(5 September 1923 – 14 January 2017)
When I last saw my grandmother, Dida, she was ninety-four years old. She recited Rabindranath Tagore’s “Pujarini” for me from memory. It was a two-page long poem, written in difficult to pronounce words, and in the smallest of fonts. Dida did not forget a single word. It is remarkable considering how people cannot remember their own friends’ names these days. I sometimes wonder if she had a photographic memory.
I did not get Dida’s eidetic memory, but I also remember things in a strange way. If I liked a book, I can tell whether my favorite line was on the left side of the page or on the right side even after decades. I know whether it was in the middle or the top of the page. I remember it like a room. I remember its blue curtains; its yellowed walls; its dead, single stem rose on the bedside table – the table has mauve and white checkered tablecloth; a lonely lamp is burning – nobody remembered to switch it off. Nobody remembered the bed! Memory can be woven, memory can be washed, and memory can be silenced. I look at my room whenever I want; I zoom in, I zoom out; I examine each word.
My memory is my curse. I cannot forget the faces of the faces that did not like my face. Incensed and hurt: my memory belongs to me and to no other.
But Dida was like a swan. Swans can separate out milk from water. She had a long life: but her life was long not because there were countless days, months, and years. A life is long when its mornings touch its shadows at night. A life is long when its tears become sorrows for all.
Our household was a noisy one with my grandfather, grandmother, uncles, aunts, my mom, my mom’s cousins, and my sister – a joint family. Each day early in the morning Dida used to go to the kitchen to make our breakfast. One wants boiled eggs, one wants omelet, one wants poached eggs – eggs were made to order. Sometimes she used to make “luchi” and “alur dom”. That “alur dom” recipe was an elaborate, laborious process. Dida used to boil these small one-inch potatoes first; she then peeled them one by one. After peeling for almost an hour she used to get a bowl full. Then only the cooking could start. The “alur dom” for morning breakfast was always a little sweet – Dida used to put plump raisins in it!
After breakfast, Dida had to start preparing for lunch, dinner, and afternoon snacks for all of us. Many a times there were nine or ten people in the house.
Daduvai, my grandfather, loved feeding us. Daduvai loved Dida’s cooking, and Daduvai loved food. He was a Bengali food connoisseur. Each morning Daduvai used to go to the market to buy the freshest of fish, and the freshest of vegetables. For the better half of my life our refrigerator used to have bottles of cold water only; nothing else. On Sundays, Daduvai used to go to get the biggest fish; he used to come home walking from the bus-stop, the big fish hanging from his hands. “Meshomoshai (Uncle), how much was the fish?” our neighbors would ask. Proud Daduvai would call us all to the kitchen for a “fish appreciation ceremony!”
“Look at the red gill. This is how you know it is a fresh fish.”
I used to always look through the windows and count crows during all these ceremonies. But now I miss Daduvai! There is not a single person in my life who knows when to eat the ‘Hilsha fish’, and when not to eat it so that the fish can breed. He always used to tell us in the dining table: “start with the bitter melon fry; then ‘dal’ with fritters; eat your vegetable medley now; finish the small fish hotchpotch before going to the big fish curry.” Daduvai always used to finish his food with homemade yogurt and a piece of jaggery.
In this celebration of food, Dida was Daduvai’s partner in crime. The major part of her day was spent in the kitchen as my grandfather never liked anybody else’s cooking – not my mother’s, nor my aunts’, nor any outside cook’s. Dida used to fry the scrumptious fritters at the very moment we started eating; not a little before, nor a little after. Daduvai used to think fritters should be served straight from the stove. I guess because of all these important reasons, there is no authentic, commercially viable and successful Bengali restaurant anywhere in the world. You cannot reheat the Bengali vegetable medley, you cannot reheat the Bengali fish curry, you cannot reheat the Bengali ‘musur dal’(red lentil), and you cannot reheat the fritters. The taste will never be the same. Dida always ate after all of us, after feeding us all – alone but satisfied.
Years later, when I went to Disney World, I was awed and dazzled by the “Celebrate! – A Street Party” parade; it was the first time I came to realize life is also something that needs to be celebrated. DJs, Disney characters, and the high-energy dancers bring a festive dance extravaganza to the streets of Disney World and ask the guests, “What are YOU celebrating? Mickey Mouse is coming to celebrate YOU at Disney World– the happiest place on earth.” While growing up in Bangladesh, I used to think food is the only thing that needs celebration. In our house, Daduvai celebrated food; Dida celebrated food; and we celebrated food.
