Saturday, July 08, 2017

Son of the soil

"একদিন ফিরে যাব চলে... এ ঘর শূন্য করে, বাঁধন ছিন্ন করে, যদি চাহ যেও ভুলে!"  - Salil Chowdhury

In the month of July several years ago now, Swapno lost his father. I am thinking of him not just because we passed his death anniversary a few days ago. What happened was, I found myself watching Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri and then reading his Bombaier Bombete, both for the umpteenth times and loving every minute of it. And it suddenly dawned upon me. The men and women Ray wrote about, men like my father-in-law are simply no more. They are no more in our music or stories or movies. That which was quintessentially Bengali has been replaced by brand Indian. Whether losing the regional character in the national colors is a good thing or not is a debate for another day. I simply realized how deeply I missed the person he was, including his essential Bengali-ness.

I met my father-in-law for the first time in the 3rd year of my undergraduate engineering days. I had just started going out with Swapno. His family was curious about this new character that monopolized so much of his time, especially because I was female. On the first day I visited, I stayed for an hour or so chatting with his parents, eating up some scrumptious mangoes. Mangoes were one of the loves of my father-in-law’s life. He bought the first mangoes that hit the markets and continued buying mangoes till the very last of them disappeared from the grocers', price no object. He took great pleasure in the taste and smell of each distinct variety. It struck a chord with me like few other things could perhaps! I recall his love of good quality tea. He would specially select, lovingly package and send across to us in the US in the later years, again price no object. It wasn’t that either Swapno or my family rolled in money. He was passionate about few simple things. But it was a deep attachment that he indulged in unconditionally when the opportunity presented itself. He was a connoisseur of many such delicacies that make up the Bengali palate. In my weekly visits to their house for about two years, I had consumed more variety of fish than ever before up to that point in life. He favored fish prepared with mustard paste (sorse bata). I remember the date palm jaggery (patali gurs) he procured from the deep interiors of Bengal with a gorgeous scent and taste I have yet to encounter again. And I reciprocated his enthusiasm with all the enthusiasm of my soul. We definitely had each other at hello.

After the meeting with his parents the first evening, Swapno and I left their house but did not leave station. We hung about Barrackpore, relishing our alone time, which was not so easily available in those days. We were ambushed by the Kalboshekhi, a storm of notorious fury that rages over Bengal at the tail end of summer. I reappeared at their house the same evening, soaking wet, dripping from head to toe, terribly embarrassed. After I changed into a sari borrowed from my mother-in-law, my father-in-law accompanied me home. On our train ride back, he immediately put me at ease with his endless stories. It was the first of many such occasions where I was the enthralled listener of his incredible tales. They had open drains in Barrackpore when he was a boy; my father-in-law chatted about how during the monsoon rains, fishes would rush up the drains. Sometimes they caught those and lunched on the fried catch. He talked about his time with some Saontali people in his teenage who instilled in him his love of nature. I had not met a naturalist ever to that point. I think my father-in-law was my first one. He would go on unbelievable long walks into the un-manicured, un-maintained wildernesses of Bengal and emerge completely unscathed and at ease. I loved hearing him talk, and smile with his eyes shining with unabashed pleasure, during any storytelling of his time in the open spaces.

He was affable always. I have never seen him losing his temper. But this could be irksome. He could be quite stubborn if he wished to be. With subjects that he was not interested in, it was difficult to get him to respond. Once I found him running a parallel conversation with two people on the train, only vaguely interested in the activity. He seemed to be answering alternate questions from each! He loved to talk with strangers and familiar faces alike, but with only those he actually liked. His irreverence for what did not meet his standards (often at odds with the accepted set of standards) was always amusing to me. He hated being hurried. Once we were headed to a dentist and I was worried we will be late. After a lengthy train ride, I pointedly asked him what the time was. No response. Afterward he told me, just you see, the doctor will be late also!! One day he discovered I could not get my luchi or parota or rooti to be regular shaped circles. He told me “Really, you can’t!? Gopal’s daughter can!!” This daughter of Gopal was about 8-year-old at the time.  To this day, I remember his mock knitted brows asking me why I couldn’t make those perfect shapes, every time I make them, still imperfectly!

I remember making firecrackers for one Kali puja with my father-in-law leading the project. He bought the casings, all the ingredients and rigged up a make-shift balance in the veranda to measure out the contents. It was an amazingly fun experience. On the day that Swapno and I married and returned to their house, I found a little garland made by stringing up the left-over casings hanging near the doorway. He pointed them to me quietly. What a sweet personal welcome amidst all the commotion of strange faces in what was to be my new household!  

He was a tall man, taller than my husband and quite handsome! I remember him on his bicycle bringing home fresh groceries every morning for the few days that I lived under the same roof as him. He loved to whistle some of the tunes from Shyamol Mitra, Pintu Bhattacharya songs in moments of relaxation, particularly as it cooled down slightly in the evenings of summer and he could be found taking a bath in his gamcha (thin cotton towels) by the water drum. The romanticism of his nature was plain to see. He was a bit unworldly wise, and I can see where Swapno gets this particular trait! But it did not matter then. It never mattered to me really. I could always love a man that saw through the trappings of life and got to the heart of it. To enjoy the soft breeze, to relish your food and to love. I remember the day I was leaving for the US for the very first time. He had come down to our house to say goodbye. He bought some gaja, a type of fried sweet that I loved. He gave those to me and then looked at me for a few minutes. Just looked without any words. And I always tear up to this day when I think of those moments. It is a gift to know how to touch another person’s heart. I am grateful to have met this wonderful, dear man that had depth, wisdom, humor, compassion, simplicity and an incredible integrity!