Ma, Kolkata 1972
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 nearly froze my butt off filling her up. 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 and keeps pace for a while, running so close that it feels as if I could touch him if I reached out. Of course it just seems that way. Then he speeds up and heaves himself onto the Mercier rail-road bridge with his kids. The cylindrical tanker railcars, ‘PROCOR’ emblazoned on them between the images of two tilted barrels of oil, 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 the dense 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 outside reads -22 on Bunty’s dashboard. The blazing tunnel of her 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 gearing up, thinking out stuff that they have planned for the day, the meetings that are scheduled, a–eholes to sweet talk to, bosses to badger, what’s in the menu for lunch at the cafeteria, how low Pierrette, the counter-girl will be slung, etc.
Me? I always slip into a reverie……….
“Shyambajarer mor theke ek sho shottor nombor bus, Konnogorer, chharey. Shetay boshe bolbi ‘matri asramey nabiye deben’. Ora cheney, tokey theek nabiye debe asramer dor goraye. Bag ta shamley rakhbi, koaler opor. Rasthay kothao nabish na jeno, bujhli? (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 or anything on the way, ok?)”
It was Ma, descriptive as ever, 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 has the space for the address. The leaves were always blue sulekha ink and the lotus itself, red. 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 Jobba shona ke” (to darling Jobba). Jobba is one of the variations to my nickname, Jobbu, that Ma liked to use. Jobba, Jobbee, Jobbu, Jobla, I had gotten used to all those generic nicknames.
That summer I was going to stay back in the hostel. Like all the other summers. Going home, if I could define what really was home, was just too much of a hassle. There was Baba with his family. And there was Ma, a sanyasini(nun), in her asram. Dada was struggling to settle down in his first job and Chorda? Tucked away in a hostel in Kolkata, preparing for his CA exams.
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 hostel 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 hostel 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 70s, in the searing summer. 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 tho 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, as always, after she became a nun, 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.
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?). 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 13.
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. My mother’s? I have no idea what her sobs actually meant. Guilt? At having left us? Despair? That perhaps she wasn’t going to achieve what she had set out for?
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.