I remember Dida and Daduvai always used to offer food whenever anybody used to visit us. After coming to the USA, I did the same; I offered cookies and coffee to the workers that came to my house to deliver some furniture, or to fix the water-heater in the basement. They used to be so surprised! But it was my second nature. I did not realize Americans are not like the British; they do not eat biscuits (cookies) with their tea. Bengalis, being under the British rule for so long, learned to eat biscuits with their tea; but forgot to learn how to form a queue for anything. Bengalis do not believe in moving in a line, one by one. They are the Milky Way’s Stellar Mass!
Whenever Tathoi’s friends come, I will always say at the dinner table, “Please have some more. Try this one. It is a delicacy!” Tathoi is in fact very scared of the word ‘delicacy.’ She thinks ‘Bengali delicacy’ means bad food, and just after saying that very word, I am going to dump fried ‘neem’ leaves with charcoaled eggplants on her plate! “It is ‘neem-begun’. Try it – it is a Bengali delicacy.” Tathoi never forgets to scold me after her friends leave. “Mom, why are you trying to force-feed them food?” I can never explain to her, “I come from a third world country. Food is our celebration!”
Because there were too many elderly persons in my childhood home, I remained jobless and worthless: I never set my foot in the kitchen while growing up. My grandfather used to tell my sister and I, “Go now, go and study physics, math, and chemistry. You will get enough chances to cook in your life. Your grandmother is a great cook. Just eat her dishes and nurture your taste buds. When the time comes, you will be able to easily prepare these dishes. But if you waste your time now, you will never be able to learn math, physics, and chemistry. Lots of long hours are needed to learn those.” Mainly for this reason, my sister and I did not learn cooking, cleaning, and making the house beautiful like the other Bengali girls and brides. In the Bengali society these are the wife’s job. The husband goes to the office, comes back home, and gets a cup of tea before dinner. Then he relaxes and reads the newspaper – the whole world is waiting for him!
I finally started cooking when I got married. The outcome was not very praiseworthy though. When I tried to make poached eggs, all my yolks and egg whites fell on the ground. I was standing there like Queen Victoria, all the eggshells staring at me from the frying pan.
When Dida got married, she was only fifteen years old; her mom got married at four. Child marriages in Bengal were very common; nobody ever thought anything special about them. The girl used to grow up in the groom’s family, treated as if she were one of them.
Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the great Bengali social reformer, fought for women’s rights in Bengal; he fought against the system of polygamy, and fought for the Hindu Widows’ Remarriage Act, which passed in 1856. But standing here in 2020, I do not know a single Hindu widow in Bangladesh who remarried after the death of her first husband!
In Bengal, they used to burn the widows on the husband’s funeral pyres – alive. Raja Rammohan Roy was a social reformer who fought against Bengal’s widow-burning (“Sati daho pratha”). I have read that in the late 18th century, when his brother died, young Rammohan witnessed his sister-in-law being dressed in her beautiful, red colored wedding ‘’sari’. The funeral pyre was lit, the young girl of seventeen was dragged to the fire, and then she was burnt alive. The Brahmin priests were chanting ‘Maha Sati! Maha Sati!’ (A great wife!)
Although the British Raj drained a total of nearly $45 trillion from India, stole the Koh-i-Noor diamond, and ruled for 200 years, they also brought light to a land where there were only candles flooding the age-old-traditions. During the time of Governor General Lord William Bentinck (1828-35), a period of social reforms began in India. He was helped by Raja Rammohan Roy. In 1829, widow-burning (“Sati daho pratha”) was made illegal and punishable by law. Female infanticide was banned. However, the practice of burning a widow with her dead husband (“Sati daho pratha”) was only eradicated in the late 1880s. It takes time to make something into a law and then it takes time to make the law reflected into life.
In today’s India and Bangladesh, though they do not light the women on their husband’s funeral pyres anymore, there are still threats and cases of burning the face of the bride with acid. There is still the greed of dowry. Dowry is given in many shapes and forms. A condominium, a car, a land, and wrapping up the bride in gold from head to toe– these are said to be just a gift to the groom and groom’s family; but the truth is the bride’s family was pressured into giving these.
The fathers-in-law, the mothers-in-law, the sisters-in-law, and the brothers-in-law are always finding faults with the bride, even in the love-marriages of today’s Bengal. Nothing is ever good enough! There is dust on the blue-water-filter; there are too many decoration pieces bought with our son’s money; there are no thinly-cut yellow lemon wedges to keep the refrigerator fresh. Then there is the perennial lament – “the bride is not fair enough!” “She is not beautiful enough!” We just hear the footsteps of others, and not our own! It’s not always the real fires that burn us; other flames have orange tongues too.
