Saturday, 30 December 2017

The pain does not go away

Sundays are unbearable... I used to call Ma every Sunday... we would chat for long about this and that ... she would bring me up to date about news at the Guwahati end, I would tell her about what we had done in the past week, I would ask her how she was, what she was busy with... sometimes she would tell me, sometimes she would say she had no time... whatever it was this weekly phone call had become a fixed ritual... and I had not realised that to perform that ritual every Sunday was so important for me till now when I don't have to call her anymore...never knew that the fact that there was no one in India waiting for me to call on Sunday would be so hard to bear...

I stayed in India for three and a half months this time -- never have I stayed that long in recent times. I have repeatedly asked myself, why did I not spend those three months in India while Ma was still alive? Why did I have to wait for her to go before finding the time? I never had the time while she was there. When she went, she forced me to go and stay... there was no option but to take on the job she had left for me. Like one kindly old gentleman remarked to me -- 'When she was still alive, you had just one problem -- making sure your mother was well and being taken care of. Now all her problems have become yours.'

Very true -- but the real magnitude of how many problems she had handled on her own without ever bothering anyone became clear to me only in the days and weeks that followed her death;  Just taking care of the usual official business that needs to be done when someone dies would have been enough. But since it was not clear where all her papers were, and whether I had found everything there was to find, I was required to sift through the entire contents of her home in Panchabati word by word, line by line, page by page, file after file, shelf after shelf, cupboard after cupboard, room after room...

I found many things... sometimes started to read something she had written or someone else had written to her... and could not carry on was such an emotional journey into our past, into my childhood, into her years of glory in Delhi, into my parents world together, into her private world...precious bits that have helped to fill and add colour to my mental picture of who she was and what she cared for. Not just that -- that time when they removed her last bit of clothing after raising her onto the funeral pyre was the first of the many times since that I have seen Ma standing completely bare in front of me -- not voluntarily, but bared, because she was not there to prevent me from doing it.  It was hard to accept that the fiercely proud Ma (who wouldn't let anyone enter her room while she bathed and changed) would not be able to stop me from opening each of her many attache cases and poring into their contents...  She had kept her private world -- the world of her personal likes and dislikes, dreams and wishes, so strictly to herself that to break the locks and trespass into that hitherto forbidden space, only because she was no longer there to stop me, seemed like sacrilege. Hard to cope with the nakedness, the starkness of it all... is this what death does to one, even one so independent and strong as Ma?

I felt I should not be touching her papers, and even if I was touching them, I should not be reading their contents -- but I needed to do so if only to find out that I should not be reading them; One by one I pried into all her secrets -- the little things she had treasured and hidden away, some confidences shared with friends, her prize collections of pens and brooches, a few frayed dollar bills, the many letters that people had written to her, and the many photos that we found everywhere -- all proof of a life that was not only full and busy, but also successful and eventful. But somehow going through her thoughts and her possessions, I could not get over the feeling that she had not been happy, that there was something more, something else, that she would have liked to have but which she was too proud to ask for, or even try to get. And hence that she died, unfulfilled.

Bringing some sort of order to her papers and belongings took me more than a month... and as I went about the task of sorting, clearing and giving way most of the things that were in the house there were many who were very unhappy -- 'you shouldn't touch the house -- leave everything as it is for at least one year' -- but I could not afford to do that... Ma was gone... leaving the house untouched for one year would have meant losing everything... . I did not want to do that,  I wanted to give away everything that could be used by others. But that also meant giving away bits from my own past -- a past that Ma had so carefully preserved at Panchabati...It also meant going into old age homes, into orphanages, into women's shelters... and  seeing people in pain, suffering, in need, realising that I was not alone in my pain, and feeling helpless and like a fake, pretending to be giving away what was never mine...

But that was not all. Within a week of the end of the death ceremonies it was clear that the house was urgently in need of repair. Ma had not done much in the last years -- she probably just couldn't. And she was too proud to ask me to help. Ma would never have allowed me to do anything...She was in charge. A few years ago, I had suggested to her that I could get her bathroom redone and that she should temporarily move to my first floor flat for the time it took to get it done. Her response made me promise never to ask her again, for she said -- 'How dare you even suggest this, are you planning to throw me out of MY house even while I am still alive!'

But with her gone, it was clear to me that there was a job -- a big job-- that needed to be done. So I started with the necessary repairs of  the Panchabati house; one thing led to another -- before I knew it, the whole house became a construction site, the septic tank had to be repaired,  the roof had to be replaced, the pipes had to be renewed, the walls had to be painted,the mosaic had to be cleaned, the furniture had to be polished, the books had to be secured, the leaves had to be swept away, the trees had to be cut to size, the drains had to be unblocked... what I initially thought would take me at most a fortnight to do turned out to be a three-month project.

