17 April 2020 – “Tell me a story”, Srishti says in her sweetest voice, late one night. She says so every night. I mostly oblige. She is usually all ears and full of questions. Also, very often, after I’m done, she ends up telling a story or two, herself: a mish-mash of cartoons she watches and her own vivid imagination. She expects to be complimented generously. I do. It’s a sacred ritual. But it is particularly late this night and I’m very tired. All I want to do is entwine her legs in mine, hold her close and go to sleep. But she simply doesn’t allow that. “MAMMA, TELL ME A STORY”, she hollers into my ears.

I start at that, but I can’t seem to remember any story from any book… anything at all. I tell her that, honestly… but she doesn’t give up. “OK”, she gets up, suddenly sitting upright in the dark, ready for negotiation, “tell me a story about your school”. “I just told you so the other day”, I remind her. “Tell me more”, she demands. I am quiet. She changes her tactic now, trying persuasion this time: “Thik hain, tell me about your summer holidays”. It strikes me that she is already treating the extended lockdown as a summer holiday… which it is, with all schools, colleges and universities in India now closed till June 10th.

Something happens to me then… my heart melts thinking of how well she has coped – given her tender years – with being at home for a whole month: keeping mostly to herself, studying fitfully, video-chatting with family and friends, trying to help me, sleeping more, and retreating more deeply into her imaginative world (read, drawing and talking to her “pretend friends” much more). I give her a tight hug. My sleep has suddenly vanished… and I tell her about a favourite aunt of mine – Shyambazar-er mashimuni. She was an elder cousin of my mother, on the maternal side. And we usually visited her during our summer (and puja) holidays.

I tell Srishti most of what I’ve recounted below…

 

*****

I don’t know Mashimuni’s name; ever since my childhood, it’s the place where she stayed in Calcutta that had been her identifying mark for me. I can enter Sikdar Bagan Street (where she lived) blindfold… I’d been there so many times. The whole family was an absolute favourite with us (my sister and me, that is) – Mashimuni, Mesho and Dadabhai, who was much older than us. In my childhood, I would borrow books from him – Alistair Maclean and stuff.

Mesho was one of six brothers, and they lived in a single room on the top third floor of a sprawling house situated in a narrow street, with a steep narrow staircase. I could never figure out why such a big house could not have more space on its stairs. I liked the spiral iron staircase that wound its way from the third floor to the big terrace upstairs, though, where Dadabhai would sometimes take us.

Since neither of the families had a telephone, we always went unannounced on afternoons – when the whole house was taking a nap – after watching a film at ‘Minar’ (Ma’s indulgence to us after our annual exams). Though, sometimes, this rudely woke up Mesho a tad early from his siesta, he invariably greeted us with a wide grin and a big hug. Dear Mesho – with his twinkling eyes, white hair, and thin wispy frame clad in neatly ironed-out white pyjama and punjabi – how we loved him! I often wondered how the family of three could manage to live in that one room. It was a big room, no doubt – with invisible partitions that designated different activities. At the centre was a huge Burma-teak high bed. All the pillows and covers were stacked neatly at one end, against the head post. At the far right end of the room, in a long row, was a Godrej-almirah, an alnah for daily clothes, and a bookcase. And as you entered the room, on the left corner, was a small kitchen – basically for tea and the odd snack. The family kitchen was downstairs, on the ground floor, where everyone had common meals cooked by the two women of the house. Only two of the six brothers were married, so the house resonated with bachelor laughter and camaraderie – with cards and carom and adda.

One of them lived upstairs, in the room right next door to Mashimuni and Mesho – a big, heathy man, with a hearty laugh, with whom Mashimuni shared a special bond. Mashimuni bonded well with all the other younger male members of the family – her deyars – as well, and actually spent more time with them than with her own husband.

Mesho was always pleased to meet us. He had already long retired from the gun-shell factory that he’d worked in by the time I was in kindergarten (the time of my earliest memory of that house), while Mashimuni, much younger than him, taught in a school. And since Mashimuni returned home only late in the afternoon, it fell to Mesho to make us tea – which he did lovingly. He wouldn’t trust that to anybody else. He made sweet milky tea, and then took out biscuits from an old Lactogen tin – so old, they must have been from Dadabhai’s childhood. All the paraphernalia for making tea and snacks were arranged neatly in a small rack against the wall – tins, cups and saucers, bowls and glasses, the odd pot and pan. He in fact squatted on the floor to make the tea.

He was very fond of us and teased us no end, whenever we visited. But he was fondest of Ma, having known her since she was a child. He was so protective about her that after her marriage, he would go to meet her at her in-laws every Sunday: just wanted to make sure that she was doing well in her new family – the huge joint household that she was married into. That of course stopped after a while, but Ma always remembered those early visits of his with the utmost gratefulness.

Whenever we visited, Ma and Mesho exchange pleasantries, but it was only when Mashimuni returned home from work that the real conversations began. The two sisters always had a lot of catching up to do. Basically enquiring about siblings and cousins and relatives and people they knew. And at least one portion was devoted to recalling their Hazaribagh days – when Ma had stayed with them. All kinds of embarrassing stories about Ma would surface then. So, a bit of nostalgia always. Ma was ‘bordi’, the eldest sister, to everyone in her much bigger paternal family. But here, on the maternal side, she was the little sister, and indulged as such by her ‘Didi-Jamaibabu’ – both so much older than her.

With every passing hour, the visit got more interesting. With Mashimuni coming, we usually had another round of tea, and then, with the coming of evening, Dadabhai brought what I most eagerly waited for – the evening snack! More often than not, it was either Chicken Roll or Mughlai Paratha – my favourite. I didn’t like egg much, but this avatar, I absolutely loved. Mesho took an evening bath unfailingly; and we went out in the terrace to chat – the three of us cousins.

Mashimuni and Ma had one thing in common – they both worried about widowed mothers and siblings who were not doing well. Both were just middle-class, but they were the best-off among their siblings, who were in much less fortunate circumstances than they, some with no stable incomes. The cousins actually came from vastly different backgrounds. Ma knew poverty from childhood, but Mashimuni was faced with reduced circumstances only much after her marriage.

She lost her father very young – but lived in plenty. A bachelor uncle ensured that – with a big house, servants, and an entire room for her. She was pampered and indulged by all. She married and first went to Allahabad; then, after a few years, came to Calcutta to live with her husband’s family. There was no mother-in-law in the house – so the two sisters-in-law became mother figures. She was always a quiet person – elegant, soft spoken, and neatly dressed. Most of her education happened after marriage – her Intermediate, BA, and B.Ed., after which she joined a Primary School where she worked all her life. The working woman was not an entirely new phenomenon in Calcutta when she joined the school – hence, her working did not create a hue and cry, especially as the money was required. But her domestic duties and her role as boudi (elder sister-in-law) didn’t reduce one bit. She would stand for hours in the kitchen in the evenings, making rotis, after a full day of work and commute by public transport. In the mornings, she would cut the sabji and go. Ma had never heard her complain. She was – and remained till the last – exceptionally hard-working without anyone ever noticing it. She was never loud-mouthed or articulate about what she did; didn’t have the kind of confidence that working women generally exude. Hers was a quiet personality.

 

*****
It’s after ages that I thought about her… thanks to Srishti!

“Do you have a picture of your mashimuni?”, she’d asked me that night, after listening about her great-aunt.

I showed her this photo – taken at a family wedding, most probably in 1996.