Short Story: Memory of a Life not Lived


By Mallika Bhaumik

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It was an October morning when the call came from the hospital. Anwesha’s Puja vacation was not yet over. Her eyes were glued to the laptop screen when her phone rang. She heard and quietly went and stood near the kitchen door where Bina di was cutting vegetables. Though the news was not at all unexpected, yet Anwesha could not find the words to express it. Bina di, who had worked in the house for the last fifteen years, looked up and saw Anwesha standing.
The stillness of the moment conveyed the loss. She pulled her anchal (loose end of a saree) over her mouth to stifle a sob.
Anwesha changed into her jeans and shirt, took her handbag and went out. She called two of her colleagues who had always been with her through thick and thin.
Anwesha wished Kuhu mashi (maternal aunt) was by her side but she was visiting her daughter in Sydney. She was her mother’s childhood friend and had stood behind their family like a rock.
It was a Sunday. As the festive feel of Durga Puja still clung on, the hospital was lacking in adequate staff. It took quite a while to get the death certificate and finish all the formalities. Anwesha brought her mother home in a hearse carriage at around noon.
They did not have many relatives in Durgapur, some people from the condominium came and a few of Anwesha’s colleagues and students. It was a hushed goodbye, Bina di wept the most. Many of her relatives, who were from Kolkata called, Kuhu mashi from Sydney and Saurabh from North Carolina called to find out and express their sorrow. Anwesha felt drained out by the end of the day. She went to bed with a dull headache and slept heavily through a dreamless night.
The following days were chaotic, Anwesha wanted a memorial evening with close friends — some Tagore songs her mother loved, some poetry and anecdotes. However, Bina di succeeded in persuading and convincing her to get a priest and do a simple ritual of Shradhdh (Hindu death rituals). Anwesha bade farewell to her mother’s physical existence, though she had slowly and gradually inched away from life, over the years.
Anwesha’s father had died in an accident when she had just graduated. Anwesha realised that almost nine years later, she had become an orphan.
Saurabh had called frequently. His family members too had called up. Anwesha realised that this passing away of her mother, had in a strange way ushered in a fresh hope to revive the stagnant relationship between her and Saurabh. Her mother’s advancing Alzheimer disease had stood between them like a high wall. She hated to think that Saurabh must have felt relieved on hearing the news but the thought somewhat surged back to her every time she pushed it away.

A fortnight later, Anwesha joined her college and got into the normal rhythm of routine once more. The house had become unusually quiet without her mother and her caregiver Sabita, who was God send almost with the patience of a hermit. While coming back from college, Anwesha found the children cycling by and she looked up to see their balcony, remembering her mother sitting there every afternoon with Sabita behind her wheelchair, watching the children. When they waved to her, she would wave back on some days.

The tring tring of their cycle bells became a painful sound to Anwesha, as the empty balcony stared on. Anwesha, though relieved of all duties and anxieties, felt only unencumbered and empty. She had deprived herself of all the pleasures and ambitions of life and with the end of the battle, found herself plunging into a never ending fatigue; her fortitude and grit all suddenly becoming redundant.
The look in her mother’s eye haunted her, it was a look of fear and suspicion. She found those eyes everywhere.
The last two years of her life were really tough. She went about the house in a wheel chair after the fracture of her hip bone, sometimes kept silent for almost the entire day. The doctor had told them that it was a degenerative disease, but Anwesha had no idea that within a span of twelve years it would grow to such a proportion that it would alter all their lives. Forgetting never wore a more sinister look than what she had experienced with her life.
Her mother’s world gradually became misty, lonely, full of strangers. Despite being her only child, Anwesha had no key to the blurred grey zone of her mind’s confusion. Her helplessness bordered on irritation at times. The bitter taste of life and later death lingered on and Anwesha knew she would have to live with it.
When her mother was initially diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, she developed a habit of jotting down the names of her near ones and events like birthdays, and all that she deemed important to her, in a diary. However, her Alzheimer’s was relentless and progressed with such a vengeance and rapidity that the diary was forgotten too.
Her father’s death in a car crash worsened the condition and it was Anwesha, who kept on fighting stubbornly against Alzheimer’s. She had to pay a high price for it. She could not move out of Durgapur, her dream of doing her research work in a foreign university took a backseat. It took a toll on her long-standing relationship with her college senior Saurabh Dasgupta, who had proposed marriage to her, but Anwesha had no other option than to decline. Saurabh’s family quite understandably wanted to see him settled, but he was adamant and had kept on waiting much to the disappointment of his ageing parents.
Anwesha’s mother had stopped being her guardian long back, rather their roles were reversed. It was Anwesha who mothered her mother. Her sole guardian was Bina di who took care of her, ran the house, loved and argued with her and at times advised her too.