But my Dida was a feisty one – a free-spirited girl. Hers was an arranged marriage some eighty years back, but many marriages are still arranged in today’s Bangladesh and India. Normally the groom’s side of the family along with the groom will visit the girl’s family. It is almost like buying cauliflowers from the market! I heard that when the groom’s family came to see Dida, they wanted to see the would-be bride’s hair. Dida had it done in a gorgeous bun. She used fragrant oil, and there were jasmine garlands adorning her hair. Dida had the courage to almost burn the groom’s family with one dirty look. When they asked to see her hair, she took out the silver hairpins from her bun, and threw them to the floor. Her knee-length, dark black hair fell like a waterfall. Dida swayed her hair like a lion’s mane from left to right; she made loud sounds with her feet – very impolite for a would-be bride – and she then left the room. Thunderstruck, the groom’s family said, “Hmm, the girl is quite aggressive!” Well, my grandfather still married the aggressive, feisty, impolite, and free-spirited girl and they lived happily ever after. I heard this story from my grandfather, and from the sound of his voice, it sounded like he was quite proud of my grandmother.
Dida was almost like a child. She always used to play the Indian cross and circle board game Parcheesi, chess, and scrabble with us and our friends. But she was just too smart; we could never beat her in chess. My grandfather used to get mad though, asking us, “How come nobody wants to talk to me? And why your Dida has friends aging from five to seventy?”
We used to live in the Rajshahi University Campus. My mother used to teach at the university there. Every day after lunch, my mom’s friends – her female colleagues – used to come to our house.
“Mashima, will you show us how to do this pattern?” They called my Dida “Mashima” (aunt). Every day they used to come to knit together and talk.
If Dida saw any woolen sweater, shawl, or jacket, she could come home and duplicate that pattern with one hundred percent accuracy. I believe her photographic memory helped her. Sometimes, I thought given a chance, maybe Dida could write some complex, pattern-matching algorithms too; I was very proud of her. But life is not always very fair. Those who deserve education the most, do not always get a chance to become educated: not even a high school diploma!
Dida’s dad was an MBBS doctor; still, Dida couldn’t finish high school. She got married to raise children by the age of fifteen. Even today all the children do not get a chance to go to school in Bangladesh; it is not like the first world countries with one hundred-percent literacy rates. In America, I have seen a person who sells shoes also read story books, poems, and novels. But back home, it’s only the university students with English major who will read “War and Peace.” Selling shoes is not a job which people look down upon in America, like it is back in Bangladesh by the elitist class.
In Bangladesh, education is not a right, but a privilege. How many children get a chance to know even the alphabets? They run free and wild to the cars in the midst of green lights of Dhaka streets and try to sell “Bokul” flower garlands. Seven-year olds need to earn to fend for their families. These garlands will be just ten paisa each; still, after much haggling, hardly anybody ever buys them.
These children stand at traffic lights with their tiny game birds. If these game birds are cooked with lots of spices and oil, they become very tasty. It is a delicacy among the rich. Sometimes I feel there are no middle-class people in Dhaka. This is one city where you will see only poor people and rich people – there are people who have everything and then there are people who have nothing. There are slums just next to five-star hotels, who destroy the slums because they don’t look beautiful!
These little children will be standing with dead swans on four-junction-streets – those swans were shot and now had broken necks and wings. Once I took my children to Bangladesh. They were little, but were not very surprised to see those broken necks, broken wings, and beautiful, blood-stained white swans. They have seen enough deer kills in the fall in Wisconsin! But my children were very surprised to see these street children. “Mom, they do not have shoes?”
Dida was a voracious reader. She was literally drunk with books. Looking at her, I realized what it meant from Baudelaire, “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speakin’.. .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, the clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”
I have not met anybody else until now who read like Dida. Not even the university professors! She did not know much English. But Dida still used to finish the PhD thesis papers Ma used to bring home while doing her PhD. She tried to understand how my civil engineer uncle built a water-tank. While growing up, we had lots of books in our house. We could borrow from the other professors’ houses too. Still, there were never enough books for Dida. When she could not find any books, she used to open up a ‘thonga’ (the eight inch size grocery bags made from the newspapers)and start reading – an unfinished line from a murder case, two half lines from a poem, and some broken words from a newspaper headline. In Bangladesh, they make these grocery bags from newspapers and use them for bringing home salt, sugar, turmeric, cloves, and cinnamon sticks – some recycling at least. Dida used to read while cooking. She read almost all her waking hours. Though she was a great cook, she has burnt many dishes while reading novels. Daduvai used to mock Dida and used to tell us, “Go and see your Dida. She is reading English novels!” “Go and see how she is reading her ‘thonga’ literature!” I used to find that very cruel, but of course I couldn’t ever tell that to Daduvai – he was the eldest member of our family, and was the head.
