In memory of Dida

She was married off when she was thirteen. Daughter of a rich businessman from Rangoon, she traveled all the way to a village in Cumilla district of Bangladesh with her husband. After reaching the village, her husband, a manager in a coal mine, left her under the care of his elder sister to resume his job. Though her sister-in-law was caring, she would often mock her as the ‘rich man’s daughter’ who didn’t know how to cook. She gave birth to her first child at fifteen. She was a proud mother of 10 children – five daughters and five sons. Her husband passed away when she was in her fifties and she lived the next 25 years as a widow, wearing white and having only sattvic food. She was my Dida – my paternal grandmother.

Dida

I remember Dida sitting on the chaukhat or on the staircase next to the courtyard, in a completely white sari worn in Bengali style, her grey hair tied up in high bun, chewing pan and fanning herself with a hand fan made of palm leaves.  Her calm and loving face bore traces of the beauty that she was in her youth. In summers she would prefer not to wear a blouse and we would tease her endlessly for that. “It’s too hot, let the old lady be”, she would say.

After school I would chit chat with Dida for a while. I would tell her about my friends and the lessons while she would talk to me about Bengali literature, plays, jatra (folk theatre of Bengal), sometimes about movies of Uttam Kumar. She was a big fan of the Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, I think she had a crush on him. Dida was a voracious reader.  She had read the entire volumes of Tagore, Sarath Chandra, Bankim Chandra and other prominent Bengali writers many times over. “Your father would get me books from the library. I would read every afternoon after finishing lunch. Sometimes there would be no new titles in the library, but I would ask him to get a book anyway,” Dida once said. Those afternoons with Dida probably developed my knack for literature. She would tell me her favourite stories, discuss her favourite characters with me. Soon I started reading myself, sometimes I would read out to her. For a woman of her times who hardly had any formal education, her views were modern and progressive.

Sometimes on those afternoons she would fondly remember my Dadu, her late husband. “Your Dadu was a man of principles,” she would say, “He was against dowry and would not attend any wedding function where there was any kind of dowry exchange.” Dadu had passed away even before my parents got married, whatever I know of him is from those stories. She would talk about leaving Rangoon as a girl with Dadu, spending the first year of her marriage with her sister-in-law while her husband was away at work. “She taught me everything, though she would taunt me at times as ameer zaadi.”

Dida was the centre of our family. Every morning mom would go to her to decide the menu for the day. While mom would take care for the non-vegetarian kitchen, Dida used to do all the vegetarian cooking herself. My memory of Dida is strongly associated with the flavour and aroma of her dishes – kochu bata, vegetable made from jackfruit seed, sheem (broad beans) and baigan sabzi and many more.  She would insist on mom serving us macher jhol (fish curry) everyday, something that I strongly resisted. As a girl I wasn’t fond of macher jhol, but Dida felt a meal wasn’t complete without fish. “I couldn’t eat even one day without fish,” she would often say to convince me to have fish. “How do you eat now?” I would retort. “I eat just fine,” would be her reply. I would sometimes wonder how she could give everything she loved one fine day and not complain about it.

Though widows on those days were not meant to touch fish, Dida would make an exception for her grandchildren whenever we insisted that we would eat fish only if she feeds us. I still remember the nights before a pujo (Lakshmi or Saraswati) when Dida, mom and all the other women would be busy making naaru, sandesh and other delicacies to be served to the goddess next morning. We cousins would hang around the kitchen hoping to sample some of those delicacies. While the other ladies ignored us, Dida would sneak some sweets out of the kitchen for us. “God resides in children,” she would say, “you need to give them first.”

On weekends, after lunch when Dida would sit with her paner bata (paan daan), making a paan for herself, with her transistor next to her listening to the play. AIR in those days used to air a play every weekend. I developed quite a taste for those plays and would listen to them with her on lazy Sunday afternoons. Picture of Dida is incomplete without the brass paner bata and the transistor, those items were always next to her.

We lost Dida to cancer when she was in her seventies, the disease that she dreaded. “I hope I don’t get cancer,” she would always say. Tobacco that she would chew with paan gave her cancer. Doctor suggested surgery. “Please don’t cut me up,” she pleaded. We respected her wish. On the last few months of her life she could hardly eat. She would break out in fits of cough whenever we tried to make her eat. She would never complain, just lie peacefully on her bed most of the time. Fortunately, most of her children and grand children were around her at that time. One morning her frail body gave in and she passed away peacefully.

