11 May 2019 – Ma doesn’t come in my dreams. She absolutely refused in the initial months after her death in August 2016. Then she relented a little. Came in all about 5 times in my dreams – 5 times in a year and a half. After that, for a whole year, I didn’t count. Because the few flimsy appearances she made in all that time – always hovering on the fringes of the scene unfolding in my mind – didn’t count for much. In life, she was right at the centre of my existence; after death, she was unwilling to play even a bit-part. As I say, she has utterly and completely abandoned me.
Not so with her first-born. She visits didi (my sister) regularly. I understand that that’s because didi thinks of Ma more often than I do and probably misses her more than me. I certainly do not believe that Ma favours her after death because she loves Ma more than me – that I’m not willing to concede.
It’s no surprise then – given how jilted I feel – that the dream about Ma that I remember the most is actually not mine, but one that didi had seen once and had described to me in great detail over the phone, sobbing the entire time.
This is what she saw: She is coming home from school in our school bus. She gets down at the Hudco crossing in Ultadanga. She expects to see Ma, but Ma is not there. She is confused. She looks around, scouring faces of pedestrians and people waiting to board buses. But no, Ma isn’t in the crowd. She waits for a while… her heart beating slightly faster now. Still no sign of Ma. She now hops onto the Ultadanga bridge, an unknown fear gripping her belly, and impelling her feet to speed up; so that before she knows, she has already crossed the bridge, and come down on the other side, facing Kankurgachi, just before ‘Uttarapan’ – just as she does with Ma every day (though at a much more relaxed pace). She is now not so much going home as going in search of Ma. But before she can jump out of the last leg of stairs and into the pavement, as she is wont to, lo and behold… there is Ma, sitting just at the point she is about to jump from, her head slightly bent. “What happened? Where were you? I was looking for you…”, didi is almost screaming now, shock and anger and relief pouring forth in equal measure. Ma doesn’t seem to mind her rude behaviour (otherwise unacceptable to her). She simply looks up at didi and says, in a tone of infinite sadness: “I was waiting for you”.
Didi was inconsolable after seeing that dream, because there was a paradox there: the body and face that she saw in the dream was of our younger mother, the mother of two pre-pubescent girls, but the voice was much older. It was the voice, with its particular tone of sadness, that we heard over phone calls – continents away, decades later. Didi’s dream had thus made two moments from completely different times in our lives immanent in each other. Central to it was waiting. And that voice? In time, that voice would override/overwhelm every other memory associated with Ma – because that’s practically all we had of her in the last 10 years of her life. She had, in effect, become a voice for us.
When didi recounted the dream to me, while hearing this part – the waiting part – a shiver ran down my spine, remembering another mother-daughter story. “Waiting for you”… what could it mean? Oh God!…. then I checked myself. I didn’t tell anything to didi.
Letting/ Not letting go
The story that I decided not to tell didi was a story that a dear friend of mine (B) had shared with me. About another friend of hers. A mother-daughter story – the strangest bonding I’ve ever heard of. She shared it with me to console me soon after Ma’s death – when I told her of how bereft I felt that I couldn’t talk to Ma even in dreams. “Your mother has liberated you”, my friend had said, “let you go, so that you can lead your own life”. We usually talk of “letting go” from the survivor’s perspective, the one who is left behind after the death of a dear one. We are supposed to “let go” of the dead. But B was saying something else: the dead also need to “let go” of the living. While this seems/sounds obvious, not all do. Like the mother of this friend of B’s.
B’s friend, P, and her mother, were exceptionally close. Had always been. B not only knew it, but had also witnessed it herself many times when she visited P’s home. P and her mother were both academics, though in different disciplines – one was a doctorate in Bengali literature, the other in Linguistics – and shared a strong intellectual bond, apart from their filial relationship. P’s mother died in late 2016. P was distraught; and in her grief, would even neglect her small child. She would often see her mother in her home in Bangalore (where the latter had been a frequent visitor). One day, after returning home from office, even her husband saw her mother – sitting quietly on their couch, in a gesture of waiting. He was petrified. But he didn’t share his experience with his wife, wanting to spare her further perturbation. P fell ill soon after with pneumonia and had to be admitted to a hospital. She missed her mother. But maybe, her mother missed her even more. For, when her condition deteriorated and it became necessary to put her on ventilator, she refused it, saying: “Ma is here to take me, my time has come”. And that is indeed what happened – P left this world to join her mother on the other side of life.
It’s the eeriest of stories that I’ve ever heard. Can a mother snatch away her daughter like that? Miss her so much that she cannot allow her to live? Be totally unconcerned about the daughter’s husband and child? I don’t know. Most mothers, even when they share a strong bond, seem to want nothing more than their daughters settling down well with their partners (and children). P’s mum was certainly an exception!
Hearing that story had really consoled me in 2016. Despite my grief, I certainly preferred being liberated/left behind; and I remember I’d felt both relieved and reassured that my mother had “let go” of me. Relieved, because it was such a scary story; reassured, because it was in sync with my mother’s selfless character. She had had enough of life. She had said her goodbye, and now just wanted to leave us in peace with our own pursuits and passions.
That consolation of 2016, however, didn’t last long for me – for before long, I again craved to see Ma in a dream, craved desperately to talk to her, hear her voice. She wouldn’t come to me. So, I would avidly hear didi’s dreams.
That dream of didi’s that I remember the most took us back to our school days – when Ma used to wait for us. She would go to Ultadanga (from our flat in Kankurgachi, a 10 minute walk) to pick us up – in order to save 40/50 minutes of our time on our way back from school. Reason? Our school bus picked us up earliest in the morning and dropped us last in the afternoon, after taking a detour from Ultadanga-Hudco and dropping all the girls in Salt Lake. How unfair!
Ma wanted to give us relief, decrease a bit of our fatigue. She was so completely given over to being our mother! And always and ever, she waited for us. Waited for us to come home from school, then from college and university. Every waiting had a distinct flavour: in the school phase, it was in happy anticipation – of sharing our day, our new learnings and excitements; in the college/university phase, it was more like waiting for two friends to come home and join her for a chat over evening tea. But that gave way to an altogether different kind of waiting – when we both left home in 1999 (me for another home, didi for another city), and then the country in 2006/2007. That waiting was from an empty nest – waiting to see me once a week or fortnight, didi once a year; then, with a tremendous longing, waiting to have us together at home once a year, sometimes once in two years for a few days.
By the time we left home in 1999, Ma had no friends left in her life but us. The constraints of the life that she had chosen for herself after leaving her career didn’t allow such luxuries. There were siblings, relatives, and acquaintances galore, of course – but those were more ties of duty and obligation, or had to to do with the maintenance of civil/genial social relations. There was no equivalent of a friend there, with whom Ma could share her interests or really open up her heart. Ma had an active life of the mind: she read and wrote, watched KBC with a pen and paper in hand (always jotting down new information), occasionally saw films which she would then discuss with me over the phone. She was also engaged through the day with domestic chores, which she insisted on doing herself till the last day of her life – but the beating heart of her daily routine was gone. Her life revolved around us for two-and-a-half decades; when we left, it was never the same again for her. She never wanted us back in Kolkata after we left – she genuinely respected our individual trajectories – but she sorely missed us. And waited to see us.
I remembered this waiting…. and then I understood the true meaning of “I was waiting for you”.
You waited for us, Ma, for so long – year in and year out. And now when I have come back, you are no more. There’s so much that I need to tell you… so much… but no, I won’t talk to you. It is now a proven fact that you love didi more than me.