Dida visited the USA twice. When I was in school, my youngest uncle Bapimama said to my grandparents, “I have a house and an orange tree in the garden now. You should come!” My uncle was a first-generation immigrant from Bangladesh to the USA. Being able to come to a first world country from a third world country and settle down was a sign of good fortune. My uncle wanted to show his good fortune to his parents. My grandfather and my grandmother came to stay with their youngest son in California. Then it was my turn. Dida came for the birth of Tathoi (my daughter) and Tithi (my sister Shyama’s daughter). Tathoi and Tithi were born four months apart. Dida came along with Ma thinking she could help us in some way. My twenty-one-month-old toddler and two dogs were all over the house when Tathoi was born. Ma used to take care of both the kids. Dida was in her seventies. She couldn’t keep running around with the toddler or the dogs; so, she used to fold all our clothes after laundry day, and she used to knit sweaters, socks, hats, and mittens for the new-born baby.
My doctor was so surprised at the hospital room hearing that my grandmother has come all the way from Bangladesh to see her great-granddaughter! He said, “Your part of the world knows how to celebrate birth!” I bet he, being a gynecologist, sure understands the glory of birth! I was dozing off in the horizon from the morphine for the C-section. But hearing him, I laughed so hard that my stitches hurt. I couldn’t tell him, “Yes, in our part of the world, we celebrate birth: Muslims will have ‘akika’ – the name giving ceremony, and Hindus will have ‘annaprashon’ – the first rice eating ceremony. We celebrate death: Muslims will be doing the ‘kulkhani’ after forty days; Hindus will be doing the ‘sradhao’ after thirty days – there will be funeral feasts; but we do not know how to celebrate life. A boy does not know how to hold a girl’s hands whom he loves and walk down the streets in broad daylight; a husband and wife never kiss in front of their children, they never kiss in the moonlight, and they never kiss when there is any light; people know how to kill people, but they do not know how to touch – it is all too depressing, like the long, monsoon nights.”
Dida and Daduvai both were very self-sufficient. There are maids in a typical middle-class Bangladeshi household, and there are other members in the household. Normally a man of the house will never make his own bed, will never set up his own mosquito net, and will never take the plate to the sink after eating. But I have never seen anybody doing these works for Daduvai. I feel very proud of him for that. Being a woman in a Bangladeshi society, Dida never had the luxury of depending on anybody for anything. So, when Dida did all her work, I thought she was doing her usual, designated tasks – there was nothing to be proud of.
When Dida came to my Wisconsin home for my Tathoi’s birth, she was hand washing her six yard ‘sari’ every day in the bathtub. I forgot to buy buckets like back home. Six feet cotton saris can shrink to two feet if washed and dried in the washing machine and dryer. And after all, Dida is not lazy! But the tragedy struck when she went outside in the deck on a Wisconsin January day to dry her ‘sari.’ In Bangladesh, people do not have money, but they do have the sun. People always dry their clothes outside on the clothesline. So, when my Dida saw the sun, she immediately took her washed ‘sari’ and laid it flat on the deck swing. All of us told Dida, ‘Don’t do that. It is not going to get dried outside!’ Dida went, ‘No, I saw the sun!’ Well, she kept the ‘sari’ outside for the whole day. In the afternoon when she brought her ‘sari’ inside, it was as crisp as potato chips. And just after a few seconds, all the ice particles of the sari melted, and the sari collapsed on the floor – just like a wet cat. For the first time in her life, Dida had to believe us.
As Dida came here all the way from Bangladesh for Tathoi and Tithi’s birth, Tathoi and Tithi had their ‘Annaprashon’ (first rice eating ceremony) at the same time. As we do not have brothers (normally a mother’s brother feeds the first rice at ‘Annaprashon’ in the form of ‘payesh’, or rice pudding); Shyama gave Tathoi her first rice, and I gave Tithi hers. My friend Aparajita got the ‘saris’ for the ‘Annaprashon’ all the way from India. Those were two beautiful white silk saris with red color borders, and golden brocade work.
