Grandma’s Secret

Still, I write you this letter in my diary today in hope that when I start my journey for the heavenly abode to meet you again, our sons will read this wish of their mother and honour it.

The Muse of the Month is a monthly writing contest organised by Women’s Web, bringing you original fiction inspired by women. 

Sreeparna Sen is one of the winners for the September 2021 Muse of the Month, and wins a Rs 750 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. The juror for this month, Manjul Bajaj commented, “I liked this for its plot and theme. The plotline covers partition and its fallout on families, religious bigotry and ends in a compromise of sorts – the mother’s wishes are honoured but everything is not fixed or solved. So, a few bonus points for a more realistic outcome.”

Mitu rested her eyes on the fluttering leaves of the trees. The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering.

So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed. In the daylight one could never tell of the storm, they had suffered the night before. Yet when observed with care, Mitu could see the plucked leaves, swirling in the winds and the fallen twigs, the subtle remnants of the recently passed uproar. The storm had passed but had left its marks.

Were the ‘subtle’ shows of the hurricane that swept this house last night visible to others also? If they did, will they understand the emotional debris and the un-cried tears piling up in each heart? She looked for such absurd answers in the air of mistrust and disbelief engulfing the house that was silent as a crypt.

Only last evening this household had posed a different mood. Mitu could recall each moment in detail.

She was teasing her brother with the TV remote. The clash was real between his cartoon show and her MTV. Granny was enjoying the banter. Everything was normal. Until her father came. He snatched away the remote and changed it to the news channel.

In the days to come Mitu would replay the particular sequences of that evening, hundreds of times and imagined the alternative end of the events that followed. And in all the versions her father never changed the channel. The change that sparked the fire.

The news channel was telecasting the horrors of the riot that had erupted in another part of the country. A train was burning, and along with it, an entire state was also burning. Granny seemed to be transfixed on the screen. Something about her gaze showed an abnormality. Soon she started having convulsions.

“They are doing it again.”

Granny exclaimed in an obscure voice. Then she started slurring. Her garbled words were hard to decipher. She seemed to be in excruciating pain. Mitu rushed to call her mother and uncle.

In a few minutes, everyone in the house had gathered around Granny. Someone was calling the doctor.

Mitu’s parents tried to provide some respite to the octogenarian. But she was exhausting herself by speaking some gibberish.

“Please do not stress, Ma. The doctor would be here soon.”

Granny was still gasping for breath but she spoke, “Saibal, I do not have much time. But promise me when I die you will not cremate me. Give me a burial like a true Muslim.”

Saibal was her elder son, Mitu’s father.

“Ma, what are you saying? We are calling the doctor. You will be fine. Nobody is a Muslim here.”

“I am Muslim. The diary. Check my diary.”

She could not speak any further. But, her last words numbed the caste Hindu family of the Chatterjees.

The doctor arrived soon and demanded immediate hospitalization. The two sons ran to make the arrangement. But something was amiss.

Mitu turned around to find her father on the porch. Granny was still in ICU. The brothers had returned from the hospital yesterday midnight. Her father had gone straight to his mother’s room and did not speak a word since then.

*

Saibal was staring at the garden blankly. Not an ounce of life was left in his eyes. The leather-bound diary that he holds in his hand robbed him of his identity overnight. The sun’s rays were cold and the brilliant daylight was as dark to him as any night. And his mind was in chaos. For some moments it occurred to him that it must be a nightmare, perhaps he ought just to play along. Or maybe if he refused to play along, the world would right itself. But nothing happened.

The diary was his mother’s secret keeper. A secret that could topple the very foundation of the family in minutes. The first page displayed its owner’s name in bold, Nanibala. His mother had envisioned this day and had particularly marked an entry for her sons to find out. It was dated a few days after the death of her husband, Saibal’s father.

*

25th January 1995.
Chatterjee Babu, we had a deal. I was supposed to go first. But, you broke it. Not that I can blame you as irresponsible. All your life you fulfilled all your responsibilities with due diligence. You had given me, a Muslim widow, the place of your wife. For an entire life, you had kept my identity a secret to save me from any wrath.

Remember the day we met?

The country was gearing up for the impending independence. And Bengal was battling the menaces of partition and the riots it triggered along with a colossal wave of migration. That fateful night a crowd had become a mob, mindless and dangerous. My house was on fire. They killed all my family. My parents, my husband. You, a refugee in this land, away from the place you once called home, gave me shelter in the small shack you shared with your newborn baby. The riot had snatched away Saibal’s mother. You were trying to reach Kolkata across the border to find a safe refuge. In those distraught times too you took me under your wings. I still remember your words.

