A story for my sons
I'm so happy that I took that ride!
Normally I don't like to travel by bus. I prefer a train. But in a city like Mumbai, I guess it is inevitable. And sometimes you get to see or meet something or somebody so special on Mumbai streets that it makes the whole experience worthwhile.
Going to my sons' school always makes me apprehensive. Not that they are bad in studies; both of them are doing really well. But they are doing equally well when it comes to mischief. So, invariably I land up listening to all the complaints the class teacher piles up to pour on me the moment she sees me on that special day. How I dread those moments!
It was a regular weekday during a hot Mumbai summer. I started at the Malad West bus stop. Was it near the fire station or was it at the Malwani stop? Well, I don't remember exactly; but what I do remember distinctly is that there were many of them. Wearing sky blue half-sleeved shirts and dark blue pants. Most of them were wearing hawai chappals or faded floaters.
“Tere paas kitna hai?” The whisper was loud enough for my ears.
“Ek rupaiya. Dekh to woh sahi me chad nahin paya kya?”
The two little boys, just about the same age as my sons, were nervous that their friend, who had the money for the bus fare, couldn't board it. It's natural. I can't even imagine my sons travelling in a bus all alone like this.
“Main madad kar sakti hu?” the mother in me prompted me to ask them.
“Nahin, nahin auntie. Thik hai.”
“Mere paas kafi change hai, de du?” I offered again.
“Nahin.” This time the reply was firm. “Jyada se jyada hum dono ko ek stop paidal jana parega, bas.”
My instinct told me that I shouldn't hurt their feelings. I didn't want to assault their pride. Their self-respect. But just the thought of two little boys walking about a mile under the hot summer sun brought a lump to my throat. Seeing them getting down after a few stops made me happy and sad at the same time. Happy because they are the next generation--with the right amount of pride and self-respect. Sad because my sons are not like them.
I had written this piece more than ten years back. If you scroll down this page, you will find that it was my first ever attempt to become a blogger!! It was November, 2006. Just a few days back, I was introduced to the amazing world of blogs by my niece, who had come to Mumbai to join a wire service. I was really excited about this whole new concept and my long cherished dream of becoming a writer seemed almost real. Even though I intended to write at least five articles a fortnight, the hectic life I had led those days didn’t allow me to sit in a quiet corner and write my heart out. But that’s not the issue I want to talk about. Nor do I want to write about my blog. In fact, there is nothing much to write about: Ten long years and not even ten articles! Must admit it’s a pathetic show. Moreover, since it’s not in my own name, I have very limited visitors. Only a few of my relatives and close friends read my blog. Amongst them were my sons. After reading this particular piece, I could see from their faces that they were hurt. They didn’t like my last line. Naturally...
--You’ve broken my heart, maa! My younger son said. He is the more vocal one.
---I had written whatever I felt at that moment, beta. You are probably not like them. But that doesn’t mean you are not a good boy. You may have some different good qualities, too!
---See...you can’t even name one good quality I possess. I AM a bad boy.
It was a difficult moment for a mother. I was desperate to mend the damage I had caused.
---No, you are NOT. You may not be like those boys, but you are very compassionate.
---Compassionate means kind or concerned. You do share your lunch with Param every day because he can’t afford to bring his own lunch box, don’t you?
---I do. But Param doesn’t want to have it, maa. I have to force him every day unless he is really hungry.
---That you don’t want him to stay hungry is called compassion. I am proud of you. That Param doesn’t want to share your lunch every day is called self-respect. And I am proud of him, too.
My little son seemed to understand something but wasn’t ready to settle the score. Not yet.
---Maa, are you compassionate?
---I don’t know. May be I was not as compassionate as you when I was your age. I did many unkind things as a big girl, too.
---See... you are again fumbling for words. You are just trying to make me feel better. That’s all.
Looking at his eyes, I did fumble for words at that moment. I wanted to tell him a story. But sharing your guilt with your ten-year-old son is not easy.
He got a little restless, looking at my confused face. Their playtime in the park was about to start in ten minutes. So my son forgave me for that last line and went out to play. But by then I decided to tell both my boys the truth behind my kind exterior. I decided to write it down with the hope that one day when they grow up, they read this and forgive their mother for her unkindness.
To understand better, I must start at the beginning: from my childhood. We moved from place to place across Assam along with our civil servant father. His last but one posting before Guwahati was in Silghat, a small but very beautiful place with abundant nature. Silghat was situated on the banks of the Brahmaputra and our official quarter was on a hillock from where you could see the river flowing with its might. At the backside of our house was a hill with a famous temple on top of it. Although we longed to go to the riverside, we were not allowed to, for obvious reasons. One domestic help was not enough to control the awesome foursome. We were an energetic bunch. Maa couldn’t trust us with our helper who was an equally energetic young man.
