My Dadu, or maternal grandfather, Lalit Kr. Bose, was a creature of habit. Supremely so. Habit formed by always, without ever any breach, following the hands of the clock. The clock on the wall, the timepiece on the dresser and the pocket watch in his pocket, governed every single activity of his. He was of the firm conviction that the superstructure, called Human Character, is built on three major blocks, the first of which is Timeliness, then Integrity and last, but certainly not the least, Thrift (which, flagrantly his wife, my Dida, called Stinginess). One habit, that was his lifelong friend, was a brisk and timely morning walk. Every morning. Waking up quietly, surreptitiously dressing in the dark, lest he disturbed his slumbering household, he set out, exactly at five-thirty a.m., on the nose. No tender warnings from near and dear ones about the pitfalls of advancing age, nor inclement weather, nor a fractured arm could stop him from this long-standing practice of his.
Dadu lost his father when he was a mere babe of two months. He, along with his still newly-wed parents, lived in the beautiful Rose Villa, over whose front gate was slung a languid, winding bower of rambling roses. The sturdy climber flowered profusely, throughout the cooler months, with saucer-sized, love-red flora. The lavish blooms spread a tantalizing fragrance that prompted whosoever stepping under it, to lift an appreciative head, close their eyes as though in prayer and take a slow, deep whiff of the scented air. That, such an ugly thing as Death could cross such a gentle, fragrant threshold and wreak havoc in such a young household, was beyond its inhabitants’ wildest imagination. But, Death did come laughing by and steal one of the two pillars of Dadu’s fledgling life, forever shaking the bulwark of his very existence. Of course, then, he had no way of knowing that the Scythe-Man would strike a second time, under equally unforeseeable circumstances.
Dadu’s father was a robust, athletic man of thirty-two and his mother a young beauty of twenty. That fateful night, the weary mother slipped under the mosquito-net and lay next to her baby boy, sleepily waiting for her husband to join her. In the hot gloom of that summer night, in her heavily somnolent state, she heard the clickety-clack of his wooden slippers approaching the marital bed, the swinging hush of the net being lifted and then a dull, sickening thud; instant, weighty and acutely prophetic. Thwarting Sleep’s advancing march, she jolted up and leaning down from the bed in the silvery moonlight, found her husband crumpled in a heap on the floor, one hand still clutching the end of the mosquito net, the other at his heart. She screamed out in dread and grabbing her sleeping baby close to her, dropped down by her husband’s side.
No doctor could resuscitate that treacherous heart again. The call was quick, urgent and fatal. He left without a final goodbye to his wife or a peck on the cheek for his infant son.
Within weeks, Rose Villa, with all its solid, Burma teak furniture and all the hallmarks of elegant living, was sold on a distress sale. The woman who, just a few short years ago, had crossed its portal in exquisite bridal finery, on the arm of a handsome, debonair groom, her vision fixed on a rosy, prosperous future, stepped over its threshold for the last time, the end of a snow-white saree that would be her garb for the rest of her life, pulled over her head. She moved into her parents’ house, and the red brick house with the yellow accents and white wrought iron railings trimmed with green balustrades swelled with a deep sorrow all its own. It became her home for the rest of her life and for better or for worse, she lived till she was ninety-four.
At that raw, green age of twenty-something, Buama, our name for my mother’s grandmother, had to make a colossal effort to start life all over again. A life in which nothing was her own, the roof over her head, the food on the table, the graceful cannas nodding in the garden, nothing belonged to her. Save the little baby at her breast. He gently roused her from her grief by his incorrigible demands, his gummy smile, his growing up and his falling-downs, and just by his inexorable presence in her sordid life. She devoted her heart and soul to his upbringing, his future and with the unique, selfless love that a mother bears her child, she raised him in the way of an achiever, so he could live high and proud, be his own master and never return to the groveling his mother had to endure. Perhaps, groveling is not the right expression, because Buama had her pride too. Her parents loved her beyond measure and were devastated by the cruel blow Fate had dealt her. Yet, paradoxically, Buama felt out of place in the house where she was born, had grown up and had skipped around as a nubile girl, swinging her braids with not a care in the world. Now, with this sudden reversal in her fortune, she felt she must earn her keep. She made herself useful in the kitchen, instructed and supervised the servants and became an expert in all matters domestic, thus unobtrusively, shifting the burden of housekeeping from the matriarch’s shoulders onto her own. My only and most stark recollection of Buama is that of her in the most formidable role as President and CEO of 14 Lansdowne Road. There she was, regally leaning against a stack of pillows on her four-poster, her hooked, aristocratic nose bent on sniffing out any kind of aberrations in the household; be it a daughter-in-law adding the wrong spices to a daal or a young daughter leaning out from the verandah and secretly gazing into a paramour’s doting eyes. Her eagle eyes missed nothing and her peach-fuzzed chin wobbled incessantly without adequate dentures to support it.
Her parents’ home was shared by many. It was a large house, wherein resided her brothers and their families. Guests, like ships passing in the night, dropped in constantly. Some had to see a doctor in the city, another had a wedding to attend or a family emergency they wanted to meddle in. Substantial meals were cooked in a big courtyard kitchen, by the family cook. The women of the house helped with the lighter chores like chopping of herbs and dicing of vegetables or rolling out luchis (fried flatbread) on big feast days. Buama was returned to the same room she occupied when she was a maiden and a daughter of the house. Now she shared it with her baby; the unwitting repository of all her woes, her desolation, her fears and her dreams. In a mysterious manner, the infant seemed to understand all his mother was going through, their secondary status in the household, and resolved deep in his heart to wipe his mother’s every tear, when Time would bestow upon him the handle and the axle to do so. And so, he did.
