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[This poem was written in remembrance of half-a-century since the passing of my mother, a most remarkable woman the world did not get to know (reminds me much of Thomas Gray’s famous Elegy with the potent lines:

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.)

Or any one of Rabindranath Tagore’s many lines remembering pristine lives lost before their time:

 

ঝরাপাতাগো, আমিতোমারিদলে …

তোমারিমতোআমারউত্তরী,

আগুনরঙেদিয়োরঙীনকরি

অস্তরবিরলাগাকপরশমণি

প্রাণেরমমশেষেরসম্বলেll

 

And this remembrance must find resonance in other lives.  That at any rate is my hope. Monish R Chatterjee] 

Fifty Years without You in this Wilderness©

(April 11, 1968-April 11, 2018)          by Monish R Chatterjee

Offering at the lotus feet of Lilabati Chatterjee (nee Bhattacharya)

  1. Early Days

Those years are partly covered in mist.

The mist of time, through whose translucent gauze

Disjointed views come through, every so often.

Views of a young woman, meager her means

Supremely rich her universe-engulfing heart

A young woman imbued with devotion to her

Husband, taken up by endless rural tours of hamlets

And to her two boys, to whom she exposed

With virtually relentless foresight and commitment

The ideals of the cultivated life, filled with questions,

Inquiry, zest and a thirst for the great

Triumphs and tragedies of Man.

 

I cannot even recall your voice.  Except, those times

Perhaps washing a tubful of clothes in the small

Wash area next to the open stairs-

You would softly sing your favorite Hemanta lines

Jharuthechhe, Baulbatashajkeholoshathi …

A wistful magic would penetrate my being

Far from Bengal, you brought to us-

Like one of the greatest emissary of that

Riverine, pristine, green land of fertile thought

Glimpses of Bengal, and yes, oft of Burma.

 

Ma- what name did you call your little boy with?

That, too, I know not for sure.  Babun, methinks-

Since Pintu was the prevalent one among

The elders, back in Kolkata.  Whatever it was, from

Years earlier still, I somehow recall yet today those

Feedings from a jhinuk– usually something

Like Purity Indian Barley, especially those times

When, poor of constitution, I might have been

Recovering from a bout of fever.  Later still-

I remember throwing tantrums every time you

Insisted I drink down a glass of milk.

“I hate you!”I screamed at the glass.

 

Before reaching ten, I was perpetually afflicted

With spates of cold, and attendant maladies.

Around early 1964, I think, the doctor

Made the recommendation- “He needs his tonsils

Removed.”  There were speculations and logistics

To work out.  In the end, in May of that year-

I was admitted into the Haralalka Hospital for the

Operation.  “Worry not”- they all told me.  “You will

Get to eat ice cream afterwards.”  A sure bet

To placate a child.  There we were, three consecutive

Nights, past surgery.  This I recall well- you chatting

Across the verandah with my Mejopishi’s

 

  1. II. School and Travels    

Mother-in-Law.  The elder grandmother sat there

In the verandah of their magnificent house, across

The street from Haralalka.  And I recall my

Mejopishe, a caring giant of a man, bringing you

Roti and Tadka Dal, and other variants each night.

As for the ice cream, yes, it was served, but

Alas!  My throat was inflamed the entire time, and

The icy cold lumps went down completely bereft

Of any taste or flavor.  But you for sure

Were there for me, a young woman in a world

With not many doors open, a world where dreams

Only took flight in an inward sky.

 

In Kolkata, you had that most delicate task, proving

Your preparedness as a daughter-in-law, wife

A young mother, and myriad other roles

In an extended family with many an intricate branch.

A family where the husband, an only son, was

An idealist, ex- freedom fighter, taking up

A somewhat lower-end job in a government department

And spent time being posted far from Kolkata

The family homestead.  Annually, we had

The wonderful trips to Kolkata, during summer

Vacation and the family Durga Puja.  For the latter

The school would receive special request

 

From Baba- ‘My two wards need a few extra days

To attend their family festival.”  And we would receive

Approval: the wards are granted the extra

Holidays.  Then those fun preps- the trip by

Bombay Mail via Allahabad- for us always in 3rd Class

With the hardwood benches, being stuffed

Into the coach in advance through the windows

To secure spots for the family.  Then there were

The gunny sacks filled with massive U.P.

Pumpkins- destined for the kumrochhokka during

The pujo feasts.  And back on the home front, for

You so many rituals as the griha-badhu

 

I recall witnessing Baba and you, in wedding finery

Circle the Lakshmi shrine.  But, only some knew

Or perhaps not- you were made of material

Greater by far than a griha-badhu, your refined mind

Connected with a much wider world.  Your resources

Were limited, but all those decades ago, no

Lack of electronic communication as commonplace

Today, would ever stop you from mentally connecting

With the pulse of the human world.