A few months into this boring ‘Don’t go near that, don’t climb that mountain’ life, we had good news coming. Father said that Bortta (that’s a shortened version of ‘Bordeuta’ which means father’s elder brother. In Assamese, we call our father ‘Deuta’) and Bormaa (Bordeuta’s wife) were coming to stay with us. We were ecstatic. Bortta was fun personified. He played the violin; loved going for fishing and, most importantly, he was a great storyteller. Till then the childless couple stayed at our ancestral home in upper Assam. Our grandmother, who was in her early 80s then, moved in with us at our parents’ insistence. She didn’t want to leave Bortta and Bormaa alone back in the village. But my parents said that instead of staying in the village home, she should realise the practicality of staying with us in the official quarter. Grandma, on the other hand, wanted Bortta and Bormaa, too, to come and join us at Silghat. She wanted her eldest son to establish a small business while staying with us so that when my father gets his next posting, Bortta and Bormaa could manage on their own.
They came. And our fun began. We would go fishing with Bortta. He wouldn’t take all of us together and we would wait impatiently for our turn to come. We had all the fun. Eventually Bortta and Bormaa settled in a place about 30 kilometres away with a small business. I still remember their home. It was a beautiful mud house with three rooms and a huge backyard for farming. Across that backyard was a tributary of the Brahmaputra. Rangagarah was a perfect place for them to settle in.
We grew up. My father got his last posting in Guwahati, where he decided to settle after retirement. My father didn’t want Bortta and Bormaa to stay so far away from us and Bortta probably was desperate to come and stay with us, too; especially after the nephew, who had stayed with them, decided to go back to his own village. They felt lonely. They sold everything in Rangagarah and came and started a diary business along with my brother. We were a big happy family.
A few years later, we, the three sisters, moved to Delhi. Once Bortta and Bormaa came to visit us in Delhi, too. They were so happy to stay in small our one-room apartment! I still remember Bortta lying on our uncomfortable camp bed and saying—“I feel like staying here one more day.” For some stupid mistake of mine, no photograph of their visit was there. They left Delhi without a single trace of proof of their visit. Though I vividly remember some of those Taj Mahal moments with them, we had nothing to show to them or anybody.
About a year later, a phone call brought us the news. Bortta passed away. He had fever for just three days and left us without giving us the slightest warning. Though my parents and my brother did everything to make Bormaa happy, she was probably feeling absolutely lost and lonely after Bortta’s demise.
Just two more years and Maa informed us that Bormaa had been diagnosed with throat cancer. Somehow I was not surprised. It didn’t hit me the way Bortta’s demise did. As if deep down I always knew that Bortta will not be able to stay alone for a long time. They were too attached to live without each other. Bormaa’s treatment started and by the time my marriage was fixed, she was doing really well. I got married and shifted to Jammu with my husband. She gifted me a beautiful bell metal Assamese bowl from her collection. Two more years passed…and I got to know that Bormaa was not well…her tumour has resurfaced.
My mother was adamant about my coming to Guwahati for the delivery of my first baby. We were a little apprehensive because Bormaa’s condition was deteriorating by every single day. Maa said they couldn’t come to Jammu leaving Bormaa alone with my brother and my young sister-in-law.
---But how would you manage both of us? You said Bormaa is in extreme pain.
---We will do something.
---We’ll shift her to a nursing home
I should have said a firm No at that moment. But I didn’t. Bormaa was shifted to a nearby nursing home two days after I reached home. It was a very cold January morning and I was sitting in the veranda enjoying sun after a near death experience on the train. I was really sick.
The last few minutes I spent with Bormaa as she was going out to get into the car will haunt me for the rest of my life. I could see nothing of my old Bormaa in her. The petite figure had swollen badly. She had a muffler wrapped around her neck to hide her tumor. She paused as I stood up from my chair to greet her.
---You didn’t come to meet me even once, Rinku!
---I was not well, Bormaa. In fact, I was very unwell...
---But you have come out to the veranda... you could have come to the next room at least once to see me...
I stood there with a terrible guilt. We both knew that Bormaa was not going to come back home. She’s going to die in an alien nursing home. On an unfamiliar bed. Alone. I knew I had failed Bortta. I also failed my grandmother who had made my father promise that he would look after Bortta and Bormaa. I failed them because only I could have let Bormaa die peacefully on her own bed had I been a little more assertive. To bring a life into this world, I made a lonely woman leave her home to die somewhere else. If there’s something beyond death, I just hope that they have forgiven me.
kironprobha? What an old-fashioned name!
Most of my friends were astonished to see this name after my first post. But I could think of no other name for my blog. Kironprobha was just perfect.
Kiron was the name of my Bortta. Probha was my Bormaa…