Today I am going to tell you the story of my cousin Neelu. She was born in early 1930s in Rangoon, Burma. Her parents later settled down in Kolkata and Neelu was largely brought up by her mother.
Neelu's childhood was not very pleasant, she grew up watching her parents fight; mother struggling to make two ends meet but at the same time trying to give her the best of education and comfort that she could provide. Neelu went to a convent school and had many friends. She was a gregarious and lively person, who loved to live! She loved food, she loved outings, she loved the good things in life, she loved gossiping, she loved meddling in other people's lives, she loved helping others, she loved cooking and most of all, she loved being appreciated, recognised and loved.
In no time Neelu fell in love with a young musician who also happened to be the landlord's son. Needless to say their union was not looked upon kindly by both sets of parents - to boot, the two families belonged to two sides of Bengal who were diametrically opposite to each other in their culture, in dialect, in food habits, in their beliefs and values and more importantly in the way they treated their women.
Neelu being the passionate person that she was, followed her heart and married the man of her dreams and they lived in the same house as before, i.e. she continued to live with her parents and her husband moved in with them. This was not taken very kindly by her in-laws. However, the husband also being the independent kind, did not join the family business and instead went on to becoming a professional musician and soon became quite famous in Kolkata.
When I came into Neelu's life, she was in her early thirties and I was three years old. It was her mother K who brought me up.
My earliest recollection of Neelu is warm and fuzzy. She was this busy big sister who was much older to me, was glamourous and went to work every day. She had expensive tastes in sarees, jewelleries, perfumes and in make up. Her sarees ranged from gorgeous cotton hand-looms, to fine silks to sophisticated chiffons and such other materials. She used to import Max Factor make up for herself and to me her make box was a treasure trove of many hued lipsticks, eye liners and many other unknown lotions and potions. Every time she would open that black and yellow striped box, I would try and get a whiff of the wonderful odour of the contents of the box. To me they seemed like a magic box, and she was the magician who created magic with them. And, she had shoes with heels, the stilettos that I lusted most after the most. Since we were forbidden to wear her heels lest we fall down, all my experimentation used to be when she was away at work. During one such time, I also fell down and cracked open my skull, but that is another story!
In that household, apart from me, there was another small girl who had the same status, i.e. part orphan as me. Her name was Tini and she was Neelu's sister-in-law's daughter. Her mother too passed away suddenly leaving Tini and her other siblings. In Neelu's eyes, both Tini and I were like to two little kittens who would be pampered or scolded depending on whatever mood she was in. Intrinsically Neelu was a very generous and affectionate person and whenever she was in the mood, she would offer gifts with both hands to most people. I remember she used to take Tini and me to a big departmental store in kolkata and send me to the book store while she would wonder off to the jewelry or the saree counters. I would explore the book racks, bury my nose in the new books to smell th em and then pick up one or two that Neelu would buy for me. oh, how I loved to smell the new books!
Neelu would do many other things for the two of us; she would use her slightly old silk saree to make dresses for me and for Tini. She would cut our hair at home and experiment with new styles on us. She would design our dresses. The part that I liked the most was when if we requested her to give us a makeover, she would open her make up box and work on our faces. I felt like a little princess with my made up eyes and lips and would insist on not washing my face even when it was time to sleep.
As days progressed, Neelu's life started changing. She had a baby and the baby needed special care for a while, and at the same time Neelu's health started deteriorating. This was where her mother took charge of looking after the baby, so that Neelu could continue with her work and manage her own life space.
Neelu's married life started developing chinks soon after their child was born. As she got busy with her work, baby and other paraphernalia of life, her husband got busy with his booming career as well as his female fan club. Neelu started putting on weight, started having frequent mood swings, had an early hysterectomy and started relying more and more on her cooking skills to win over her husband's heart. In all of these, she forgot to look after herself.
During this time, I observed her losing her sense of aliveness and becoming more bitter and more critical of herself and of the entire world. Her gift of the gab did not help much as it became more of a weapon to lash at people rather than relate to them. On other hand, her mother was being looked up to as the agony aunt for the whole world and their cousins, and this obvious comparison did not go down well with Neelu.
There is not much to write about the rest of her life as it went downhill rapidly from there, not so much in terms of financial stability as they were very well off, but from her sense of well being with herself. Her marriage continued but the joy went out of it. Neelu's only son did not give her much joy either as he turned out to be quite similar to his father, uncaring and insensitive. Her huge sense of pride never allowed her to share her pain with anyone else and may be that was why she never really found it easy to allow anyone to get too close to her. Hence she would offer generously but would never ask for help.
Neelu passed away suddenly, one day prior to 9/11, but not a single day goes by when I don't think of her and her passion and zest for life. She was a kind of woman who was born to live life in its fullness, with vigour, courage, kindness, passion, possessiveness, envy, jealousy, generosity, etc along with the attendant liabilities. My sense of "joie de vivre" came mostly from her, watching her embrace life in all its positives and negatives with a "never say die' attitude.