Sri Ramendra Sundar (Ram) Bhattacharyya, my grandfather on my mother’s side, passed away at 10:56 on the night of Wednesday, the 9th of January 2008. He was three months short of 91. It is the 15th today, and I have been taking my time to compose my thoughts to write about him. Even so, my progress will be slow and halting – the memories are too many, too closely cherished, too painful to come flowing easily. I shall take my time over this.
This is not going to be either a biography or an obituary in the usual sense of the term. I am only paying my last, very personal tribute to a dear departed soul. He was the man I most loved in this world, with a kind of love that cannot be replicated in my lifetime (unless God in his infinite mercy lets me live to hug a grandchild myself); he was the man I owe most, and I think I resemble most by nature and temperament. He was also, quite simply, the nicest man, the closest to the ideal of a gentleman that I have known in all my life, and I am saying this with perfect dispassion; I have never felt the need to say nice and false things about people just because they happen to be family. If there is anything good in me at all as a human being, I owe all that to this man who is now no more.
He was born the younger son in a fairly well-off and educated family in North Calcutta of yesteryear – 1917, the year of the August Declaration in Parliament by Secretary of State for India Edwin Montagu, when World War I was still in progress, the Russian Revolution was about to break out, and Gandhi was just beginning to become a household name. His father was a doctor and a highly literate man – not just an assistant to Dr. Bidhan Ray and Tagore’s household physician but also a fairly close literary colleague: the great man commissioned him to write a series of popular essays on health and hygiene in Bengali for his Lokshikshya series long before Reader’s Digest made such things well known in English. As a result, though my grandfather did not live a materially lavish life (children were not indulged then as they are today), he saw his father move in truly elite circles: men like Jamini Roy and Saiyyad Mujtaba Ali and Tarashankar Banerjee were frequent guests at home. My grandfather took a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Calcutta – one of the earliest batches, who were taught by the initiator of psychoanalytic studies in India, Girindrashekhar Basu, colleague of and correspondent with Sigmund Freud himself. He dabbled distantly, hesitantly with the freedom movement, and it still gives me gooseflesh to remember him telling me how in college, he once came face to face with the notorious police commissioner Sir Charles Tegart, who ambushed and killed Bagha Jatin in Orissa, and whom several revolutionaries including Gopinath Saha tried in vain to assassinate (I wonder whether these names would arouse even the faintest echoes in ‘educated’ Bengali minds today?). But football was his amour propre, and he gave the best years of his life to it. He made it to Mohun Bagan as a goalkeeper (besides playing on the Calcutta University cricket team), captained the Aryan Club the year they won their only IFA shield, and narrowly missed being selected for the Indian Olympic team owing to the characteristic petty politicking that has bedeviled Indian football ever since its inception. I keep telling everybody that he was the last in our whole extended family whose name and photographs appeared regularly for years on the front pages of Calcutta newspapers.
He had seen the legendary Goshtho Pal and Samaad playing, and worshipped them all his life. In those days footballers made no money, yet he chucked up two successively good jobs for its sake (he could have retired a general manager in the Indian Railways if he had stuck to one of them). Strong differences of a very personal nature with his father led to an abrupt decision to leave the family hearth without a penny in his pocket. Then, with young (and very pretty) wife and little daughter in tow, he spent several years scrounging for a living, literally sleeping on other people’s verandahs for some time and doing every kind of odd job imaginable until he could give his family a roof over his head: the little house he built in the swampy outreaches of Ballygunge, a place called Gol Park, more than half a century ago, is now worth several millions! The strain on his sensitive psyche was strong enough to give him a nervous breakdown in his early forties: yet never once did he go to beg his illustrious childhood friends (and there were many, including a former chief minister – still alive – and a chief justice of the High Court) for favours. I was born when he was only 47 (my grandmother was 36)! Pretty young for a grandpa – I am going on 45 now, and my daughter is only eleven years old.
My grandparents have always been my real parents and more. (About my grandmother I shall write separately some day; she too deserves that much, that utterly wonderful grand old lady). My grandpa’s not-too-frequent visits were the brightest spots throughout my otherwise lonely and somber childhood; he used to turn up sometimes with tins of milkfood for my baby sister under his arm or a welter of toys and always with a head full of lovely stories – I heard everything from Tuntunir Golpo and Teni-da to Aesop’s fables to the Zorro stories and The Three Musketeers and Sherlock Holmes and Dickens and Jim Corbett and Hercule Poirot and much, much more from him, and long after I had read and savoured all the books myself, and gone far beyond his level and sweep of reading, nothing could beat the happy memories of listening to him engrossed, carried away into a dreamy world of delicious imagination: my whole habits of reading and storytelling, the two things which have paid off so magnificently and kept me in gravy ever since I was 17, I have acquired entirely from him. The peculiar habit of interlacing very solemn talk with casual but always refined wit, too, I learnt unconsciously from him, and in the process of telling stories he taught me all the morals any man needs to know. Tagore was his god, and he brought me up in such a way that so it became for me. He was the humblest and gentlest man I ever knew – all his life he insisted he was ‘ignorant’, and the only time he was angry with me was when once, as a child, I struck my naughty sister in a fit of pique! He was my last living contact with history: I didn’t have to read much about World War II and the Great Calcutta Riot of August 1946 from school history books, for example, nor about life in Burma or how it feels to come back home in the middle of the night when a deadly cyclone has just ripped through the city. – and even now I can hear a thousand things he used to say, but nothing rings louder than his favourite words of approval when I did something good, an expression that he had picked up from a superior (British) officer a long time ago: ‘That’s like a good gentleman of the Eastern Indian Railway!’ My enormous nostalgia over the British Raj – despite everything bad I have learnt about it, and that’s a great deal – too, I owe entirely to him.
