Farewell, My Mother
Even before I settled in my Desk the phone rang. It is a nineteen seventy vintage instrument with Pagoda like structure. The heavy black receiver and krring…..krring… sound gives me the feel of a ‘telephone’ unlike the swanky lighter instruments. I refused to part with it. I keep my instrument on the side table, hidden from the visitors as far as possible.
I recognized the tired voice of the old man calling from the Old-age Home. … a call from my mother. She never calls on my mobile. I am not sure she noted my mobile number in her diary. She always gives the refrain, ‘I don’t understand what you say when you talk from your mobile’; She never admits that these days she can’t hear properly.
The old man was going on and on; why is Maa not coming on phone? Is she not well? I didn’t listen to what he was saying. Usually Maa comes on the phone after one or two sentences. How could I ask him now to repeat what he has already said? My silence irked him. He asked in a very matter of fact tone, “So, will you be able to come? Or, should we go ahead with the funeral? In that case, we don’t want to delay the last rites.”
It took me few seconds to understand the words I heard now. Maa is no more. Being the only son they had to inform me. How it happened? When? We talked for a long time just the day before. But, for now, I have to give an answer, that too within the few seconds of patience left in the old man. Without much thought I answered, “I am coming”. No response from the other side. After sometime only ‘beep’… ‘beep’……… He has disconnected.
I heard some commotion and looked up. My colleagues stood around my table. After I informed them they lost no time to apprise me about the details of last rites, including the number of days of leave that I may require, arranged money, train-bus-taxi and the list of do’s and don’ts for a son at the time of his mother’s funeral. Knowledgeable people, I must admit. One senior colleague accompanied me to the boss; the other fetched a rickshaw for me to reach railway station on time. They were at the gate to see me off.
The first thing I did, after I was out of their sight, was to light a cigarette. The bitter taste and foul smell drove away the cobweb of emotions from the head. She silently endured the pain of surgery, Chemo therapy and remained in the confines of her small room in the home. Maa never displayed her emotions even when social obligations or propriety demanded. When my father died we were very young, me and my sister Sona. She left for Kolkata immediately after the rituals leaving us with our grandparents. Within a few months she got a job in my father’s office on compassionate grounds and we shifted out from the village. All along it was her cold, steely resolve, which saw us through those difficult initial years. She practically severed all relations with her in-laws and even her parents from the moment her husband died.
The train left Kharagpur at 12.05 hrs. It takes at least three hours to reach Howrah. The Old-age Home at Sodepur is another hour from there by taxi. I managed a window seat and looked out. Small and big houses near the railway track were like small islands. Only I could see the fragments of life like a kite looking down at the earth from the sky. I should call Sona; had they informed her? She immediately picked up the phone as if she was waiting for my call. She wept aloud. In between sobs she said “Bhai, I am not coming. Maa never bothered about us, put our house on rent and lived in the Old Age Home rather than staying with us. Paritosh uncle was everything for her. Now, there is no point in going there all the way, when she is dead.”
The local trains have one advantage; one can have tea and snacks any time. I asked for tea in a plastic cup. Paritosh uncle! He was a colleague of my father. He came to our house for the first time, when Sona had been critically ill; called the doctor, nursed her day and night, and then onwards became a frequent visitor. A bachelor, with no immediate family, he became a part of our joys and sorrows, but not a part of the family. Initially, tongues wagged all around. But, everything has an expiry date. The scandal also died its own death.
It takes about an hour to reach Sodepur from Howrah, but it is difficult to get a Taxi. At last one Sardarji took pity on me. He even permitted me to smoke….. Things changed when Sona got married. She asked Maa to sell the house and stay with her. Maa didn’t agree. Sona got wild, “Do you think we are deaf and dumb? We know why you don’t want to move out of Kolkata. Both of us will be away. Now, you two won’t have any problem to stay together. Have you ever thought how we will face the society?” Maa remained silent but Sona went on and on. At last Maa got up and said, “It was my mistake that all along I thought in the same way. What would people think ……? Once you are established you become a part of the society. But when you are alone, helpless, the same society exploits you, decimate you. Where do I go from here? ……Become your liability! What about Paritosh? Now that my son has a job and daughter married I should forget him and go back to society as a successful mother. Isn’t it?” Sona never came back to Sodepur thereafter.
By the time I reached the Home it was five. They were waiting for me in the office. I was offered a glass of water. I was longing for a cleaner bell-metal glass, very cool and comforting; Maa had said it was a gift for me when she put rice in my mouth for the first time. I was only sixth months old then. Suddenly I felt a shiver ran down my spine. She is lying there in the Hall, waiting for me to put the torch to her mouth. She had held my hand when I lighted the pyre of my father. Now, who is going to do that? I got up and slowly moved towards the Hall. I pushed the door ajar, and saw the frail body in patent white kurta and white hair stooping over the person lying on the wooden blank covered with white bed-sheet. He was whispering something, in the silence of the hall each word distinctly audible: “he has just reached. I made all arrangements; Fruits, sandesh, tea in the flask….. He will come. Wait a little while more! Try to understand his pain! He has lost his mother; Mother! I have to go now. I should not be here. He may be hurt……”
Helpless rage engulfed me like wild fire. I held his shoulder with both hands and turned him towards me. “What do you know about being hurt, pain? Have you ever felt it? You had been a dumb fellow all your life. Even today you are behaving like a fool, talking to a dead, cold body. Yes! She is dead today, but even in the past she had been cold throughout her life, to me, to you, to herself.” Paritosh uncle smiled, as he used to in difficult situations and said, “Khoka, she never flaunted her love and emotions; she used to convey it through her actions. Unfortunately, we seldom recognized it. I have got so much from her that I won’t be able to repay it even in my next birth, if at all there is a rebirth.”
My throat choked, my vision got blurred. I could not speak. Paritosh uncle hugged me tightly and whispered in my ears, “Khoka, now you have to take over and see to it that she gets a beautiful farewell. I shall come tomorrow and hand over the bank papers, the ornaments and her will.” He moved one step closer to the plank, where the woman was lying inert, closed his eyes for a few seconds and started for the door. I wanted to shout “stop!”, but couldn’t. He saw my outstretched hand, came back and said, “Calm down! I know you will understand.” This time he left the room in hurried steps. I removed the white cloth from her face. I could feel from her half-closed eyes and smiling lips, she must have been seeing someone or something beautiful when she died.
All rights belong to its author. It was published on e-Stories.org by demand of Amar Mudi.
Published on e-Stories.org on 10.01.2012.