He always insisted that I must return to bury him irrespective of whichever part of the world I lived in! He said he would tell others before his death to preserve his body until I returned home to throw the first fistful clod of earth on his grave…
Since my childhood, I have always been snoopy about the dark disfigured patch in the middle of his pate. Every time I asked him how it came to be there, he never failed to narrate with amusement the story behind this curious adornment. He was a mere twenty-day old baby when his mother died (the gossip had it that his father forced down her throat a paste made from poisonous leaves as he was gearing up for his next marriage!). He lay abandoned on the earthen floor as an army of ants made a feast of his tender pate. He was to retain that mark all his life. I never sensed an iota of displeasure as he would patiently narrate his childhood stories of loss and pain, seamlessly merging his childhood tales with those of mine. A childless aunt from the joint-family adopted this forsaken child and reared him up as her own son.
He grew up in a land-owning family. As his foster-father died when he was still young, his mother had to resort to selling land, the only source of livelihood they had. In a village where people somehow managed to make ends meet, she still managed to send him to school. He was sharp and got through to his eighth grade without much trouble. The old lady ran out of her resources and he had to contend himself with looking after the little land she was still left with. His life-long love for learning continued as he was determined that his own children must study. He would often tell me how much he struggled to send his own children to school. It was amazing even to think that coming as he did from a conservative Muslim village he managed to send his eldest daughter (my mother) to school in a near-by town.
He was married off early to an unlettered woman who bore him four children – two daughters and two sons. After the birth of his fourth child – a son – he traveled to Calcutta alone for vasectomy. He would narrate to me with relish how he heard about vasectomy as a means of family-planning on radio. While many in rural India, especially in Muslim families, did not take very kindly to the idea of restricting family sizes, he found merit in having a small family as he was keen on giving his children the best he could afford. I found this openness striking in a man who was born in the third decade of the last century.
Life had never been kind to him. A growing family could not be fed and clothed for long on subsistence land-economy. As he would tell me later, he was offered a job of primary school teaching twice. But he refused both the times fearing that the meager salary of a primary school teacher might not be enough to sustain his family. (However, in the last few years of his life, as his sons went their own ways, he would often regret for not taking up the job. That would have assured him of a pension in his old age!) After spurning the job offers, he cast his lot in business. My nani told me how this would entail his long absence from home. He worked hard at his business but was never worldly wise. His business got folded up pretty soon. He, however, never tired of telling me how once he had an opportunity of making a handsome amount of money just by hiding some transactions from his business partner. His partner would never have come to know of this. His friends advised him to go for it. But he stood his ground. He would often tell me the importance of being honest to oneself. He lived a life of near-poverty but was proud of the fact that he had been honest, sincere, and hard-working all his life. He had done the best that he could do for his children!
When it came to marrying off his most favorite child – his eldest daughter and my mother – he wanted the best for her. He married her off beyond his means. Every time I met him, he would tirelessly narrate how when my mother was undergoing terrible birth-pain, he ran to a well-known village fakir who gave him a tabiz and told him that his daughter would give birth to a son who would make a name for himself! This he never stopped telling me despite my embarrassing protestations! I was his most favorite grandchild. I spent most of my childhood in his house. How I looked forward to being there in that kuchha house filled with my nana’s indulgence and nani’s unending stock of folk-tales! For him, I was always a precocious child who could rattle off poems effortlessly, grasp things beyond his age. He always made me feel special. Even when I met him for the last time about a month back for my sister’s wedding, he reminisced my childhood: how I would wake up early in the morning and taking my small lantern knock on his door; how I would curse him and refuse to leave his house when my parents came to take me home. He was my most precious repository of my childhood memories.
He was never a practicing Muslim in the strictest sense. He attended the Eid namaz but rarely fasted during ramzan, and started attending the Friday namaz (Jumma) only toward the end of his life. But he would narrate with relish stories about the life of prophet and other mythical stories. His striking memory would never fail almost until the last day of his life: he could recite with flair the poems he read in his school days, narrate with ease stories that he heard from other people or read sometime in his life. Whenever he came home, he would bury himself in reading novels in Bangla (as he could not read English!). With an almost childlike innocence, he would recount the places and people that he came across on his annual journey to Ajmer Sharif in the last few years of his life. For me, he stood for a fluid and synthetic Islam that people of my generation have almost forgotten about.
As I woke up late from sleep today (21 August, 2010) morning, I missed the first two phone calls from my mother and elder sister. As I was getting ready to leave for the library, I got a third call from my younger sister in England. She informed me of the inevitable. A lump in my throat is all I felt as the news started sinking in. I remembered how he always insisted that I must be there to bury him, that he would ask others to preserve his body until I returned home! I frantically looked up the online booking sites for a ticket to India. I informed my mother that I wanted to be there beside him to see him for one last time. My mother called up my mamas and other people in the village who informed her that it would be unwise to keep the body un-interred until Monday afternoon by which time I could hope to reach my nana’s house, my childhood pleasure-dome.
Nana, I have betrayed you…I couldn’t be there beside you for one last time. Forgive me! You were mine when you were alive; in your death, you belong to all! But nobody will make me feel a prodigy like you did…nobody will make me feel special the way you did! You will always remain special for me…the only thing you forgot was to tell others that they must wait for me to return to throw the first fistful clod of earth on your grave and shed a few drops of tears in memory of our times spent together! You have robbed me of my childhood memories as you have taken them away with you!
You are gone in this holy month because you were pure of heart! May Allah rest you in peace!
Here are a few lines for you:
Six by Six
Some things never go right
You travel through continents
sail across oceans
fly high in the sky
To return to your childhood
a six by six dingy cell
A lonely figure
deciphering the rejections
on the wall
There is no return
A journey from one cell to the other
is all that remains.
[I write this as I struggle to heal myself and write with the hope that it will reconnect me with the memories of my beloved nana.]