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That House That Age – Chapter 4
"She was somehow aware of his getting up at night as soon as it happened. Just as he opened the door a flash of light greeted him. Pagal kaka or mad uncle stepped back and closed the door with slight sound. The light was off. She again lowered her head to the pillow, turning to one side curved her body like a bow and tried to sleep as before but it was sure that she kept awake to take note of the next move.
"A little earlier my father was awake, gurgling, spitting and coughing as usual in every night after his dinner and then sitting to urinate before the hole with rain water pipe going down in the open verandah which he didn’t do during the day when all were awake. These he did alone as all else were dead asleep long before that hour. It was two at deep night. Na kaka’s room was by the side of ours. He was sick. All of us including my parents and brothers slept in the same room. I am the eldest sister of them; didi to all younger brothers and sisters, my own and my cousins, living in the same big old house; the eldest surviving child of Babu Balaram Roy Chowdhury, the eldest son of late Sumatha Nath Roy Chowdhury. One of my cousin sisters was elder to me but she didn’t belong to our blood related family.
"My mother was not educated quite properly. She was never admitted to any school. Girls weren’t admitted to school, girl’s schools were very rare in those days. Women’s education was almost not in vogue. After crossing puberty they were married off. They lived in whatever way their in- laws considered fit according to their way of living. After marriage they didn’t have much contact with their parents’ home except at the beginning of their marriage and then once in a year when the bridegrooms were blessed, given sumptuous feast and dresses; entertained with rituals. It is called Jamai Shashthi. My mother shared the same fate though visits were more than once as the homes of the bride and the bridegroom weren’t far apart. I remember to have gone to my maternal grandparents’ house only a few times in my lifetime I can count still by the crease of my fingers. My grandfather, mother’s father, was sick and we usually found him resting in a cot. He retired just two years after my mother’s marriage at the age of 15 years only.
"My mother devoted her whole attention towards various routine works of the big joint family at her in-law’s house or our house, as I called it until my marriage. She was engaged from raising us, brothers and sisters, to cooking, scoring utensils when needed, feeding all from time to time and supervising the works of servants, helping maid servants and others. She, the wife of the eldest brother among all 16 brothers and sisters of the family, had the prime responsibility to look after all, engaging other sisters-in-law and widowed daughters of the family to various works. Male members of the household undertook different outdoor jobs, in service or business. During discontents and differences among the members of the family my mother mediated calmly with smiling face and all members of the family usually accepted her decisions. They were highly satisfied with her. My uncles mentioned her as Devi or a Goddess incarnate. But up to that! That she worked from early morning till late evening touching the midnight hours, that she had little respite and entertainment during the time, were considered usual in a large joint family where at least 3o, 35 persons, besides babies and guests, were fed at least thrice in a day and night.
"Due to heavy work and more responsibility, living with duties of the usual conjugal life, and sort of malnutrition, my mother suffered from tuberculosis which was not diagnosed at the beginning. The women of the time were by habit and practice oblivious of themselves while wholeheartedly serving others. They were not taken care of meticulously by the male members of the house. My mother was the epitome of such womanhood. She did not pay attention to her foods, health and wellbeing after giving to others all she could manage. As she continued labouring in the same way with deteriorating health, she had fever which was not easily cured. Gradually small quantify of blood was found in her sputum. Doctor came, gave some medicines and advised change of place, preferably in a healthy resort. We did not have resources for sending her to a sanatorium. Alternative arrangements were made for a change of climate in Muzaffarpur where our aunt lived with her big family in a sprawling house with garden. It was decided to send us, brothers and me with our mother.
"We lived there for a month. Better climatic condition, less of work and responsibility and availability of fresh food and pure milk helped her regain health for some time but very temporarily. In going there and coming back she exhausted half her life. I still remember the crowded train and its third class accommodation. At that time elaborate arrangements for passengers’ comfort was not available. We could not enter the compartment through the usual gate. One of our uncles entered the compartment somehow fighting with co-passengers, and another uncle remained outside. My mother and us, one after the other, was pushed and pulled through the window. It was a herculean job. After good fight and jostles we landed not on seats but on the floor. With utmost effort two berths and one seat could be arranged for five of us including our mother who was extremely tired during this exercise in her weakening health condition. Two of our uncles accompanied us. God knows how they managed their berths. This way we reached Muzaffarpur and came back a bit more comfortably as the train was not so crowded during the return journey.
