The Memory of Ma

When I was ten, and had gone to my Dadaji’s (grandfather’s) village for the summer vacations, the incidents that make up this narrative unravelled like a shy flower bud — too scared to blossom, but bloomed anyway. It all started when my best friend, Dhruv, stopped coming over to our place. That evening, I sat by the window sill in the largest room of our house — my chin perched against the wood below, and big eyes looking sharply at him — trying to figure out what was going on. He shuffled his feet, which had on a newly-found pair of dirty tennis shoes, alongside his Dadaji— who was covering his nose and mouth with a tattered piece of cloth and talking to my Ma (grand-mother). Dhruv was wearing his red birthday shirt that I had gifted him the previous year with his plain old dark shorts. And his hair was shabby like always. His shoes — though dirty, were still white enough to strikingly contrast his clothes, and that reminded me of the washing powder (Nirma!) advertisements on TV. It made me chuckle silently as I stared. That was the last time I saw him.

Ma came to me later, and while tapping my head with her usual greeting jeeti raho, beti (which meant live long, child), said, “Some disease has broken out here. They have instructed us to stay in the house and avoid meeting people until the doctors come here and do their tests.” I had many questions, but she shushed me with a stern finger over her narrow, discoloured lips — a gesture, which in our family meant don’t talk about negative things. And I perfectly understood it.

The sun had already started setting by this time, and I longed for my parents to come and pick me up so I could return to the city. At least then, I could play with Shreya and Shivani. If summer evenings were to be spent indoors, I undeniably preferred the busy city-life. I thought of Dhruv as I watched the sky gradient from orange to pink, then violet and finally a grim shade of blue. He had been my best friend for the two years I had known him, and every day I spent there, we would play outside. The mornings would be occupied with having breakfast together, which was usually stale roti with some butter and sugar spread over it. He would sit in front of me, making faces while he ate, to which I would laugh, and Ma would sigh loudly. We would then run over to the naal to play in the water. On lucky days, the village men would let us have their fishing rods while they bathed, and we would pretend to be an old couple — Mr. and Mrs. Singh, tired of life, fishing in the naal (brook). Lunch was usually served at his place, where his mother would tell us stories while we ate, because there was no TV in their house. After lunch, we would sit under a big, spread-out Gulmohar tree dotted with beautiful red and orange flowers, which would fall down gracefully to the summer wind. This tree was on the boundary of his school playground, where we would seldom go to play cricket with his friends, a game that always ended in a fight. Then, we would say goodbye and return home, just to sleep, wake up and meet again.

As I stared at the melting sun, Ma laid out the mats. The stars had started to prove their dominance in a clear sky. It was dinner time. Dadaji had gone out to have yet another political discussion with the men of the village — he was not going to eat with us. I got up and helped Ma put food on the steel plates. “Ma?” I asked persuasively, with the most innocent look I could fake.

“What?” She said, pouring the dal (lentils) in our plates.

“Ma, can I go out tomorrow?”

She looked at me with concern. Her lips tilted to one side while she raised her eyebrows. Three parallel creases appeared on her forehead, below the round, red bindi she always wore. “I don’t think so,” She said, to the tune of her bangles chiming as she moved her hands back and forth to spread out the atta (flour) to make the rotis (Indian flat bread).

“What about day-after-tomorrow?”

She got angry. “Now listen, Miss Bipasha Behera: we have to STAY INDOORS until the doctors come to see us. Is that CLEAR?” With her black fearful eyes staring at me, I backed off.

“Yes.” I sighed, and sat down on the mat. It was very clear. Extra clear, because she called me by my full name. The mats in our house, were all handmade by the Sambalpur craftsmen, who would spend hours perfecting the Sambalpuri designs on each one. I stared at the floral pattern etched on my mat, gently tracing the outlines with my fingertip. They reminded me of the mehndi on Mom’s hands. There were two weeks left for the vacations to get over. Fourteen days! That seemed like forever.

We ate our dinner in silence, though I could hear the arguments of the village men from far off. Following which, she put me to bed. The one facet I loved about Ma’s character was that no matter how bitter she was, she would never miss out on telling me a bedtime story. That night, it was about a man and his wife who found gold under the soil of their garden. They distributed it to the poor and the needy, and were ultimately gifted with a baby boy.

Yes, Ma was a conservative lady. The wrinkles on her face could conceivably make you feel that she was wise, but you would be wrong. She fed me dozens of erroneous thoughts — like a baby boy was a gift to the world, and a baby girl was like a punishment. Ayurveda was better than modern medicine. Married women were always supposed to cover their heads. A widow was an untouchable in the family. She wished for me to wed a nice, white boy four years into the future (when I would, according to her, become a lady).

