Oof. My nose itches under my mask. Are we there yet? My long legs had to be obediently tucked away under the seat of the car and were starting to dissolve.
We turned into a narrow gully. I gulped. The car barely seemed to squeeze through.
Finally, we approached the gates of Ganguly Bagan and the tiny taxi came to a screeching halt.
Sigh. I clutched the handle of the car and got out. A cat ran past me and into the opening of a stormwater drain. The air sat heavily; moving through it was like cutting a stroke in water. Already, I could feel my sensitive skin begin to itch.
The gate opened with a welcome squeak. My aunt looked down at me from the fourth-floor balcony with a wide, warm smile. She waved and motioned towards the stairs that led up; each landing was a threshold to a different flat.
I carried my suitcase and trudged up the stairs. The smell hadn’t changed in 12 years. Most of the inhabitants were also the same, as far as I could tell from the name tags on the doors. I would usually visit every few years. In all the time I spent at Ganguly Bagan, never had I seen anyone walk out of those doors. I knew them as the Ambaly’s from the 1st floor and the Bannerjee’s on the second floor. The third-floor flat was occupied by my mother’s oldest sister, my mamuni. The flat on the fourth floor was occupied by my mother’s other sister, moni.
Moni was already waiting at the door for me. She was armed with a Savlon disinfectant spray and a bottle of sanitiser. I waited patiently as she sprayed my luggage and then raised my arms as she proceeded to spray me. She then led me straight to the bathroom. I quickly dropped my travel clothes into a bucket of soapy water and took a long bath, scrubbing myself with pumice and rinsing my hair. It was only after I had come out and dressed that I could hug my aunt.
So much has changed since I last saw the house. What used to be a dim, quiet flat has now more sun coming in and the chatty househelp can be heard making full use of the kitchen. The curtains have changed. The couches too. Moni had managed to fill every glass vessel in the house with water and stuck a few croton branches and money plant cuttings into each one. Big bottles of Savlon had replaced the bowl of lozenges that Moni usually kept on the console by the door.
The door at the end of the flat stood closed. I looked at the door with apprehension and fear.
“She’s still asleep,” Moni said, snapping me out of the chain of thoughts I was lost in. I nodded slowly. Calcutta’s summers are unforgiving and show no mercy. The humidity made it difficult to sit still. One could sweat just sitting. The air was hot, the water was hot and the skies showed no sign of rain. The trees I could see from the window stood still, almost lifeless, with no breeze to make them dance.
Moni vowed to fatten me up. I laughed nervously.
She fussed over how thin I was and firmly pushed me towards the dining table. She brought me rice, boiled okra, fried potol, potatoes in poppy seed paste and fried bitter gourd. She then brought out the next course – fried fish, maccher jhol and another dollop of rice. Helpless claims of being vegetarian were ignored. Moni simply clucked and said that eating fish once in two years would be next to nothing. I sighed and plucked out the fine bones from the fish.
By the end of that, I had no space for dessert. I sat on the bed by my room and peered out the window. In this sleepy, small neighbourhood, it is very easy to watch people through windows. I looked down at the front door of the neighbouring building. An adolescent Alsatian pup was tied to a grill gate, resting its head on one paw. Clearly, it was experiencing its first Calcutta summer. Soon enough, the sultry afternoon lulled me, numbing my senses. All the fish and rice I had eaten hung heavy in my stomach. I grew tired of watching the dog and dozed off.
When I awoke, it was late in the evening. Sleep can disorient you like nothing else. Moni brought me tea. I drank quietly and went to wash the cup. The door at the end of the hall was partially open now. I walked quickly to the kitchen and back. I peered inside meekly. Moni asked me to come in and close the door behind me.
My grandmother is one of the strongest women I know. I call her Didun. She raised five children on her own in Jamshedpur, a city of steel, in a generation where a woman’s work was invisible. She made sure all of them finished school and college and did extracurricular activities. All four sisters sing and one plays the sitar. I never knew my uncles to have done any extracurriculars. They must have been busy preparing to be breadwinners.
I smile when I think about my matriarchal Bengali family. Stubborn, dominant and constantly fussing over everything about me. Coming to Calcutta meant my aunts would line up to pamper me, cooking enormous amounts of food because somehow I had turned out as thin as a rake. Calcutta is the equivalent of being with my grandmother. I have no other reason to come. She’s told me that I’m her favourite grandchild. I daresay that’s true considering I was the hardest to care for. I had a long list of allergies as a baby and would take hours to eat.
I sat with Moni on the bed. The room was cool, the AC had been on for hours. My grandmother lay there, eyes open and watery. She looked at me and extended a hand. I grasped it. Moni suddenly said, “She’s been chanting your name and crying all the time.”
I swallowed. I should have come sooner. I should have come as soon as I saw her cry uncontrollably on the video call two months ago.
Moni and I pulled Didun up and helped her sit. Her head drooped heavily. She mumbled and cried like a baby. She swayed back and forth. She wanted to sleep, she said. She wailed again. We let her back down gently. She rolled and swayed, mumbling and sniffling. She extended a hand to me, I took it. She squeezed it tight. She patted the pillow next to her, “Sleep here.” I lay down. She hugged me tightly. I was her shonamuni again. Her beloved grandchild.
How the roles had changed. My grandmother became very much like a baby, very quickly. But the spirit of a strong woman, the matriarch who barely had any time to care for herself, shone brightly in her eyes. And for the first time, I learned her full name.
It is Shobharani Moulik of Jamshedpur, Calcutta, Bangalore.
Rohini Mehta is a 17-year-old aspiring writer from Bangalore.
Featured image provided by the author.