This post is a tribute to Dida, a women who lived her life abiding by traditions and yet managed to hold her own and inspire the generation after her!

Pen Pals – The Magic of Letters

inland letterOnce upon a time, long before social media had taken over our lives, long before Snapchat and Tinder, there lived a girl Tirna, in a sleepy little town Duru tucked in between three hills and a river. She lived in a small bungalow with her parents and sisters. Her father was quite an important man in Duru, and Tirna and her sisters went to the best school in the town. She was already in senior school and would be going off to college in Delhi or abroad in a year or so.

Tirna was a young girl with lot of dreams. While she was eager to explore the world outside Duru and was studying hard for it, she loved every bit of her little town – the slow flowing river that would get wild during the monsoons, the green and gentle mountains, white and grey clouds playing hide and seek with the peaks, starlit nights when she would lie on her back and gaze at the stars for hours, chirruping birds waking her every morning, beautiful flowers that blossomed everywhere in Duru. But most of all she loved the moonlit nights. Moon light created a magic for her, and she would sit on the terrace for hours losing herself in the magical moonlit world.

Tirna loved to read. She would spend hours in the small library on the hill top devouring on Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Leo Tolstoy or Anton Chekhov. She liked to write as well, she would pen down her thoughts in her journal, try her hands in poems and sometimes short stories. Her writing was still very private to her, her journal was carefully locked away in her study table drawer, away from the prying eyes of the world. Tirna’s letters to her cousins and relatives living in faraway places were the only writings her friends and family were privy to. She wrote long and beautiful letters to them regularly, sharing little things and happenings around her.

One day, as she was going through a magazine in the library, she came across a small announcement in the letters section – ‘Make new friends through letters,’ and listed in the announcement were a few names and addresses of people who would like to make pen friends. Tirna found this very interesting, she picked up a name randomly – Ankur Roy, an engineering student in BITS, Pilani. She took out her pen and pad and started writing a letter to Ankur, telling him about herself and her life in Duru. She wrote the address and posted the letter on her way back.

Weeks passed, she had almost forgotten about Ankur and the letter. One day as she got back from school her mother said, “There’s a letter for you Tirna. I have put it on your table.”  The letter was from Ankur Roy of BITS Pilani. Ankur was having his 1st semester exams, hence the delay in responding to Tirna. He hailed from Delhi, was a topper from DPS RK Puram now pursuing engineering in BITS. Ankur never had pen friend before and thanked Tirna for writing to him.

Tirna’s excitement knew no bounds – her first pen friend, getting to know somebody outside her little circle, it was all very exhilarating. She immediately wrote back. Her schooling was coming to close and her parents wanted her to take up engineering, but she wasn’t very sure, she wrote. Her grades were good, and she could probably get into any engineering college, and that seemed to be the sensible thing to do. After writing those lines to Ankur, Tirna realized she has never shared this with anybody before, not even her best friend Payal. In fact, she has been scared to admit this even to herself, afraid of disappointing her parents.

In his next letter, Ankur urged Tirna to go for what she wanted, not be pushed by others. Being an engineer was his dream, he wrote, and he will probably go abroad after graduation. Ankur and Tirna wrote to each other regularly, about their dreams and aspirations, about their little romances. When the girl Ankur liked started seeing someone else he was shattered, as if his world has fallen apart. Tirna’s letters urging him to focus on his studies and telling him that he will find someone else helped him move on. Tirna started sharing her writings with Ankur, little poems, short stories. He was her first critic and appreciative reader. Unwittingly over the months, Tirna and Ankur became best of friends and confidante. They shared their wildest dreams and silliest fears with each other, in their letters they would bare their hearts out without the fear of being judged. They were patient with each other, encouraged and advised it each other. Maybe it was the distance that was between them, maybe it was the medium of letters that created veil of security and intimacy.

When the time came, Tirna plucked up courage to tell her parents that she wanted to pursue English literature. She has already applied to few colleges in Delhi and Kolkata for the same. Though her parents were upset with her for a while, they ultimately gave in. Tirna got selected in a college in Delhi and left home and the little town Duru to pursue her dreams. She let Ankur know of course, and he was indeed happy for her. Meanwhile Ankur was now in 2nd year, getting busier with his studies, but he continued to write to Tirna regularly.

