun bounces off six undulating lanes that reach into eternity.
At this point, others would start thinking of stuff that they have planned for the day – the meetings that are scheduled, assholes to sweet talk to, bosses to badger, what’s in the menu for lunch at the cafeteria, how low Pierrette, it’s big chested counter-girl, will be slung, etc.
Me, I’m not made that way. I slip into a reverie, this time my mind traveling back to engineering school, studying for my Bachelors, 1976…….
“Take the No.170 bus from the Shyambazar crossing. If you tell the conductor ‘matri asram’, he’ll drop you off right there at our doorstep. They know. Keep an eye on your bag. Hold it on your lap. Don’t get off to stretch your legs when the bus stops on the way, ok?”
It was Ma, her tone conversational, her directions written on the postcard I received that Friday morning, the week before my engineering school closed for summer. I remember the postcard clearly. The lotus that she always drew on the back of her postcards, on the side that had the space for the address. Postcards are defunct now. No one writes postcards anymore.
The leaves on the lotus on Ma’s postcards were always blue ‘sulekha’ ink and the lotus itself, red. She didn’t have green ink and she liked blue, she once said. Below the lotus, in her dear flowing handwriting, calm and assured, as if the wisdom of centuries was bestowed on her, were the words,” Amar Jobbu shona ke” (to my darling Jobbu).
I remember that summer in 1976. I was going to stay back in my engineering school dorm. Like all the other summers. Going home, if I could define what really was home, was just too much of a hassle. There was my father with his family. And there was Ma, by then a sanyasini (Hindu nun), in her asram. Dada (eldest bro) was struggling to settle down in his first job and Chorda (bro number 2) was tucked away in a dinghy hostel in central Kolkata, because his father couldn’t stand the sight of him.
It was one late evening a month earlier, very late, maybe around 2am. We had Turbomachines finals the next morning and all the guys in the dorm had their doors shut, desperately trying to cram up as much as they could. I was trying to focus on a grainy black and white photo in my text book, of the vortex at the exit of a turbine and my eyes fell on the family photo on the shelf right next. I remember suddenly feeling the urge to go see Ma that summer, instead of just sitting on my ass in my dorm room. I had never been to her asram.
A month of correspondence followed and here I was, holding her postcard with the detailed directions and the lotus.
Earlier, Subbu from Metallurgy had lost the toss and made the trip to the Madras Central Station to get the reservations (he had to be persuaded with a Len Deighton from Higginbothams’, I think it was ‘Bomber’. Subbu loved Deighton. I couldn’t stand Deighton.
I won’t bore you with the trials and tribulations of travel in the searing heat of 1970s India. Ma’s directions however had been platinum plated. The Uttamananda Matri Asram (Uttamananda Convent for women) was set in a leafy patch at a spot where the GT Road runs parallel and just yards away from the banks of the Hooghly, the asram itself nestled in between. As the bus no.170 slowed to a stop, I made out the solitary figure leaning over and peering to read the number board of the bus. She was swathed in a ‘thane’ (no-frills saree), dyed saffron, and a coarse cotton blouse, also dyed saffron. She looked frail.
As we walked into the waiting hall of the asram, I noticed the slight limp. Turns out, she’d just returned from ‘mushthi bhikhkha’. She and a few other inmates were helping run a girls’ orphanage where she managed the administration and taught English, Maths and History. To raise funds, she would cover the surrounding towns and villages, collecting alms for the orphanage. Non-perishable stuff like grain and clothes.
The Marwari grocers were the most generous, she said. “Aao Maji, Aao, baitho tho thori der. Itna garmi. Chai piyogi, thanda? Arey o Kanhaiya, zara ek glass pani la idhar, Maji ayen hain.” They’d hand her a small basta(bag) of rice or atta(flour). She’d sit a while catching her breath and be on her way, the bag slung over her frail shoulders. The travel was almost entirely on foot, on Hawaii slippers (flip-flops). She’d twisted her ankle on her last jaunt. It was now better, she said, dismissively.
I strain to remember that day. Time flew. Ma had prepared alu posto, kacha lonka diye, korayer dal and fulko rooti, on the small kerosene stove she had in her tiny ground floor room. I’d love to translate the menu for you into English, but right now the words are coming out in a gush and somehow I don’t think it matters.
Afterwards, we sat at the riverside on some stone steps that led into the river and watched as a small freighter made its way up the river. We were quiet. We both sensed that the time had come for me to leave. Ma reached across and hugged me and it felt the same as it did when I was little and came back home from the soccer field in Allahabad after school.
Then, very quickly she released me. The first step in being a Sanyasini is shedding all attachments, even personal ones. It had been, what, 10 years? She was still trying , I guess. It is hard not to hold and hug your own son, especially when you meet him approximately once in a year.
Ma stared across the dark waves at the freighter just when it sounded its Klaxon. “Gaye ki lekha bol tho, Jobbu?” (Can you read the name of the ship, Jobbu?).
I turned and took her frail body in my arms and hugged her. She tried to resist but gave up and sank into my arms. And there we sat, mother and son, and let our sobs mingle with each other. Mine demanded ‘why? why couldn’t I have had a childhood like everyone else?’ but of course, I left them unspoken. Over the years I have come to terms with it. I have realized I have it better than most. But at that moment it was all that came to my mind.
And Ma, what was she thinking as she hugged me? I have no idea what her sobs actually meant. Guilt? At having left us? I had always resented her leaving us. I had chosen not to see what my father had done to her over the twenty five years that they had been together.
Was it despair that I saw in her eyes as she wrapped her frail arms round me? Despair, that perhaps she wasn’t going to achieve what she had set out to achieve? Those questions popped in my mind then but over the years, as I have matured I have that realized Ma had achieved more than I shall ever achieve. She had led her life by the book. The way the Amish live theirs’. True to her faith. True to the innermost voices of her conscience.
The bus back was not due for another hour. At the point of parting, the conversation always turns inane. The closer you are, to the one you are leaving behind, the more meaningless the words get. I have had meaningless words spoken to me ever since I went into boarding school at 12.
The freighter suddenly blew its Klaxon twice, don’t know why, there was no traffic on the river. Maybe it just wanted to say,”Phew! Home at last”.
“I’m not sure…… I can’t read so clear”, I said in reply Ma’s question about the name on the ship’s hull. Reading anything through tears can be dicy.
We sat there till the sun dipped over the sal forests on the opposite bank.