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]