How did I know they were false, at that age? Well, Mom and Dad strictly explained it to me beforehand — she was born at a time when all those things were the norms of society. We could not do anything to change her. And I was supposed to pretend to agree with whatever she said, lest she would think what sort of stupid western ideologies I was being taught by her daughter. So, at the tender age of ten, I would tag along, and think myself to be more mature than the other girls my age — because I could fool my grandma!

I was hardly sleepy that night. I even heard Dadaji enter a few minutes after Ma left me. He coughed loudly, then started talking with Ma. I heard the tap of his cane, and his heavy voice amidst the crackling of the flame on which Ma was warming the sabzi (vegetable curry) for him. I listened attentively to the crickets, which were louder than usual that night. From a distance, also came the sound of barking dogs. I tried hard to make out what my grandparents were talking about.

I turned to my side. The thin blanket over my legs felt uncomfortable, so I kicked it away. Then, all of a sudden, I heard a woman retching loudly. I sat up — was it Ma? No, I could still hear her talking. This woman was close by — I ran to the door. Outside the tiny room, the faint yellow light bulbs made me squint as I walked slowly, in tiptoes to the main room.

“What happened?” Dadaji enquired.

“Where is Ma?” I asked, noticing the big figure of Ma in her usual pink and green saree missing from the room.

“She is not well. Go to bed. Amma, take her to the room.” He said, sadly.

Amma was in the kitchen, with him. She was Ma’s closest friend and neighbour. Since she had a similar voice, I had confused her with Ma. She took me immediately by the arm and was about to drag me out, when I protested, “What happened to her? Did she get the disease?”

“You don’t have to worry. Go!” He waved his arms at us like he was getting rid of mosquitoes.

I did not hesitate. As Amma held my forearm tightly, I sensed something was undoubtedly wrong with Ma. She locked the door from outside, and I slipped back under the thin sheet, which then I realised, was Ma’s torn white saree. I covered myself in it, praying for her to be alright.

I slept that time, for when I woke up, the door was open and there was white sunlight everywhere. I sat up, went outside and started searching for her. No one was in the living room. “Ma?” I called out, softly. “Dadaji?”

No response. “Amma?” I cried, a little louder. I was outside — near the main door, when I saw him.

Dadaji had his head pinned down to his chest and his grip on his cane was tighter than usual — I could see his knuckles popping out and losing their colour. I ran up to him, feeling the cool wind blow off the sleep from my eyes, and asked “Where is Ma?”

“Hospital.”

I was sitting near the window again. My stomach rumbled. Again.

He was sad, that was all I could make out. He did not make rotis nor did he go outside to buy us food. Had I known how to cook, I would have prepared a full three-course breakfast that morning, to fulfil two purposes — one, my hunger; and two, his sadness. He sat in the same room, a feet away from our old box television. The news was going on — not about the disease, but about something in politics. What confused me, however, was why we were not allowed to visit Ma. I asked him precisely that.

“It’s contagious,” was the reply.

“You mean, like cholera? Is it cholera?” Cholera was one of the few complex words I knew how to pronounce. I had won a spelling contest in school a year before with the correct spelling of that word.

“Yes. No.”

I was always annoyed at his displeasure to talk to me, but before I could ask him to elaborate, he mumbled, “We don’t know what it is. But we know that the Ayurveda cannot treat this. They instruct us to stay at home, and wait for the doctors to come and test us. Those fools don’t understand if Ayurveda can not treat this, how will modern medicine?” It seemed like he was talking to himself, and would not appreciate my say in the matter. So, I changed the subject.

“Can I phone Mom?” I asked softly.

He looked at me, and for a second I was frightened. Then, he raised his eyebrows, and took out his Nokia 3301 from his torn sweater pocket. I immediately snatched it and dialled her number, which was one of two ten digit numbers my brain could procure on demand. The other one was papa’s.

“Mom?”

“Hi, Pari! How are you? Are you okay? Papa and I will come soon to pick you up, okay!”

My head hurt as tears collected in my eyes. Soon, they were streaming down my face. “Ye-e-s…come quick,” I said, in a broken voice. “They are not allowing me to meet Dhruv… What is going on, Mom?”

She responded reassuringly that it was going to be okay, and she would come as soon as the quarantine in our village was lifted. She promised to take me dress-shopping once this was over. And Ma was going to be fine, too.

