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Friends and family called, they came home, talked to me, holding me, comforting me. They knew I was suffering. Then one day a friend draped a length of new fabric around my shoulders, saying: this is what your mother did for us when I lost my father, this is our ancient custom she had explained to us, the way our people moved on, recognizing, accepting that the cycle and rhythm of life must continue. Take it as her blessing. I broke down crying. She hugged me and then suddenly told me to write, express all that I feel, venting my grief, unburdening it. She told me it was one of the proven ways of coming to an acceptance of one’s loss, that it would help release all my sorrow, send it out into the all absorbing universe, leaving me lighter. I looked at her disbelievingly. How could I even think of writing at a time like this? But here I am, facing my other friend, my wise all absorbing computer screen, wondering, asking, where is the sense in all this…

Yes, my mother passed away a few weeks ago. The one who had been the constant pivot of all my life, the one I knew would always be with me, by my side, on my side. The one who had first held my hand those many, many years ago, showing me how to form those magic alphabets, as I had sat on her lap, a gray slate on mine, a slim white pencil in my right hand. The one who had taught me to read, recognize words, say them aloud. The one whose beautiful face would be suffused with happy pride when I would return from my kindergarten class in school prattling away, the rhyme ringing through the house: Sing Mother, sing! Can Mother sing? Mother can sing!

Of course, she could sing. There was wonderful rich music in every fibre of her being, music in her very soul. They were all her songs, the song of life, the song of love, of compassion, patience, forgiveness, duty, songs of beauty, of grace, charm and elegance. And so many more. Millions more. The ones we three children learnt, from her womb, from her heart, from her lips, her eyes, the gentle stroke of her hand, the almost imperceptible shake of her head, her soft loving embrace, from every breath she took.

When selecting the music for the prayer meeting after her passing, I found myself drowning in the huge aching hollow that now dwelt in my heart. Weeping, for all that was now lost. Those glorious years when my parents, Ai and Dada, would sit out in our Jamshedpur garden, listening to their treasure trove of LPs, Dada nursing his gin and lime, my mother her cup of Lipton Green Label tea. The soft cajoling strains of Vilayat Khan’s Tilak Kamod, the playfulness in Ravi Shankar’s Maanj Khamaj, the purity in Paluskar’s Jab Jankinath Sahay Kare, the captivating nuances in Bhimsen Joshi’s Sakhi Shyam Nahi Aaye in Chaaya Malhar, Bade Ghulam Ali Khan’s poignant Saiyan Bolo, millions more: they all symbolized the deep love they had for each other. I see them together, relaxing in our outdoor cane chairs, Dada returned from work, in his comfortable kurta pyjama, Ai in her simple white cotton saree, mogra or juhi buds wreathed around her bun, smiling, happy, content. I hear him calling her, Lata, my dear! I see her face turned towards his. Is it truly just a memory now?

I see her in all of Lata Mangeshkar’s songs, Aayega Aanewala, O Sajana, Muhabbat Aisi Dhadkan Hai, O Mujhe Kisise Pyaar Ho Gaya, millions more. My father would joke: all we have around us is Lata’s voice, my wife’s and the diva’s! Ai once wrote that Lata Mangeshkar accompanied her through every phase of her life, was present at every turn, opening her heart to every emotion a woman could feel. She identified with the romance in her film songs, the motherly love in her loris, the devotion in her bhajans.

I see her turning the pages of the books she would read. I hear her voice reciting passages written by Kalidaas, I feel her pleasure in his beautiful descriptions of Meghdoot. I sense her empathy for Pasternak’s Lara, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. I smile remembering her giggle with Wodehouse’s Summer Lightening. The Marathi greats, Ranjit Desai, Shivaji Sawant, Madgulkar, Pu La: I see her mesmerized face, hungrily reading their masterpieces. I see her enthralled face watching a Mughal-e-Azam, the ever enduring romantic in her tingling with excitement as a regal Dilip Kumar wooed his ethereally beautiful Madhubala, all in chaste Urdu.  I see her again watching the series of Bangla films with Suchitra Sen and Uttam Kumar. And then later I see her learning to read the Dnyaneshwari, imbibing its message, familiarizing herself with the Marathi of old; deciphering the Sanskrit in the Bhagwad Geeta and the Upanishads, absorbing their philosophy, their spirituality. I remember feeling proud of her, my mother, the ease with which she befriended languages, made them her own, made their stories her own. I have all these memories. And millions more.

As we browsed through her photographs, I saw her life pass by. She had been a loved child of a lawyer father and a brave mother who had plunged headlong into India’s struggle for freedom. I saw her wait anxiously for a glimpse of her imprisoned mother, I read the letters they exchanged, saw the saree my grandmother embroidered during her months in jail as a birthday gift for her daughter. My heart cried with hers as she mourned the cruelly untimely demise of her Ai, the one who had sacrificed so much for the nation’s independence, only to be snatched away a year after her dream had come to fruition.

