By Ananya Mukherjee
Rumors of her horrendous experiences with the national language reached far and wide across the family tree. Otherwise diabetic, when it came to communicating in Hindi, Pishima would always have a Rasgulla or maybe two in her mouth, the joke ran. Directly translating her thoughts from Bangla to Hindi, she was said to drop an extra “o” between all her words, making it sound like a poor imitation of Ashit Sen(from reel life) in real life. Her sense of gender was another thing. Thoroughly confused how a chair could be a feminine and why a tree should be a masculine gender, Pishima had given up on all such discriminatory grammar and had decided to follow a single uniformity; everything was a feminine gender. In hindsight, I see its deeper embedded significance—women’s liberation. For those from the genre of bra-burning, or the much more “liberated” sorts who refute words such as “chhelebela”(boy hood) and substitute their childhood with “meyebela”(girlhood) Pishima’s solution to the predicament with genders in Hindi could have been an inspiration incognito!
Instead of rambling about Pishima’s unidentifiable acumen over the subject, let me share an instance in particular. Pishima, since single and childless was often summoned for support by her extended family across the country in dire situations, especially in times of birth, marriages and death. Once, one of my Dad’s cousins in Gorakhpur was to deliver a child. Pishima came to the rescue of her nervous newly-wed young niece and volunteered to play “guardian angel”. An evening, close to the date of delivery, Pishima was said to have stayed alone at home with the “very pregnant niece” and an equally “anytime-now” expecting cow in the backyard. The three females (women and beast) were under the guard of the watchman, Ram Singh. Around midnight, the lady felt her first contractions; around the same time, the beast went into labour too.
After juggling for a while between her needs to tend her niece and the cow, Pishima finally decided to opt for the lady and left the beast in the safe hands of Ram Singh. Animal activists wouldn’t have definitely appreciated Pishima’s act I am sure, but then that’s a different issue we can debate on yet another day! So, Pishima went up to nurse the lady and stayed in the house while Ram Singh tended to the suffering beast. After a while, a completely sweat soaked smiling Ram Singh came up to the portico and told Pishima that the cow had delivered a calf. Considering it as an auspicious sign, Pishima was ecstatic. “What is it, a larka (boy) or a larki (girl)?” she shouted back in her broken Hindi. The question left Ram Singh bewildered. How could a beast deliver a boy or a girl? His quick reply was “Maaji, bachhra hua” (It’s a calf). Pishima tried her vocabulary again, “Ta to bujhlam, aadmi ki aurat?” (Fine, I understood that, but is it a man or a woman?). Poor Ram Singh got further flustered. Was the old woman nuts? “Bacchra” he retorted now. Pishima must have got frustrated by then for she yelled, “Mukhhpora, tum hua ki hum hua?” (Sloghead, is it you or me?”). At this, Ram Singh, who was generally known to be a quiet old loyal servant smiled from ear to ear. Pointing a finger at Pishima, he answered with the biggest grin anyone had ever seen, “Maaji, aap hua!” (It’s you!)
Pishima was again summoned by another dying relative whose son had to urgently go on a business tour to the US for a fortnight. Pishima agreed to go to Mumbai to take responsibility and represent the family support system. Just before leaving, the grateful nephew told Pishima, in his absence, she could contact his colleague Mr Godrej, who lived in the same complex, should there be a need for it. Pishima nodded in consent. Fortunately, nothing happened; but after a fortnight, when her nephew returned, Pishima complained, “I don’t like your colleague. He has no respect for senior citizens.” Coming from Pishima who hardly criticized anyone, this was a surprise for her nephew. Godrej must have really misbehaved, he thought and queried, “What happened?”
“Oh, nothing much! The other day, I saw him at the elevator and called his name ‘Voltas, Voltas….stupid boy, didn’t even acknowledge.”
Her nephew broke into an inexorable bout of laughter. “He is Godrej, not Voltas, Pishima. How would the poor chap know you were calling him?”
“It’s one and the same thing. Both are refrigerator names,” she replied in strong defence.
I could go on and on about her. Pishima just celebrated her 93rd birthday. I met her at a family wedding in India some years back. Dressed in her starched white linen and still smelling of the rose zarda, she was making sweet coconut rolls and sharing stories about her innumerable comic acts with her great grand children. Her toothless grin accentuated the positivism of her being, her relentless effort to live life to its full, no matter what destiny had in store. It takes a lot of courage to offer that comic relief, be able to overlook the pains and sorrows and laugh at life, and most of all at ourselves. God bless, Pishima!