A monsoon requiem
My grandfather died at a young age. He was an investor of sorts and by all accounts an amiable man with no vices. The only occasion he made a fuss, according to family lore recounted by my grandmother’s elder sister, was when he was served tea in a chipped cup at a relative’s house. Apparently, he was fond of fine china, something that was rarely heard of, and less seen, in Mymensingh households in what was then referred to as East Bengal. He died, possibly of tuberculosis, even before he entered his forties, leaving behind a widow and five children of whom my father, barely into his teens, was the eldest. Years later, all that remained of my grandfather was a faded sepia photograph that would have made an excellent visual for the cover of Rabindranath Tagore’s celebrated novel Gora.
An extended family ensured my grandmother and her children lived in comfort. If they grieved, it was for a man who had left far too soon than he should have. Before long, another event was to turn their lives upside down and leave them at the not-so-tender mercies of fate. Mohammed Ali Jinnah kept his word and extracted a terrible price for the follies of the Congress leadership. India’s independence and the creation of Pakistan fetched neither joy nor hope for Bengali Hindus on the other side of Padma. Overnight they became strangers in their own land, unwanted and undesired by both Bengali Muslims and the Bihari Muslims who came pouring in to populate the eastern part of Jinnah’s moth-eaten Pakistan. Fleeing murderous hordes screaming Allah-o-Akbar was no doubt a memorable but an extremely frightening experience. My grandmother sought and found shelter in a ramshackle house near Kolkata; the protective umbrella of her large extended family was gone, swept away by the hurricane of partition. Circumstances forced the kind-hearted to look away -- nobody had enough for themselves, leave alone to share with others. The refugee was an object of pity at best and ridicule at worst. Those who came in from the west were fortunate – they received large doses of resettlement assistance. Proximity with Delhi helped. But those who came in from the east were left to fester in refugee camps that later became refugee colonies and are now known as Kolkata’s southern suburbs. A cousin of my grandfather, employed with a boxwallah firm in Kolkata, stepped forward to stand by my grandmother and her children. He helped her deal with financial issues, oversaw the education — such as it was for refugees barely able to keep body and soul together — of my father and his siblings. He found them appropriate jobs in the firm where he worked. For my father and his brothers and sister, he was “Khoka Kaku”; for us, the children of the family, he was simply “Dadu”, the grandfather we never had. He was loved and revered by all.
A staunch Brahmo Samaji, he retired to Santiniketan where he built a house that was called ‘Krishnakali’. It had a huge garden with scores of trees. Across the road lay paddy fields beyond which ran railway tracks. Every few hours a train would chug by, its steam engine belching smoke. Watching Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali while in high school I was reminded of those trains. A short distance away was noted Rabindrasangeet singer Nilima Sen’s house. It was called ‘Sonajhuri’. She was Dadu’s sister, my grandfather’s cousin, my father’s aunt, hence my Dida. Amartya Sen, who, I am told, is related to the clan in some manner, would drop in for tea and regale us with stories. The famous D.M. Sen was a frequent visitor to Dadu’s house. Everybody was extremely polite, spoke softly in chaste Bangla or Oxonian English, smiled at each other. Nobody laughed, no jokes were cracked, frivolities were abhorred. Snobbery came effortlessly to them. It was all very Tagorean.
Sitting in a cane chair on the verandah of Krishnakali you could see the monsoon clouds gathering in the late afternoon sky. First they would lazily roll in, turning the pale sky grey. Then they would suddenly begin to rush in, large ink black clouds would darken the sky within minutes. At that moment between the gathering of the clouds and their bursting into rain the egrets in the paddy fields would take flight, presenting a fascinating study of white birds against a black backdrop, captured in many Bengal water colours. Soon it would begin to rain, first large drops then a fine, sharp seemingly incessant shower. The red earth of Birbhum would turn into a rust-coloured mush.
Dragonflies would take cover beneath leaves and drenched birds would shuffle on the branches of the trees, looking miserably pitiful. From somewhere would waft in the lines of Tagore’s song, “Bahu juger opar hotey Ashaadh elo…” The gathering gloom of a wet evening, the moist air laden with the smell of rajnigandha, firangipani, hasnuhana and kadam blossoms, would fetch with itself a strange, searing melancholy.
— The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist