Both Baba and Dida were superlative raconteurs! They simply told stories like they were meant to be told, like they were happening just then and there in front of their very eyes. More than communicating with their listeners such story-tellers communicated first, with their stories. They felt energized, empowered by their narrative and sometimes, instead of them manipulating the events, the events themselves manipulated the narrator, picked them up and carried them on light, airy wings to a realm they knew, yet they didn’t; a realm of half-light and half-gloom. So, at times it was hard to decipher if it were the teller telling the tale or the story itself had assumed a voice of its own and was perfectly capable of peeling back its own skin layer by layer, stealthily, joyfully, woefully, magically until it reached its very core and then it stopped, not because it was exhausted by its own solitary journey but because it had touched the very core it was striving towards, since the very beginning, and could go no further. Like in one breathless draft it had drained a pitcher of lemonade, on a wildly hot afternoon, and could just not take a single sip more. Sometimes, these tales ended with a question mark, a sense of incompleteness, yet the listener, while wistfully pondering the unanswered questions, went away with the deep satisfaction of having heard a tale perfectly told!
Dear Reader, today, I am going to tell you such a story that I had heard from Dida many, many times yet, even today. I don’t know if a certain event in the story was just happenstance or simply a figment of Dida’s bereaved imagination.
After my mother was born to Dida on Christmas Day, another baby girl graced her bosom on Christmas Eve, almost exactly two years later. To keep to the logic of the calendar and her position in the newly spawning family, Dida felt her new daughter should have arrived on Boxing Day, which was her due date. But she didn’t. She chose to have her birthday a day earlier than her elder sister’s as though it was her own way of coming first even when she came second! While my mother inherited her father’s dusky looks my new-born aunt, was of fair skin like her mother, her hair had a light, gilded sheen to it and even as a new-born babe they curled around her perfect head in soft wispy curls. They named her Konu, short for Konika, which meant a shining fragment, as if their new daughter was a tiny piece of a shooting star that had broken free and landed on Dida’s lap. Dida’s mother-in-law had hoped, against hope, nay she had demanded a boy for her only son that is my Dadu. She had wished for a grandson on whose shoulders would fall the mantle of all familial responsibilities and on whose brow the family name would be emblazoned. Notwithstanding the grandmother’s unrealized dream, my Dida and Dadu loved their new daughter with all their heart. They dreamed of her being a perfect soul mate for my mother, of the two sisters going to school holding hands, with colourful ribbons in their braids, playing hop-scotch in their yard, and most importantly they treasured the thought of them bringing their parents much pride and delight over the years.
While the mortals dreamt and planned and crafted a future for their two little girls, the stars, whimsically, changed their alignment and no one, least of all Dida and Dadu, would ever know why. Exactly, three years later, on Christmas Eve Konu suddenly, sadly died of acute nephritis. The virus that first invaded and inflamed her kidneys advanced rapidly. Before the child could show even the faintest signs of any listlessness, like a marauding army, battalions of the fatal germs launched attacks on her liver, then her stomach, her intestines and finally they clutched at her sweet, tender heart and squeezed the life out of it. For three days, a high fever ravaged her infant body, she screamed in agony when passing urine and her face and body became as tumescent as an over-ripe tomato. The family doctor was summoned as soon as the adults sensed something was amiss with the child; he arrived, inspected the child, wrote out a prescription and eventually pronounced the grave prognosis. A pall of gloom descended on the red brick house with the yellow accents.
Yet, all along the twenty-two year old Dida prayed and believed in the deep recesses of her heart that her cherished child would heal and be new again. Naively, she believed that the law of nature decreed that a parent must pre-decease the child and why, oh why, would in her case such a law be negated? Her young heart was weighed down with fear, with fatigue and a wild premonition that she fought with all her might. She soothed her baby with a warm broth, caressed her brow with the tips of her cold fingers and told her stories to distract her from her excruciating pain. Whenever, the baby fell into a spent and fitful slumber she sat at her sewing machine to tailor the powder-pink tulle dress that Konu would wear on her birthday. Complete it, she did and in the glow of the early evening she held it up against her child’s body. Just as a candle sputters into a refulgent flame before it finally extinguishes itself, Konu’s beautiful face lit up with a luminous smile, her fevered eyes shone with a strange brilliance, but she had no strength to lift her head so Dida could slip the dress over it and onto her hot little body. Instead, she fell back on the pillows exhausted, her smile slowly fading from her face.
Defying all hopes, all fervent intercessions the government of Konu’s tiny internal organs finally and irrevocably collapsed. Before Christmas Eve turned to Christmas Day, before, Little Konu could preen in her new dress and cut her birthday cake, and before she could hold up little fingers and proudly proclaim, “I’m three years old”, she passed into that other world from where she had arrived not too long ago.
They built Konu’s coffin at home. They, meaning those hapless people who, perforce, make a living out of people’s grief. They arrived on Christmas morning and worked plaintively, with heads bowed and before the sun could reach its zenith the casket was complete. Its wood gleamed in the afternoon sun and the white satin, that lined the inside, shimmered like a baptismal layette. Every nail they drove into the wood was like a nail through Dida’s heart. Thok. Thok. Thok. She flinched involuntarily at every blow, each more tortuous than the previous. She sat on the bed, beside her lifeless child, gazing into that precious face for the final hours; her own heart a bloody mess. A peace, that is not of this world, had descended on the infant’s face as she lay there in her pink birthday dress a bunch of forget-me-knots, lovingly embroidered, on the yoke.
