Memoir / Essays: Lovesong

Nandita De nee Chatterjee

[A family memoir, based on the author’s personal experiences of elderly life and the bond of love in her filial setting.]

October 2000.

The dark, green leaves of the 'bokul' tree parted. The shiny black cuckoo perched on its favourite branch. Fresh after a night-long sleep, it let out its first morning song, full-throated and deep.

The early-morning golden rays from the east burnished the lady's hair into gold. Instinctively she looked up, eyes searching for the songbird, eager and expectant. The reverie broke through the 5 am stillness, and she turned her head to smile at the man in the armchair. The tiny balcony on the first-floor building had a few flowering plants with red and orange blooms shyly peeping through the silver grills.

A tiny table set with an immaculate, white and gold tea set in a tray was in the centre, flanked by two white nylon cane chairs.

A beautifully manicured hand poured out a cup of fresh Darjeeling tea and she leaned forward to give the cup to the gentleman. A trembling hand accepted it and over tea and toast the two sat back to savour the dawn concert.

The man's Grecian features under snowy, back-brushed hair had a forbidding line. His frame, even in rest, exuded command. Only his steely grey eyes had a serenity belying his trembling arm.

'Do you have to go anywhere today?" his wife asked.

He did not answer for some time. Then, 'yes, I have to go to the bank to furnish my 'Life Certificate'. Remember, you'll have to do that every November to get the Air Force pension when I'm not there.'

'Someone will have to carry me', the plump lady in the chair next to him grinned. 'After all, my legs won't take me that far and the taxi stand is too far away. Also I can't get onto a rickshaw.' 

'What about your younger daughter? She will surely take you.'

''Oh yes! surely. Only she won't be in time to pick up Babu from school. The poor little boy will have to stand, hungry and alone, for hours while she runs helter-skelter trying to get through the Calcutta jams and road blockades to reach school. No, I don't think so. I won't be able to get your pension. But how much can one eat? Since I won't be able to do any shopping, I'll make do with 'dal' and eggs.'

The stern face breaks into merriment.

'What about electric bills, phone and milk bills, gas, corporation tax? How will you pay for those?'

'Why, what you have in the bank can settle that. The 'darwan' gives the bill for just Rs 20."

'And medical bills?'

'Oh, private clinics are too expensive. I'll tell my son-in-law to put me into Command Hospital,' she retorts.

'Have I explained to you all about my identity card and the other cards? That will take care of any heart problems or if you have any fancy disease. In Calcutta you'll be entitled to cashless treatment up to Rs.1 lakh at BM Birla.'

'Oh I know all about those! Haven't you told me that a hundred times? I won't need those. At 73, no new disease will attack me. This 20-year-old leg problem is my doom.'

'Nothing will happen to me,' he replies. 'I'll die like my mum, in one second over my lunch. Good people die that way. You'll have a harder time.'

'Oh no I won't, ' the old lady snaps. I have done my duties. I was an extremely loving child. I loved my father most in the world. I was the only one in 8 siblings who waited on him day and night. During his paralysis days he rested only on me when I was around.'

'What about your temper?'

'What temper? In school and college, I was the most helpful girl! My whole life I participated in sports, dance and music. All athletes and artistes have good dispositions. I'm warm, humorous, talkative. You don't even talk to your daughters much and never answer phones.'

'Three women in the house! Who will participate in your senseless banter? I liked talking to serious people in the Mess.'

'Oh Yes! Your Air Force friends! Where are they now? For the last 20 years you've refused to visit anyone, save your brothers and Kum Kum.'

'Didn't I go to Canada to be with Rangita for 3 months when she was pregnant?'

'Isn't she also your daughter?'

The elderly face becomes sad.

'I just cannot think what she will do - two sad marriages and now alone in California with a small child. Being her father, I can't do anything for her. She can't even have a normal life if she returns to India. This Parkinson has totally disabled my functions. I can't do anything for her.'

'Yes, you forget most things now. And your speech is getting slurred. But at 76 something has to happen. Look at it this way, you don't have diabetes or heart disease. There is hardly any elderly person in our estate without serious problems.'

'Of course, I'm not pitying myself. After all, I need something to die. Haven't I been Military Fit for 72 years?'

'That's my main worry,' the lady replies. 'How will I die? I don't see anything happening to me in the near future. Nobody dies with arthritis legs. I'm agile, young at heart, I chat for hours on the phone, cook fancy dishes like I did 30 years ago and read every tit-bit news in papers and magazines.'

Suddenly she looks at the drawing room clock.

'My masseuse should be in soon. I'll wash this set. The help may break it. I've preserved it for 40 years now. You brought it from the UK, remember? '

'Yes, we were in Palam then. Andrew was with me. He is in a nursing home in Sydney now. I got a card from him yesterday.'

The doorbell rings. Mr. Mukherjee enters. 'Good morning Mr Chatterjee, Boudi. I see you are having your early morning tea.'

'Come in, come in. Can I make you some breakfast? ' Mrs. Chatterjee smiles.

'Of course! That's why I've come. Who feels like having tea alone every day?'

'I heard your son is joining the U.N. That's good,' Mr. Chatterjee says, settling down on a dull, blue velvet sofa.

'Yes, he'll be leaving for Africa. All my children are so far away. I have 7 grandchildren from 5 children and yet I'm so alone since Sumitra died.'

'Yes, I miss her too. We used to go for evening walks everyday,' Mrs. Chatterjee says.

