Updated: Jan 26
For as long as I knew my parents, they bickered. If Ma said the colour of grass in Bangladesh was green, Daddy would say it was yellow. The most frequent subject of dispute was ‘his’ decision to move back to India after twelve glorious years in England. Until their very last days, I believe that would have been the unresolved conflict. Every drama needs a conflict. Every conflict needs fuel to stoke the fire. These daily jabs at each other and occasional full-blown verbal combat kept their marriage burning for sixty years until they died like Romeo and Juliet within twenty days of each other, leaving me feeling like an orphan at the ripe old age of forty-four.
I nursed my grief like a secret sorrow. After all, who would grieve elderly, frail parents? I compared my loss to others and told myself, it is not great enough to talk about. Over the years I have poured out my feelings in a journal. Every anniversary of their passing, tears gather in my heart, the dam of memories break, and I mourn privately. Crying in public is not my style but perhaps sharing our loss in whatever form, is always cathartic. I miss their unconditional love, their constant selfless support. I miss that giant umbrella over my head, sheltering me from buffeting ill winds.
A colleague at work reminded me that no matter how old I was, they were my parents, and it was okay to feel bereft. A client told me she volunteered for Cruse since losing her young adult child and met me in a pub for a supportive chat. She taught me a valuable coping lesson: create a Memory Box and store objects, cards, photos, poems, or letters to look at from time to time. ‘Picture the box every night and close the lid so you can sleep,’ she said. I use that technique even now and have created a new one for Worries.
My parents knew each other from when they were teenagers. The two families lived in Rajshahi in Bangladesh, which was then part of British India. I think they were neighbours or lived close by. Some details are hazy. This is not an historical account. This story is gathered out of little shreds in conversations. They never liked to talk about the past. Past should be where it is meant to be. Why do you want to know what happened in Bangladesh? It is so long ago. I don’t remember. And so on. Then one winter morning, sipping a hot cup of chai with a shawl round their shoulders, they would reminisce, ‘Ah, but the rasagollas in Rajshahi were the best, no?’ Longing for pristine white paneer balls swimming in syrup, they would forget that morning’s battle and who the aggrieved party was.
They never talked about the Partition, the trauma of leaving home when the country was divided into three: India in the middle flanked by East and West Pakistan. The Hindus fled to India with nothing but a few belongings. The Muslims to Pakistan.
Despite the understandable reticence about delving into painful memories, some happy stories rose to the surface. My mother told me about the overnight train journey from Rajshahi to Kolkata when my father had accompanied her. She was travelling to Kolkata alone to attend a family wedding. He was returning to the capital to continue his studies in Medical College. He never left her side even when his lively mates tried to cajole him to join their game of cards. He shared his ambition of going to England to be a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons. ‘In your dreams,’ she laughed. They moved to England after their wedding and he passed his FRCS exam.
For six decades they were intrinsically bound to the point that it was not possible to imagine the existence of one without the other.
The last years of their lives, however, were a gradual decline. One fell ill and was hospitalised. Then the other.
I had to make difficult choices. Rushing back to India every time one of them fell ill. Hating to leave colleagues and family in the lurch. Judging each time whether it was worth a trip back. Was the end near, thereby justifying my trip? Weighing financial considerations and upheavals. Would sending money be better than taking up their precious time and energy, and causing additional expense looking after a visitor from abroad? I remember my outrage when the cook made my favourite dish, chingri malai curry, prawn in coconut sauce. No amount of insistence would make them treat me like a regular member of the family. Why had she cooked such a fancy meal when my father was ill in hospital and we should be careful with money? ‘But didi, you are home,’ she said simply. ‘You won’t get these prawns in England. Who will make something nice for you there?’ She called me ‘didi’, sister, to show love and respect. My mother insisted gently, ‘Your father would have wanted this,’ and put an end to my protests. I swallowed the delicious morsels like precious stones going down my gullet. Looking back, I know I caused disruption. But to see their faces light up as I walked in with my suitcase was knowing I had done the right thing.
It would be the last time I would see my father alive. My final memory of him is saying goodbye at his hospital bed. The nurse told me not to cry in front of him. I didn’t. I held his hand and promised he would see his grandsons again. I remember the printed cotton blouse I wore that day. Fourteen years later, it is in my ‘Do Not Throw’ box in the back of the wardrobe. When I left his room, I stood in the corridor sobbing until I was ready to face my mother.
As he lay in bed, confused from another stroke, I spent quality time with Ma. For the first time in years, we spoke like two women, not mother and child. She asked me if I was happy; if I minded having my marriage arranged. I laughed and told her it was a bit late to ask me that after nineteen years. She said, ‘I never knew you had a sense of humour’. I wondered why I had never joked with her before. Was there any hidden resentment or was it because I had left home at the age of twenty-one, never really knowing my mother except as a care giver? I reassured her that I was happy. She may have arranged the initial meeting, but I chose him. I said yes. I could have said no. We spoke openly about love and marriage.
Daddy pulled through that illness, but I knew it would not be long.
Two years later, I received a phone call from my father, in tears, letting me know that Ma would have to undergo a life-saving operation. ‘I will never see her again,’ Daddy cried, once a fierce doctor now a broken man who knew the odds were against them.
