Memoir Excerpts: Excerpt from Till the River Runs Dry

Bhaswati Ghosh

 

At six, I had already been discovered a prodigy. By my grandfather that is. One summer morning as Dadubhai dipped his Marie biscuit into the teacup, I jumped up to his lap. Even as he balanced the cup and saucer to save them from the sudden gymnastics of his granddaughter, my sight darted toward the bulky tome on the round table before us. I leant forward and picked it up in a mighty weight-lifting effort, before it plopped into my lap with a thud. It took me some effort to open the musty-scented edition of Mahabharata. Before long, I was reading out loud the text imprinted on its withering, yellowed pages. This was teeth-breaking, tongue-twisting Bengali, heavily loaded with Sanskrit. Dadubhai was stunned and called out to Titti, my grandmother, "Ei je, come here and see what Tutun shona is up to!"

Titti came out of the kitchen, wiping the sweat on her forehead with the end of her sari. As I ran my fingers through each letter, joining them up in my mind to form whole words before uttering them, Titti came closer and took a seat across Dadubhai and me. I looked up to her, collected her smiling nod, gave her a return smile, and got back to my play—locking the letters and half letters to pronounce the full words. This was my second year of learning the Bengali alphabet, and we were on to complex letters at school. When I saw my grandparents getting impressed with my diction-ability, I decided to read out one full paragraph. And read I did, notwithstanding the pronunciation road bumps occurring after every word or two. 

"I always knew our Tutun was special. Is this a small thing, reading such tough passages? And that too from Mahabharata!" Titti proclaimed with authoritative pride. She was, after all, the in-house language maestro. A writer with ability to match the best in the contemporary Bengali literary world, Titti had but limited credentials because of her distanced existence from the publishing circuit based in West Bengal. Even so, this enduring optimist insisted her granddaughter be enrolled into a school that taught Bengali, our mother tongue.

Indeed, Titti had reason to be happy that sultry May morning—when she stopped her cooking midway and came out, her sari stained with turmeric and her hands greasy—to hear me reading out those jawbreakers from the great Indian epic.

That year, a book of rhymes, part of my second-grade syllabus, ran out of stock in the only two Bengali bookstores in the capital. But our teacher would have none of that. Bashful that I was, facing the snarling lady at school daily was an ordeal I could do without. When I had spent about a week in bookless misery, our postman brought us a package. This was the first time I had seen a real parcel. I ran inside the house and called Titti to come and receive it because that's what the postman asked me to do. As she took the package in her hands, she held my chin gently and sent a smiling flying kiss my way. I knew I had done the right thing—brought her to hold a packet that meant something special for her. 

"Here," she said, handing me the parcel. "Do you want to open it?" I had just lost a couple of milk teeth that year. Toothful or not, the grin on my face stretched like elastic the moment I opened the neatly-taped package. Three new books came out of it—my rhyme book, Ramayana for Children and Mahabharata for Children. When I looked at Titti gaping with disbelief, she said, "I wrote to Renu Titti to send these books from Calcutta. Does my Tutun shona like them?" "I do!" I said, hugging her quickly and hopped my way to the other room to show Ma my parcel.

Titti and Ma were the only two bread earners in our family back then. The two ladies were shouldering a challenge no one would envy—feeding a family of six, which included two school-going children; paying the rent; and keeping pace with spiraling household costs—all with their modest salaries. Yet, there was no concern over money when it came to introducing me and Dada, my brother, to the joy of books. Titti would shell out money freely to make us both members of the Delhi Public Library, using her membership subsidy—a perk of her government job. Going to the library with Titti was a weekly jaunt Dada and I wouldn't miss for anything—rain, fever, or exams. As the people, demons, and beasts from regional folktales, Buddhist Jataka tales, and Hindi comic books burst into our world, its territory swelled at an excited pace.

Titti's personal space had never been as expansive, though. A memoir she wrote a few months before her death tells me how, all through her life, she had negotiated life inside concrete matchboxes. She never experienced the luxury of a small quiet corner to write in, let alone possess a desk and a chair. For as long as I can remember, I found her squatting on the living room floor with her ruled register and ball-point pen, wiggling out every scrap moment from her million chores—day job, paying electricity and water bills, cooking, feeding us, going to the bank, post office, ration shop (to pick up groceries for the month), gas station (to book cooking gas)—to scribble her soul out on the paper. Even as I nurtured dreams of becoming either an engineer or a journalist upon growing up, I saw the manifestation of the much romanticized "struggling writer" before me. Only, writing was not a struggle for my grandmother; it was her daily quota of oxygen. Disregarding the demands of her fatigued body and stressed mind, she would write every single day, fighting drowsy eyes and bleak prospects. 

Recognition was shy of making friends with Titti. Her six-decade-long writing career saw four published books with little marketing support; scores of published articles and some short stories with paltry compensations.

She did have a few good friends though, who had it in them to appreciate the depth of her writing. Social activist Pannalal Dasgupta, who had served as an armed revolutionary in India's freedom movement and founded Tagore Society for Rural Development, one of the oldest and largest civil society organizations in eastern India engaged in rural development, was one of them. The editor of Compass, a newsletter highlighting issues of rural importance, he was like a family member to us. His other glorious attribute was that he belonged to Faridpur, the neighboring district of Barisal, Titti's birthplace. All through my growing years, I saw this strange affection among Bengalis of East Pakistan for fellow land-lost compatriots. Every time Mr. Dasgupta visited us, Titti, him and Dadubhai would have avid nostalgia sessions over endless cups of cha or homebred milk-sugar tea. From rivers to village fairs and community festivals like nabanna and rashjatra, the reminiscences always beat the hours to chat. And each time they remembered their village life, they took me on a surreal trip to the green vistas of rural Bengal I am yet to see with my eyes.

Although I didn't understand Titti's pain fully while she was around, I felt its intensity all the same. By middle school, I had become her confidant. She would share with me the frustrations of being unable to have regular contact with Bengal-based publishers, the agony of getting estranged from her very supportive parental family and landing into her in-law’s house at fifteen. "When, after a twelve to fourteen-hour day of tending to household chores, I couldn't find a book or even a newspaper in the house, I would read flaps of spice packets. At least it was some printed matter." She used to hide a small notebook and a pen inside her blouse. The minute other female members left the kitchen, she would scrawl away furiously. Having seen her despondency, would I have chosen to be a writer? You bet not.

Like most writers who eat and breathe their craft, Titti perhaps dreamt of being a full-time writer. Yet, she had to take up one job after the other to keep the kitchen embers burning.

Did I choose to be a writer? No. But then neither did Titti. A bird doesn't choose to sing. The song chooses its birds. And then the bird has no choice but to sing, with or without food in its beak.

Bio: Bhaswati Ghosh writes and translates fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Victory Colony, 1950 is her first book of fiction. Her website is bhaswatighosh.com


1 comment :

  1. The song chose the right bird. You really have a way with words.

    ReplyDelete

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