All that is done now. But she is no longer there to live in the newly painted home. For whom did I do it for then? At the end of it all, it felt so unnecessary -- as long as she was there, it was shabby, it was broken, but it was still her home. Now it is painted and neat and tidy, but nobody lives there was hard to cope with the absurdity of the situation.

The feeling that somehow it was all too late now, that all that I was doing was completely unnecessary and that  underneath there was this deep dark chasm waiting to consume me haunted me almost all the time I was in Guwahati. There have been times when I have felt that I could take it no more -- that I was going to collapse the next minute, that the world around me was crumbling to bits, that I was standing alone at the brink of a towering inferno, just waiting for the flames to eat me up. And that there was nobody, absolutely nobody in this big wide world who cared a damn for what became of me. At those time, miraculously, unbelievably, incredibly, but invariably, one or the other of my friends, of my many friends, turned up. They just came to be with me, to give me company, to help in whatever way they could, but the sheer act of their coming would make that moment of utter despair, of utter darkness dissolve. I knew I could not give up.

Ma said she would trouble no one when she went. Four months down the line, I think she really meant it and really tried her best to keep her word. She had just submitted her tax returns, and the end of the financial year was still many months away. That has given me time to get things sorted so that it can all be wrapped up in good time, hopefully. For me, too the timing could have not been better. For I was at a point where I had finished most of all that I had started earlier, and was just cleaning up the loose ends before starting on something else... now I will have to figure out what I will do next, and perhaps I will have to take into account the fact that I have new responsibilities while doing that, but at least she did not force me to leave any of my various projects half-finished.

Her death forced me to grow up -- in more ways than one. For it is not just that Ma is gone leaving me an orphan, that too one without siblings, with no one to fall back upon,  but also that her death has changed the equations I had with many others. Many who looked up to her before for help and support have automatically turned to me -- expecting me to fill the void, only making me realise how inadequate and unprepared I was to do so.  For the first few days, I told myself, that people would go away if I did not react. But they did not. So I had to sit them down and explain to them that I was not my mother, and that they could not expect me to just carry on with everything she had done, in the same way, for all the days to come.

There was more. For I also realised that even after all the necessary things had been done and sorted, there would be something still left to do... Something would need to be done to keep her memory alive, to support some of the causes that were dear to her. We had done something similar for Baba after he went, but then there was Ma -- she had made the Trust happen, she had made the Award happen. Now there is nobody else, besides me. Moreover, with Baba is was easier to figure out what we needed to do. But with Ma, and her multifarious interests, it would not be easy to zero down on something that we could do for her, or on her behalf for others.

Her interests were many -- social worker, activist, politician, trade unionist, aid-worker, she had so many different faces. She was a source of support and strength for many who knew her. Should we concentrate on her social activities -- orphanages, destitute women, old age homes etc, or should we prioritise her political interests including human rights and advocacy? Should it be her long association with trade unions -- fighting on behalf of workers and their rights, or should it be her years as Minister or as Navaratna Director of ONGC -- years of policy and decision making at the highest levels, that we should focus on. It was not easy to find 'one' thing to do in her name.

All these years of being away from Guwahati had meant that I had lost touch, Many of the people I knew in the city I knew because they had something to do with Ma. I knew I could rely on them because they would not let Ma down. Now with her gone, that whole set of people has disappeared. Maybe they are still there, but I don't feel that I should or can bother them anymore. I have to start afresh now to build contacts, to build a network of people who I know and can rely upon. I still have many friends, and also some relatives in Guwahati. And these last months in the city have brought me in contact with many other kindred souls who have extended their hands in friendship and in support. I have tried sounding some of them out on what one could possibly do in her memory. They have helped with some more names and some ideas. I have followed up some of the leads -- there are quite a few ideas floating around but there is still some way to go before decisions can be made.

Take your time, people have told me over and over again, there is no hurry. Very true, but I also feel that as long as I am still searching, as long as I have not found the answers, there will be no peace. Ma is gone...but till I can resurrect her in a form that works for me and the others who knew and cared for her, there will be no resting, no peace...I will be able to accept that she is no more there in the form in which I knew her, only when I have conjured her up in another, more lasting form. Doing that for my father had opened up a big wide world for me... now it is Ma's turn... maybe at the end of it all I will get back Ma in such a way that she will never leave me again...

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