One day when Anwesha was going through her mother’s wardrobe with Bina di, they came across her wedding saree, a resplendent magenta Benarasi with golden bootis (small patterns) all over. Bina di, on seeing it, gathered all her worldly wisdom and courage and blurted out,” You must get married now, your mother’s spirit would feel happy, trust me,” and added “how long can the man wait?”

Anwesha smiled and asked, “So you want to get rid of me?”

But nothing could dissuade Bina di. She replied, “Let your Kuhu mashi come back, I will talk to her.” Anwesha loved the way Bina di filled the gap that Alzheimer’s created in her life.
Anwesha’s fingers caressed one green and pink zari (gold thread) bordered saree that she and her father chose as her mother’s anniversary gift, while they were touring South India. She was very happy to get it and wore it while they were at Kanyakumari. Anwesha remembered clicking her parents’ photograph with her new camera on that day, with the sea as the background. All the sarees had some stories written over them perhaps. Later with her mother’s illness getting the better of her, she almost always wore a maxi and her sarees remained unused, yet the wardrobe had her mother’s smell stored in it.

It was not long before Anwesha sat down with Kuhu mashi on another Sunday afternoon, sharing grief, reminiscing her mother and reliving the memories. Kuhu mashi took the initiative of talking to Saurabh’s family. It was decided that Saurabh would come in the following August and in a very simple ceremony they would finish their marriage registration. The flat would remain locked till Anwesha decided what to do with it. Bina di would be given a decent amount of money that would take care of her needs for the rest of her days. Everything looked settled and perfect.

Bina di was at once happy and sad. Kuhu mashi quickly swung into ‘managing the marriage’ mode and wanted Anwesha to see her mother’s jewellery and check if she would like to remodel anything and whether her mother’s gold bangles would fit her or not. Anwesha had never been interested in jewellery, but she went to the bank and brought home a box from the locker.
When she opened the box, she found some gold bangles, a neckpiece of pearl and emerald with matching earrings and other small items and a folded paper that appeared to be a letter. It was a piece of writing by her mother — in her neat round handwriting she had written down in a page of her diary,
“This is for me to remember you, Samir. When I fell in love, I never thought that a day will come when I might forget everything, the fact that we love each other and even your face might simply fade from my heart. This is so hugely disappointing. A person always takes refuge in memories, people who are not in their lives always stay fresh and vibrant in their memory. I am truly unfortunate, since my doctor has said that it is my memory which will betray me with each passing day. I have been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. I wish to hold on to my memory since you live there and there is no other way of holding you close to my heart. I respect the fact that we will lead our respective lives and never give in to passion that might destroy our families. Hence, I will not post this. I will read this and keep our love alive in my heart. Remember me when I am no more. This is for you and me. Your beloved, Manasi.”

It was a secret locker of her mother’s heart that lay open in her hand. The very touch of it sent a tingling through her being. She had never found her mother in that light, sentimental and full of love, like a young college girl. Her desperate fight to hold on to the memory of love shook the very foundation of how Anwesha felt and fought the demoniac encroachment of Alzheimer’s in her mother’s life. She had no idea that her mother was also fighting hard in her own way to hold on to something that was beyond her mundane world, some delicate honeycombed feelings tucked away in a quiet corner of her memory. She tried to remember her mother of long ago, her pretty, petite frame, charming smile, her humming of Rabindrasangeet (songs of Rabindranath Tagore), her zest for life. Her eyes welled up , she wept for the first time for her mother, the mother she had not known, the mother who let the flickering light of her love live in a corner of her memory and did her best to guard it against the onslaught of Alzheimer’s.

