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Friday, July 12, 2013

The Ceremony

I am sitting in a plush, well-decorated room. The room is a mishmash of the smells of smoke, incense and flowers. Neatly arranged on the cream coloured floor are steel plates - some with flowers, some with fruits, some with betel leaves, one with a red and gold cloth. The priest recites Sanskrit chants with practiced fluidity. A lamp stands in the centre; its flame flickers restlessly, almost like a defiant child. And on a little green stool, covered under heavy yellow and pink garlands, lies a photo-frame. The frail old lady whom everyone fondly referred to as ‘Mashima’ peers out from behind the flowers. She strikes me as a meek, inconspicuous element in the surroundings. Not as the person the ceremony revolves around.

The portly fifty-something daughter-in-law has the most flagrant presence in the room. She welcomes the guests as they arrive. She scuttles between the kitchen and the drawing room, sometimes doling out orders to the servants, sometimes handing over to the priest what he requires. She animatedly tells visitors stories of her deceased mother-in-law. I perceive an almost cheerful demeanour that seems jarringly out-of-place for the occasion.

The son, the Executive Director of a firm, walks in and out of the room intermittently. He is a very busy man. He has put his meetings and conference calls on hold for the first half of the day. When it is time for his part of the rituals, he sits down cross-legged in front of his mother’s photograph. From inside the frame, his mother seems to look at him almost apologetically. She knows she cannot demand her son’s time – she hasn’t been able to do that for over thirty-five years now.

Five minutes into the ritual, the son begins shifting in his seat impatiently. “How much longer, Thakur Moshai?”, he questions. “Do I have to read this entire book of hymns?” The women of the family burst out laughing. How amusing you are, you poor thing, they tell him. The priest smiles. “Only a little more time, Ghosh Da, and we will be done.” The son begrudgingly sits on. From time to time, he glances at the wall-clock.

“You know, in the last few months, Sunil couldn’t spend much time with Ma. He would probably get very upset seeing her like that, all frail and helpless, you know? That is why he wouldn’t go into her room too much”, the daughter-in-law explains to the guests, almost as a defense mechanism. The guests nod sympathetically.

Maanu, the resident household help, takes care of little details pertaining to the guests and the ongoing ceremony. I remember Mashima telling me that he came to their house as a ten-year old orphan. He has learnt early enough to shop for groceries, to cook, he even knows how to drive. He has shaved off his hair as a part of the mourning rituals.

 “We did not want to put her in the hospital. She liked it here at home. But then, on the last day, the doctor told us her BP was falling rapidly. So we admitted her”, the daughter-in-law tells us.

“How long was she in hospital?”, a guest asks. “Oh, only a day. She went peacefully, Dada, no pain, no discomfort”, says the daughter-in-law. “After my father died, the crooks at the hospital put him on ventilator for half a day. Money-minting mechanisms, these, nothing else!”, says another guest. “What else can we expect, Dada? In times of so much corruption ruling the State, especially, bolun?”, the daughter-in-law offers. The guests nod. The conversation spins off into a discussion about the latest political scamsters. And then, football, Rituparno Ghosh and automobiles.

The maid enters the room with a tray, an ornate, delicately carved wooden showpiece (“Oh this? Sunil got it from Sri Lanka!”). Little gold-rimmed porcelain cups (“And these are a gift from my brother. He picked them up from Italy.”) stand on it with dignity. The daughter-in-law coaxes her guests to drink tea. Some of them pick up the cups, some others politely decline.

“Sunanda here took care of her in the last few days”, the daughter-in-law says, gesturing towards the maid. “She managed to persuade Ma to eat something at least. Otherwise in the last one month, she had practically given up eating. Like she had lost the will to live, you know?”, the daughter-in-law narrates.

Sunanda smiles politely, then gracefully retreats into the kitchen.

The grandson sits inside his room, showing his friends his new mobile phone. Occasionally, peals of their laughter wander into the drawing room.

“What is Rohit doing these days, Mala?”, a guest enquires of the grandson. “Oh, he will begin with his MBA now. You know how important these MBA degrees are. And so expensive, no? But then, what to do, he is our only son. So we encouraged him fully. It is a very good college, one of the best”, the daughter-in-law informs loudly enough for the other guests to hear. She somehow forgets to mention the hefty donation the son paid for the admission.

The priest asks for something. The daughter-in-law hurries inside the kitchen and steps out with a plate. “All of her favourite things, you know? Samosa, begun bhaja, dhoka-r dalna, and most importantly, icecream! How she loved icecream. Could eat so much of it at one go!”

I hear one guest murmuring to her husband, that a lot of the actual rituals aren’t being followed, and what kind of casual ceremony is this.

A wisp of a memory crosses my mind. It is a summer afternoon, about a year ago. Mashima is on her rounds in the colony garden. Alone. She spots me as I walk past, and calls out to me. I detour, walk up to her, then lead her brittle body to a bench. She is happy to see me. Asks how I am, how everyone at home is, how work is, and everything else she can remember. I answer her queries one by one. When she sees my mobile holder, she exclaims that it is beautiful. “Can you get me one like it? I will pay you”, she offers. I tell her I will be happy to. But then, her face falls. She changes her mind. “Mala won’t be very happy, let it be”. Then she asks me to store my number in her mobile phone.

“Asha, let us go downstairs to the community hall, we will be starting with lunch shortly,” someone says in my ears. I am jolted out of the flashback. I realize the ceremony is now over, and that the guests have started vacating the house.

I walk down the stairs, into the lawn. At the other end of the lawn, the son, now relieved of his personal duties, stands with a lit cigarette in one hand and a mobile phone in the other. He has ignored his professional commitments for more than pardonable time.

I cross the grandson too; he is making plans to play football after the ceremony. And the daughter-in-law is telling a new family how Mashima had lost the will to live. I finish my lunch (an elaborate affair) mostly in silence, making small talk with some neighbours I know. Before I leave, I walk up to the daughter-in-law and thank her for the hospitality. “How did you like the food?”, she asks. I tell her it was very good. “We got these caterers from Kolkata, you know? So difficult to get them at such short notice, but we managed!” I smile, and request to take her leave. She says good-bye, and moves on to talk to more guests. As I walk out of the hall, I hear her thanking someone for coming, and telling them how Ma loved visiting their house.

In my building lobby, I notice Gupta Ji, the watchman, staring at the community hall. “Sab kuchh theekh se ho gaya, madam?”, he asks me. I smile and tell him it all went off smoothly. “Bahut acchhi thi Mashima. Woh hum se kabhi-kabhi bolti thi dukaan se saamaan lane ke liye. Unke ghar mein kisi ko time nahin milta tha, na”, Gupta Ji recollects. I am not sure what to tell him.


For one last time, I turn around and look at the colony lawn, where Mashima used to walk. Alone. All at once, there is a vision, of Mashima ambling past with her walker. Alone. She seems to look at me, and waves. I smile, and in my heart, ask her to take care. And with that, I turn back towards home.

10 Words Of Wisdom (WOWs):

MusingMunitions said...

Deep observations have been simply stated in a matter-of-fact way. And in that simplicity lies the power and the emotions.
RIP to 'Mashima'...

Piu Lahiri said...

Brought tears to my eyes. Beautifully written and a true story in many homes.Keep writing.

jatint said...

The lost is because it was never found! Nice :)

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A said...

the intricate details are so well put in words yet you so softly let us know how special Mashima was to you.

beautiful post.

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