Your affinity for books and anything of the mind

Was evident to us.  Nothing escaped your attention.  From

Kolkata you brought back often, discarded books

 

III.    Readings and the Mind         

 

College texts, gifts, periodicals.  And with us boys studying

In missionary schools, training in English and Hindi, Bangla

Became deeply ingrained in our fabric, night and day-

Baba and you were an amazing team, but you

The leader by far.  Soon enough, we read আমরাবাঙালী

Cover to cover, multiple times, until the lives

Of the great figures of our Renaissance became second

Nature to us.  And there was রামকৃষ্ণেরকথাওগল্প, tales and

Parables relating to the পাগলঠাকুর, and soon enough,

Narendranath- the trailblazer, the cyclonic monk.I recall

Reading together (or often you reading to us) such science

Tidbits as the Pavlovian response, and also

 

Graphic travel tales from অজানাদেশেমঙ্গোপার্ক- tales from

Whence we learned about kangaroos, dingoes, aborigines

And boomerangs, long, long before the

Crocodile Dundee Films.  And there was DeshPatrika

A bi-weekly Bengali periodical to which, despite his relatively

Meager income as a field investigator in the NSSO

Baba subscribed, knowing his devoutly well-read wife would

Transmit its treasures to the boys.  And what a treasure trove

It was!  Back then it was rather slender, perhaps no more

Than fifty pages per issue.  But Ma you read it hungrily when it

Arrived, and soon so would we.  It is a mystery, and forever

Will be- how and whence we learned to read Bengali

 

In such fine print.  More than likely your passion contributed

To this, and that ignition point was one of your greatest

Gifts to me in going forward.  Many years later

On these Atlantic shores, when I would read the

New Yorker boast “Perhaps the best magazine that ever was,”

I remember telling myself– how sad, indeed

You never got to read Desh; but then your chauvinism

For English would jade your outlook anyway.  Desh had

A galaxy of fine writers.  The list is virtually

Endless- even all those years ago, besides essays and tales

From Rabindranath and Sarat Chandra, we had Pratibha

Basu and ManojBasu, Tarashankar and Premankur

 

Nirad C. Chaudhuri and Buddhadeva Bose, Sibram and

Narayan Gangopadhyay, Ashapurna and Mahasweta.

And this truly is the very tip of the iceberg.  Here

Were writers who, if ever seen through an objective

Western lens, would be winners of a hundred Pulitzers

And several Nobels, of this I have little doubt.

Back all those years ago, we were introduced to Rupadarshi

And Neel-Lohit, আমারফাঁসীহলোand আত্মঘাতীবাঙালী, and

Young as we were, Dada and I were drawn

Inevitably to the sports writing.  I have subsequently read

Much of the sports writing in English (from Neville Cardus

To George Plimpton to David Halberstam); yet

IV Bonding and Roles

 

I must say our own DeshKrira-Jagator KhelaDhula editors

Culminating in a prolific author such as Mati Nandi

Could well hold up to some of the best in the West.

As mentioned- reading as life-sustaining pleasure was

A vital part of your days, spent as a lone woman with

Two boys while Baba went to remote villages

And hamlets conducting sample surveys for the department

Of statistics.  And where you went, you bonded with those

You met.  One odd incident I remember was one

Where, during one school day, I believe at St. Anthony’s,

I was called into the Principal’s office.  And the Reverend

Mother handed me a tube of Preparation H to

 

Take home.  I had no idea what it was, or what it was for.

It was a long time later I understood that Ma had spoken

To the Reverend Mother about Baba being in pain

From piles (she likely did not have the money to get

Emollients from the pharmacy).  The kindly missionary

Responded with compassion to Ma’s story (I doubt

Ma had asked to be helped in any way).  Hence

The remedial tube.  Back during the St. Anthony’s years

Dada and I were a bit on the timid side.  Even

Though between us Dada was always the more adventurous

The flow of our lives was forcefully in Ma’s hands.  One

School day, the thunderous monsoon storm came

 

Pelting down upon the school premises, just about at

Closing time.  Most often, we would take the sidewalks

To get home.  On this day, Dada and I stood

Shivering and drenched under a tree, with wild, howling

Winds compounding the frightful flashes of lightning.

Most fellow students were soon picked up by

A variety of means, and soon the school front yard

Was quite empty.  Feeling lost and abandoned, I remember

Crying, as though the world was about to end.

Dada held up a tad bit better, but not by much.  Then, even

As the world felt a most scary place, a rickshaw appeared

Through the blinding downpour, and you stepped

 

Down, umbrella in hand, assuring us all was well.