How adults were so positive during such times was always a mystery to me. Whenever I thought of Ma, I would experience an unpleasant feeling of remorse and uncertainty. More than once, I thought, given her physical state, she might not make it.

Two days passed. Those were the longest two days I have ever experienced. I just sat by the window, waiting for Dhruv or Ma or the doctors to come. I knew Mom was not going to be there until after two weeks, or probably longer — so, I was never expecting her. Dadaji could prepare rice and dal, sometimes eggs; and that was all we ate — the same food in the morning, afternoon and before going to bed. He had his cup of tea in the evenings, while reading the newspaper. We slept in separate rooms, and I yearned for going back to the city.

Then, on the third day, I started feeling nauseous after lunch. I sat by the window, again, to feel the cool wind, which I thought would make me feel better. But, it did not.

By late afternoon, my stomach began to hurt. I went to Dadaji, and dug my head within his arms. As I cried loudly, I also started vomiting. My abdomen hurt, my spine hurt and my forehead was aching like someone had forced a screwdriver through it. I don’t remember what happened, or what he did, after that.

I felt awake. The bedding under me was soft and rich. The pillow my head was resting on was also comfortable. I felt the power of sleep take over me once more, but I was compelled to open my eyes to know where I was.

The roof was white. There were people — I could hear them. On my left, was a window — a tiny, circular one. On my right, more beds with white sheets and patients. It was a hospital — but there were no tubes or fancy equipment near my bed. In fact, there was nothing at all — just me, and the white sheets. No one had noticed that I was awake — so I moved around my arms — creating a ruffling sound with the sheets.

It was successful — A woman with a mask noticed me. She came to me, used her stethoscope, told me to open my mouth, flashed a torch through my eyes, and finally said sweetly, “Can you move your head up and down?”

I did as I was told. “Any neck pain?”

“No.”

“Good. You are okay,” she said, “I will get the discharge papers.”

Oh, I did not want to go. Everything was so comfortable there. I waited and searched for any other pain I was experiencing, but there was none. I was feeling good. And that, at least at the time, was not something I wanted.

She returned with Dadaji, who signed some papers and then smiled at me. That was the second time I had seen him smile — the previous one was on my first day of school, when he saw me in the navy-blue private school uniform. His brown lips stretched to a line and his eyes narrowed behind the circular glasses he always wore. He brushed his hand across my forehead, and whispered some prayers of gratitude. Then, we got up to leave.

“Is Ma in this hospital?” I asked.

“No.” His response was sweeter and gentler than usual, which tempted me to ask more.

“Is she at home?” I asked with a smile.

“No.” This time, his reply was grave. It was like he wanted to say more, but couldn’t.

“Then, where is she?” I pestered.

He held me by the shoulder, placing both of his hands on either side. He bent down to my height and with eyes big with tears, he said, “She passed away.”

Whenever I recall that incident, I always feel guilty of not feeling grief. I was sad, but not enough to cry and hug him. I was just numb, and awkward, because I had never seen Dadaji cry in front of me. His lips quivered and his grip tightened — then, my shoulders started to ache. Tears rolled down his nose and fell down, and his eyes reddened. He was making low sobbing sounds, and I realised that some people were staring at us.

About Ma, it was something I expected. I did feel a loss when I remembered my time in the village would never be the same again. I suddenly found a strong detest for Sambalpur — I did not want to go back to that dreadful house. I wanted Mom.

Dadaji took me home in a rickshaw, and brought vada-pav on the way. I munched on it like it was the first thing I was eating after days of unfulfilled hunger. That still remains the tastiest meal I have ever had.

He did not cry for the rest of the journey. He just stared at the back of our driver’s seat. I felt sad for him, yet again.

But the rickshaw did not go home. It landed us at the Cuttack bus stop. He gave me some money, and said, “This bus will land you at the Bhubaneswar airport in three hours. Your Mom will reach the airport in some time. She will wait for you there. Go. Here is your stuff — “

He handed me a cloth bag with three of my dresses, two nail polish bottles, a tiffin box and my pink sandals, smiled and said goodbye.

When you are a kid, you know that bad times end. Always. Things do get better eventually. That night your Mom and Dad had a fight? You prayed silently for them to stop. And the next morning, it was all fine! The homework you were supposed to do in your vacations but forgot, and your teacher scolded you? Heck, even that phase gets over — she smiles when you hand it to her the next day with a simple “sorry”. When you become an adult, the only thing that has been added is the lack of hope. You get depressed because you think life just gets worse, like it always has. You think that one negative experience will be followed by another, until you die. As kids, lack of experience brings about positivity and hope. As adults, experience becomes an inner voice reminding you how many things have gone wrong in your life.