It was up to Kuhu mashi to answer the flood of questions that churned within Anwesha . She remembered the diary which used to lie here and there and how her mother used to write certain names and things so that she could read and remember later. That was when she was in the early stage of Alzheimer’s.
Kuhu mashi said that she knew about her mother’s affair, and even her father, Arunava Sinha, had come to know of a new love that came as a spring blossom in his wife’s life. It was Samir Basu, who belonged to the same locality of Ahiritola in North Kolkata, where Arunava grew up in a large joint family. The warmth and camaraderie that neighbours shared in those days made it easy for Samir to stay at Arunava’s office quarters in Durgapur whenever he came for his own business. Arunava, who was slightly older than him welcomed him with open arms. He was an engineer working for DVC, a person of few words who buried himself in his office work and in the voluminous books of history and mythology, whereas Samir was a charming company, sharing the same interest in books, movies and Rabindrasangeet as Manasi. Her quiet days; spent mostly with her daughter Anwesha, were bathed in bright warm hues by Samir and she was swept off her feet before she could resist. His visits and their affair continued till the day Arunava found out. The couple had some bitter arguments at night which Samir happened to overhear from the guest room. He left in the wee hours of the dawn with a sorry note written to Arunava and never came back again. He once spoke to Manasi over the telephone, asking her to remember him and his love and that they could not keep on cheating their spouses and continue being lovers.
Almost a decade later, Arunava died in a tragic car crash. During the days spent together with her husband, Manasi made all efforts to erase that chapter and quietly carried on with life. Anwesha had passed out of high school and joined college, they had grown older and shifted to their new flat in another part of Durgapur. It was only when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, three years prior to Arunava’s sudden death that she panicked and tried to refresh her moth-eaten memory to treasure and seal the feeling of love and passion she had once felt for Samir. It was an intense feeling hitherto unknown to her, having never felt anything like that for any man, earlier or later.
Hence, she wrote a letter. However, Kuhu mashi had no idea who kept it in the locker inside the jewellery box, since it was difficult to believe that Anwesha’s mother had done it on her own, at that point of time and apart from her, it was her husband who had an access to the locker. Anwesha’s name was added much later.
The diary from which the page was torn had no contact number or address of Samir Basu, the man her mother loved.

After her marriage registration some ten months later, while packing her suitcase for USA, Anwesha carefully put the piece of paper in her file along with her papers and certificates. She wished to keep alive the memory of a life her mother longed for but could not live. The piece of paper had become a legacy, she left behind along with her jewellery and Anwesha did not wish to lose the mother that the paper carried yet she had never known. She stopped seeing the fearful, suspicious eyes of her old, weary mother in the house any longer, instead she remembered her young mother smiling under the brightness of the sun, humming her favourite Rabindrasangeet, ‘amaro porano jaha chai, tumi tai, tumi tai go‘ (you are what my heart desires).

 

pp (2)Mallika Bhaumik‘s poems have been published online in  The Woman Inc.,The Wagon Magazine, Cafe Dissensus (USA), Oddball magazine (USA), Spark magazine, Narrow Road, Pangolin Review (USA), Shot Glass journal (USA), The Metaworker, Mad Swirl, (USA) In Parentheses (USA ) Harbringer Asylum,(USA) The Local Train magazine,(UK )Madras Courier to name a few.
Her short stories, travelogue, interviews have been published in Ethos Literary Journal, Stag Hill journal {from the University of Surrey – creative writing dept.} (UK) Get Bengal, Learning and creativity silhouette mag (USA), Cafe Dissensus (USA) [travelogue]
She has received the Reuel International prize for her debut poetry book, Echoes,(2017) published by Authorspress (New Delhi). Her second book of poems, How not to remember has been published by Hawakal Publishers(2019). She is a Pushcart Prize nominee for poetry for the year 2019. She lives and writes from Kolkata (India )

 

 

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3 comments

  • Ronald Tuhin D'Rozario

    This is a beautiful sad story. It’s too intense especially at the places where we (the readers) get to understand about the sense of desperation in the heart of the protagonist’s mother — she knew she was forgetting yet she felt helpless for not being able to do something to withhold the process. This intense fight in her to hold back something which is slipping off her territory is so intense and prominent that it hits hard while reading.
    Didi, you tend to put a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the domestic help. They carry a lot in their heart since the beginning and not only that — they tend to shoulder a lot of weight even during the time of crisis to keep things in proportion on the lives of the protagonist of most of your stories. Like it is mentioned in the story I too deeply feel sometimes that they are God sent — had it not been their way of handling the issues, the families would have been broken long back. Though they are the side characters in the story but they do play a very important role.
    There is another element I’ve found in the story — you have used the element of five senses in the story very very effectively and profoundly. It is in subtle layers, but a careful reading reveals it absolutely.
    I also loved the element of — the sound of the cycle bell and the chaos that the children made which adds up to two different dimensions the first is — it is the only sound that kept the mother feel alive amidst loneliness and her battle with the disease and also later how that same element of chaos and the joys of children brings in a shift of opposite feelings of — annoyance and anger in the protagonist’s (daughter’s) ears.

    Loved the story very very much. You are truly a gifted writer, didi. Congratulations on this one and wishing you the very best for many more creative pieces which I would eagerly wait for to read. Thank you, for writing such a beautiful story. Joys.

  • So very mesmerized to read your short piece…
    Congratulations from the heart..
    Keep it up..Di

  • authorabusiddik

    Lovely and a bit sad. Telling is delicate and touches of warmth found in each sentence. Meticulously crafted. Kudos !

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