Before the sun could set they carried her away. They took away her lovely eyes, but they left behind the gleam in them. They took away her sparkling teeth, but peeled her smile and left it behind. They took away her head of curly hair but they could not take away the fragrance that wafted around and encircled the house like a never-to-be-forgotten dream.
Konu left behind a Ma and a Baba with completely hollowed-out, Jack-o-lantern hearts in which no lamps burned, and a sister who wore a perpetually vacuous look in her eyes. Clutching a rag doll in her arm, she wandered from room to room in search of her playmate, her friend, her confidante and the source of her love and joy. Her torment larger than life because it bewildered her much more than it did the adults.
Eventually, Dadu had to make a colossal effort to shake himself out of his stupefying sorrow and return to his job at the Calcutta City Corporation where he turned over file after file like a robot. No colleague ever said anything, everyone commiserated and everyone secretly cringed from the idea of ever having to be in his shoes. Dida left her bed early in the morning, as though in a trance, and prepared breakfast for her husband. She no longer hummed while she worked, lost was the skip from her gait. Her hands and feet performed the tasks out of their own volition with no commands from her spirit. One morning, she served her husband and dutifully sat at the table while he ate. Silence, like a third person occupied the chair between them. Suddenly Dida exclaimed “Konu” and half got up from her chair, her eyes straining into the space behind the pantry where a curtain hung separating the pantry from the bedroom behind, a smile of indescribable joy parted Dida’s lips. With alacrity, she leapt up and with one swift motion of her arm she pushed the drapery aside. In the early morning grey an empty, unmade bed mocked her. Her eyes fell on the door at the other end of the bedroom leading out to the garden. The door was always latched up at night but now the door swung on its hinges, almost imperceptibly, as if someone had just pushed it open and on tiny feet stepped into the greenness of the dew-drenched grass. Dida darted to the door and leaned out. A gentle zephyr touched the wetness on her cheeks and she shivered slightly. In utter desolation she turned around. Dadu who had followed her, was just behind. He held his wife in his arms, and rocked her silently. “Konu was here”, Dida wept into her husband’s chest,” her body wracked by heaving sobs, “I saw her, smiling and calling me Maaaa! as she clutched the curtain and parted it and leaned into the dining room, smiling her charming gap-toothed smile like she always did when playing peek-a-boo. I saw her, she was here, I saw her”, Dida lamented in inconsolable despair. Dadu pulled his wife closer, their unfathomable grief binding them with a colourless yarn.
When Dadu returned home that evening he sat his wife down tenderly, as though he were handling a delicate, porcelain artefact and tried to speak to her in the most normal tones that he could muster. He said he had discussed the episode from the morning with a close colleague. He had done so first, because he was truly concerned for his wife’s mental health and secondly, because he had hoped the man-to-man exchange would be a catharsis for Dadu’s own grief-burdened soul. Like a true well-wisher Dadu’s friend offered up some advice, some philosophical truths couched in empathy. He said “Mr. Bose, your wife needs to let go no matter how immensely hard it is going to be, else her child will never find peace in her new home. Her mother’s debilitating broken-heartedness was keeping her bound to her earthly abode. Her immutable grief is shackling her baby. Only when she knows her Mother has found peace and is not yearning for her in such anguish will she be able to free her spirit to embark on its next journey. Mrs. Bose will have to learn to think of her departed child with joy and no more with sorrow. Death is not a parting, it’s a moving-on to another plane of existence.” Dadu uttered the words exactly as they were told to him. Then he stopped and inhaled deeply. He felt lighter, almost happy after a long, long time. Dida turned her husband’s words over in her mind and pondered awhile, her eyes set at a point in a distant place, her heart as heavy as the cut-glass paperweight on the table in front.
At this point in the story Dida paused and she smiled a beautifully sad smile. She took my young, teenaged fingers in her hand as though they were her dead child’s and played with them for a long time lost in a puddle of thought that I could not step into. I could just pause by its edge and wait for Dida to come back to me and she did, when the Story released her. Turning to me, she said slowly that Dadu’s words lingered in her mind a long time, and in the end, she couldn’t remember if it were the same night, the next morning or a week or a month after, that she finally made the effort, if not for herself then, for her lost baby. She made the effort to rouse herself from the stupor that completely sapped her soul. She wanted Konu to be happy wherever she was, to laugh her joyous laugh, to run pitter-patter in the rain, to look up into the night sky and beckon the moonbeam to come down and plant a kiss on her brow, and to do all the things she was meant to do.
Dida carved out two small plots in her garden. In one she planted masses of what she called Nine-O-Clocks. Dime size ochre beauties that bloomed exactly at nine in the morning, just as the sun began to rise strongly in the sky. When the wind wafted through their stalks they nodded gleefully and smiled some more. Gazing at them, a peace slowly settled in Dida’s heart. In the other plot, she planted what she called Jewels-of-the Night. Their slim and elegant magenta buds remained closed during the day and as dusk approached they opened their petals, spreading a faint, elusive fragrance to welcome the night, their stamens hanging out languidly, like a shy bride, into the impending darkness. Dida loved them with an exceptional love!