As I was saying in the last post that I came into K's life when I was three and she was over fifty years old. When I look back I think it was a big liability and responsibility for someone who was not young, had ill health, was not financially self sufficient and was dependent on her daughter and son-in-law. I think K was a kind of woman who acted without any fear of consequence and took criticism with a pinch of salt - for her it was something that had to be done and since no one else was doing it, she would take it up without hesitation.
But the story here is not so much about K and me, but of K herself. As I was growing up in that household, I was also learning to be invisible and to be an acute observer of the goings on around the place. The person I observed most was K and the world around her.
K was a hard working person, but more than hard work, she had this amazing ability to pull all the suffering people towards her. Whenever people felt sad, unhappy, troubled, confused, angry, helpless and victimised, they would seek out K and pour their hearts out to her. K would listen to them patiently, offer them her advice or a kind word or just a patient ear, sometimes she would confront them, sometimes she would help them with cash or in kind and sometimes she would just simply hold their hands and cry with them. She was this kind and helpful "Chhordi"(middle sister)/"Ma"/"Pishima"(aunt) to the whole world; be it to her brothers and sisters, to her nieces and nephews, to her husband's brothers and sisters, to the dhobi, the grocer, the neighbourhood rickshaw pullers, the newspaper vendor from Bihar, the annual shawl seller from Srinagar, the neighbours or friends of friends who had heard about her from someone else. So much so that even many years after my mother's death, my mother's brothers and sisters kept coming to her to pour their heart out whenever they were in any kind of distress - the absence of their sister did not impact this relationship at all.
K was not a very patient woman; she had asthma, she was short tempered and she was also highly opinionated. This side of her was more visible to us, people who shared the intimate space with her. I used to receive an extra special dose of her impatience in terms of the frequent scolding and physical punishment. At some time I think I got used to this routine but it also taught me to make myself invisible as much as I could and it made it easier for me to observe her without being noticed.
Apart from looking after the household, K's major preoccupation was two fold - one was playing solitaire with her pack of cards and the second was knitting. She could finish making a pullover or a cardigan in four days' time. Her knitting was so legendary that people from many places would come to learn knitting from her or to learn new designs. My most prominent recollection of her is K sitting on one side of her sprawling double bed either knitting away or playing solitaire and the visitor(s) sitting on the other side, pouring their hearts out to her.
K was also an avid reader; she would keep all the contemporary Bengali magazines and newspapers and would read them in the morning with a cup of tea. Her day used to start early at about four a.m, she would have a bath, start cooking and finish by 8.30 a.m to have the second bath of the day. Then after seeing her daughter off to work, she would settle down with another cup of tea and her stack of newspapers and magazines and read every article, every story, every poem in them meticulously. Once in three or four months, she would donate all her magazines to a local library.
She used to treat the domestic help as people whose rights was more than equal as compared to the rest of the household, i.e. our routine was subject to the convenience of the domestic help, e.g. we had to have our baths on time and have lunch on time so that they could have their baths and lunches on time. We were strictly instructed to address everyone either as elder sister or elder brother and no name calling or disrespectful behaviour was ever allowed. Anybody disobeying that rule was in for strong disapproval and a dressing down from her. Her simple logic was that these people have left home to come and work here and hence they were entitled to more privileges than us.
The tragedy in K's life was that while on one hand, she was the pillar of strength for people in the larger context, her relationships with her husband, her daughter and her son-in-law were at best tense. I still remember the day when a woman in her thirties came to see K in a summer afternoon. I was standing besides K, holding her saree pallu and peering at the stranger woman who was slowing unfolding the tale of betrayal to her. It seemed that K's husband had married this woman or was living with her and that he had stopped visiting her and paying her any money. She needed money for survival and hence she came to K to seek help or to look for her "husband". K listened to the story with a stony expression, handed the woman some money, closed the door and headed straight towards the bathroom. When she emerged, we were all horrified to see her dressed as a widow; she had taken all signs of marriage off herself. She then calmly declared to the family that from that day, she did not have any husband and that no one should ever try to talk to her about the man in question as she did not know who he was anymore.
At that time for a woman to do this was shocking enough and more so for a woman in her fifties. The family could not get over it. The daughter was angry, enraged and sad; her son-in-law thought this was highly immoral and the rest of the relatives gaped in horror and shock. Neelu, her daughter and others tried very hard to change K's mind towards the husband but K remained unmoved. This status did not change till the man in question died some 15 years later. K never spoke to him and never saw his face again.
This stubbornness of K earned her a lot of animosity and resentment, specially from her daughter who could not understand her mother's decision of disowning her father. This slowly deteriorated their relationship to the extent that mother and daughter did not often speak to each other, although they lived in the same house.
K was misunderstood and resented for her righteousness and her stubbornness from her immediate family members (even often from people who received help and support from her) and was loved and revered by people who were part of the distant family, friends and acquaintances.
The other interesting thing about K was that I never ever saw her praying or doing puja or going to temples or anything remotely religious; but I experienced her as highly spiritual, conscientious, righteous, kind and courageous. As though the world of religiosity had very little meaning or significance for her; for her, her world was literature, drama, poems, knitting, taking care of people, being fiercely protective of her own, offering help and support when it was most needed and standing her ground like a lioness without fear and most importantly, without shame.
K would often tell me that my only duty towards her was to stand on my own feet and make my father proud. I knew I wanted her to be proud of me more than anyone else... K passed away suddenly when I was 20 years old, three months before my first job and my first major achievement. This was one person who would have been happiest for the "ugly duckling" she picked up from nowhere, seeing her spread her wings and turning into a swan in her own right.
I miss you K, I miss you very much.