"Coming back to Pagal kaka, he was not married. He didn’t mix up with others; remained reticent usually. He became a graduate but did not join for services anywhere nor he bothered about doing any business. He lived on his own; sometimes going out of the house for days, sometimes coming back. Sometimes he was chased by the police, it seemed, as he hurriedly entered the house and hid himself somewhere; may be for a day and a police sergeant coming to the house tried to search for him here and there. Finding the women only working or gossiping, they peeped and left. Once one of them talked to my mother, trying with broken phrases of our language, asking where Pagal kaka was, calling him by his pet name. My mother, with veil pulled over her head up to the nose, somehow raising it said that she didn’t know where he was, showing his vacant room. Finding that the Sahib was not satisfied and was going to enter the room perhaps, she desperately said that he wasn’t there for ten days. “Only girls live here”, she could manage to utter this to the European sergeant. Finding her trembling at the knees he said, “Thik ache. Abar asbe” (alright I’ll come back again) and left. That was on a day during the last months of the Independence Movement.
"Struggle continued everywhere with communal clash and strife. Slogans. “Bande Mataram” or “Allah Ho Akbar” often rented the air. Nationalists or Swadeshis were often arrested and tortured. The whole country was in turmoil. People in the house knew that unlike any other member of the household Pagal kaka was secretly a Swadeshi, fighting for the country. Neither he said this nor did anybody admit him as such in the open. Our family was loyal to the rulers and had no direct clash or qualm with them. One of our uncles was a responsible Government employee then and sometimes invited one or two of his British friends or bosses at home. Sometimes a friend of Pagal kaka, with unkempt hair and rough brush like beard, visited him. They remained in the room and talked secretly. Never a cup of tea was offered to him as that would involve someone to bring it and see or hear them talking which was quite disliked by Pagal kaka.
"Na kaka was sick for some months with pleurisies, as we heard. He was bed ridden as the doctor diagnosed and advised his confinement in bed. Though he invited none and did his own work, my mother intervened and was there to serve him at times when he felt very weak, by giving piece of wet cloth on his forehead and fanning him or even sponging him and helping him change dresses. He must have liked such nursing services which my mother enjoyed; in fact she sought such opportunities to serve others. Mother prepared his food and served him. Otherwise oblivious of many things that happened around him my father observed this for some days and asked her not to sponge bath or otherwise give services so intimately. But she did. She felt it and said that that was her duty, considering his condition. One day she was beaten by our father at night by the handle of the hand-fan as was easily available and considered light punishment. Our uncle, next to him in age, used to do it often to our auntie whenever he found reason for it. Beating wives was their conjugal rights; husband beating the wife, not vice versa. Wives digested this medicine silently, without much ado. But our mother, revered and obeyed by all, wasn’t usually so treated. Na kaka guessed and could know of it from my mother. He promised to leave the house someday. He considered the house accursed. Despite my father’s jealousy, ill treatment and warning, my mother continued to give her services. Na kaka was cured temporarily but he remained weak and rarely went out of the house. Eventually he, a bachelor, died at young age.
"We weren’t in either good or bad terms with the family opposite our house; husband, wife and a daughter. Strangely, the man with shrewd look and ears like hare, always alert, kept all our information specially that of Pagal kaka, at the tip of his fingernail. Uncle was aware of it but never exchanged words with him or intervened in his affairs. He kept information of Pagal Kaka’s confinement at home, sometimes for some disease or even without any reason. He seemed to take notice, especially as and when Pagal kaka would go out and when he would enter the house.
"That was at 2.30 am when Pagal kaka first tried to open his door and was greeted by a flash of light, might be from a room in the upper floor. Now after 3 am he again opened his door but in darkness, without putting on any light of his room or of the verandah in front.
