The white Ambassador car stopped in front of a building. I looked at the building trying to see if it was the one I visited 7 years back. I saw a spectacled face from a balcony looking straight at the taxi. The strong continuous gaze could only be hers. She had been waiting for more than an hour and I know this is how she waits. Why did I take so long to be back here? I climbed the one floor I had to and she opened the door before I could knock. She would not demonstrate her feelings and I could not hold them any more. I hugged her and felt her hug as gentle as her form. She was dressed in a cotton light pink sari with red threaded border wrapped with carelessness of routine, showing crush folds like wrinkles and yet its beauty shining through like her affection. She asked me to put my bag in the room which she had carefully readied for me. She has a hurried way of talking, delivering information quickly and only if you ask her further and slowly, does she reply slowly and in detail. She is more than 75 years old for sure. She is short, thin and fair with her hair still carrying tinge of black, plaited and tied as a knot at the back of her head low down, almost on her neck. She wears something around her neck, moves barefoot within her home and keeps her foot on the floor unhurriedly, with care. She loves to keep the water tap in the kitchen open while she is in the kitchen and can peel and cut vegetables with the deftness of a master chef. Her home carried the past with photographs on the walls of the living room and in her room. She shows me pictures of her grandson, Joy, the word meaning victory in Bengali language. She laments that she can no longer communicate with him for he does not know Bangla and she cannot speak English well. She believes that her grandson will not appreciate her speaking english unless she spoke the proper way and so all she says to him is, I love you and he says back, I love you too. She knows he has grown taller, she is not sure if his voice is breaking. She knows he is beginning to have a beard and she tells her son that she is uncomfortable with it coming so soon, that he is just 12. She remembers he did not eat well and so when she once got to know from her daughter in law’s Mom, that Joy ate something well, she asked her son about it. When he confirmed that Muesli with coconut water cooked by him was well eaten by Joy, she immediately asked the recipe. She recalls how her son, Bobby did not cook or do stuff at home earlier but had learnt to do so much after being married. She thinks everyone must know how to cook at least a few things.
She asks me if I want to have tea or coffee. I admit that I would love to have a big cup of tea. She confirms if tea with sugar and milk would be fine with me. I say yes and she fixes the big cup of tea and gives me the tea with special sweet and biscuits she has for me. She asks me what I want to eat and when I say rice and Dal, she fixes the Dal and rice and some crisp soyabean papad with brinjal pakodas ( big thick slices of brinjal covered with besan and fried) in a matter of minutes. It is Friday and so she will not eat or cook with anything sour. She will not be able to make paneer or add tomatoes to the yellow masoor Dal she tells me. I agree and ask her to put the rest of the spices. She looks at me with surprise and tells me that she does not use any other spices for this Dal. I agree and affirm that I want to taste the way she makes it. She puts only some oil, green chilli and salt but the Dal tastes heavenly and I eat with the pakodas and papad. She sits across the table, talking, watching me eat. She will have her oats later she says. I get to know that she likes to watch movies and that there was a time when she watched practically all the movies in town. She asks me if I have seen a movie Greh Pravesh with Sanjeev Kumar and Sharmila Tagore. I do not remember and she tells me that the two actors are a couple and they decide to travel somewhere together in the movie. This reminds her of a conversation with her husband when she tells her husband that everyone travels together and that they must too. He points out that when couple get bored of each other at home, they go out and visit places. He then asked her if she was bored with him at home. She laughed, recalled that ever since she did not ask him to travel as a family. She mentioned that once mention of availing LTC also did not work out as he pointed out that expenses of accommodation would still be incurred. When Uncle got transferred to different places, visit to those places was anyway done, was the way he looked at it, she said.
When I asked her if she feels lonely now, she answered that she has been feeling lonely for decades. I was surprised by that statement for she had been with her husband all along except for the last 8 years. Uncle apparently was travelling often officially and when home, always busy with work or reading something and whenever she talked to him, she would wonder if he even notices her presence. He once said to her that because she talked too much, he had stopped listening to her. She started talking less to see if that would make him hear her conversations. That did not work, she said.
She recalls that when her son was to go to college, he was selected to an esteemed institute but did not want to leave home. As education was sacro-sanct to her and her husband, she convinced her son to join the Institute. She wanted her son to be able to hold his head high whenever it came to good education and job. Her voice dropped a bit when she said that his going to college was the start of her loneliness and that the loneliness continues till date. We were silent for a while. Then she asked me to sleep early, assuming I need rest.
I slept on time, had good sleep but got up full of questions. I walked to the balcony but the old beautiful building I used to see across the road was replaced by a rectangular multi-storeyed cemented structure. In the street below, the P M Roy Road, people were still moving around in dhotis and sari, but the birds a few less and the cars a few more. It was the view from the balcony that was so in my thoughts that the thoughts now felt disturbed. The birds coming to the balcony was replaced by occasional chirping sound.
She wished Uncle had lived longer and recalled how one of his friends once jokingly mentioned that when men die, if wives have a home and money enough for food, they would miss their husband only 2 to 3 days and then watch movies and enjoy life. She mentioned how it is impossible to not miss him each day and how looking at his photographs make her feel that she is not alone. She recalls how he was so ethically upright at work and financial matters, open and liberal in thoughts and so fond of reading. She felt he gave her lot of freedom with regard to going anywhere with friends or spending money.
She does not eat mangoes deliberately because Uncle loved mangoes but had diabetes and she could not give him mangoes. Now she cannot bear the idea of eating mangoes. There seems to be no logic in her statement yet it holds so much love that lack of logic seems immaterial. She does not go to the temple she went with him. She recalled several times how Joy had pointed out that Auntie was alone but Nani was not because Nani still had her partner with her. Joy had unknowingly said what was to her the truth. She would emphasise on the use of the word partner with humour, but her face acknowledged with pain the loss of her partner.
There were two shawls I had taken for her. She accepted the shawls I took and wanted to give me something too. She offered me two shawls and I agreed to pick one. One shawl was brand new and the other Uncle had got for her and she had worn a few times. I confirmed if she would be fine if I took the one she had worn. She gave it to me willingly. I felt it would have her essence and be more than a mere gift.
She compared families then and now and how love was deeper and had more meaning in her times than now. There have been times she wants to exert her independence and prove that she is fine as and where she is. She lives alone and that is enough of a statement. A specific example describes the thought quite adequately. She planned her cataract surgery in Kolkata and did not inform anyone for upto 3 days after the surgery. From fixing the time, arranging for drop and pick up to the hospital, having two close people around for the duration of surgery, having home delivery of meals and putting eye drops herself, she planned it all on her own.
She is a woman who has loved her husband, her son, her daughter-in-law and her grandson. She loves life, lives in a city she has known longest but goes in her room when she is scared of her loneliness. There she feels surrounded by her loved ones who give her strength to live on. She feels anxious easily, she can think clearly and she knows exactly who mean the world to her. She can smile the widest smile and brush aside quickly a tear that drops out from the corner of her eye.
Meeting her meant more than seeing Kolkata to me and so I said farewell to Kolkata yet again without looking at the city of Kolkata at all. Kolkata to me still means a lot because of her presence, a woman who has seen life, immersed in her commitments to relationships which connects her to the paradox that one can be surrounded by love and yet feel lonely. Life is such, it holds away what is dear and you would rather have near.