My mother had been ill for a while with an ear infection which had attacked the mastoid bone. Left untreated, the infection would travel to her brain and she would die within weeks. The choice was stark. There were risks attached to having the operation. She could die on the operating table or lose her hearing permanently. We knew we had to try to save her. As soon as my mother went into hospital, my father took a turn for the worse. He sank into a diabetic coma. My mother survived the operation but lost her hearing. She was extremely fragile and needed rest. But how could she rest when she knew her husband was critically ill? She blamed herself for not being there to make sure he took his medications. Ma insisted on being discharged early so she could visit him. She took the maid with her to the hospital where my father lay in bed hooked up to a monitor with tubes protruding out of him. The maid knew that my father had died just before they reached him, but she pointed to the screen reassuring my mother that he was holding on, waiting to say goodbye.
Back in England, I called home from work, anxious for news. An aunt told me my father had gone. But he was getting better yesterday, I said. ‘Like a lamp that flickers just before it dies,’ explained Aunty Moni. I put the phone down. I had a couple of hours until the end of the workday. My manager was away. Who would give me permission to leave? I could not simply walk away. Colleagues told me to go home. They would explain my absence.
I picked up my handbag and got on the train from Reading to Bracknell. I stared out of the window, tears running down my cheeks. I turned my face to the dark Berkshire countryside whizzing past. A man sitting opposite, glanced at me several times. He had noticed my distress, but politely said nothing. His body language showed sympathy. I was grateful to him for letting me be.
As a married daughter I followed a three-day mourning at the end of which we went to a beautiful Hindu monastery, Ramkrishna Mission, run by European monks in saffron robes. I offered a plate of fruits, flowers, and sweets to Goddess Kali. A man of science, my father was privately a fan of Kali, a dark naked figure dressed in a garland of skulls, goddess of death and destruction. Energy. Afterwards, we stood by the River Thames and threw yellow roses in the river to let his spirit flow for eternity in a land he had loved in his youth.
Travelling to Kolkata on my own to attend my father’s funeral was a journey I would never forget. My sons were at that critical age when one was going off to University and the other was preparing for school final exams. I left them in their father’s care, desperate to have them next to me but knowing their needs must come first. I took their letters of sympathy with me in the hand luggage. Kind fellow passengers shared their stories of loss. I knew I was not alone amongst strangers.
My family were in a fourteen-day period of mourning, living on a simple vegetarian diet. One of my brothers had shaved his head as per custom and was dressed like an ascetic. We told him he need not follow the rules so strictly. We were a modern family after all. But grief brings unexpected means of finding comfort. For him, it was paying respect.
It was Debi paksha, the auspicious period when Goddess Durga is celebrated. The ten-armed Divine Being descends on Earth from the Kailash mountains each autumn and five days filled with magic and merriment ensue. We spent it arranging a funeral. My mother wanted a big event, to celebrate her husband’s life but heavy monsoon rains put paid to some of the grander plans. We ended up having a simple but elegant affair at home with the priest chanting prayers in Sanskrit. Friends and family braved waterlogged streets to pay their respect. I will skim over the grim details of the cremation where the body is carried by male members of the family to the banks of the River Ganges. The ashes are sprinkled in the water.
Later that afternoon, the family collapsed on giant beds pushed in together for a siesta and chat. My mother unable to hear a word, said it was like silent cinema. I knew how much she missed not being part of our conversations.
After the funeral, when everyone had gone home, I spent a few quiet days with my mother. She talked. I wrote notes for her to read. ‘I don’t want to live like this without your father,’ she said. ‘I miss his touch, his voice, his body next to mine.’ I will be back soon, Ma, I wrote. We can get Aunti Moni to stay with you for a while. Everyone else had to return to jobs and lives in other towns.
The day before I left, she showed me her jewellery. She told me how they should be distributed. Later, Ma, tell me later. No, now, she said. There may not be time.
Three days later, I returned home to devastating news. Ma had slipped into a coma and passed away. It was quick. A result of an aneurysm in her brain. It was just how she would have wanted.
That night I had a dream. My son was supposed to go on a school trip to France. He needed to be dropped off to school at 4 am. My husband asked me not to go, he would take our son. He suggested I sleep in the spare room so I would not be disturbed.
I heard the phone ring. The line was crackly. Eventually, my mother’s voice floated in.
‘I’m calling to let you know we have reached here. It is beautiful. There are gardens. We are fine.’
Daddy was speaking over her just as he used to.
I heard the screech of morning traffic in Kolkata. Horns blaring.
‘I can’t hear you. How are you?’
‘We are fine. Don’t do any puja-shuja for me. You know I don’t believe in all that. Go to the monastery like you did for your father. Say a prayer. Feed the poor and read the Gita.’
Puja is the word for worship and used to describe Hindu ceremonies and prayers.
We went to the monastery in Bourne End again and threw flowers in the Thames. I didn’t go home to India for her funeral. I didn’t do puja-shuja. I read the Gita to her. I put a bouquet of flowers in front of her photo and wrote her a poem. I still need to feed the poor, but I hope donating to charities in the supermarket counts. Her jewellery has been faithfully distributed.
Ma and Daddy were married for sixty years. Their diamond anniversary would have been in November that year but sadly they both passed away by October. I like to think they had a really good shindig somewhere beyond the rainbows.