The Story of Mariam
By Charles Solomon
Mariam came into our lives through our Grandmother in the nineteen twenties. Grandma’s husband retired from the Indian Telegraphs and after travelling around India extensively found a place in Orissa to retire in with a couple of possibilities for earnings. The first was looking after the shikari needs of rich hunters of big and small game and the second were possibilities in agriculture. In Balugaon, such possibilities existed and he bought a small house and nearby a square mile of mango orchard near the Chilka or Chilika Lake.
In those pre-World War II days, the village life in Orissa was unchanged down the ages. Balugaon was on the main railway line from Calcutta to Madras but it was just a whistle stop. Pre-WWII, there were leopards, cheetahs and tigers in the neighbourhood. Water snakes were everywhere. In every village pond, there were crocodiles. For a retired woman, it was a nightmare to be left alone whilst her husband was travelling about his work.
To solve the problem, it was decided to find a companion for grandma. No such companion could be found locally in a strictly Hindu society. So as advised, grandmother and her husband went to the then Capital of Orissa, Cuttack, to find a companion at a convent there. Mariam was their choice. She was an orphan from among the tribal people in the mountains nearby and her name was probably Mary. She took the name Mariam after she converted to Islam later in Calcutta.
Mariam was a free spirited person. She made close friends with a wide circle of members of our Jewish community. She was always kind, supportive, helpful and sympathetic. She was loved by everyone.
Mariam was still attached to my family after my grandmother passed away in 1962, my mother’s sister in 1964, my mother in 1976 and my father’s sister in 1982. One morning Mariam woke up moaning that the loud sound of a gong was ringing in her head. I immediately phoned for a doctor and on his advice we decided to put her into a hospital. It took us many hours and only at the third hospital we visited we could get a bed for her in a female ward. There I employed a full time woman helper and I warned this woman that she should see to it that Mariam did not get bed sores which seemed to me to be a killer in Calcutta hospitals and nursing homes. I warned her that she would be sacked if this happened.
Unfortunately Mariam did get bed sores and I was furious with the woman helper and was sacking her from the job but Mariam with tears pleaded for her and I felt I could not sack the woman because of Mariam’s pleading. But bed sores meant the end for Mariam.
We got a phone call one afternoon that Mariam had passed away. So I asked advice from my office car driver Chand Muhammad, a good friend of mine, what we needed for the burial. We needed another Muslim so Chand went and got a friend of his. We went to the hospital and I had to comply with the usual formalities. With the help of Chand and his friend, we took the body of Mariam to the Islamic cemetery close by and registered for the burial. I was told kindly that I could not participate so had to sit in our car outside the cemetery but since there was a very large party who just entered the cemetery for the funeral of a rich family I was assured that Mariam would get a very good ceremony since after the big funeral was over the whole party would participate in Mariam’s funeral.
I consulted with Chand and his friend about whether there was anything more we could do for Mariam. There was money Mariam saved up in our care. It was decided we could have a Maulvi to say prayers at our place for the set period of time and pay the money to him. So this was done and Chand and friend came every morning with the Maulvi for this.
Charles Solomon is a Baghdadi Jew from Kolkata, now settled in Sydney.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.