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January 12, 1999
A short pause
Mother died yesterday. Or was it today?
My favourite novel starts with these two sentences. L'Etranger by Albert Camus. Better known as The Outsider.
I feel like its protagonist Meursault today. For when your mother dies you lose all sense of time. The grief is so overwhelming that you do not even know where to begin, how to cry.
I am luckier than most people. I knew she was dying. I was, you could say, ready for it. She was old, ninety years old. Born in the first decade of the last century, she had seen everything that the world has now forgotten. Horse drawn tramcars on the streets of Calcutta. The coming of the first radio, the first typewriter. Her best friend in school threw a bomb at the Governor and went to prison. She was educated, more educated than my father and, as a teacher, earned more money than he did as the warden of a boys hostel. I was her youngest son, born when she was forty. More by accident than design, I guess.
I remember her as a teacher. A remarkable teacher who ended up as the first Indian vice principal of the school I went to. La Martiniere, founded by a French soldier of fortune who made enough money in India in the nineteenth century to set up three schools. One in Lyons where he was born and the other two in Calcutta and Lucknow. Schools in which some of the best known Indians studied. From Vivien Leigh and Merle Oberon to Harry Webb (alias Cliff Richards) to Arun Nehru, Vijay Mallya and my good friend Dilip De who was better known as DK in school.
My father died 21 years ago. He was her best friend and mine and had no business dying at 72. That, too, on his birthday. He was fit enough to live for a couple of decades more. But he had gone to visit his sisters in Jabalpore and, there, underwent a prostrate surgery that felled him. The surgery was fine but post-surgery care was inadequate and by the time I reached Jabalpore, hearing of the operation from someone else, he was already in a coma. He had specifically told everyone not to inform me about his hospitalisation because he was concerned that I would get unduly worried and might even hop onto a train and reach there.
And that is actually what I did the moment I heard about the surgery. But it was too late already. I sat beside him for ten long days, watching him die. It was an experience I would not wish on my worst enemy. The helplessness, the pain, the desperation of watching someone you love more than yourself dying before your eyes and not being able to do anything about it. I prayed. But what can prayers achieve in the face of death? I could not even cry. I cried, in fact, a whole week later when I realised that I would never ever meet him again. He was my best friend, my only confidante.
In many ways my mother died the day my father did. But her spirit was strong and even though she lost her will to live the moment she heard that my father had passed away, she did not show it. She lived with her grief, her pain for 19 long years till Alzheimer's mercifully took her memory (and to an extent, I guess, her pain) away. She stopped recognising me and all those around her and lived, like a frightened child, in a dark, fearful world of her own surrounded by phantoms she alone knew and could recognise. Once in a while, a window would open for a moment and the light would come streaming in. She would recognise me and say a few familiar words. Otherwise, she would sit all day in a dark corner and cringe.
Nurse after nurse came and went. It was an unbearable duty.
She would be ill at times and need hospitalisation. Once she broke her hip and we took her to the Hinduja hospital. Another time she caught a death of a chill and we put her into Jaslok next door. The doctors were wonderful and she recovered from both but I can never forget those terrible days when she lay in bed, a small, crumpled, little figure, shrunk to half her size, combating pain and suffering without anyone by her side. For she recognised no one, she did not even understand where she was and why there were so many tubes and needles poked into her. I could see the fear in eyes. I could see the pain, the helplessness, the complete lack of understanding as to why she lay strapped to a bed for days and none of us around her would set her free.
She came back home smaller in size. And even smaller in spirit. More lost than she ever was. More confused. More bereft of hope than I had ever seen her. The big banyan tree under whose shadow we all played and grew up had shrivelled into this tiny, dry plant whose twigs seemed as if they would break off at the slightest rush of wind. She was so frail, so frightened that I left her alone. There was no communication possible between us. It was only love that kept us bonded. When she cried out loud I would go up to her and take her face between my hands and she would keep quiet. Even though she did not recognise me there was something in the way she responded to my touch that told me she knew she was in safe hands. It was like hiding under a bed during an earthquake. It gave her some hope but that was all. Fear hijacked her entire life.
Fear of what? I do not know. Doctors say that it is a strange, all encompassing, never leaving fear that all patients suffering from Alzheimer's feel. An inexplicable, unknown miasma of dread that eventually destroys their will to live. I could see that happen to her. She would occasionally disappear for days inside a huge, ugly smog of hopelessness and not speak, not eat for days. We would plead, beg, shout, scream, threaten her. In fact, do anything and everything to wake her up to the world around her but she refused to budge. You could describe her world as virtual, sick. An imaginary world induced by the illness she suffered from but for her it was the only world she had, she knew.
She is gone now. She died yesterday or was it today, who knows? All I know is she is dead and I am left no wiser about life and death, happiness and sorrow, joy and anguish. The pain, ofcourse, will ease. I will be back at work tomorrow. I will write my usual columns, hop onto planes and go off to different cities. I will travel, campaign, fight for issues that I have always fought for. Smile, argue, politick, pick up the gauntlet thrown by life again. Everything will be back to normal.
But today I hope you will forgive me as I take a break from matters of state to write about my mother as her dead body lies on the cold floor, wrapped in an off white Bengali sari that evokes memories of the land she was born in, the culture she grew up with, the language she loved to speak, the literature she taught.
The agarbattis around her are glowing. There is a portrait of her and my father on the wall and far away, very far away the city bustles. To remind me that life goes on as usual.
For Mumbai it is just another busy day.
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