The tragedy of SriRampur : 1987 to 1988
This time my visit to Washington,D.C. was short where I had to get an immigrant visa for the Philippines . The consulate required a complete medical check up so one day I went to the George Washington University clinic to ask if they could do it. The nurse said that normally they did but now the doctors were busy attending some meeting so I had to go elsewhere. She in fact told me about another place downtown and called to make sure they would do the tests required.
This place was just nearby where an old doctor tapped my chest and knocked my knees and also peeled my eyes to pronounce me healthy but took an x -ray as was required and tested the urine and filled out all the medical forms the embassy had given me . That satisfied the embassy so they stamped my passport with the immigrant visa.
Hubert asked me to stay with him for the few days I was in DC .He was working in Washington now but I knew that he would soon go elsewhere. I never knew where he went or worked because he was a poor correspondent and seldom wrote or answered letters so keeping in touch with him was always difficult. I was surprised to find him in Haiti after so many years but he could have been elsewhere just as easily.
I knew at one time he was in Zaire although what he did there was anyone’s guess. He wrote once that he had married a Belgian divorcee who was probably black and had now her two grown up daughters to take care of in Belgium because his wife had died so I suppose he went to Belgium for a while.. Then I heard that he was in Iraq and lastly he wrote that he was in Jerusalem but never mentioned what he did in those places.
I guessed he was involved in some animal science project because that was his specialty but we rarely kept in touch . Then he wrote to me that he was again getting married and this time to a woman from Costa Rica so that was how Hubert was. I never knew what he was up to until he wrote which was seldom. Anyway I was going to make a stop in India before going back to the Philippines and did not know if and when I would see Hubert again.
So one day I arrived in Sri Ram Pur again. My mom was now in her eighties and very frail. All her hair had turned white and she was just bones but her hearing was good and her brain was still active. Only her eyes were poor and she could only see a blur but she was not senile. Her memory was sharp and she recalled names and events of time past very clearly.
She could not go outside the house because she was afraid. She said that she could not read or write like before because of her diminishing eye sight. I missed her big and beautiful handwriting full of love and blessings but she said that no one took dictation if she wanted to write to me . Sabita did not care and her hand writing was very bad .
She was also lonely and had no one to talk to . She stayed in her bed and listened to radio most of the time and complained of her acidity. I bought her some antacid medicine that she gulped down and asked for more. I often sat with her caressing her shriveled arms and legs or giving her a massage but mostly I listened to her while she rambled on . No one really came to visit her or pay much attention to her .
I at this time started taking copious notes of what she said because I someday I hoped to write it all down as a part of the family history. My grand father and his brother had kept a family record book that my father had continued but now no one kept any records . I also did not know anything about my mother’s side and about her relatives so I started to write it all down and asked many questions .
Nirmal said that our family was a most ordinary family not worth writing about in which I was the sole exception but I did not agree with him and asked him for the dilapidated family record book of my father so that I could someday translate it into English for the next generation. I also wanted to make it as up to date as possible so no one was better informed than my mother . I also took some tape recordings.
Sabita was her usual self so we hardly ever talked. The only words she said in a day was like ” dinner is ready” and often not even that . She complained to everybody about how hard she had to work and take care of everybody and had no time to enjoy life or go anywhere. She often said she had shackles on her legs and destined to take care of others all her life this meaning mother and an occasional guest like me .
Annapurna said that she did not feel welcome to the Sri Ram Pur house anymore but came anyway because of mother. She was also considering buying a house in Lucknow for her retirement because she could not live in Sri Ram Pur with Sabita always bitching about something or someone. Sabita did not get along with anyone now and had something nasty to say about everyone . She was only devoted to her husband and daughter.
Gone were the days when we the brothers and sisters could sit around joking or singing songs pedaling the old Miller organ or discuss something and have fun . Sabita felt left out because she did not understand the jokes and could not sing so she sulked in another room . Now the atmosphere had changed .There was no more gaiety and no one sang songs or joked.
Nirmal who is an artist and of sensitive nature sat in one corner reading news paper and rarely touched his electric guitar or paint brush. He had stopped making clay figurines in which he excelled. If I tried to talk to him about something , he took a negative approach right away. He was now very nationalistic and flared up if he felt that I was criticizing India or any thing Indian . He said that no one could take an opposing view without feeling bad or bearing grudges.
I did not agree but kept my own counsel. He did not take any argument kindly and bore grudges for life time if you crossed him . The only time we could talk was when I made silly jokes about his scooter or something but mostly we kept silent . The time passed agonizingly slowly as I was bored.
A week felt like a month and a day like a week. I had nothing in common with them anymore. They were not interested in knowing anything about Haiti where I had just come from and they were not curious about how we lived in the Philippines .