Someone seemed to cough in the upper floor but no light intervened. He silently went down the stairs slowly with soft footsteps, perhaps keeping the slippers in hand. As he opened the latch of the door of the house very carefully, holding the wooden bar in his hand, he was greeted by a shaft of light from some invisible source. It lighted the interior of the house too as far as it reached. My mother, who too went down without telling him, took care to remain out of the focus. My uncle silently replaced the latch and closed the door. The light continued to illumine the outer side of the door for some fifteen minutes.
Coming back but without going up to his room Pagal Kaka entered the space by the side of the locked kitchen. He knew every corner and pore of the old, labyrinthine passages and hiding spaces in the house; the room where wooden or metal kitchen utensils were kept, where discarded waste materials were staggered or where many secrets of the house were hidden. He saw my mother standing before him in the narrow space which he seemed to be aware of.
“Please, Bodo Boudi, tumi opore jao.” He implored.
“Yes I shall go up but you too come instead of going out with such danger over your head. We all are here to give you protection. Why should you go?”
“Oh! You know everything , you know that I am not one of the others who live here. I have voluntarily embraced this life without anybody’s consent or dissent. You know that my friend came yesterday. My going out is a must and tonight!”
“We can give you support in what you are doing. I’m with you. Why do you worry so much!”
“You can, of course you can give support. But how much can you exert yourself in the face of those who always struggle to somehow live! I’m ready to die for my country. To us death is nothing if by that we could secure something that we want. You don’t know them. Can you come out with me, the mad, without their permission! They call me mad here. People of gross sense and intelligence, with stereotype ideas and average cleverness to hide like cats or hares; they’re lazy and coward. Do you know that spy is in this house? Spy is in the opposite house? His father was a moneylender. He died leaving his only son with a wife and daughter in that big house. Do they know how he manages his affairs! He’s a spy, pucca spy. Enemies are not outside only but inside too, among us. I know how much you feel for me but in spite of my heartfelt feelings for you, who I consider as my second mother, I request you to go up without much delay. Maybe someone knows that you’re here with me. You’re a dedicated housewife; all others depend on you. Don’t risk your life, Boudi, please leave at once!”
"He grasped her hand for a moment with utmost feeling and then ran towards the door. There was an explosion with matching sound. The beam of light was off. And the mad, silently opening the door, plunged in darkness. There was complete silence until in a few minutes when the first crow announced the dawn.
"After three days the opposite house was crowded with uniformed police personnel. Onlookers too crowded but there was already a hush around the area; there was a cordon. Police dispersed the onlookers. The dead body of the man owning the opposite house was carried to a waiting police van followed by his wife and daughter.
"A Police Officer came to our house too and talked to my father. After some discussions, he signed a paper and the police left. Our ‘Mad’ uncle never returned. None in our house bothered much about it. Only my mother cried silently sometimes. None but I knew it. And yes, our grandmother who lost two of her young sons unmarried within a short gap wailed so bitterly, day in and day out, that it was impossible for others sympathetic to her to remain undisturbed in the house. Once or twice in a year she insisted and was taken out for tour and travel, for a change of climate. This time my uncles discussed and decided to take her to Allahabad, to one of our auntie’s house.
"Much water hadn’t flown through the Ganga by the time my mother too died of tuberculosis, which developed from pleurisies of which Na kaka died. I remember the nights when my mother used to get up yet earlier than her usual time for the remaining months of her life and sit in the verandah in the first floor from where Pagal kaka last descended and disappeared. Though not all the nights I was awake, whenever I woke up around that time I saw her sitting to visualize the shaft of light suddenly falling on the door and through the open door inside, as soon as Pagal kaka opened it at 3 am. My mother could not forget the sudden shaft at the dead of night which stunned them, Pagal kaka and her. This light finally indicated his disappearance as it died out as suddenly as it appeared, with the explosion. My mother developed an obsession about the shaft; how it acted and how it was shut down suddenly.
