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Friday, January 29, 2016

Grandmother's demise

My grandmother on my mother’s side, Srimati Manimala Devi, whom I referred to once as ‘that utterly wonderful grand old lady’, passed away on the night of Monday, the 25th January, almost exactly eight years after my grandfather did. She too had a long life: married at fifteen, died nearly 88. Her great grandchildren are now grown up. We shall not have the same good fortune, people of our generation. She had been bedridden for years and almost lost her mind lately – though apparently she had a lucid interval hours before she died – but she went peacefully in her sleep, so for all practical purposes it was a blessed relief, and yet I cannot help feeling desolated. They don’t make grandmothers like that anymore. As my mother reminded me, I used to say she was my first love, and I guess she will remain the greatest, barring only Pupu and my yet unborn grandchild.

Born into great wealth, possessed of a rare beauty which gave her no end of trouble, reduced to poverty and humiliation after marriage, struggling lifelong to make a new hearth and home with her husband and three children (having lost yet another), giving shelter and succour to countless people over many decades, ruling her little imperium with an iron hand yet showering love and care with abandon, fighting a debilitating disease since her late youth – she will never enter the history books, yet her life could be the stuff of legends. She became a grandmother at the ripe old age of 35 – women go about in tank tops and tights or miniskirts at that age nowadays, women vastly less pretty and less substantial too – and although I never saw her dressed in anything but thinly bordered white saris without an ounce of makeup or jewellery, she had an aura of dignity and grandeur I have never seen surpassed, and I have seen a few women up close in my time. As for her relationship with my grandfather, I can only refer you to Dad and Mum in How Green Was My Valley

My relationship with my grandfather was much closer, more immediate and more intimate, and yet I got far more from my grandmother by way of quiet affection, indulgence and wisdom than I realized at the time. My memories go very far back indeed – right back to the little aluminium tub in which she used to bathe baby me – and a strange and beguiling mélange they make. She took ten-year old me along as an ‘escort’ when she went to see her favourite thakurmoshai at the Kalighat temple; the first time she saw me with a cigarette (I guess I was 17 then) the first thing she thought of asking was whose cigarette it was! and it irked my mama-s no end, grown up as they had under her very conservative rules, that she gladly tolerated how my girlfriends walked into my room and shut the door behind them. No one ever nagged me as much about if and what and when I had eaten as she did, God bless her soul. And yet she was the embodiment of calm efficiency when she nursed me the night I came home bathed in blood, having been involved in an accident while trying to take a hit and run case to the hospital. She was very fond of my short story Sushama – probably because it brought back many memories about my father and grandfather; she always said I reminded her strongly of her youngest brother the polymath, and thrice she was involved in matchmaking for me, twice because I could not imagine who else I could take along if I needed to have an elder with me at all. Oh, I could go on and on. She mothered me in a way that drove a very deep affection and regard for all womankind into my mind lifelong, something that so many bad and trivial women have still not quite succeeded in erasing. (Incidentally, she was one of those women who never tired of cautioning me against women!)

From 1980 to ’85 I lived directly in her care. Then unfortunate circumstances forced me to move out. Two years later, I returned to Durgapur – for good. But she remained a very important figure in my life for long after that. She was very much a presence at my wedding, and my daughter was cuddled and blessed by her hands (see photograph). The years flew by, but the contact never broke, though my visits became more infrequent – more so after dadu passed away in 2008, because the visits hurt too badly. Lately my mother actually told me not to visit, because I wouldn’t like what I saw. And now she’s gone. I hope she is happily reunited with her beloved father and husband, wherever she is, and I pray that her soul will find eternal peace. I know of few people who have earned it better.

[There are two more photographs, here]

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Up Darzling way

Just back from another holiday. I missed out on 2015 entirely, no thanks to the broken leg, so this one was overdue. It was the north Bengal and Sikkim hills again, daughter and dad: we can’t seem to have enough of them. I went off to Calcutta on Friday the 8th, and that night we took the Darjeeling Mail to New Jalpaiguri. I actually had to scold a troupe of grown men (many in their 50s and 60s) in a very schoolmasterly way before they stopped chattering, and that was way past midnight: thereafter it was a quiet ride. The fog delayed us by a few hours. I had booked a car for the entire trip, and the driver – Dambarji, he became a friend over the next six days – took us in hand at the station. It was very cold already, unlike in the plains, and it grew ever chillier as we went up into the hills. We lunched on the way on poori sabzi and coffee, and arrived at Kalimpong just after one p.m. The hotel was lovely, and what made it even more enjoyable was that Pupu had managed to book a package at half the usual price online. We were welcomed with traditional khadas, and after freshening up a bit we went for a drive around town, though it had begun to drizzle.

