Anand, Gujarat, India
I would call him Kaku-the Bengali word for an uncle, younger to one’s father. I however, knew that he was a year or two older than my father was. But I never cared to know what such an uncle would be called in Bengali. Born in Gujarat to a Punjabi father and a Bengali mother, I was more fluent in Gujarati than I was in Punjabi or Bengali. The only bit of these two languages, would be spoken when I was at home, where too, Hindi was the main language of our conversation. Having me call him Kaku was my mother’s attempt to prevent my alienation from her mother tongue and my father did not seem to mind.
Another and probably, a more important reason why I would look forward to those visits would be because of the fact that Kaku would earmark a day exclusively for us kids. That day, which would normally be the second day of those four days, he would take us kids out on a tour of the city. We would have lunch outside, and he would load us with gifts and chocolates. This in fact made him a favourite among the kids and we would look forward to meeting him.
He had not married. Though, I would often wonder, why, I never asked him or any one primarily out of fear of my parents’ rebukes. In fact that fact seemed to work in our favour, because he could take time out for us. He had grown up in Jharkhand, and was equally comfortable in both Bengali and Hindi. He also had a fair amount of command over Gujarati, though he would always insist on speaking Bengali with me. I would enjoy that. He himself was not very fluent in Bengali but spoke better Bengali than I did. He would call me Mamoni, the mother, though my parents had named me Ananya.
Two of his characteristics stand out in my memory. He was a chain smoker and would often take a cigarette break every ten minutes from the conversations which he would have with my parents. The other was his noisy breathing. His breath would be clearly audible even in the din of the conversation between my parents and his friends. He loved home made food and would often pester my mother for various Bengali recipes, which she did not mind preparing. She said it was because of the contentment she would see on his face after the meal. He would arrange for all the preparations, wandering in the markets for that perfect ingredient. He had a sweet tooth and would keep the refrigerators full with different sweets, every time the friends would meet. And he would also smuggle them out both for himself and for the kids. He would tell me stories of his childhood and his college. He was an expert in mimicking others and would make my parents roll in laughter by making faces and sounds. He seemed to have an elephantine memory and clearly remembered many incidents which had happened in his college days, involving my father or his other friends. He had a great love for reading and it was he who introduced me to the world of Ruskin Bond and R K Narayan. He would devour my story books over and over again and would get me lots of them every time he took us out.
The meetings continued every year and Kaku had by now become an integral part of my life. He was my friend. I shared all my secrets with him and he would never leak them out to my parents. It was he whom I first confided into when I fell in love. That was when I was in Class XII. He promised me that he would never divulge it to my parents. I would, almost everyday, tell him about my boyfriend and the bliss of love which I had started experiencing and which my parents had experienced almost two decades ago. One day, I gathered enough courage to ask him about his marriage. I asked him why I did not have a Kakima. He said that he was waiting for my Kakima to come to him. I did not understand but chose not to probe further as I heard that sudden tinge of pain in his voice. I, for one, never wanted Kaku to be hurt. I thought of clarifying it with my mother someday.
Kaku was the one who finally convinced my parents to allow me to study pharmaceutical sciences. My parents wanted me to become an engineer. But my heart lay in medicinal chemistry. Try as hard as I would, I could not come round convincing my parents to allow me to go for pharmaceutical sciences. But one phone call from Kaku and they agreed. How? I don’t know till today. It is better not to question miracles. I got myself admitted into a pharmacy college at Ahmedabad and that gave me an added advantage of being at home during Diwali, when Kaku would come visiting. My father’s other friends had by then moved to different parts of the country and the world, and the gatherings would now be less frequent, though they always stayed in touch. Kaku had moved too. But, he would still come down every Diwali to our place and celebrate Diwali with us.
By now, I was big enough to gain insights into peoples’ minds. Kaku came across as a lonely person, who would forever want to be surrounded by friends. The excitement he showed in those days during the Diwali vacations, could put any child to shame. In fact, it seemed that he would conserve all his energy for that gathering, a homecoming which he often termed it as.
But he had started showing changes too. He had been losing weight and each year he would look thinner than what he was in the previous year. He now suffered from asthma, “thanks to the smoking”, he would say and his breathing had become more audible. But his sweet tooth and the love for home made food had stayed unchanged. And he was still waiting for kakima to come to him.
It would often occur to me, why he never invited us to his place. Earlier, it was quite matter-of-fact that since all my father’s friends stayed in Gujarat, it would be feasible that he come down rather than we go to his place. But things were different now. Two of my father’s friends had moved to Delhi, one was in Hyderabad and one had moved to the US. Kaku was staying in Mumbai and it was an overnight journey from Baroda, where we stayed. Still, it would always be him who came down to Baroda during Diwali. This was another mystery which I never tried to clarify.
One such Diwali, I had to be in Bangalore for a training programme. I was now working in a reputed pharmaceutical company in Ahmedabad. I was 26, already had had two break ups and had decided to be single for the rest of my life. My parents were not exactly aware of this intention of mine, but they did leave me alone and never pestered me to get married. I frantically searched for an option to be home just for a day when Kaku would come visiting. My parents had not told me that he had been diagnosed with lung cancer and his days were numbered and he might not survive even the Navratri. Unaware of everything, I booked a flight from Bangalore to be at home just for one day. Then began the Herculean task of convincing the authorities in Ahmedabad to allow me the leave. But I did not have to struggle much. A phone call from home on the seventh day of Navratri, made sure that the last Diwali was in fact the last time I had met him. Kaku had lost his battle to cancer. He had given my parents’ numbers as the ICE numbers and the body would be handed over only to them.
All of those who would be a part of the gatherings were present at his funeral. Probably, the only people he called his own and who in his own words was his family. I felt a sense of loss. The feeling was similar to what I had felt, when Paresh, my second boy friend had finally decided to settle down in Canada and was insensitive enough to invite me to his wedding to a non resident Gujarati Patel in Ottawa. After Paresh, Kaku was the only person, I dared to trust. He was my best friend. And with Kaku gone, I suddenly felt bereft of any friend in this world. Six months after his death, I made clear to my parents my intentions of remaining single. I had thought this would come as a shock for my parents and I had in fact braced myself up for a showdown between me and my parents that would possibly have been a natural corollary to such an announcement. But it was actually my turn to be shocked. They did not show any sense of shock or disbelief at such a big decision. But I chose to leave it at that, since I normally do not question miracles.