Standing in waist deep waters of the grey and soapy Ganga, I blinked. The sun was strong and the water shimmered in the light. A priest chanted while I repeated words I did not understand. In my outstretched hands I held a small earthen urn that contained the ashes of Bawdo (big) Mama (uncle), my eldest maternal uncle and at that moment it seemed incredible that all that remained of that adorable man was what I held in my hand.
Two days ago, I’d rushed into the ICU of a Noida hospital to see him. I had taken his swollen palms in my hands, carefully, not wanting to disturb the network of tubes and pipes that carried fluids to and from his 86-year-old body, and prayed that he’d pull through. I watched as his shoulders rose and fell with his laboured breath and I tried to will more life, and more will, into him. The doctor in attendance pointed at his watch. Visiting hours were over. I let go of his hands and they withdrew with a certain heaviness. He was unconscious, but I wanted to believe I’d reached out to him, wanted to believe that he and God had heard me. I believed he would pull through. A few hours later, I got a phone call… Bawdo Mama had taken a bow.
Pangs of guilt have ravaged my waking hours ever since that phone call. Bawdo Mama had lived a good life. A man of his times, he lived by the book. Decent in school, he found a decent job, and a daughter from a decent household to call his wife, and this pursuit of decency (and being the eldest, also the need to set examples) ensured that he stayed away from the ‘evils’ of his time and so he never drank or smoked. His one ‘out there’ obsession was his passion for gymnastics and weight training. In an otherwise staid life, he did look back on one day as the day that defined him, not as son or sibling, but just him, and that was the day when he went on stage for a bodybuilding stage show and in front of a cheering audience, flexed and preened before bending a steel rod with his neck. The memories of that day held him get through years of dreary and dusty files, for no matter how dull the day, he could always relive that moment with a silent cup of evening tea and every new conversation.
He must have had his moments of pettiness and ill humour but I don’t remember them… I was perhaps too young to notice. I just remember him as this broad shouldered man who would blow into the house like a gust of joy and mirth and regale us with stories, eat mountains of rice with our rich home-cooked Bengali fare and carry on with his stories after dinner with a paan stuffed in his mouth. He was a happy man to be around…
About ten years ago, he had what he referred to as his “thyroid problem”. That problem robbed him of some of his brain cells and as a consequence he’d often forget things in his immediate environment, especially mundane stuff. For instance he might forget that he’d just given his clothes for washing and keep looking for them. Then the stories dried up. He now only remembered his favourites and would repeat the same ones every evening.
Since he was widowed and retired now, he lived with his daughter’s family. But almost every year in the last decade, he made it a point to come over and stay with us for a couple of months. Bawdo Mama was an irrepressible character and in spite of his forgetfulness he would light up our house with his joie de vivre. I guess because he was the eldest in the family, he was used to having the last word. So even in his later years, though strait-jacketed by his handicap, he would try his utmost to not let it show even when he was caught on the wrong foot. For instance, just days before his demise, while he was in hospital and the doctors asked him his name to see if he had his bearings, he forgot he had one. But without batting an eyelid he looked the doctor in the eye and said, “I think you will know that better…” and then laughed a big belly laugh. The doctor just shook his head and smiled.
There’s something about old people that makes them so adorable. They have the wisdom of years and all that love to give, and yet they have the sensitivity and vulnerability of a child. And best of all, they are not bothered by the stresses and demands of the real world that on days might pull our parents down a bit.
Bawdo Mama lived a relatively long life; a happy healthy one too. Other than that “thyroid problem”, he remained exceptionally fit, always on his feet and looked no older than a man in his late 60s. Then why the pangs of regret, you ask? I’ll tell you why… Two years ago, when he had last come over to stay with us, he saw me working out and reminisced about his old days. So we took out a camera, encouraged him to pose like he had all those years ago on stage, and like a bashful child enjoying the attention, he played along. He’d looked so full of life that day, and yet a part of me would’ve known that there wasn’t much time... maybe I just didn’t pay attention. Soon after, he went back to his house. Days rolled into weeks and weeks into months. We loved his company and he did come over for a festival or two but didn’t stay for long. Either he had some stuff he wanted to attend to, or we got too busy, but we always thought we had time.
Recently, I had started visiting our Noida office twice a week, a stone’s throw from his house. And I’d tell myself, “I’ll visit them tomorrow”. But tomorrow never did come. A week back we heard of him being taken to hospital. “He is fine”, my cousin told us over the phone. “He just has some problem with motor skills. Nothing major, perhaps a drip and some medicines and he should be okay. The reports are fine. In fact in the hospital he was singing bhajans and the ward boys surrounded him and joined in…” we all laughed and told each other that he’ll be back home soon. And my mother reminded us that we should bring him home after he recovers. I also promised to visit him on my way back from office one of these days. But each time I would either miss visiting hours or get a little too late at work. Well, the honest truth is it wasn’t a priority for me. I loved him but I was too busy to see him. It shames me to even write that, but I’m sure I’m not the only one who does that. Perhaps if you and I, dear reader, sit back and think, there are surely more than one loved one in our lives who perhaps sit and wait for us and we know it, but are too busy to do anything about it. One day, they’ll get tired of waiting and just die, and that day we’ll have to make time, no matter how busy we might be. I just wish I’d taken out time while Bawdo Mama had the time. That day when I held his hand in the hospital, I promised to come see him every day but he didn’t listen… This time, he was the one who got too busy.
After his death, my niece (his granddaughter) told me how he’d often forgot their names, people he’s been living with for the last decade. He’d forgotten who his daughter has been married to or if he ever had a wife but he never forgot about me and the times he spent with the four of us… the dinners, the movies, the singing bouts with my parents, even the chats with my father-in-law… for someone who might forget if he’s just had dinner, or like he once famously asked his son-in-law’s father at his grand daughter’s birthday when he was considering getting his son married, this was astonishing. My niece even said that Bawdo Mama told her that he was proud of me since I was the only one carrying forward his legacy of “physical culture” in the family. Everyone concluded that he remembered these moments because he really enjoyed spending time doing those things with us. And the knowledge that my presence could bring him such joy only made it worse. If only I could’ve spent some more time with him… if only I could’ve brought him home, given him some more joy… if only I had one more day, to see him laugh and sing… one more day, to tell him I was proud of him too… But I didn’t have that one day… All I had now were the ashes. I opened the urn and emptied its contents into the Ganga… now even those were gone… the marigold from the urn bobbed on the currents for a while and then that too was gone…