The Orchid House – one man’s lifetime labour of love, so rare in this country – was spellbinding. The Golf course and its environs, Morgan House and the rest, is beautifully maintained. A visit to the local monastery is de rigeur in these parts, and I successfully negotiated the challenge to my legs. The evening in the hotel garden, fairy lights twinkling, was a feast for the senses, and it was rounded off with a perfect dinner, the service worthy of being called pampering. So also the buffet breakfast next morning, following which we visited Dr. Graham’s Homes, the famous residential school, which was closed, but offered some good photo ops. Then off to Deolo: that Tourist Lodge could be another lovely place to stay in. We took in the Science Park next – ho hum at my age, though the landscaping is good – then it was off to Lava, which was not only piercingly cold but also gave me a chance to buy a deerstalker cap, and then Rishyop, which gave us some fabulous views of Mt. Kanchanjungha, it being a bright and clear day. In the evening Pupu treated herself to the spa, and watching Jeeves and Wooster with my feet dipped in hot water was a fun way of rounding off a happy day.

On Monday we went off to Darjeeling, taking in Lovers' Point, Lamahatta (the pretty new roadside park built at the CM’s initiative), Ghum railway station and the Batasia Loop war memorial on the way, and then the wonderful zoo and the Mountaineering Institute (funny they make no mention of Reinhold Messner, or did I miss it?). The ride on the new ropeway was good: probably the longest we have done yet. This time the hotel was just so-so for the price, but right beside the Mall (which was as deserted as the marketplace had been crowded, the vacation season being over as I had hoped!). We snacked in the evening at the iconic Glenary’s restaurant. Pupu won’t have to say she had grown up into adulthood in West Bengal without having seen the Queen of the Hills.

A police blockade resulting from a ‘Half Marathon’ event next morning delayed our departure for a bit. Then 85 km on the road to Pelling in Sikkim, to a new hilltop resort set up by a friend, via Jorethang, Zoom, Soreng and Kaluk. Some of the ascents were hair-raising even for a seasoned hill-traveller like me, and some parts of the road were pretty bad, but the end justified the means. It was bitterly cold but beautiful, and what with us being the only guests, and the friendly young staff, and the lovely cottage and the bonfire and the barbecue, it was pure wicked self-indulgence. Two days zipped by in a flash – I wondering all the time why it didn’t snow despite the chill – and then another long drive via Rinchenpong and Melli (we heard of a massive landslide on the Kalimpong-Gangtok route, and were stopped briefly where road extension work was in progress) to NJP, where I am sure our driver was a trifle sad to let us go. My favourite rest in a retiring room, and then it was the Darjeeling Mail again. A sleepless night, alas, spoilt by a monster who snored in the most noisy, bizarre and nerve-wracking fashion all through the journey, and then it was back to Calcutta. A day’s rest, visits and a bit of practical work, and on Saturday afternoon I was back at home to take a class. Ola Cabs, I have discovered, are doing a great job these days: I don’t think I’d have to keep a car in the city after all. No hanky-panky about paying through the Net.

This was my fifth visit to Darjeeling, after 1971, 1983, 1990 and 1993. I think I’ll stop now, unless the next time it is at the invitation of some friend there. The famous ex-world war Land Rovers have all but vanished; Sumos and Innovas rule the roads now (an Innova, by the way, is by far the better choice if you want to travel in safety and comfort). I wish the trains didn’t dawdle so much on the way. The hills are quiet after a long spell of political disturbance, thank God: apparently the leadership has realized – touch wood – that scaring off the tourist traffic virtually destroys the local economy, and sooner or later makes them highly unpopular. There is a lot of governmental advertizing and some visible work in progress to make the places cleaner, but much more will have to be done to reverse the damage and start approaching European and Japanese standards. Hill Cart Road in Siliguri is a driver’s nightmare – avoid it if you can. Young people are drinking much more beer and whisky and much less of the traditional chhaang, and the long traditional women’s skirt called bakhu has nearly vanished in favour of the ubiquitous and by-now (to me at least) achingly boring tight jeans. In Siliguri virtually everybody – Bihari, Bengali and Marwari included – can speak Nepali. Liquor shops are far easier to find than teastalls, and, what has always fascinated me, they are not grilled cages as in the plains, and are run by women and often even children! And far more Bengalis are visiting even during the cold season than in the days of Gangtokey Gondogol, when Sikkim was still a rather exotic location, and only Feluda could instantly figure out what the stranger meant by his question ‘apnaara ki Dang na Kang na Gang?’

Good times always pass too quickly. Pupu deliberately slowed down the pace by doing away with a sightseeing trip so that we could simply laze around for a whole day at the resort, and it literally zipped by, sleeping and eating and chatting and walking and warming our toes at the bonfire. I do think that on future trips I should keep aside more such days and run about a little less. Dyakha hoy nai chokkhu meliya…

So much for now. I might add a paragraph or two later. For photographs, come back again in a few days’ time: I’ll have to do some sorting and editing before I upload them. This year is the first in my adult lifetime when I have booked the next trip even before this one was done. We are coming, Kashmir! This will be the second time for me after 1977.

Ahem...: Dear 'Amorphous', it is a policy of this blog never to publish anonymous comments, laudatory or otherwise.

Jan. 21: Et voila, the photographs at last, here.