Nath Mama is no more. My mother shared the news she received from our grandmother at the STD/ISD/PCO booth she used to visit for making weekly calls .Mobile phones were an alien technology in that era. Landlines were an option, but establishing a connection was a painful task. The regular visits and follow-ups at BSNL office could exasperate any seasoned local. Receipt of sanction was just half the story, until the technicians’ palms weren’t greased, any approval worth its value would end up catching dust for years in a local office.
I was trying to read my mother’s face, and there was not a hint of lament. In that moment it felt like she was traveling down the memory lane, nostalgia. Rather her words relayed sympathies for our grandmother, who had taken care of Nath Mama during his twilight years.
Nath Mama and grandmother were not even siblings. They were cousins, twice removed, brought up by their parents at distant places. I don’t think there existed even a slight hint of awareness about such a relation for years from either end. He belonged to the landed gentry and was ‘placed‘ at the family-run school. The Great War was over. Borderlines were altering across the globe. India was still under the strong grip of the United Kingdom despite the popular and ever-increasing demand for self-rule and change. For the masses, life could not have been much different. Basic needs that we take for granted today were a luxury. Mama Ji was among the handful of students to attend school in a uniform. His classmates were barefooted and had only loincloth to cover their bodies.
For all the privilege fate had bestowed Mama ji, he was a diligent and bright student. He was very objective and self driven for a pre-teen and never counted among students needing constant supervision and prodding, . The school offered education till primary class. To pursue higher education, he moved in with his uncle’s family at the state capital. He was associated with the first batch of state’s lone Engineering College. After completing higher education, he decided to pursue a career in the hitherto unknown and burgeoning private field, to the great surprise and disbelief of family and teachers. I learned later that his family never forgave him for a contravention of such high proportions. After all, he had sisters of marriageable age. Whatever chance they had of receiving a favorable alliance would be severely impacted as soon as the news of their elder brother’s private endeavor was revealed. To avoid shame and humiliation within the family and relatives and across the community at large, hefty dowry would have to be marshaled now. Visiting relatives blamed his parents for sending Mama ji to the city. Decent colleges were available nearby to pursue a regular degree that too under watchful and concerned eyes of faculty and administrators, known to the family!! City and hostels, after all are dens of revolutionary ideas offered in plenty by lay bouts and idlers. Definitely one of those good for nothing must have spoilt your son’s head – verdict declared and closed.
Mama ji got a job at Bombay, I believe he must have leaped at the opportunity to escape from the conundrum back home. Year followed another, he worked hard to learn and grow in the new environment. What didn’t change were the calls from family, reminding the monthly deposits towards his sisters’ dowries and other expenditures – he was the one responsible for all this right. I believe a part of him did feel guilty to have put the family at such predicament. Keeping aside a small amount for rent and food, he decided to share the remaining portion of salary with the family. In the cycle of guilt and contribution, Mama ji decided to forgo all the basic contentment – marriage, house, car, vacation were not for him to deserve and enjoy.
He superannuated from the company after a dedicated service of more than three decades. It is said that initially he used to visit home during vacations, but as time passed, they became intermittent and eventually rare. By the time he retired, the solitary confines of the bachelor’s hostel were more preferable. He got his sisters married and when their children grew, brought them over to Bombay for higher education, jobs, temporary residence and other arrangements.
Never to have failed on the rents, Mama ji was told to vacate his room as the Trust feared the kind of image hostel would develop if super senior bachelors like him decided to stay back – leaving young men scrambling for cheap flats in the suburbs. Probably the fuss was more about the relatives of Trustees not getting any place for their bawdy get-togethers. Left with little choice, Mama ji decided to stay put with his niece’s family. Kids were enthused by the presence of a grandfather figure while the niece and her husband could pursue their busy work schedule with the relief of leaving kids at home under his care. In a city with breakneck speed, it was luxury they received literally on the house.
But Mama ji was a man of his own terms. After all, four decades of living alone sets in few habits that rarely fade. Always a stickler for time, especially when it came to food and his own up keep, tardiness even from close relatives used to upset him badly, often triggering latent mood swings. His niece and her family accommodated demands bearing in mind all the help he provided during their days of struggle.
However, all the pent up frustrations have a nasty tendency to burst out in the long run. In Mama ji’s case after some nine years he left their home, supposedly on some flimsy grounds as we were told his niece, our aunt. His whereabouts unknown, it created a sort of panic among relatives and the larger family. Phone exchange stations across India got unusually busy during those worrisome days. But few days of aimless wandering must have proved too much for Mama ji. Not having the gall to face his niece, he landed up at the gates of his widowed cousin, my grandmother. It took some time for her to recognize him, but more to understand the purpose of his visit. My ancestral home must have appeared the best hide out at the time – away from prying eyes, ceaseless questions and the most prized need, peace of mind.
As it mostly happens in large families, visits such as his rarely miss eager ears. Much to his annoyance people started dropping by almost every day. Weekends were packed with hordes of relatives excited to see a bemused elderly gent. Most of their queries deliberate or otherwise, were aimed at his days of wandering. They wanted to know where all did he go, was he alone or accompanied by anyone? I guess for them he was ‘the’ news, a distraction from their boring mundane living. Thankfully, like all the news of the world, Mama ji‘s story turned stale after few days, visits – few and occasional. Our ancestral home became his permanent residence.
On the day he passed away, we were told, his sole possession, an old VIP suitcase was checked thoroughly. Were they expecting some treasure or a detailed will having the name of his favorite sister, niece or nephew?
It had few changes of cloth and a big family photograph.