'But anyway, they come once a year on holidays. Not everyone has that. See Roy - his wife never gets out of bed and no kids. Poor guy, he has to buy food most days.'

'Yes, these part-time helps and cooks are no good. Most days they are absent. They really take advantage of old people,' the lady replies. 'And there's no knowing what ills a full-timer may bring! Did you see the papers yesterday? An old couple stabbed by a resident help of 10 years!'

'Self-help is the best, I say,' Mr. Chatterjee responds. 'I never rely on anyone.'

'Except me, and Kum Kum and Tata. They took you to the ICU twice last month, didn't they?'

'Yes, poor things. He doesn't come home from office before dinner everyday. It's a shame putting so much burden on the kids. They have such a hectic life as it is.'

Mr. Mukherjee shakes his head. 'Why, didn't you nurse them when they were young? Now it's their turn to look after their parents. You think only of them!'

'Naturally, they are our family. If we won't think about the children, who will? Do they have anyone else?' Mrs. Chatterjee is now getting emotional.

'Don't inform them that the doctor called yesterday. I'm taking oxygen when I need it. That's good enough. I don't want to go to any hospital. I'll die here only,' Mr Chatterjee tells his wife. 'And you better learn to count money right and inform yourself of the different bank accounts.' He laughs, 'such a small amount in the bank. What does a serviceman have left? It won't pay for both our hospital bills. And you'll never be able to reach me to Command.'

He looks towards Mr. Mukherjee.  'Your boudi won't be able to visit me in Alipore. So I've told her to forget about Command Hospital.'

'What's more important, saving your life or visiting you at hospital?' she retorts. 'Haven't I been through several wars with you? Am I not a Defence wife? Have I not looked after your health for 42 years? Nothing will happen to you while I am here. Stop worrying about me.'

'What will you do when you are alone? Go off to Kumu. You are still like a baby. You have no knowledge about worldly matters. What will happen to you?'

'Why won't I be like a baby? You have treated me like a child all my life. You have never put any problems on me. So how can I learn now? In any case, one of us has to go first.'

She relaxed with the sweater she is knitting for her grandson. 'You'll be worse off if I go first. After all, I cook for you, dust the house, nurse you.'

' Oh, I'm fine,' Mr. Chatterjee laughs." I don't need you.'

'That's what he's said all his life,' Mrs. Chatterjee tells Mr. Mukherjee. 'If lunch is not ready by 12:30, you come and see his temper.'

They all laugh.

The faces are a little creased now. Mr. Chatterjee's hand shakes continuously. His once strong body is now slightly frail. But as he rests back on the sofa, he still looks infinitely handsome, stern brave.

Mr. Mukherjee leaves. He wanders around alone for a few hours every day before he enters an empty home.

Mrs. Chatterjee shuts the door. After a bath she wears a freshly ironed pink saree and puts a rose in her hair. The image looking back from her mirror is extremely lovely. Taking the incense around the house after her Puja, she wakes up her napping husband.

'I'm bringing the 10 o'clock coffee.'

The birds keep singing outside. The cooing is now joined by sharper trills and the 'bokul' tree outside resplendent with different birds.

The steam disappears above the coffee mugs. This is always relaxing.

'I love this flat you've bought. The birds are a permanent joy. And there are new buds in the red hibiscus.'

'True. But Sapan didn't come to sell his fish for two days now. Do you have enough for today? My hand-shaking is not stopping even after the medicine. It doesn't have any effect anymore. I can't go to the bazaar.'

'So what? The vegetable man was here this week. I'm making your favourite ‘musoor dal’ with ‘dhania’ leaves, paneer-capsicum, fried brinjal and egg curry. And your ‘patali gurer payesh’ is also ready.'

'Remind me to buy more ‘patali gur’ the next time I can make it to the market. Make large quantities. Guests drop in all the time.'

'Have I ever forgotten?' she returns.

The evening twilight creeps in. The tubelight is turned on and doors shut on the menacing mosquitos. TV is switched on. The elderly couple inside are laughing over their evening tea, remembering, joking, thinking back, thinking of tomorrow, thinking of the kids. The room is warm. The tray has to be removed.

She tries to get up from the sofa. But it will take her at least 10 minutes to stand. He rushes forward. His shaking hand picks up the tea tray. The clattering of the cups is loud.

'Leave it. Your hand is shaking too much. I'll take it in a few minutes.'

'No, I will. You can't walk.'

Bio: Writer/freelance journalist/housewife. Formerly with Economic Times. Cover stories and Feature Writer with Statesman, Illustrated Weekly, Economic Times, Telegraph, Times of India, Femina, Filmfare, Germany Today, Voix Meets Mode, UK, Frontier Weekly, Namaste Ink. Co Author, Big Bang of Non-Fiction, Life in Reverse; 30 Best Poets; Sea; Coffee & Echos; Wrapped Up Feelings; Poetry Planet's Christmas in my Heart , Moonlight; Asian Literary Society's A Kaleidoscope of Asia & A Bilingual Anthology of Poems, Poetry Planet's Writers' Haven; Rewrite the Stars;Love Thy Mother; The Real Hero; Born to Dream Winners' Anthology; Heart of a Poet by Inner child press anthologies, USA; Ashes; Arise from the Stars; Striving for Survival & An Indian Summer by Plethora Blogazine.


  1. That's a very heart warming account from the real life story of your parents. I felt each emotion of yours while reading it.

    1. Many Thanks Monalisa for reading and resonating with a very serious personal story. Best wishes. 🌹


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