Monday, June 21, 2010

A Father's Day

Father died. It was a dark Monday evening in his room; it was a brilliant Monday morning in my car as it sped through the foothills of San Bernardino Mountains. The distant peaks were shadows over the horizon on the right and on the left west wind from Los Angeles brought the brown fog that curled low over the sprawling valley glittering under a dry desert sun.

Death came creeping up the stairs to father’s bedroom with three windows overlooking the tall coconut palms swaying in the moist wind. Low cloud hung heavy with warm rain in the stifling heat of late monsoon. He had felt it coming for the past five days; he had told Shikhadi last Friday when he was returning from his evening stroll by the river, “It’s been so many years; now it is time.” “Why talk like that?” She had rebuked him gently. “You’re so fit, you have many more years before you. You’ll have to see your grand daughter’s wedding.”

Time that began to wait for him seventy-nine years ago came slowly into his bedroom over that Sunday and finally on that Monday evening. The fever came on Sunday but went away later that day. On Sunday evening and throughout Monday he had slowly tried to move about the room, flexing his feet and arms, standing up by the bed then sitting down; he looked for the shadow of death on his wrinkled face in the mirror. He had felt it crawl up his bed in the early afternoon; he’d asked mother to call his younger son back from work.

Kanchu had rushed home immediately, anxious at this unusual request. Late in the afternoon, the sky became menacingly dark, the palm trees swung in rhythms in the blowing wind, the egrets scattered against the rush of cloud, thunder struck over and over and one crashed with a terrific report nearby. The power failed. Rain came first in large drops over the hibiscus leaves, then in a torrent that roared on the rooftop for over an hour. He felt death crawl up his legs and he asked Kanchu to massage them a little. He fell asleep. Brother called up the doctor, who asked for a blood test—to be drawn tomorrow. Kanchu paced on the porch downstairs while father slept. Mother sat beside him on the bed. At eight, he woke and asked mother for a little water.

“Can you sit up to drink?”

He felt death near his chest and slowly shook his head. Mother gave him a few sips of water.

“How do you feel now?” she asked.

“Better. Much better.” He closed his eyes.

He saw his village home now clearly, his mother sitting beside his father on the moss-blackened window ledge across his room in his ancestral home, swinging their legs slowly under the moonlit night. That was nearly seventy years ago and their image had faded, but now he saw them clearly. He then saw me as the town physician, coming home each afternoon for the siesta, eating lunch with him and in the evening sitting with him in the living room, chatting with visiting neighbors who came to pay respect and with occasional patients; he saw his grandchildren returning home in the evening from school, dragging their umbrellas on the ground, kicking a piece of rock all the way, with shoes worn out at the toe, then they would eat as he would sit talking to them before they rush to the field for a game of soccer or climb the rooftop to gossip with their neighboring friends.

My car was swinging into route ten towards LA, pushing through the morning traffic, it lurched forward to pass a line of trucks on the middle lane, then changed three lanes to turn sharply into the Claremont exit on the right, stopped briefly at the red down the ramp bottom, then made slowly into the Institute parking lot. I called home in San Diego over the cell-phone several times, but nobody answered because my son would be sleeping late for the last few days before his school reopens next week following the summer break. The dog heard my voice over the answering machine and rose anxiously; he went to my son’s room and watched him snore for a while then sat down.

It was dark outside in father’s room, and mosquitoes were beginning to fly in. Sitting beside him on the bed, mother was watching him sleep. She stood up to close the window.

He could now see the tall tamarind tree in his village home, by the large pond beside the gravestones of his parents. It was evening, and a storm was coming. The cloud hung low, waiting for a rain. He was playing on the steps, slippery with moss with small water-snails creeping under the shadows, leading into the pond’s dark water, where small fish darted to and fro, a lone dragonfly dived and made a round across the water beside the floating lily leaves, then returned to its perch on a small bamboo stick projecting out the water. He leaned forward and tried to catch the dragonfly but it flew away at his shadow, made another round then it returned to its perch. He stepped into the water over the slippery steps to get closer to the dragonfly, but slipped and fell into the cool water…he flailed wildly with his legs and arms to float but he was sinking, he couldn’t hold his breath any longer, he tried one last time to grasp at the bamboo stick but it was too far away, and he could now see his parents clearly across the water on the other side smiling to him and he let go.

I poured my morning coffee; the students were waiting in the next room for the nine-o’clock meeting when the call from India finally came.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Spark

“The spark had found in its wings
The rhythm of a momentary dance…”
--Tagore in Sphulinga (The Spark)

My mother died on the morning of the Bengali New Year, the first official day of summer. A bright day; the sun shone on the saffron colored wall lining the nursing home where she spent the last few days of her life, breathing through the oxygen tube.

