August 2016 marks a watershed in my life. My primordial bond was snapped that month. For as long as I live, I know, I’ll divide my life into two phases – with and without Ma, before and after August 2016.
15 August 2016: the last conversation
It is India’s Independence Day – the 69th. But it’s also the day India got partitioned. As a partition scholar, it’s the latter that I remember more. I invariably feel sad every year on this day, but today it is mixed with a selfish happiness: two of my articles have been published – one on Ritwik Ghatak in Scroll.in, and another on Holocaust Memorials in Berlin in the Wire.in. I am particularly thrilled about the latter, as it is based on a recent research trip of mine to Berlin to study something close to my heart, and marks the beginning of something more substantial that I want to do.
I had already sent Baba-Ma the links to my articles, and I call them in the afternoon to get their feedback. There is a whole ritual to this: whenever I write a new piece, I send the final draft to my parents; I call them to say I’ve send it; Baba then goes rushing to the nearest internet café and brings home a printout. Ma reads it first – and then many times more – before Baba does. She had once told me how she read: “Prothome gograshe gili, tarpor tariye tariye pori” (I gulp it down the first time – and then savour it, in the subsequent reads). She is a diligent reader: she underlines passages she likes, clarifies points she is not satisfied with, critiques what she feels is missing or not good enough. I expect her to read my piece the moment she gets it in her hand – no matter which time of the day it is, how her health is, or whether she has finished with the day’s work or not. She is my oldest, most loyal reader – and I am shameless in my demands upon her. She obliges willingly, happily, every time. This time, too!
She tells me she was moved reading my Berlin piece, and came to know a lot of new things in it. We have a long conversation about it, during which she informs me that she has actually read the article directly online. This is a first! I congratulate her on her evolution as a reader and we have a good laugh over it! But her voice sounds tired. She complains of a headache… and then brushing it aside… tells me for the zillionth time that she has faith in my writing; and though she may not live to see it, she knows that one day I’ll make it as a writer.
I am always grateful for her abiding faith in me, but I get mad whenever she adds that bit… that she may not live to see my success as a writer… I argue with her, “Why not?” But today, I’m in a good mood. So I let that pass. I tell her, instead, with barely suppressed excitement, how well the year has gone for me. Teaching in the spring semester had been very hectic, but fulfilling. And I also managed to write quite a bit during that time – new blogposts for my website, several articles for ezines. Other good things had happened – the principal being, Srishti getting admitted in the international school we wanted her to. And then July turned out to be such a glorious month for me! My bosom pal came visiting, and we got to spend exclusive time together after eons; soon after, we went for a family holiday in Rome; and then I went to Berlin. All of that in the same month…. it was too good for me. Too good to be true! I tell Ma I’ve never had a happier month in all my 10 years in the Netherlands. She says (like mothers invariably do), “Don’t talk like that about your luck”. Then she gives me a kiss and keeps down the phone.
17 August 2016: all over, in a snap
I get a call from Baba around 8 pm. Ma has had a sudden, severe cerebral stroke. Both my sister (who lives in New Jersey) and I rush to Kolkata… but it is too late. By the time we reach on the 19th morning, she is already in coma… and then within a day, she passes away. The next 3 weeks are a blur….
IN SEARCH OF METAPHORS:
What do you do when the dearest person in your life is snatched away from you without warning? You are in trauma. You grieve. You try to come to terms with the loss. But ‘trauma’, ‘grief’, ‘loss’ are all words that fall short of the actual experience. For 6 months now, words have failed me… I don’t know how to articulate my grief… hence, I’ve been looking for metaphors to do the job for me. By making figurative comparisons/drawing parallels, I can perhaps try and convey my state to others, I can perhaps myself fathom the enormity of my loss….
We have just returned to Amsterdam, after Ma’s ‘Sraddha’. Srishti joins her Kindergarten just the day after. She has already missed her very first week of school (she and her dad had joined me in Kolkata just a day after I’d reached there). It’s a completely new school-routine for her and me… and, thankfully, I get totally engrossed in it. I’d had no time to mourn in the 3 weeks in Kolkata… there was too much to do. I need time to myself. I can’t socialize, but I do meet people while dropping and picking up Srishti from school. And every time I do, I have a surreal experience. Everybody seems to speak to me from far away, as if a vast distance separates us and their voice is being carried over to me in faint echoes. I think I’m losing my mind….
It’s something else: I have a tremendous sense of dislocation. Ma was my anchor in the world; with her gone, I have lost my sense of mooring. People talk about the ground beneath their feet being taken away after a shocking or traumatic event. For me, it’s different – I am dislocated… I feel I belong to a different planet.
