Saturday Story 17: Jeevan ka Ras
Jiji passed away this morning at the age of 63. No, it was not due to coronavirus but a heart attack.
Sitting in Cleveland, Ohio in lockdown, I was able to see her one last time on Zoom, before they took her for the cremation. This old, shrivelled lifeless body, was it really my Jiji? No, I will always remember her before the years, and its many burdens took their toll.
There is faded B & W photograph of my jiji, in two plaits and ribbons, wearing a salwar kameez and a cheeky smile. That is the only picture I have of her, as a young girl. Then, we see her wedding album, dressed in fine silks and jewellery, with her eyes downcast, expression demure. As brides then were meant to be.
The groom was from a well-known family, they were far more prosperous than us. Everyone thought that jiji was lucky, to get such a good match. But little did they know.
It was only 3 months after the wedding, when I went to visit her on raksha bandnan, that I came to know the ugly truth. Jijaji’s behaviour was extremely odd. I think today, it would be diagnosed as bipolar. Back then there was no ‘word’ for it, and the family actually believed ki shaadi ke baad ladka theek ho jayega.
At least that’s what they told us, when my elder brother visited to discuss the matter. I wanted to kidnap my dear, sweet jiji and take her far away from this strange creature. But, of course, no one asked for my opinion. The elders at home shook their heads and said this was her kismat. Anyway, it was too late now. Jiji was expecting her first child, best to adjust as best she could.
I never heard a word of complaint from that gentle soul. She produced 3 bonny babies – all sons- raising her status with her in-laws considerably. None of them inherited the father’s condition. Thank God for that small mercy! Meanwhile, I completed my BTech and to my surprise, was accepted by University of Michigan, Ann Arbor for my master’s, on full scholarship.
At first, I visited every two years or so but after marriage and kids, both Joan and I felt detached from India and all things Indian. On my rare trips, I would always visit Jiji and enjoy food personally prepared by her. It was not the food itself but the love she poured into it, which took me back to bachpan ke din. Aur haan, unke haath ka gulab jamun. Nobody would ever match that.
On every visit, I could sense the gulf between myself and my elder brother grow wider. He was the foundation of our family, the one who quit his studies to support us all when Pitaji passed away, all of a sudden. Through sheer determination and hard work, he had become a businessman – a Sethji – well-known and well-respected in Karnal, the city of his birth.
It was Bhaisaheb who arranged for the weddings of our 3 younger sisters. I contributed dollars, of course, but he was the worrying mind and caring heart, which kept the family together.
Yet behind that strong facade was a secret sorrow. Bhaisaheb had only one son, an angelic baby who grew up into a strapping young man. But without the IQ to match. Doctors, vaids, hakims, gurus, astrologers, mantras, rings, even electric shock therapy – nothing had helped the mandh-buddhi. Who would take over the sprawling business, the haveli, the many other properties…
Meanwhile, jiji’s sons were hale and healthy, street-smart young men. Over the years, the wealth and status of her in-laws family had declined. The grain-trading business was barely keeping the family afloat. Jiji’s eldest son Tinku took up a job as a truck-driver after class 12. One day, he was passing through Karnal and dropped in to meet his mama.
I remember that day, Bhaisaheb called me on the ISD, which was Rs 60 per minute, and cried.
“Things are so bad, but jiji did not even tell me,” he sobbed. That day he resolved to set her house in order. Tinku stayed back in Karnal to work with his mama in the cement trading business. A year later, Pappu came on board, followed by the youngest sibling Sattu. They were as hungry, as determined and hard-working as their uncle.
Five years on, Bhaisaheb got them an agency, from the cement company he represented. He promised, “Mera haath hamesha tumhare sar pe rahega.” But that was the beginning of his end. Maybe he was tired of the weight on his weary shoulders. He had a paralytic stroke and never fully recovered. And neither did his business.
Debtors are like vultures, they prey on the weak and the wounded. Ab Sethji ka koi beta to laayak hai nahin. Jab unki agency band honey waali hai to hamein paisa lautaane ki kya zaroorat…
From thousands of miles away, I watched helplessly, as my elder brother, the Rock of our family, slowly fell apart.
It was Sattu, Pappu and Tinku who stepped in and made sure that bhaisaheb collected all the monies due. They helped him wind up the kaarobaar and get his affairs in order.
Jiji observed the conduct of her sons and her heart swelled with pride.
I could not rescue her on that fateful raksha bandhan. But running away is no answer. She embraced her life, with all its burdens and responsibilities.
Jiji was the Rock of her household. Not just strong but sweet, till her last, loving breath.