After her cremation and other ceremonies that invariably accompany such passages, I had to leave India in a hurry. Although I wanted to carry with me a few snatches of her belongings, objects that possibly could have no meaning to anyone but she and by default now me, I did not take them with me due to a sense of deference to my brother’s family who lived in the same household with my mother. I should do that on my next trip, I thought.

Among her belongings there was a little hard-bound book of poems by Tagore, a collection of Bengali Haiku by the poet published posthumously, the collection entitled by the name of one of the poems—Sphulinga or The Spark.

A tidy mauve colored book jacket with a small print of Tagore’s own stylized painting that tastefully decorated the frontispiece.

It was not the book itself that interested me.

The book was a wedding gift to my mother. A short note accompanied it on the first page: “To Gopa, with best wishes”, then the scrawl of a simple name. A name that I never heard my mother talk about.

My mother took a course on Ancient Indian History and Culture, leading to a Master of Arts degree at the Calcutta University in the latter’s heyday. It was then a new and interdisciplinary program, an amalgam of history and fine art, literature and archaeology. The program was headed by Dr. Kalidas Nag, a renowned historian and Indologist. There was a string of visiting professors, among them was Professor Stella Kramrisch. She described to me how brilliantly irascible was Dr. Kramrisch, who would lecture to the students in fluent Sanskrit and fly into a rage, her hair tucked in a small bun that would bob up and down, as she would castigate her students for not following her exposition.

My mother wanted to be an archeologist, but to qualify one had to spend a stipulated period on fieldwork in remote locations, which was not open to women students in her time.

She did fairly well in her course—she once showed me a hand written appreciation by Dr. Nag—but for some mysterious illness she deferred her graduation for a year. Afterwards she got the opportunity to do PhD, but she didn’t. Instead she got married to my father, left Calcutta, and became a schoolteacher. At the age of twenty-six she became the principal of a high school, and retired in that position after 40 years of service.

As a child I had often heard allusions to this episode of sacrificing her career to marry my father. This would only come out on those instances when my mother would be annoyed with my father, usually due to a disagreement about how to raise their children.

There were other vague stories I had heard. That my father’s marriage was first arranged with my aunt, who is a year younger than my mother. But apparently my aunt refused to marry my father due to his short stature. Since my great grand mother had apparently promised that wedding to my father’s aunt, by then deceased, there was a sense of guilt in the family due to unmet promise, which had apparently compelled my mother to “volunteer” to marry my father. This version couldn’t be all true, because my mother would retort while quarreling with my father that he needn’t have wanted to marry her.

My aunt, however, tells me a different story, that my father was in love with my mother. So it could be that although my aunt was originally betrothed to my father, she realized the situation and made up a story so as not to stand between them. Whatever the reason, my aunt, though the second daughter, was married off first, which was quite an anomaly in those days. That period also coincided with my mother’s mysterious illness.

But I digress. I was curious to know who actually was the top student in my mother’s MA class before she deferred. This topic she would avoid. She had airily mentioned a man’s name once, on a summer night when a cool moisture-laden wind blew past the translucent curtain on the western window, who had become an archeologist and had left for France.

My mother was the paragon of a dutiful wife, valiantly accomplishing all that was required of her both within the family and outside. My father, an orphan who had lost both his parents by the age of ten, was devoted to my mother. And so was my mother to him. As they aged together their bond appeared to grow stronger. After my mother’s retirement from school, she turned her entire attention to my father and to the growing family of my brother. After the sudden demise of my father due to a stroke, my mother re-focused her attention to a life of writing historical works and memoirs with a similar single-minded devotion.

Somehow I had always associated the name inside the book of poems, scrawled in black fountain pen ink, to a mysterious man in my mother’s past. Tradition demanded that I never spoke to her about it. Some thirty years had elapsed between the time I had last thumbed that book in my mother’s bookshelf, having left the country, and my mother’s death. I had forgotten about the book; not really forgotten but it was not in the orb of my attention all these years.

On my flight back to San Diego after my mother’s funeral, I suddenly remembered about the book of haiku. I made up my mind to bring that book with me on my next visit home.

I returned nine months later. The book, Sphulinga, was not in my mother’s bookshelf downstairs. A number of old books were missing. In their place now stood shiny paperbacks by Jane Austen and Mario Puzo.

My sister-in-law said that she had discarded some old books, because they were quite tattered, were eyesores, and because bookworms eating those would spread to the new books.

The spark is now truly extinguished.