Sabita’s daughter was a copy of her mother and I felt no love for her anymore. I used to bring her toys and dolls from abroad when she was a little girl and adorable but now she behaved like her mother and was haughty. Her studies had the priority so she often came to turn off the TV when we were watching because it disturbed her studies. Usually it was Sabita who closed the doors and turned off TV when she thought we were making some noise .
Ashis and Jayanti did not feel any kinship with their cousin because she was aloof to them and never wrote letters . She asked casually one or two questions about how they were doing to which I answered also cryptically .This was all the conversation we had during my stay of several weeks. Ashis by the way was the sole namesake in the family because Nirmal’s daughter would soon marry and take the surname of her husband.
Sabita often snickered at my foreign education and wealth and said that it was more credible to get education in India and succeed than abroad because it was tougher . I could say nothing. We really had nothing to talk about.
It was the same with my sister Parvati who lived nearby. She never smiled and always had a sour beaten look on her face. It was very difficult to spend more than five minutes with her or her senile husband who did not remember me. Her children were also aloof because I did not bring them gifts. They were at a loss as to what to do with me because they had no topic to discuss and I did not drink tea or coffee .
Indians always offered tea in a small cup with milk and sugar but I did not like tea or coffee so this caused a problem every time I visited someone. They did not keep anything else in the house unlike here in the Philippines Jasmine kept all sorts of fruit juices and ice cream. They felt embarrassed when I said that a glass of water would do.
Nirmal said that he too was lonely living alone while we all stayed so far. Perhaps he still felt some brotherly love .I will never know but my life had taken a different direction since 1967 and he had come to acknowledge that fact. The house was big and we could all stay there comfortably but a house was never home if no one lived there or those who lived there did not welcome us. Annapurna too did not want now to live in Sri Ram Pur after her retirement and we had made our choice never to return.
I felt sad about mother. Had she been able , I would have brought her to the Philippines where we could take good care of her . I remembered how she had enjoyed the trip we took to Agra to show her the Tajmahal back in 1970 but now she was weak and not fit to travel. She was curious about the kids and our house in Naga City and asked how Jasmine was doing. She was worried about my frequent transfer from one place to another because it would disrupt the studies of the kids but I assured her that they were doing fine and had returned to Naga from Haiti to start schooling there.
I was glad that mom had an income from the rent of tenants upstairs so she had money. She was also given the pension of my father that the government had recently approved for all the widows in India so she was independent. What she needed was someone to talk to or listen to. The old age is a terrible time for some people who become dependent on others for their daily needs and more so when that care is grudgingly given.
She was once a proud woman who had toiled and suffered hardship to bring us all up . It was because of her that we got education and became what we are today. It was she who convinced my father to let Annapurna go and take the government job saying that she should be independent. It was my mother who convinced my father to bring back Shanti and her baby when she became a widow at an age of 18 and convinced her to start schooling.
Shanti over the years had passed high school and college and now had a government job . It was my mother who had convinced Parvati to undergo tubal ligation so that she will not produce more children. Her husband had a very low paying job that barely fed their family of 6 . It was my mom who convinced my father to buy the lot and build a few rooms for which she willingly gave all her gold jewelry to sell. It was because of her that we all succeeded in our own ways but no one gave her credit. She was a great mom but now she was old , feeble and helpless.
I hugged her and told her that she was the best mom in the world and I will never forget what she did for all of us . She shed some tears of joy and said that at least someone had said it.
But Sabita was cruel and said that she pretended to be frail and sick in order to draw attention . I began to detest this woman and her heartlessness. It was she who had poisoned the mind of my mother when Jasmine said that her father was very sick and we needed to return to the Philippines.
I visited Mr. Bose who used to be the tenant upstairs and who now lived in his own house but he was an old man who lived in his past and often sick. His wife was also sick of cancer and would die soon. Others in the community avoided me although I knew them well since childhood. They were ill at ease with me because they had heard that I was now called Dr. and was wealthy .I think the wealth part worried them more than the doctor part because they were still struggling with their day to day living while I traveled all over the world by jet plane.
We had grown apart and had nothing in common now with any one . Only Rinky was happy to see me and said that she knew of no one who lived abroad and came to visit India many time like I did. Her younger sister was closer to my age who had gotten married in Kolkata and I have not seen her since 1968 but Rinky lived nearby. Her failed marriage had produced a daughter who was Ashis’s companion in going to school every morning.
My old alma mater the Institute was also a place I did not care to visit because my old professors had either retired or died and the new people did not know or care who I was. The librarian Miss Desouza was also dead .She had given me a job to pay for my tuition and always welcomed me in the past . But now the Institute was just a place full of buildings and old memories. We had played so many pranks and mischief here but my classmates had all scattered all over India never to come back and some even had gone abroad. The alumni association was very weak although it existed.
