Relationships (Jogajog): Grandma and I
By Sumallya Mukhopadhay
That Grandma nurtured little interest in talking to anyone was evident from the cloud of silence that followed her as she entered any room. Only on Sundays, after her punctual lunch at 1 o’clock, she did exchange a few words with everyone. Standing on the veranda, one Sunday she suddenly asked for me.
“Bring me a matchbox. I need to light my cigarette.”
Ma never approved of anyone who smoked. Whenever Dad wanted to smoke, he went to the terrace. As far as I was concerned, the lingering essence of the pungent odour after one is done smoking always appeared unusually pleasant to me. Lighting her cigarette, Grandma looked at me and said,
“Abu Syed Ayub aptly remarks that the songs of Rabindranath are the brightest of his poems — canzone, so as to speak, in which words operate under the dual control of music and rhythm.”
My quizzical expression inspired a confident smile in her. Suddenly I understood that she had been in my study. Those days I studied Tagore’s patriotic songs as a part of my syllabus.
“In Geetabitan, the patriotic songs are placed between songs of worship and songs of love, perhaps indicating that the persistent strain of the patriotic songs is that of a mingled measure of love and devotion. Give it a thought.”
Before I could say a word, Grandma left. As she stubbed her cigarette, I heard her say, as if talking to herself, that despite Rabindranath’s songs, she fails to reconcile with the idea of nationalism anymore.
“Nationalism is now a strategic ploy. It has less to do with patriotic fervour; instead it encapsulates man in a definite territory and space. Only imagination can transcend such cartographic borders.”
I was too young to understand her. But there was no denying the fact that Rabindranath’s patriotic songs, musically set in the tune of folk song of Baul and traditional krityan of Bengal upheld the authenticity and power of my national identity. Moreover, I was immensely drawn to Rabindranath’s choice of words and expression. His images and symbols had a lasting appeal on my mind. Interestingly, I failed to finish my paper on my exam day. I justified it stating that I was so absorbed in describing the evocative details that I ran out of time. Later, I overheard Dad report this to Grandma. Her thunderous laughter resonated for some three minutes all over the house.
Many an evening, I had witnessed Grandma ordering Ratan Chacha to take her reclining chair to the rooftop. To avoid confronting her, I stayed in my room on such evenings. At times, I went over to meet my friends. While reading Strir Patra, the characterization of Mrinal reminded me of Grandma for some inexplicable reason. I shared this with Dad. Smiling faintly, he revealed to me, “Baba used to call Ma, Kumu. Kumudini reminded Baba of Ma.”
“So, you were called Kumu! Did you ever find any resemblance between you and Kumudini?”
That was the first time I initiated a conversation with Grandma. She lifted her eyes from the book she was reading, yet she did not answer my question. I waited. The irregular chorus of the distant slum boys soothed my being. I waited for her to answer me. The listless battle between two kites against a receding blue sky diverted my attention.
“Do you fly kites?”
“No, but my friends do. Rajat is quite an expert.”
One of the kites floated away, soon hidden amidst the towering coconut trees. The other floated alone over our terrace. The battle had ended.
“Kumudini was his favourite Tagore heroine, I presume. Moreover, I do not remember Jogajog quite well. I read it in my school days. It is one of the few novels that I happened to read only once.”
I was observing the contours of her face while she spoke. Her face was ordinary. Grandma’s teeth got my attention. People’s teeth in those days seldom made such a handsome show unless they were false. Grandma’s teeth were not false. They were unusual in their individuality – clearly separated and of large size.
“Perhaps Granddad called you Kumu because in the novel Kumudini emerges as an independent, liberated woman who is determined to shape her life in ways she wants.”
She relaxed herself in her chair and looked up to glance at the lone kite in the sky. Bereft of a partner, personally I felt sorry for the kite. Suddenly she said,
“Kites, unlike humans, enjoy freedom when they are rootless. Humans are insecure by birth, and we always need someone or something to hold on to. For us, freedom comes when we feel secure, when we have an anchor. Maybe this is why, I personally feel closest to myself when I think of Neeraja. The more she tries to ease her grip on her possession, the more she fails to do so. In Neeraja I see an eternal zest for love and life. Her dying words reverberate with a profound silence.”
Grandma heaved a sigh as she finished her sentence. We stood rapt in silence for a minute or so when she looked at me and asked,
“Have you read Malancha?”
Without waiting for me to reply, she handed me the keys to her library.
“You can never be sure you’re in love if you do not feel possessive.”
Soon I realized that Grandma’s library had over five hundred books. And she never asked for the keys. I started sharing her books.
To pursue higher studies, I went to Delhi. The youthful exuberance of college days influenced me to be on my own. I hardly conversed with Dad and Ma. I exchanged letters with Grandma. We wrote to each other during Durga puja and Christmas.
During a rally organized to protest against a policy of the government in the education sector, I met a face. The face had an agitating look. It was placed right across the police barricade. It shouted slogans that others echoed. In between slogans, the face relaxed a bit; those were the moments when the face was conscious of its beauty and it tried to emphasize it with a conspicuous indifference to everything that it wasn’t. I got hold of the face only when the police turned the water-gun towards the rally.
Next day, in a silent rally, we were asked to walk with partners, holding hands. I never had a partner. From nowhere, someone held my left arm.
“Let us walk together,” Sayeeda said.
Soon, I do not know why, I began singing Jibono Moroner Simana Charaye.
“Hey, that’s Tagore!”Sayeeda said.
“Yes, Rabindranath.” I smiled.
Sayeeda hailed from the backward classes in Kashmir. After four years, one fine evening, while we were drenched in each other’s bodies, she informed me, “I’ve told my family about us.”
I thought of telling my family about Sayeeda. Hesitantly, I called Dad and asked him to hand the phone over to Grandma.
“Grandma, I need to tell you something.”
“Call me after three days.” That was all she said.
I called her after months.
“Her name is Sayeeda. Comes from a backward class in Kashmir.”
I could sense the silence on the other side.
“She has read Tagore too.”
It was very foolish of me to say that. I cursed myself.
“Does she fly kites?”
“I think she does.”
“Do not worry. I will convince your mother.” And Grandma hung up.
After my engagement, Grandma decided to shift to Santiniketan. No one dared to ask her why because she never obliged others with answers.
Some three years later, she called me one wintry night.
“Can you come over? Just you.”
I left within hours.
Grandma had grown uncannily old. Her formidable appearance had withered under strains of age, perhaps loneliness. Wrinkles nailed her face, dethroning its sparkly look to a loosely tied bunch of flesh. I still savoured her voice although she hardly spoke. She muttered unintelligible words that I failed to understand. ”Strange” was the only comprehensible word she kept on stammering.
There is nothing poetic in death. Death is drudgery. Grandma embodied death in her last days. Beethoven’s symphonies were her constant company. The only book she kept at her bedside was Jogajog. One day, she signalled me to read it. I read her some fifty pages from the book. I never realized when she had gone to sleep. When I did, I switched off the bed-lamp. Her face, as I saw it that night, reflected the word, melancholy.
Next morning, grandma died with Jogajog at her bedside.
About the image: Veiled Woman by Rabindranath Tagore. Image source: Here
Sumallya Mukhopadhay is a former student of Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata. Politically active during his university years, Sumallya has taken part in several mass movements. In his leisure, he reads poetry and writes poems. T.S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas have an enduring appeal for him. He also avidly reads Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. Charlie Chaplin inspires him every day. To contact Sumallya, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.