Dida got two gold tiaras from Bangladesh for when she saw Tathoi and Tithi’s face for the first time. She gave tiaras adorned with feathers to all her great-grand-children. We took pictures – four generations of strong women!
When our most beloved person leaves us, I always think: how can I now remember them every day? I cannot knit like Dida, I cannot read like Dida, so I try to cook like Dida – cauliflower-potato medleys with lots of ‘ghee’ in it; crunchy eggplant fritters battered with flour, turmeric, and nigella seeds; steamed ‘hilsha’ fish with mustard; ‘pabda’ fish with cumin seeds. I cannot make it like Dida – it does not come out right with frozen ‘hilsha’ and frozen ‘pabda’ fish from Chicago. These fish have flown for the Bengalis of the United States of America all the way from Bangladesh. Who knows – maybe my cauliflowers have also started their journey a long time back from the farmer of some other state to reach my snowy, Wisconsin super Wal-Mart shelves. I do not get anything as fresh as home here. Still…
Three years have gone by since Dida has left us. I am thinking I will make prawns with Malabar spinach like Dida today. I have not cooked Malabar spinach with prawns in the last twenty-five years. Everybody does not eat prawns in our house. How can I cook something that everybody doesn’t eat? It doesn’t sound fair. But shrimps, prawns, and lobsters are my favorite. When I became vegan for seven years, I was not at all sorry to give up mutton, chicken, fish, butter, milk, honey, and marshmallows; but I felt very sad for my shrimps, prawns, and lobsters. So, whenever I get prawns or shrimps, I cook the most delicious dish that can be made from it – that creamy, prawn ‘malai’ curry. I make it with coconut milk just like Dida. Today I cut those big prawns into small pieces and put it on the stove with onions and Malabar spinach. I asked my children, “I am not making your favorite prawn ‘malai’ curry today. I am making prawns with Malabar spinach. I got this recipe from “U”. Will you eat it?” My kids call my grandmother “U”. “Sure, we will try it.”
Near the end Dida was suffering a lot. She could not recognize people. Her famous memory was gone. She was having trouble breathing. I was getting all the news from Dhaka. I did not cry at all, sitting here in Wisconsin. I heard that my uncle Kajalmama went to Kolkata to offer my Dida’s frontal bone to the holy river Ganges as the last ritual. Dida was cremated in our village home, near the family pond. It seems a body turns into ashes in a funeral pyre, but the frontal bone does not get burnt; fire cannot take it, water takes it; water takes it to the unknown. Does the frontal bone shield our memory? Memories can never be burnt; they do not become ashes. We do not forget. We cannot forget.
I go through the photo albums and see seven-month-old me in Dida’s lap. I take my eyes away from her face and look at her off-white silk sari. It has a wide red border – almost velvet like.
After Dida’s death, as I am the first grandchild, I was given the pair of earrings Dida used to wear every day. It is a very old fashioned and unique gold earring. It has a strange hook at the back. There is this red stone in the middle. It is not ruby; I saw rubies only when I saw the Crown Jewels at the Tower of London. Before coming to America, I did not know regular people wear rubies too. I have friends with the name ‘Ruby’ though. I have friends with the name ‘Chuni’ – the Bengali of Ruby – too. “Chuni” is such a beautiful word! Maybe to me it is more beautiful, as my favorite friend’s name is “Chuni.” She is Aparajita! Friends are the most valuable jewels one can wear.
I do not know whether I will ever be able to wear Dida’s earring. A woman’s tears, dreams, and sorrows are etched in her everyday gold!
Everybody has a story. I love telling my people’s story. They are my characters; they are my sorrows, and they are my love. Through stories only can we light the thousand-candles-crystal-chandelier of life, each candle a memory or lust; through stories only can we tell the tales of our past.
Three years have gone by since Dida has left us. What is death? Is it our last unknown? Is it our last fear? I tell my Dida’s stories to the people I like immensely. I never tell Dida’s name to the people who hurt me, who tortured me, and who gave me pain. Pain always hides beauty like a pearl – shell shut.
Today I will cook the prawns with Malabar spinach just like Dida. Till now I have not cried even once for her. But today while cooking her prawns with Malabar spinach – I just couldn’t hold back my tears!
Kalyani Rama is a Bangladesh-born writer. She is an Application Development Senior Engineer by profession and works in Madison, Wisconsin, USA. Kalyani has seven published books in Bengali. She loves listening to people, animals, and trees.