We saw little of your family.  All I knew was that

Dadu lived with your step brother and sisters

(His name was Sadhan and one sister had the nickname

Mango- most imaginative, as your family always

Revealed itself to be) in Rahara, a rural outpost

About a hundred miles from Kolkata.  Your own sister,

Dolly, was younger and much attached.  The letters

You exchanged, several in my possession, reveal

To me the thoughts, aspirations and apprehensions of

Womanhood.  In one, Dolly Mashi tells her Didi- ‘You

Must keep Jamaibabu in your sight; you can never tell

V The “Other” Family

 

About a handsome man.’  She lived in Benares with her

Husband and two lovely daughters.  There was the one

Time they visited us in Allenganj, and we had a

Fun time with our two younger cousins.  Back then, when

Family and close friends visited, we would receive tins

Of either J.B. Mangharam or Cadburys’- and we

Would be most enticed.  Since then, we were out of

Touch for many decades.  You would sometimes tell us

Stories of your family’s expatriate times in Burma-

There was nostalgia for the Iravati, Rangoon, Moulmein

And Mandalay.  Later, as I recall, your family spent times

In TilaiyainKodermadistrict– a picturesque town

 

With a hydroelectric dam across the Barakar river

In today’sJharkhand.  You did have highly accomplished

Uncles in Kolkata, who lived with two grand old

Ladies, both grandmothers to you on the family tree.

Their sheer joy seeing us every time we visited, insisting

On feeding us payesh and narus is etched in my

Heart forever.  Their lives were simplicity itself- yet

Their minds were deeply cultivated.  One, who was

The older of the two, in fact, had had a book

Of poems published, I would guess back in the 1930s.

This was our one matrilineal connection in Kolkata-

The Moore Avenue house was our only means

 

Of outreach to the essentially non-existent Mamabari.

As my years advanced, I found access to your other

Correspondence- with Dolly Mashi and also

Several women on Baba’s family network- Boropishi,

Mejopishi, Rangapishi, Jyethima, our Mamidida.

These showed the young Bengali housewife

Being the dedicated family-builder.  There was also

Your hand-written recipe-book, care-worn.  And

Therein you wrote down some of your sources

I learned how you made notes on posto and hing,

Galangal and vanilla.  You seemed prepped to put into

Practice so much you had learned in life.

 

At various times, family did visit us in Allenganj.

Phoolpishi visited once- even at a young age, she had

Great affection for Dada and me.  On that visit

She gifted me a fine hard-cover book with pictures-

HoludPakhi.  Dada and I virtually devoured the book

To Dada she gifted a book on the many

Benefits of fruits, and inscribed the lines, পলকারোগা

হ্যাংলাসরুখ্যাংড়াকাঠিরদল, গায়েবেজায়জোরহবেখাসযদি

রেফল.Another timePishimani came and

Spent several months during which attended

Jagattaran Girls’ School.  Her delightful stay with us

Included the 30th of December, and I recall

VI Curtain Call

 

With your assistance, she made for me a delectable

চিঁড়েরপোলাওfor the birthdaywith whatever

Ingredients were at hand.All those years

Ago, there were many more visitations, many tales

Of human companionship, empathy and sharing.

Your pursuit of observing life with its myriad

Variants and unevenness persisted.Your gentle

Delicate nature, including finer indulgences often

Manifested themselves.  Once, using an

Improvised chula with two tiers, you followed the recipe

For a rich vanilla cake- and I still remember our home

Perfumed by a wonderful vanilla flavor like

 

We were in the finest bakeshop.  You would wear your

Prolific long hair in single and double braids, even as you

Would tend to the daily offerings at the little

Shrine in the alcove.  This is where we learned how

Reverence for all great teachers was vital for a wholesome

Life.  At your shrine, we would find Gopala

Kali and Saraswati right alongside Buddha and Jesus.  You

Observed most of our special days on the calendar, and

This included feeding the animals- chiefly cows

And dogs which roamed our streets.  Once you told me

A truly beautiful face ought to be paan-shaped.  Hence

You particularly liked Jackie Kennedy, about whom

 

I do not doubt you knew a whole lot more.  Inspired by

Your admiration, I sketched a portrait of Jackie which

Hung till the very end on our kitchen wall.  Thus

Were you in touch with the corners of this world and

Likely others as well.  There were times of great privation-

Once, I remember, Baba was a few days late

Returning from his office tour.  Your rations meanwhile

Had run out.  I do not know if you simply starved yourself

For you fed us boys whatever you could assemble

In that moment of want.  One night there was nothing

More than chapatis and tea.  A woman who rode with Yuri

Gagarin and Valentina into space in her mind

 

Had nothing at home to assuage her hunger.  But you

Faced it all with grace, we schoolboys knew very little.