I wanted that phase to get over. And I knew it would. The bus ride was boring, and I must have slept through most of it. But when I reached, I felt a gush of positivity take over me. The city was going to be better. I would play with my friends. I would continue my swimming classes, and finish my yet-not-started holiday homework. I walked for about five minutes, before I saw Mom smiling and brisk walking toward me. Her blue blazer unbuttoned from the front flew like a cape behind her back. She was carrying a small suitcase, and a look of satisfaction. When I looked at the suitcase, I realised that I had forgotten my cloth bag in the bus.

She hugged me and patted my head. Then she took me by the hand and asked, “You are okay, right?”

“Yes. But Ma passed away.”

Suddenly, the smile vanished. “WHAT?” she exclaimed. She hurriedly took out her phone and called someone — Dadaji, I thought. I could not look at her again — the tears, the sadness, the loud cries of adults — I had had enough of that. I put my full focus on a lady a few feet away from us. She was wearing a pretty blue knee-length dress with thin straps. Her hair was short, and barely touched her shoulder. Black and shiny, like the actresses in shampoo commercials. She was smiling and talking to a man beside her. I loved the shade of lipstick she had on — a soft shade of pink. Her suitcase was beautiful too — white and sky-blue, very well maintained. I longed to look like her when I grew older.

“What do you mean by that, papa? I’m coming right now. Please wait!” Mom was tearily saying. My attention fell to the man she was talking with. He was good looking too — nice clothes and a full-shaven face. They had a good accent, like my English teacher’s, and I found myself wishing to eavesdrop on their conversation.

Before I could get closer to them, Mom dragged me by the arm and gestured to follow her. She was still talking on the phone.

I followed her silently till we reached an empty bench. She tossed the briefcase angrily and sat down. Then she covered her face with her hands and was still. I hated this. Why did people have to die? And if it always happened, why could they just not be prepared with it? Why was there so much crying and guilt involved? Crying always made me sad, and I sat down slowly beside her.

We were at a vending machine I had just discovered. I was drinking my strawberry juice hastily and Mom was looking at me with no emotion at all. “Pari,” she said after I was done,

“Your papa and I are getting divorced.”

The rest of the story has nothing to do with Ma. We returned to the city, dad talked to me alone and said, “It is better to stay happy than pretend to be, right?” He explained to me how this was the best decision, and he would definitely come to visit me on weekends. I found out later that they were planning on taking the divorce for years, and some fight they had that month triggered the decision.

The next four years were spent in adjusting to a new life and remembering Ma.

And three years after that, I joined Medical school with a good scholarship.

Earlier last year, when wearing a mask became a compulsion, I could not help but remember the nurse at the village hospital. The blue surgical mask perfectly enveloping her narrow face from the bridge of the nose till the end of the chin — I could see her like it all happened yesterday. She told me that I was okay, and I was ready to go, but everything after that went downhill. The coronavirus is definitely a bigger deal, but the events at Sambalpur are still more painful for me.

So, what was the disease that broke out? Having finished eight months of Med school, I realised that it could have been bacterial meningitis — a rare and deadly form of meningitis, which is the inflammation of the membranes that outline the brain and spinal cord. It occurs when bacteria in the skin or surrounding get into the bloodstream and travel to the brain and spinal cord to start an infection. Most bacteria that cause this form of infection are spread through close personal contact, such as coughing or sneezing, and major symptoms include high fever, nausea, vomiting and stiff neck.

It seemed to fit my observations, so most probably, meningitis was what killed my Ma. I tried to look for newspaper articles, or reports about this case, but could find nothing. Maybe it was too small a case to make it to the press. But its impact on my life was large enough.

Most of us who have experienced the death of a loved one are depressed and traumatised by it for years after their demise. The uncertainity, that you live your whole life in, seems to dominate at that moment, giving the brutal reminder of how temporary every pleasurable aspect in your life is. I was only ten, and emotionally as immature as any kid my age, which is why the depression did not kick in immediately after; or last for years, after the unfortunate event. As a kid, we don’t think of staying with the regret of what could have happened, or with the burden of how will we manage, now that it has happened. Events are, just, events. When this flower bud bloomed, I did not expect it to be a deadly one.

Image source — Photo by RODNAE Productions from Pexels.

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