"I am an octogenarian now. I can see what a great drawback it was and as it is still with me, a woman not sufficiently educated to look after her own affairs in the society. Vidyasagar with Bethun Saheb tried to redress the situation, Sister Nivedita directly helped. There were other persons helping but we women really suffered. Educated women in a few generations have risen to grandiose heights. The other day, my niece rang me up from Beijing. She was in a hotel ready for an international business conference. Some other nieces too are in the limelight for such travels and achievements in their respective areas of work. Women educated now, walk on their own feet and some shine in education, literature, music and sports; doing alone, deciding things to do alone. I was told when I was in class five in the school, not to pursue studies further as it involved going out alone to school swaying my child’s breasts before the public. My school was in the same locality as our home, I didn’t know what that meant but my father knew it as a true representative of that conservative, patriarchal cloudy age and tradition.
"My great grandfather was the real architect of our family, keeping the tradition of Landlords lofty by doing business and settling in Calcutta for the purpose of rebuilding his decaying fortune. He established great business houses including shipbuilding, ship repairing, hiring out cargoes, general order supplying and many other areas of business as they flourished in his hand to the extent that his name was counted as one of the big business house owners of the time. It was in continuation of the tradition of big business houses in Calcutta; a tradition begun by Prince Dwarakanath Tagore the grandfather of Rabindranath Tagore. My great grandfather passed F.A. It was a standard taking one towards graduation, at the second half of nineteenth century. All his partners were British and other Europeans of which he was the leader. But my grandfather, swelled by the richness and fortune, ballooned by pride and arrogance, managed those business houses for some time and then became a sleeping partner, leaving the activity to the Britons who took full opportunity of it. His wanton living left everything squandered. This was the history of making fortune and ruining them, unaware of what was going to happen to his progeny. The next generation, swelled in numbers, mostly minors at the time of their father’s death, thirsty like crows to get riches to squander in bad ways following their predecessor; living a luxurious hedonist’s life, got debts instead. Lulling the weakness of dreamer, anticipating their father to leave great wealth for them, they received mortgage papers and huge debts instead. Grown lazy by ill-conceived hopes and dreams they drooled and lived by selling huge quantity of ornaments left by Babu Sumatha Nath for his wife. Some of them became droll. Gradually those accumulated gold also exhausted leaving them and their children directionless, poorer. Still sometimes they sold one property or the other and soon spent the proceeds of such sales lavishly.
"The big building, big in space but so ill designed that it has more labyrinthine passages; lanes and by lanes than open spaces, patios, great balconies, halls and parlors; the house has no garages. Our horse stable was in an area now turned to a local market where in the lazy noon one of our neighbours in his teens used to pass his rainbow hours as a school dropout whirling round sitting on the bullocks crushing oil. Darkish in many areas, ill designed staircases and long walls outside make it a fort like brick built structure.
"One thing seems logical that in the heart of the city it was an old structure; purchased as it was and then further constructed over it. It had gathered more moss and dust than was conceived by my great grandfather who bought it. To my idea it must be more than 200 years old now. It was sold out long back and our great and big family scattered throughout Calcutta and greater Calcutta, spread even out of the State. The house, though not a concrete structure; brick built with surki and chuna as was the building practices of the time, still stands strong with its odd body without much repair and renovation; much better than today’s promoter built concrete structures. It was not given to the promoters for speculation and bargain. As the house stands without much of changes, I go there sometimes. I’m welcome by the next generation people of the new owners.
"To tell the truth, I too have acquired a taste of being obsessed like my mother. I’m Rani; the first living child of the family, though now an octogenarian moving towards nonagenarian group of people, I can manage time and I am able to persuade my people who are altogether a separate family after my marriage, to take me to our ancestral home. I go and sit in the open verandah space where my mother used to sit and shudder at the sudden appearance of the shaft at the dead of the night. It gets dark as I don’t notice when evening falls. None comes to remind me of anything. Very, very few people live in the house. The lane where the door of the house is wears a deserted look; none comes dancing, none perhaps passes by chanting ‘Om’ in the morning, none stops to ask for a bidi from my father, no more riot, no kirtan singing party comes to beg alms from door to door. No one comes. I sit in the dark like my lost mother as I am sitting now, waiting for someone to come from my in-law’s house to take me back home; their home and now my home too. Since long I have become a widow. But that’s another story.
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