Srishti and I are playing hide and seek, her favourite game at home. I know where she’ll hide, for the most part. But at times she does surprize me, by hiding in peculiar niches in our huge apartment. I decide to surprise her, when my turn comes for the third time. I hide behind our couch in the living room. It is a large L-shaped couch, placed against the wall on one side and windows on another. But it doesn’t touch the wall. There’s a gap of about 15 inches all around, so that you can just about walk around it to open windows, draw the blinds, etc. Srishti frequently hides there, as she can be completely hidden from view, and usually crouches somewhere in the middle, so that you have to walk through the narrow passage some distance to get to her. I decide to try this myself. I assume since this spot is her favourite, she would automatically come to search for me here. But she doesn’t quite expect me to squeeze in and crouch down behind the sofa like she does. She comes from the other end of the apartment and goes about her search systematically, room by room – starting from the master bedroom where she is, followed by the guest bedroom, the study, the bathrooms, the kitchen and then the living room. Coming here, she first looks for me behind the door, where there is ample space to hide. When she starts out at the guest bedroom, she has a chirpy, mischief-ridden voice, all braced for fun … waiting to do the ‘bhoo’ which she loves, and which is the entire point of the exercise – the ‘bhoo’, and her cackling laughter afterwards. But by the time she reaches the living room, her voice has changed: “Mamma, where are you?” is no more sing-song. It has a trace of fear. She looks around tentatively, goes out of the room, and then comes back again. “Mamma, mamma”, she calls out urgently. And then there is silence for a while. I think she must be stealthily coming behind me in the narrow passage to catch me from behind, like I do with her. I look back. But no, she isn’t there. Suddenly, I hear her cry. I immediately stand up… and see her sitting on the sofa, face covered with both her palms, crying to herself. I rush to her. “What happened baby? Why are you crying?” She removes her palms from her tear-stricken face and mutters, “Because…because… I can’t find you”, and then letting out a loud sob, flings her arms round my neck. I take her on my lap, hold her tight. I can’t restrain my own tears. Usually, whenever I need to comfort her, I say, “I am here, shona”. But at that moment, I say: “I too can’t find my mamma, beta”. She doesn’t hear it. She is still crying. We cling on to each other.
I am Srishti. I can’t find my Mamma. I feel lost without her.
It is a rainy, windy day, after a storm the night before. Winter is here. The leaves have all fallen. The day is exceptionally bleak and dark, wet and chilly, with more storm clouds gathering. There is not even a hint of the sun. It is a desolate landscape, with the bare branches of the tress looking forlorn in the un-relieving grey of the sky that envelops it. That is how I feel within me. Desolate. 3 months after losing Ma, I have found the perfect metaphor to describe my state. I am a desolate winter landscape, enveloped in grey.
I go to Kolkata for the first time without Ma in it. To home, without the one who embodied it.
We go to see Dangal — Baba, Didi and I, along with Srishti. We are all Aamir Khan fans; and it’s also so appropriate: a dad and his two daughters going to see a story about a dad and his two daughters! Last year, we had seen Bajirao Mastani. That would be our last film together as a family. Had Ma lived, she would have loved Dangal. And would have cried a lot, I know. But, to my surprise, Baba is also crying sitting beside me, at all the critical moments of the film. Everyone knows it is based on the true story of Haryanvi wrestler Mahavir Singh Phogat, and how he achieved the impossible dream of making wrestlers out of his daughters, Geeta and Babita Singh Poghat. The film presents a far more dramatic version of events. One of the highpoints in the second part is the clash between Geeta’s official coach and her father about the way she should play her game. Her coach asks her to be defensive, while her father, who has been her principal trainer since her early teenage knows that attack is her natural style, and advises her to play her game her way. The last half hour is full of action-packed wrestling sequences, the actor playing Geeta doing it so convincingly that you forget it’s a film. In every one of her major fights at the end, the film shows Geeta’s father in the audience – cheering her on, giving pep talks during the breaks, sitting stolid observing every move of hers so that he can give her constructive feedback after the game. In the final scene of the film, where Geeta is about to create history – by becoming the first Indian female wrestler ever to win a gold medal in a major championship – the father unfortunately can’t sit in the audience. He does arrive in the stadium, but is forcibly kept away from the game. All through that game, Geeta looks back to where her sister is sitting and where her father should have been – but he is absent. She keeps hoping she’ll see him and gets steadily disappointed when he fails to arrive. And then, in the penultimate phase of the game, she finally braces herself after she remembers what her father had once told her: that though he has taught her all he could, the actual fight will always be hers. Watching that scene, I am crying inconsolably in the dark theatre….
I realize I am Geeta Singh Poghat, fighting alone in the arena of life, with my biggest cheer leader gone forever.
I am an alien belonging to a different planet;
I am a little girl feeling lost without her Mamma;
I am a desolate landscape enveloped in grey;
I am a wrestler fighting ever stronger opponents, with my coach and chief cheerleader gone.
In the coming months and years, I’ll add metaphor upon metaphor… yet nothing will ever approximate, will come even close to conveying the hole in my life….