Then came April 4th of ’68, and MLK’s assassination

Was all over the news at All India Radio.  I remember this

Moved you very deeply.  You opened the pages of Desh

            From several years earlier, and read to us his

March on Washington and the history-making

I have a Dream speech.  We understood about slavery and

Civil Rights in another part of the world.  Who

Can tell for sure- but perhaps your mind was occupied by

This event when you took that fall from the stairway

To the terrace.  It appeared to be nothing more than

 

A sprained wrist.  Baba was away on tour; the doctor

Suggested turmeric rubs and a cloth poultice until Baba

Arrived and had you X-rayed and the injury fixed.

Baba received news and arrived the earliest he could.  They

Found a hairline fracture and localized swelling.  On that

Fateful day, you were to visit the hospital with

Baba to get the arm bandaged for healing.  With your one

Good arm, you fixed lunch for us boys so we could eat

After school, just in case they were delayed getting

Back.  I recall it being said that you carried the anesthetic

Which took your priceless life in your own hands.

The coming back never happened.  The tragic events

 

VII.    Life Lessons

 

Which occurred are still a blur.  All I remember is

Bhattacharya Kakucame to pick us up to take us to the

Hospital in the middle of the afternoon- a distraught

Bhattacharya Kaku.  Once at the hospital, he pointed to a room

And said to us- “Go see your Ma.  It is all over.”  Moments

Later- life as we had known it, came crashing into

The savage earth.  Baba, for whom this happened a second

Time, literally fell into pieces.  A telex went to Kolkata, and

A day later, it was my Mejopishe (who so lovingly

Brought you food during my tonsillectomy) who rushed to

Allahabad to rescue this family torn asunder.

In the deafening cacophony which followed we heard

 

All manner of rationales:  air bubbles in the syringe, overdose

Of pethidine, a possibly weakened heart.  Who would ever

Know?  Your abrupt passage signifies what amazing

Lives filled with promise are lost in the cycles of life.  It was

As though a menacing curtain had befallen my magical life.

Ma- when they brought you for the last time to

Allenganj- through my endless fountain of tears, I remember

Touching your face through the shroud that covered you-

My last contact with the one who not only brought

Me here, but literally shaped every nuance of my life.

Fifty years ago, today, we carried you to the Ganges- you,

Whose physical life had traversed theIravati,

 

The Barakar, and the Ganges, were consecrated to the celestial

River, right at PrayagTirtha, one of the great SatiPithas.

Half a century has since passed.  I have recorded my

Encounters with many in life, and hope to do a great bit more

As long as the Vidhata would allow me.  Yet, I have never

Written a word about you- your memory much too

Sacred to me.  A memory which, as the Upanishads describe

Any attempt to simply vocalize Brahman ending up lessening

The same.  I must mention, in the fortieth year, when

My own Trisha visited the SaraswatiGhat, I watched her from

A distance- and she was your splitting image- the face, the eyes

The hair.  You had returned to your formerly little

 

Boy- now as his little girl to take care of, and to teach all the

Great lessons you taught us.  Ma- I watch the world and see

The perpetual cycles of hatred, the base instincts of

Man predominant over all the higher ideals.  The science you

You so loved, the flights of Man into space you so enshrined

Into your being- all that progress has not minimally

Advanced what you exemplified in your few years with us-

In the poet’s words:  তারাবলেগেলক্ষমাকরোসবে, বলেগেল

ভালোবাসো, অন্তরহতেবিদ্বেষ-বিষনাশোl  You taught me

The meaning of nobility- as Swamiji said, the divinity in

All beings is intrinsic.  Not money, not power, not vanity

Not ego, not rewards.  May that lesson yet save our world.

Dr. Monish R. Chatterjee, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in applied optics, has contributed more than 120 papers to technical conferences, and has published more than 60 papers in archival journals and conference proceedings, in addition to numerous reference articles on science.  He has also authored several literary essays and four books of literary translations from his native Bengali into English (Kamalakanta, Profiles in Faith, BalikaBadhu, and Seasons of Life).  Dr. Chatterjee believes strongly in humanitarian activism for social justice.

3 Comments

  1. K SHESHU BABU says:

    A fitting tribute to a great soul – ‘ Mother ‘ ..

  2. Farooque Chowdhury says:

    “ঝরাপাতাগো, আমিতোমারিদলে …”, jharaa paataago, aamee tomaaree dale, me, with you, o fallen leaf — nice remembrance. Thanks Professor Chatterjee.