One day when Tirna got back to the hostel after her classes, she suddenly heard her name being called out loudly, she had a visitor. Tirna she wasn’t expecting anybody that afternoon, in fact she was soon to meet her friends in the café outside. She went to the visitor’s room and looked around but couldn’t see a familiar face. As she was about to leave the room thinking that she must have been called by mistake, someone called out her name a little hesitantly. When she turned and saw a tall, thin boy looking at her. “Do I know you,” she asked curtly. “I am Ankur, Ankur Roy.’ Tirna couldn’t believe herself, Ankur visiting him of all people. He was on a short break, visiting his parents in Delhi. “Thought I would surprise you,” he said.

Tirna somehow had never imagined meeting Ankur in person, and surprised she was indeed. She did envisage what Ankur would like at times, and there he was before her, a tall boy with an intelligent and friendly face. Tirna took Ankur to the canteen outside the hostel, and there they sat talking for hours, giving physical shape to the friendly intimacy of the letters. They talked easily like old friends who have met after years. They realised only when the canteen manager came up to them and said that he had to shut the place, it was almost 10 and they have been talking continuously for the last 4 hours. Tirna had to get back to hostel as she had a 10 pm curfew. Ankur visited her again the next day, before catching his train back to Pilani.

Tirna and Ankur continued writing, they would often talk to each other on the phone and meet whenever possible. Their first meeting or may be the first letter, was the beginning of a beautiful friendship that grew stronger with years!

 

 

When I Walked with a cool Man

I am the dude super cool, I walk around the campus humming tunes in the ears of cool guys & gals. Be it soft romantic melodies, rap or hip-hop, I play you songs that make your hearts flutter, your feet tap joyfully, and your lips whistle. Be it walking around the campus, hanging out in the canteen, sitting under a tree, studying in the library or just sitting quietly in your hostel room, I am your hip companion who sings you your favourite song. From my huge collection of music cassettes, I choose one that suits your mood.IMG-20190222-WA0000.jpgWalkman, the dude super cool I am, the most aspired gadget of all the cool guys & gals. No matter what, they never part with me, they are unwilling to share me with their friends and peers. I am forever stuck to their belts or waistband, with my stylish friend Headphone stuck to their ears or hanging around their neck. Together, we make a deadly pair!  The cassettes change hands, they are passed around, but Walkman & Headphone, no way, get your own pair!

Then one day I wasn’t so cool anymore. I lay ignored on the study table or bookshelves while cool gals & guys rushed in and out of their rooms. “Didn’t you hear the rumour,” whispered a hip-hop cassette in my ear, “kids are moving to CDs now and the much cooler Disc-man.” I raised my eyebrows in disbelief, “Don’t pay too much heed to such rumours.” But soon the shelves were flooded with CDs and the haughty Disc-man adorned the waistbands of my cool friends.  I sat there sulking with my friend cassettes, to be drowned under the jazzy CDs.

IMG-20190222-WA0002.jpgTo my surprise, the haughty Disc-man came and sat next to me one fine afternoon. I turned my face in disdain, “Oh chill! I am just taking a break. I will be soon gone.” “Haven’t you heard,” said a CD sounding alarmed, “the cool kids are moving to iPods now, CDs and Disc-mans will be soon forgotten.” “Stop spreading such malicious gossips,” snapped the Disc-man angrily, “Kids are busy with their mid-term exams, they will come back to us soon.” Exams got over, kids went home, leaving the sulking Disc-man and the CDs behind and came back with smart and digital iPods!

“What’s happening?”, the Disc-man yelled, “Who’s that? Why aren’t they looking at us?” “Oh, stop whining,” chided a CD, “Music has gone digital, can’t you see? We are too bulky and outdated, they don’t want us anymore.” The Disc-man looked around in disbelief, as he sat listlessly next to me.

Yes, music has gone digital indeed! There was a whole line of cool iPods that the boys & gals proudly owned. Then one day they dumped the iPods for even cooler iPads and mobile phones! Chic kids today download music & music apps, create their albums and listen to music on their super cool and hi-tech mobile phones, paired with sleek and stylish ear plugs. Walkman, Disc-man, cassettes and CDs are relics of a time gone by!

