The early Autumn aurora, wrapped in serenity and splendid morning colours, is one of the most picturesque time that I can imagine to be a part of. Refreshing dew drops on fresh flowers, foggy mist covering the green grass, and the air capturing the aroma of coral jasmine or siuli flower, together in unison announcing the arrival of Durga Puja, a yearly festival of five days celebrating the arrival of Goddess Durga. Kolkata, or as the British would call it “Calcutta”, is an absolute sight. The city is bedecked and glows like a new bride. It’s a carnival us Bengalis await all through the year.
The morning of September 17, 2014 is no different. Our train reaches Howrah Station, the railway station of Kolkata, at 4 in the morning. It is still dark outside, the air chilled, but quite unlike the usual 4 am Kolkata, the city is still awake. My mother, sister and I struggle with our heavy luggage while we look out for a coolie. Dragging the luggage out of the station all on our own, otherwise, would be an exhausting task.
I love revisiting Kolkata. It’s a city in the state of West Bengal, in eastern India, and is often referred to as the Cultural Capital of India. It’s not the city I was born and brought up in, but it is the city I have my happiest memories with. Every year my family and I would visit Kolkata for a month and a half during our summer holidays. My cousins, aunts, and uncles would join us too, and we used to spend our vacation at our grandparents’ place. Each morning used to start with a substantial mixture of multiple scents in the air, that are now a part of my summer memories. The air used to smell, on one hand, of hibiscus, marigold and lilies; typical Indian summer flowers, and then on the other hand there used be a blend of sweet smell of cardamom and cinnamon, and hot smell of chilly and garam masala, a mixture of all hot spices typically used in making spicy Indian curries.
I used to open my eyes to the amalgamation of multiple aromas and my grandma’s angry rant about my grandpa. And then there would be my grandpa, still laughing, still teasing, and still fooling around. That’s how he has always been. He would give us serious life lessons yet make us all laugh until we couldn’t breathe anymore. He knew exactly what everyone wants, take care of every single person’s even the smallest need, and only he had the key to calm my grandmother’s anger.
My grandparents have always been the ideal couple for me. I have never seen two puzzle pieces fitting in as perfectly as them. I have often heard people say that love dies within a few years of marriage. But then I saw my grandparents, they were married for over 50 years, built a family together, and were still so much in love. There love was never manifested by their physical closeness. There love found its way to the surface through their eyes, smile, gestures and actions. It was warm and lively underneath, and was meant for everyone to feel it and not merely see. Their concern for each other, them putting each other first and before everyone else. He would fulfil even the smallest of her need or wish, no matter how unreasonable they shall be, just for that one smile on her lips, and she would go beyond her ability to keep him safe, healthy and happy, because for her he meant the world and she felt the need to keep her world secured at all costs.
In a strong patriarchal society my family is matriarchal, and it wouldn’t have been possible if it wasn’t for my grandpa and his understanding of my grandma’s nature. It takes tremendous courage for a man, born and brought up in a regressive patriarchal society, to take a step back and let the woman in the house take up the authority. It can’t be done without love and respect for each other. Even after 52 years of their marriage, they used to shine beside each other. Standing at their sunset years, they never missed a moment to reminiscence their dawn years of togetherness. The love between them was as fresh and pure as an infant’s laughter. I could feel in it in my bones, and I idolized it.
The drive from the railway station to our home is nearly half an hour long. As our taxi makes progress through the early morning unexpected traffic, I marvel at the view outside.
However, I don’t really feel a part of it. The outward excitement flies toward me and hits the invisible glass wall around me, and falls dead on the ground while I stand on the other side, outside looking in. I can sense the eagerness of approaching festival in the air. The streets decorated with lights, Pandals where Goddess’ idols will be kept, almost half done, and men already working to finish them this early in the morning.
Our taxi stops at a red light after our chauffeur's failed attempt to escape it. As his endeavour fails, he curses under his breath. I sigh and look out of the window. “Typical Indian drivers”, I think to myself. Another taxi comes and stops by our taxi at the signal. I see a young couple sitting in it, probably newly married. I can tell that from the air of romance they were carrying around themselves, and the girl’s over-shimmery and quintessentially Indian ethnic clothes. I hear them discussing their plans for their first Durga Puja together as a married couple. It’s a huge deal for the couples to celebrate each and every festival together for the first time after they tie their knots. I smile vaguely. In an alternate situation, I too would make plans with my family for the forthcoming festival. But this year, my heart is just not into it. I cannot be any less unenthusiastic.
After covering the half an hour stretch, we finally reach home. Our 80 years old home. My great grandmother built this house a few years before the India-Bangladesh partition, and finally settled in when both the countries parted their ways. My grandmother opens the door with her customary smile. But the smile doesn’t quite fit in. Her eyes aren’t sparkling, they are evidently sleep deprived. Her eyes sinking deep in the sockets and the dark-circles darker than ever.
A strong whistling sound coming from the master bedroom draws our attention. My heart skips multiple beats as it anticipates the source of this sound. I look toward my mother and then my sister. There expression as dreadful as I assume is mine. Yet, no one dares to ask any question. The answer might be too terrible for us to endure. Grandma, being the mother of mother that she is, successfully looks through us and responds to our unasked question. “His condition got worse” she utters.
My grandfather was diagnosed with liver cancer three months prior to that day. And now probably, the cancer spread through his lungs too. The doctors told us that there can be plenty of reasons for liver cancer, but alcohol is mostly the major cause. My grandfather has never touched alcohol all his life.
We went inside to our grandpa. The otherwise glowing face today sleeps dull. The constant smile no longer dances on his lips. He doesn’t tease me, doesn’t hug us upon entering. His warmth isn’t there. He is sleeping. Tired and cold.
I sit by his side, kiss his forehead. My sister sits on the other side and holds his hand. And my mother. She stands in a corner. Bewildered. He opens his eyes and smiles faintly. “You are here” he says, almost as if now he is relieved. And then for the first time I hear him asking for help. He looks at my mother and says, “Call an ambulance”.
The ambulance is on its way. My grandma brings fresh new clothes for my grandpa. He quickly changes into them and sits by the edge of the bed. I sit by his side, rest my head on his shoulder and wrap my arms around him. Grandpa kisses my forehead and I can feel him smile.
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