Dadu grew up to be a man shaped by the events of his infancy; his early fatherlessness, thrust upon him by inexplicable Fate, and the sense of dependence that plagued his childhood. He was an exemplary child, with a clear vision and a philosophy of life clearly imprinted on his mind from an early age and he continued to foster these qualities late into his life with a rigor that sometimes, bordered on austerity. A measure of austerity that was also molded by the struggle for independence from British rule that inflamed the contemporary Indian psyche. The endeavor to model one’s life on the principle of simple living and high thinking. Of boycotting machine-made imported goods, the purchase of which fueled the European markets while unfairly sinking local weavers and craftsmen into acute, despondent penury.
Dadu made his political statement, quietly, by always dressing himself and his family in home-spun cotton.
Dadu worked hard at his job at the City Corporation and advanced his career as best he could, eventually, marrying a woman who was his perfect consort. Inured by her own difficult childhood, Dida was industrious, smart and possessed of wisdom far beyond her tender years. There dawned a day when Dadu and Dida bought out all the other stakeholders in the property and became the sole and proud owners of the lovely red brick house that, for many years, stood as a landmark in the heart of the city. Dadu, with a generosity of spirit and inclination, that was not always apparent in his general demeanor welcomed the family members of all former owners, whenever they required to halt for a night, or perhaps a few days, in the city. So much so, that very often, the red, brick house throbbed with the pulse of many kindred hearts. Big meals continued to be prepared, great ideas continued to be exchanged and brought to life and cousins fed, fought, frolicked and fretted together within the shady precincts of 14 Lansdowne Road and its sunny, flower-filled garden.
As I mentioned before, Death came skipping by once more when it was least expected. Dadu met his end in a tragically violent fashion. Indeed, it can be said that his death in no way reflected his life. In truth, there is no perfect ending to any life, for that matter. By common human perception, the authority and finality of death are always mind-numbing and soul-crushing in the immediate aftermath of the event, and even those who meet their end after a long illness can never prepare their loved ones enough for the void created by their absence. Anyway, to come back to Dadu, my perception of his exit from this life would have been one far more peaceful than the end that befell him. For someone, who lived his life perpetually on an even keel, taking every measure so Life could not spring any sudden surprises on him, such a closure was completely out of line. Death did to Dadu everything that Life could not. It shocked and cheated him. The end that would have crowned his life, would have been one where he breathed his last, surrounded by his wife, his children, and grandchildren, lying in his old familiar four-poster bed, in which he had lain, perhaps, for his entire life. But life, rather death, played out very differently for him.
On a cold, rainy morning he was returning from his morning walk. It was just past six-o’-clock and dawn was fighting a valiant battle with the clouds, but unfortunately it was a losing battle. The Gloom was gloatingly winning. The city, oblivious to this skirmish of nature, slept on peacefully. Dadu cantered crisply. He turned the corner from Elgin Road onto Lansdowne Road and the tall, imposing wall of St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ High School towered on his right. He glanced briefly at his beloved house looming gracefully mere yards away, shrouded in a hazy veil. The light drizzle had stopped so he used his folded umbrella as a cane and picked up pace lest the rain should commence again. A fine patina of sweat had formed on his brow from the exercise of the last thirty minutes and a slow, feel-good heat was spreading under his collar. He set his eyes on the cozy confines of his home and a cup of Darjeeling tea, steeped just right by his wife. Within a few yards, the empty road polished, like cobra-skin, from the recent precipitation, disappeared into the misty morning.
Suddenly, from within the heart of the mist, a yellow taxi trundled into view and perhaps in a bid to beat the traffic light, the driver accelerated sharply. The cab lurched violently on the wet road, careened madly sideways and rode the pavement at a perverse, wayward tangent. The helpless driver could do nothing to veer away from Dadu who was directly and tragically in his path; instead, the uncontrollable vehicle headed straight for him and lifting him like an autumn leaf pinned him to the tall wall of St. John’s Diocesan Girls’ High School. The jagged glass shards, embedded along the top of the wall to deter robbers, a mute witness to the most egregious robbery of all. It was all over in seconds. The shrill squeal of car-tires and the deafening crash of the impact burst upon the sleeping dawn. Then, an earth-shattering silence ruled. Dadu, always erect, always dapper, always in charge, slid down against the wall and collapsed, wedged awkwardly between the concrete wall and the monster missile, the blood from his head running down the car’s bonnet in rivulets of red. His umbrella, doing a macabre dance with the wind, landed in the middle of the rain-slicked road.
He put up a brave fight. My Dadu did. It wasn’t a cake-walk for Death to snatch him away. Doctors and nurses worked round the clock to revive him but it was a lost engagement right from the start. A large portion of his skull had disintegrated taking a good part of his brain with it. The brilliant light, from the other world, beckoned him and the darkness of this world eventually lost out to that effulgence. The fight he put up, however, was long and strong. The ambulance, carrying a moribund Dadu, reached the Presidency General Hospital within minutes. The gray dawn morphed into an indifferent morning and then to a robust, saffron and uncaring afternoon. Dadu fought on. He never again opened his eyes, but moaned softly from time to time, calling for his mother. Evening drew her shade slowly, trying to give her son a few more moments on this earth, and then, Night strode in, purposeful, scythe in hand and cut the final cord, freeing him from his earthly pain. Forever.
For years after, whenever a taxi was flagged down, for her, or the family to ride in, my mother, Dadu’s only surviving daughter, would never just open the car door and slide in. Instead, she would quickly go around to check the number plate of the cab. In case, J-U-S-T I-N C-A-S-E, the plate read WBT 119, she would not board it. She just could not, because, the berserk cab that killed her father, that fateful day in February, bore the same number. A number that was forever, branded on her consciousness as her father’s killer.