I took some video of the campus just for posterity and Nirmal one day took me around on his scooter to take photos of various parts of Sri Ram Pur. There were many interesting places like the old fort with its massive ramparts and the Pillar of Ashok inside inscribed with the words of Buddha in Pali . It was a dead language now so no one could read those words. Besides one was not allowed inside the fort because it was a military fort.
But there was the Sri Ram Pur university with its huge Admin building , the Science College, the Central park where Queen Victoria used to sit under the marble canopy with her broken nose and scepter , the public library, the Gothic stone church, the cathedral where Jasmine used to go for prayers, the high court building and many such places that I photographed for Ashis and Jayanti.
At home the TV was the center of entertainment when everybody sat down to watch a religious soap opera in the morning. Practically the whole country came to a standstill during this time because it was Ramayana that every Hindu knew by heart. When I got up to leave because I found it boring, they were surprised . It was poorly done and actors jumped around in comical fashion wearing face masks of monkeys but the Indians took it seriously and never missed one episode.
It was the same as the Hollywood Biblical movies that no self respecting Christian would find boring no matter how badly they were done. People sat enthralled in front of the TV swallowing every word and making running commentaries of their own . I often sat to watch their facial expressions that changed every few seconds .
Ramayana was the story of Ram who was exiled to the forest for 14 years because of his step mother’s ambition to make her son Bharat the king so Ram and his wife Sita and his brother Laksman all went to live in the forest from where one day the evil king of Lanka now called Sir Lanka abducted poor Sita . This led to the war in which Ram was victorious with the help of the army of monkeys etc.
Whether he was the ideal king or not did not matter to the Hindus because Ram was their God so he must have had pretty good reasons for doing what he did and we mortals never could understand the ways of Gods . They revered Ram and looked with suspicion at skeptics like me . They thought that I was not religious enough because I did not watch Ramayana . They were right.
I now looked at all aspects of Hindu society impartially and with detachment and found them lacking in many things. I found them discriminating the “untouchable ” even today although Gandhi had tried hard to let people be treated equally with dignity . They did not let a Moslem into a Hindu home and the Christians did not fare much better either . They still believed in the rigid caste system although the government was trying hard to overcome it.
They also believed in taking a dowry for the marriage of their son from a poor family .Only the price of the groom depended on the outer limit to their greed. Bengalis were not as bad as others but there was greed no doubt.
They believed in the superiority of their religion although dogma had set in but almost everyone now a days had to have a personal guru so the number of gurus had proliferated beyond belief . Nirmal and his wife sang devotional songs every evening together playing the harmonium and I often wondered if Sabita really believed in the words she sang everyday of the duty to be good and kind and truthful etc.
My mom had always been wary of these so called gurus and said she never needed one. She was a devout Hindu lady who had lived her entire life according to religious rules and laws but now it was different for the next generation . Now to appear religious was more important than to be good in heart and helpful to others .
India was a country where people still talked referring to the past events that took place 2000 years ago that had no relevance today. Most of them isolated themselves by saying that they did not need the world and had nothing to learn from them. A college education did not change anything. I noticed a streak of fanaticism in Annapurna who would shed tears listening to religious music and reading the scriptures.
I was happy to see Devjani arrive one day. She was still the jolly one we knew and had not changed much yet because she lived near Kolkata and far from the unhappy house. She teased everybody and laughed but noticed that no one shared her gaiety much these days. I was grateful to her because she had helped Jasmine a lot during her delivery of Jayanti in 1979 .
Devjani was the sole exception in the morose family who laughed, giggled and teased everyone and brought a breath of fresh air. She had left the family at the age of 17 when she married and now she was in her middle age but she was still the same beautiful, tall and now almost regal Devjani . She had put on weight but still was the young girl at heart that I fondly remembered.
I teased her about the monkey who had pulled her hair so hard. How could she ever forget ? She lived near Kolkata with her old husband and son in a small village .Her two daughters were married and recently her son was also married to a village girl who was without any education and plain in looks.
This son had a daughter who was always sick because she was born with some defects that needed constant medical attention. This was the sore point in Devjani’s life . I tried to help by sending some money but the daughter would soon die .
I was glad to leave Sri Ram Pur once again though. I hugged and kissed my mom and said that I will try to come and see her again and gave her some money . She always refused to accept but I slipped it under her pillow and left. I looked at the house sadly .It was such a big house but as if there was no life in it now . We were all gradually moving away from it but once it had vibrated with laughter and music and jokes . Once my dad was in charge who sat in the veranda in his easy chair and received visitors .
But now his easy chair was empty although still in the same place. It still had the teeth mark of the dog on its legs where it used to chew but that dog too was dead. I did not know how long Ma had but she looked so old and frail. She often cried to Annapurna and said that she was ready to go and wished to God that He would take her now. It broke my heart to hear her say that because she was our mom and I loved her .