Love Letter

Valentine’s Day it is! Love is in the air, literally. FM channels are humming love songs, restaurants & cafes are serving special menu that are high on love potion, parties are being organized to celebrate love (even break-ups), brands are luring love-birds with special packages – what a day to be in love!

Love Letter

Amongst all the discourse around love & heart breaks, all the love tunes being aired, the red roses, the pink pastries, the heart shaped balloons and the lovey dovey teddies, I suddenly yearn for those sweet love letters. They were once considered the ultimate expression of love – handwritten love letters on ornate papers, sometimes even on perfumed papers. Letter writing pads, in different colours, with floral designs and mushy love quotes used be available, especially designed for love letters, with matching envelopes. As a girl I fancied those letter writing pads, I would buy and hoard them, hoping to use them some day.

writing padsThe idea of love letters still stirs my imagination. The image of a lovelorn girl eagerly waiting for a letter from her beloved. Once upon a time, doves or pigeons used to be the deliverers of missives of love. With a letter tied to their feet, they would land on the windowsill or the garden of the sweetheart. Special emissaries would carry letters of kings and princes to their lady loves.  Then came the daakiyas and the postmen. As a girl, I remember looking forward to the postman for a letter from my college time    boyfriend. May be the wait made those letters even sweeter!

From snail mails the world moved to e-mails. We would just e-mail each other, the long periods of waiting for a letter was over. Soon there was SMS & WhatsApp, Facebook & Instagram, more pictures and less words. And with Snapchat there were no words at all. The whole world is digital now, it’s all about short & sweet, about catchy phrases, interesting hashtags, pictures and selfies. Handwritten love letters are long gone, nobody even has time for elaborate e-mails.

Pouring your feelings over a letter, waiting for the postman or checking the letter box every day for a response from your sweetheart, that is a feeling that the digital generation will never know. Sometimes I feel we have lost a bit of our eloquence and depth with those letters…or may it’s just me being nostalgic…

Love Notes

Frog Prince or Prince Frog – Fairy tales inverted

frog prince

Didn’t we all love the story growing up – A princess magically transforms a frog into a prince with a kiss. As a girl I remember reading the fairy tale over and over, completely enamoured by the story and the images… the princess finally garnering enough courage to kiss the frog… kiss of true love, and the prince (frog) who promises to be true to her forever…

As I grew up and went looking for my prince imagine my disappointment when my fairy tale turned upside down. Each time I would meet my prince and greet him with a kiss he would turn into frog and hop away, leaving me alone and heartbroken…

Perhaps life is all about realizing that fairy tales are not meant to be, but that’s all right. We make our stories as we go along with real people!

First crush

Tough one! The dreamy grey-eyed lawyer who used to pass our house every day on his way to the court, or the tall 10th standard boy from my school. I was just 13 then…shy…reserved…, never had the guts to talk to either of them and don’t even remember their names now. They were my ‘dream dates’, literally…

I grew up in a small town where everybody knows everybody, anywhere you go you meet somebody who knows your dad or uncle making it very difficult for me to pursue my romantic interests.

Had a heart-breaking encounter with my lawyer when I went home last year – My dreamy-eyed lawyer has metamorphosed into a pot-bellied 50 something…tried very hard but couldn’t find a trace of his former romantic self….or, may be the romance was all me… influenced by Jane Eyre and Gone With the Wind it was my quest for Mr. Rochester and Rhett Butler.

Around that time, I also had a crush on a certain Pakistani cricketer …so much so that my mother was worried. His posters were all over my room… I imagined myself to be his ‘true love’ and I was confident that we would get married some day and bring an end to the Indo-Pak tensions…

First crush…funny, silly, seems utterly meaningless now… did make growing up so much more exciting…

Growing up, falling In and Out of love

I loved my student days. I enjoyed all the attention I got – those stares and longing glances, scribbled love notes, fumbling love yous. But at that time boys my age didn’t impress me, I fancied Rhett Butler! (Do kids still read Gone with the Wind?)