I saw my parents meet, I saw her frankly admiring gaze, her appreciation for his sophistication, his intellect. And I saw him, smitten by her beauty, her charm. I saw her as
a beautiful bride, then setting up house in far away Jamshedpur, their growing love. I saw her hold her firstborn, my eldest sister Pratima, in her arms, whispering to her that she had given her the greatest gift of all, the gift of motherhood. Later she would write that Pratima grew to be her best friend in life, the one she shared everything with, confiding all her heart’s secrets, her true sakhi. Then I saw her with Anjali, and then with me. Three daughters. I felt her anguish when she had been berated by some for not giving birth to a son. I saw my father insisting in response that daughters were just as good as sons. I saw her standing up to them later, telling them that her daughters were far more precious than any son could ever be.

Daughter, sister, wife, mother, grandmother, the quintessential woman, she reveled in all her roles. She brought us into this world, breathed, talked, walked with us. She opened our eyes to all around and all within. She taught us how to live. To let live. Our family grew, sons in law joined the fold, grandchildren were born, and in due course, a great grandson as well. She doted on them all, especially her grandchildren, indulging all their wishes. She followed their lives, their careers, their choices, was unabashedly proud of them. Social worker, neighbour, friend, companion, she touched so many lives, brought a smile to so many faces, soothed away so many troubles.

And then I see her alone after Dada’s passing, she who had been in the centre of a large circle of love and happiness, now grieving, disconsolate. I see her picking herself up, returning to us, albeit to a life without him. I see her battling illness, loneliness, I see her becoming feeble and frail. I see her moving into our house, her interest rekindled. I see her in her bedroom asking our maid, has Rohini returned home from class? Where is she? Is she busy? I come in, Ai, Ai, what are you doing sweetheart, come, sit with me in the living room, come let’s have tea. Should we sit in the garden? I see so many different birds here, Rohini, she would say. Ai, come and see, there is an entire colony of weaver bird nests at the back, and she would accompany me, leaning on her walking stick, her eyes lighting up with wonder as she saw their neat craft, marveling at the little weaver birds flying about, chirping away, busy. Nature is so wondrously beautiful, she would say. Yes, the one who was an ardent fan of Raja Ravi Varma’s art, the one who could arrange flowers exquisitely in Ikebana styles, the one who would be overwhelmed by the magnificence of our old temples and forts, always knew that the supreme artist was nature herself, that srushti had all the magic canvas at its command, all the magic colours, the magic brushes, and the magic strokes.

Who do I call out to now? Who asks for me? I drift around the house, lie on her bed, look at her framed photograph. Why did she go there, into that cold impersonal rectangle, doesn’t she know I need her still? The one I loved a million times more than I ever knew I did, why did she go so, so far away? I awaken at the middle of the night, longing for her to come back, to hear her voice, to see her face, to hide in her warm safe embrace.

Don’t cry, they tell me, bid her a smiling adieu. How does one do that? How will that hollow in my heart ever be filled again? How does it heal? And then all the wisdom that we as humans have gathered over the centuries, reminds me that time heals all. She had taught me that too, along with the concept of Maaya, the illusion that is this world and this life, the innate fallacy in expecting anything around us to remain constant, that all is inherently nashvar. There is that old wise owl inside me, the one who is awake with me at night, the one that hoots silently, telling me that this too will pass, that this intense grief will recede, and that I will be left with just the comforting warmth of all my special memories, millions of them. Millions more.

That I will see her again, walking with me, beside me, in me. I will hear her voice again every time a kind soothing word is spoken. I will see her smile again every time a child gurgles away. I will inhale her fragrance again when the mogras, juhi and parijaat bloom. I will caress her again when I touch the fabric of the cotton saarees woven by the craftsmen of Bengal. I will eat with her when I cut the first mangoes of the season, or pick up a spoonful of her favourite ice cream. I will pray with her whenever I hear the Raamraksha recited.

And then I stare into the darkness around me, hoping, wishing fiercely that my adult cynicism and my rational premise of the myth of afterlives come crashing down. That the gentle loving soul that was my mother reincarnates, comes back to me, again as my mother, and that I be born of her again, however further on in time.  That I could hold her close and tell her again and again how much I love her, have always loved her, and always will, with every breath I take. That the only true circle of life I have ever known is the one she draws with her arms around me, my head buried in her bosom, my heart beating with hers. I long for that to happen….

Until then, Ai, my dearest, sing! Sing Mother, sing! For Mother can sing! For I will always hear you sing! For with you I will always sing! For as your beloved Zhivago’s beloved Lara always knew: Somewhere, my love, there will be songs to sing. All your songs. Millions of them, millions more. 




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