I remembered how lovingly she had selected the material for my suit before I left for Saigon and how she looked at me when I was leaving Kolkata for Saigon so long ago . I remembered when I was a little child and climbed on her lap and how she used to pack my lunchbox everyday or shine my shoes. As if it was a whole life time ago which it actually was.
Now in her hour of need I was always leaving because I had to. I could not stay with her for more than a few weeks and had to return to the Philippines . She knew it and always forgave me .She said that she was happy as long as we were happy living wherever we happened to live . It was her grace and forgiveness that perhaps hurt more but I had to leave .
I said my good bye one day and left for Manila . It was on December 4 and my birth day but no one remembered. Birthdays were not important in India so we never celebrated it . Jasmine was waiting for me at the Manila airport to receive me .She had traveled 10 hours by bus to get there and looked tired but we were happy to see each other again . She had gone to Haiti with the kids and had returned to the Philippines so I was proud of her. She had managed everything so well and had gotten the kids into schools right away. She also said that she had made substantial improvements in the house as well that I was eager to see.
She was the solid rock on which my life rested making me feel secure and happy. I was sorry that Haiti was such a mess and she had to be there during the troubled times but nothing mattered now because we were home where our kids were waiting for us . Jayanti had made a “Welcome Home Papa” sign and strung it on the doorway and I hugged them tightly.
She had memorized a long piece of text and recited with actions flawlessly that I video taped. Ashis also was doing well and got awards in his class. Jasmine told me that the Bicol region had been hit by a severe typhoon recently that had brought devastation on a wide scale. Our fruit trees were uprooted in the strong wind and the garden was destroyed but the trees could be replanted again and the garden rebuilt. I was home again so I was going to set everything right .
I was surprised to see the new kitchen that Jasmine had fixed and the backside walls that she had raised . The floor was new and the drainage around the house had been improved . She had the city water connection now and also cable TV so there had been substantial improvement since she had returned.
But I also noticed that the two small bedrooms were not enough for us so we started thinking about adding one bed room on top of the garage for us so that the kids could have their own rooms .
So the masons and carpenters came and the construction began in February of 1988 . It was a messy job but soon the room came up nicely. It had attached bath with hot and cold shower and the room itself was the size of the garage which was huge .We installed the cabinets and put yellow tiles in the bathroom floor and walls .The bedroom floor was of wood that the maid polished with wax every week. The stairs were concrete with hand rail .
This was a bit of luxury we could well afford. She even had a small ref and the cable TV in our room while the big screen TV stayed downstairs where the kids enjoyed watching Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on VHS now .
The house was painted nicely and lights installed upstairs so everything looked very nice. Ashis moved into one room and Jayanti stayed in her room that she had to share with the mother of Jasmine who came and stayed .
I bought new stove and refrigerator for the kitchen and ordered many narra furniture for the living room . The old narra furniture was repolished and the entire house spruced up. Jasmine surprised me one day when she brought back the VW Brasilia which we had sold previously .
We hired tutors for the kids to give them lessons in the Bicol language and also piano lessons . They were doing well in school. Ashis had won an elocution contest . Later both Ashis and Jayanti would win medals in the extemporaneous speaking contest in Naga City . No Filipino kids could come near them when it came to English.
Our garden regained its health and started blooming .The back garden was replanted with carpet grass and some fruit trees .Now our home looked shiny and clean and no longer run down like when her younger sister had stayed there . They had now moved to their house nearby but we did not have much to do with them because I disliked her husband by sight.
Our new bedroom upstairs was cool and airy where I put my huge study desk. I did not want to leave again because the family was so nicely settled here .I hated to uproot Jasmine again and bring her to some remote country disrupting their happy life. I could see that she was happy here because she was in her own house and the kids were in good school. She had many friends in Naga where she had grown up and worked before we had gotten married so she was very much at home.
I had to look for another job somewhere soon. Dr.Singh had informed me that he wanted me to be a candidate for a post in Cambodia that IRRI was looking to fill and said that he was sure IRRI would hire me but another offer came from Rwanda . I had mixed feelings about going to Cambodia where the war was over but the Khmer Rouge had strewn the country with millions of land mines making it the most dangerous country to work in. My job there would have required working with the farmers in the countryside.
So I backed out of the IRRI proposal and decided to take a look at Rwanda first to the disappointment of Dr.Singh who had pushed hard my candidacy. I did not know anything about Rwanda except that it was a small country in central Africa and very hilly. They were famous for coffee. I was to also visit Burundi which was next to Rwanda to see a project there.
So one day I flew to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia from where a connecting flight to Kigali could be obtained . I was afraid another chapter in my international wanderings was about to begin.
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