Love note

Our times were much slower. Months would pass before side long glances would graduate into a ‘hello’ and then may be rendezvous in between classes, holding hands occasionally. There were love notes and roses and mushy greeting cards professing everlasting love. Those were the days when we believed in ‘true love’ and ‘forever’. We reveled in the idea of love and romance, we believed in Platonic love. Physical intimacy came much later, sometimes never but that didn’t take away anything.

Hostel life offered more opportunities for romance. Dates in the college canteens, long walks in star lit nights, bouquets of wild flowers and of course lovey dovey greeting cards. That was the time when I could go out for a movie or a dinner date with my college boyfriend. That romance continued for a while even after I moved to Delhi.

Early years at work was more like an extension of college life. There were lot of young people around and we would hang out after work. Life somehow was rosier then, everything seemed possible. We would go all over the city in a DTC bus, hang out in Dilli Haat, stand in long ques for the Rs. 10 movie tickets (front row was available for 10 bucks in those days), McDonadls or Nirulas for dinner – funds were limited but life was perfect!

It wasn’t difficult to find someone you would like to date or hang out with. Blind dates were set up by friends which sometimes turned into sweet romance (which I then thought would last forever!). I fell in love, broke my heart and fell out of love. Then suddenly I got busy with my job and there was no time for love or romance. Finally, when I decided that it’s time to meet someone, love and romance had gone digital and there is Tinder!

It’s Pujo time

Like most Bengalis Durga Puja is the festival I look forward to, or at least I did then as a girl in Agartala. Puja vacations were the most awaited vacations, four days sans studies, only pandal hopping and showing off our new clothes. Yes, we were given at least one new dress for each day, in fact that was the only time in the year when we were given new clothes (except may be birthdays). Mostly our moms stitched our clothes, we knew nothing about brands, couldn’t dare ask our parents for branded clothes even when awareness grew.

Shiuli_phool_-_panoramio

Back then the anticipation and the excitement of Durga Puja was built days in advance, with the first bloom of shiuli phool (night jasmine/coral jasmine) or the first site of a puja pandal being constructed. We would happily watch white autumn clouds float in clear blue sky and eagerly wait for the festivities to begin. Every house had a shiuli plant then and the ground below the plant would be strewn with sweet smelling flowers in the morning. As a girl I would pick up those flowers and string them into a garland, my most coveted morning task as long as the flowers bloomed.

There would be a puja pandal coming up in every corner, special sale and discounts were announced in every shop. That was the time when we would start bargaining with our parents for new clothes, shoes, pocket money during puja days etc. As kids it was a matter of great pride to have earned more newbies than your friends and peers during puja.

Mahalaya that announced the advent of Goddess Durga was a very significant occasion. AIR would play Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s “Mahisasura Mardini” or “The Annihilation of the Demon” very early in the morning. In my excitement and eagerness to not miss the Mahalaya recital I would hardly get any sleep the night before. None of the modern editions of Mahalaya that now come in various TV channels match Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s magic.

Barir Pujo

Puja days were spent at my maternal grandparents’ place as they performed Durga Puja every year. I remember waking up as early as my grand mom and other ladies of the house, towing them as they rushed through the elaborate preparations of Devi puja. Children were sometimes allowed to gather flowers, a job that was performed with much pride.

In the evening we would go pandal hopping. As Agartala is a small place we could even walk from one pandal to other, buy mutton chops or rolls from roadside vendors outside the pandal. Visiting the maximum number of pandals was kind of a competition. Pandals even then where very well decorated and lit. Some of the well known pandals got idols from Kumortuli and light decoration from Krishnagar, but they were nothing compared to the fancy hi-tech pandals of today.

dhak image

Smell of shiuli and dhuno (camphor), sound of dhak (type of drum), dhunichi dance are strongly associated with my memories of Durga Puja. We could hear dhak through the day from every nook and corner. Dhakis (dhak players) would go from house to house playing for a small sum. Even in Agartala most houses don’t have shiuli plant anymore, dhakis are making way for more hi-tech music!

Having stayed away from home for years I really miss the flavour and the spirit of Pujo. Durga Puja days are usual working days here, though I make it a point to wear a sari everyday and visit a Pandal in the evening. CR Park in Delhi almost replicates Kolkata during Pujo but somehow falls short of the frenzy and the excitement, or maybe is just me missing my childhood Pujo!