The same day, the same time last year, I had gone to sleep with the knowledge that both my parents are alive. Then, around four in the afternoon, I got the call that I dreaded. I had always expected such a call at an odd hour, like eleven in the night or two in the morning.
At four in the afternoon, I had just finished lunch and was getting ready for work. I was feeling good and fit when I stood in front of the mirror and wore my favourite black T-shirt. That's when the call came. My father broke the news rather apologetically. As if he was sorry that my schedule had to be disrupted. After he hung up, I called my wife and then went on to wear my jeans and splash aftershave on my chest and face. The splashing of the aftershave was an involuntary act undertaken to buy time: I needed to think, with a cool head, how to get to Benaras as quickly as possible.
Driving to the airport, I felt somewhat relieved. My biggest fear was over now. I no longer had to worry about my mother dying. But it was during this drive that another fear took over: can I bear to see her lying on a bed of ice? With each passing moment, the eventuality of seeing her in that state was coming horrifyingly closer. I wanted the clock to slow down. But time is a bitch: it always takes you to places where you don't want to go. So the next afternoon, I was in Benaras.
August is a strange month for me. My wife's birthday is on the 23rd, my mother died on the 28th, I cremated her on the 29th, and her birthday is on the 31st. If my mother had waited for just three more days, she could have witnessed her 59th birthday; and if for eight more days, she could have seen her son as a published author. This is one regret I shall always carry throughout my life.
I think I have coped quite well with the loss of my mother. I have not shed a tear till date. Though I dream about her frequently. The dreams occur mostly in the mornings, when I am half asleep and half awake. But even during such dreams, I am fully conscious of the fact that my mother is no more. Even this morning, I dreamed about her. It was again an early-morning dream: we are visiting a hill station when someone raises an alarm that my mother has collapsed and is dead. As I rush up the stairs in my dream, it suddenly occurs to me, "My mother has already died once, so what if she dies again?" And then, another thought comes, "I saw her being burnt to ashes, how can she come alive to die a second time?" I soon realised it was only a dream, and I turned around and slept for some more time.
But a few days ago I came very close to crying. I was surfing channels while having lunch when I stumbled upon disturbing images that were so familiar to me: National Geographic channel was showing a documentary on the burning ghats of Benaras. It became impossible for me to swallow the food. The images were so stark and real that they took me back to the darkest day of my life.
I distracted myself by thinking of a half-written manuscript sitting inside a folder in my laptop. I reminded myself that I have to finish it someday and show it to the publisher. It will be an account of Benaras, from the eyes of a traveller who also happened to cremate his mother there. Though I hesitate to go back to it because writing it would mean reliving those moments again and again. Sharing a few paragraphs with you:
Considering that the fear of losing you had tormented me for so many years, I was surprisingly calm when I received the news. I had just finished lunch and was about to get ready for work when father called. “Your mother is no more,” he told me. He was very calm. He then gave me the details: how you, him and brother were having lunch, sitting in a circle on the floor, like many Bengali families still do, when you suddenly arched back and went lifeless in a matter of seconds, in the arms of brother.
After he hung up, I called up wife and also my office. Then I got up and wore my jeans and put on some aftershave lotion. I smiled at myself in the mirror. I wanted to see if a man whose mother had just died was capable of smiling. I was. Tell me, ma, was there anything abnormal about smiling at that hour? For years you were caught in the battle between life and death, and now the battle had finally ended and there was peace. Doesn’t matter if death won; death had to win someday. Life is sand, death is concrete. Life is uncertain, but death certain. Why not make peace with the victor than hopelessly siding with the soon-to-be-vanquished?
I even smiled at colleagues who started coming in after they got the news. But they did not return my smile. For a fraction of a second I found it odd, then I realised that they are not supposed to be smiling at the moment. I quickly wiped the smile off my own face. They all asked me how it happened. I repeated what father had told me. Calls started coming. I repeated the story each time. In less than an hour, I had repeated the Last Lunch story so many times that it felt as if I was reporting your death first-hand. As if I had been in Benaras, all of us sitting in a small circle on the floor and having lunch when you suddenly decided to say goodbye.
Lunch with you all is one scene I can report or describe with hundred per cent accuracy without even being there. It is like describing a man brushing his teeth. All our lives, whenever we were all together, we ate sitting on the floor. That was the ritual. Remember the dining table which father bought while we were away on summer vacation some twenty-five years ago? Father wanted to give us a surprise, but the dining table – poor father! – was destined to be used for every purpose other than eating. I still believe that when a meal is seasoned with mother’s love, it is best savoured sitting on the floor: the mother has better access to her children’s plates, be it to serve some extra daal for the protein or to drop some delectable chunks of mutton. The dining table is a bit too formal for the comfort of an Indian mother.