“You can stay with us. I will introduce you as my wife. Do not worry, I am not trying to exercise any force on you. You can just be my son’s mother. Nobody will ever know a thing. This will be our lifelong secret. I promise.”

I was hesitant at first and tried to warn you about the implications. Our religions could be the impediment.

“We both are human beings. The false pride of religion that inflamed our houses can be damned with,” you said. 

I don’t know why, but I believed you. I just took two promises from you.

“I will come with you, just promise me, when I die, you will bury me instead of cremating. And, do not die before me.”

Do you remember what was your reply?

“Even if I am not there, our son would fulfil your wish.”

You brought me to the city where nobody knew us. You gave me the identity of Saibal’s mother, her name. I never had to convert. We accepted each other as we are. I had the liberty to follow my religion, while you followed yours. We started our family. Saibal had a brother. You gave me everything that a woman needed. And I am thankful to Allah that our star crossed fates met each other.

But, now that you are gone, there is an eternal void all around. My sons have grown up well. They respect me. But, I wonder if they can fulfil your broken promise. Still, I write you this letter in my diary today in hope that when I start my journey for the heavenly abode to meet you again, our sons will read this wish of their mother and honour it.

Just hold on there Chatterjee Babu, your Noni will meet you again. This time in a land without barriers.

*

Saibal hugged the notebook and tears started rolling down his cheeks. A decision was needed to be made.

The long silence, which seemed like ages, was broken by the sudden succession of shrill rings of the telephone. Peering towards the landline, Saibal picked up the phone with hesitation. His wife, Sujata came hurriedly and stood behind the curtains, trying to hear the conversation. The conversation was short and hanging up was even shorter. Mitu noticed from a distance, a grave emotion played on the lifeless face of her father. The inevitable news had arrived. Her grandmother was no more. Now the real challenge would begin.

*

Hours after, another storm was brewing inside the house.

“Are you mad? Now you want to give a burial to your mother?”

“Sujata, it was her last wish.”

“We need to stay in this society. We have a daughter to look after. Do you think any decent family will accept her if they know the truth? So I do not care what was the last wish of that imposter.”

With each word, the decibel of Sujata’s voice was ascending.

“Sujata, mind your language. She was my mother.”

“Mother, my foot. I would have never married in such a sordid family if we had known this earlier. I always knew something was fishy when she said she never believed in worshipping idols.”

“It is futile to argue with narrow-minded people like you, Sujata.”

“Call me whatever you like. But, I am being practical. We have to live in this society.” Mitu and his brother waited in their room as the elders argued and debated.

Surprisingly Bimal, Saibal’s brother and his wife Mala supported Sujata only. They also tried to convince Saibal.

“Dada, we have to live with this name of Chatterjee. Our children are growing up. If people start boycotting us for this anomie where will we go?”

Getting some support Sujata started to add, “See, even Bimal understands. He is the real son of your mother, if he agrees why are you being so adamant? She wasn’t even your mother.”

Saibal knew it was pointless to quarrel with these insular folks. He sighed and declared, “I have made my decision. If appeasing the society is the prime motto, Bimal, you can follow all the Hindu rituals of death rites. We can have the shraddha ceremony. But, I am taking Ma’s dead body for burial. If anyone asks, tell them we have taken her body to Haridwar as per her last wish.”

“But, dada…”

“No more arguments, please. This is final. Nobody needs to know a thing. It will be our secret.”

Millions of light-years away, in a world beyond the human cacophony, a forlorn man just met his long lost partner. The wise man was telling his wife,

“Didn’t I tell you, Noni, our son will fulfil all your wishes.”

Editor’s note: This month’s cue has been sent by Manjul Bajaj, the author of Come, Before Evening Falls (shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize in 2010) and Another Man’s Wife (shortlisted for the Hindu Literary Prize in 2013) and In Search of Heer (listed for the JCB and other prizes in 2020). She has also written two books for children—Elbie’s Quest and Nargisa’s Adventures.

The cue is from her book In Search of Heer.

“The breeze bullied the reeds forcing them to swish and sway to its vagaries, forwards and backwards, this way and that. Everything was as it had been yesterday and the day before. The cuckoo bird continued its ‘coo-coo-once-is-not-enough-here’s-another’, coo-coo call, pleased with its own poetics, its rhythm unfaltering. So much had transpired, yet nothing had changed.

Image source: a still from the film Sardar ka Grandson

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Sreeparna Sen, Banker by profession, finds her solace in writing. A Computer Engineer by education,

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