Going over to his house to spend my holidays was going to heaven – yet now I realize that he made it that way just by being the kind of man he was, not by offering me a lavish living and bribing me with expensive gifts: he could neither afford such things, nor did he ever let me feel that I lacked for anything. Travelling around Calcutta on foot and by double-decker bus, visiting the Maidan, the zoo, the great National Museum, the children’s museum, the Children’s Little Theatre and scores of other interesting spots – at many of these places he left little me alone for hours and picked me up again on his way back from work – I had all the joyous adventure that a little boy can want. I learnt what good parenting means from him, and if someday my daughter pays me half the accolades I have been paying him all my life, I shall know I haven’t been too bad a parent myself. I learnt the true meaning of romance from him, too, and the virtues of hard work, and patient caring, and love that expects nothing in return save the happiness of the loved one, and quiet courage in the midst of adversity; I learnt to think deeply and feel delicately about everything, I learnt the sense of wonder, and how important it is to keep smiling and make others smile even when life is a pain and a drag, and how great and rare an ability that is. It took me a lot of growing up to realize how hard he had worked, and how long, to keep the family’s head above the water (he held a humble salaried job till he was 72; one of my most abiding memories is of him crouching on the floor, leaning back against the bed, with an account book in his lap to pore over late into the evening, glasses perched on his nose, while still regaling stupid insensitive me with stories, never missing a beat, after a full day’s work, day after day, year after year, for decades together, and never once did I hear him say ‘I am busy’…) – and not just his own three children and later their children, but a whole host of cousins and their children on both his side and his wife’s passed years of the formative stages of their lives in his shelter before they grew wings and went away. From my grandparents’ lives I have learnt how some people can be endlessly giving, and also, from the way all their labours of love were forgotten as the decades rolled by, of the depth and cruelty of human ingratitude. It hurts me more than I can tell that he and his wife had to spend such a large part of their old age in loneliness and near-penury.
He was always far more comfortable with children than with grown-ups, so, though I lived with him or close to him till I was nearly 25, he gradually drifted away from me (was I growing too ‘adult’ and ‘intellectual’ for his tastes?), turning all his attention and love to the new-born grandchildren he had been gifted with. Did he ever know, I wonder, how the heart of a little boy ached for those halcyon years gone by, even as outwardly that little boy grew into a solemn scholar, a husband, a successful teacher, loving father, middle-aged man and unsocial cynic? Save the first three years of bringing up my daughter, I have never known happiness to equal what I got from my grandfather, and there can be no greater sadness, I think, than having to accept that he had nearly forgotten me. Or maybe he hadn’t? I shall ask him in heaven, and expecting to meet him again will certainly ameliorate for me the pain and terror and sorrow of saying goodbye to this world when my time comes. I hadn’t visited him for years (and neither he nor I was to blame, but circumstances that neither of us liked or could control); it was by a very strange coincidence that I happened to turn up at his bedside the night before he was admitted to hospital in critical condition for the last time. He couldn’t apparently recognize me, and my grandmother told me afterwards over the phone that he had loudly lamented later on, during a brief lucid interval, that he couldn’t caress me (‘one last time as of old’, I believe he meant). After spending a useless and painful week in the ICU (thanks to the ‘miracles’ of modern medical technology!), he passed away in a near-comatose condition – ‘multiple organ failure’ the clever doctors like to call it these days, though in saner times we should have said he simply died of old age. I only wish that a man like him hadn’t been compelled to suffer so much helplessness, indignity, loneliness and pain for so long; on that last visit I heard him moaning and cursing his fate, and that memory will stay with me till my dying day. I deliberately decided that I wouldn’t take photographs. He had once been a very strong man, and he had exercised lifelong, and had been quite fit till past 80, but he suffered his first stroke at 87 and became increasingly weak and fearful thereafter; even his usual walks stopped eventually. Three years ago his collection of memoirs was published in Bengali, and he had been writing little vignettes from memory, and poems as well, till shortly before his death, some of which were published in a few papers through the good offices of a few lingering admirers. But over the last year and more, he had become almost completely bedridden.
A minor Bengali daily noted that he had been admitted to hospital on the day itself (still they got his age wrong), but not one of the numerous major papers I checked carried the news of his passing. Who cares to remember someone who had grown decrepit and become forgotten decades ago? The world is a busy place, and anyway, no one looks back in wonder these days at people whose memories are not ‘sexy’.
So now my grandmother (poor old soul, she’s herself 80, and weighed down by age and debility) has been left all alone in that ghostly house. I have been praying for more than a decade that my grandfather be released from his mortal coils, and I shall from now on pray night and day that she follows suit soon: I am sure there cannot be words to express her agony, let alone commiserate with her. Save herself, I do not think that my grandfather touched anybody’s life more deeply than mine, though he touched so many: let me carry the burden and joy of the memories alone for a few more years before I, too, can go after him. Goodnight, sweet prince. I shall forever weep as I wept as a child every time you went away, promising to come back: only I know you went away from me a long time ago, and now you will never come back. I can only pity successive generations of children that they will never know a man like you. Everyone says my daughter’s a lucky girl; they don’t know what a lucky boy I have been. I could never do anything truly worthwhile for you; may this blogpost tell some people who care for such things that I loved you.
(finished January 20, 2008)
the three photographs on top are as follows: My grandfather with Rabindranath Tagore, once again in his sporting days, and blessing my wife at the wedding, 12 years ago.