“Life is very long”: In Memory of Dinesh Chandra Baruah
It was a cool, pleasant day here in Heidelberg. I was standing on my balcony drinking some coffee, observing our swan family calmly swim along the Neckar. The cygnets have grown quite fast. It is always a sight as the little ones dutifully trail behind their majestic elders. The breeze was gentle and the clouds moved less dramatically that evening. I was startled by the vibration of my phone in my right pocket. It was my mom on the line, she said, Eta beya khobor ase — Koka aru nai. I heard her, but those words did not stir within me. The gentle breeze, the swans, continued on their path. I got a chair from inside and sat there looking at the green river. It had risen a little because of the rains. Good weather, gentle breeze, birds, they remind me of my grandfather.
I thought to myself, perhaps this is how it was supposed to be. On a day like this.
I sat there on that chair, as his memories surrounded me. The beauty of these memories is that they existed only in fragments, weaved together in my head from many moments of shared time, both real and imagined. They were so amorphous, that I felt I could spend a lifetime trying to disentangle them and still be left with some more. My grandfather was the most reticent man I have ever met. I knew so little about him, and yet I had spent so much time with him.
I sat there on that chair, and wondered, what songs did he like? I wished I knew his favorite song, then I could play it on loop till the wee hours of the night. But Koka would never have left anything behind for a dramatic legacy. I did not have a clue, I did not even know if he liked listening to music. What I remember of him is not from what he would talk about himself, but from his being there, being around, for the entirety of my life. He was more than ninety years old, and had been a koka ever since I was born. This is obvious given our relationship. But what I mean is, his primary identity ever since I have known him, was of being koka. Always surrounded by his newspapers and the children in the family.
I wondered what was he like before he was a koka. What was his childhood like? What were his parents like? And how did he meet Aita? What was he like when he was a young man? Was he always the xilamurti that we would jokingly describe him as? I never got a chance to ask him any of these questions. He was around for almost a whole century, witnessing. What did he think of the independence struggle, the earthquakes, the end of the regular visits of the postman? The one thing that I understood as I grew older was that his sense of time was certainly very different from ours.
I joke about the old sport Eliot getting the credits for writing down “Life is very long” and as Tracy Letts puts it: “T.S. Eliot. Not the first person to say it, certainly not the first person to think it. But he is given the credit for it because he bothered to write it down. So if you say it, you have to say his name after it. ‘Life is very long:’ T.S. Eliot.” Koka definitely lived it. Life was very long. And if you spend some time with him, as he leisurely turns one page after another of the newspapers in the morning you could experience his “time” as well. I once gave him a perfumed soap, and when I asked him if he had used it, he replied that he is waiting for summer. Although summer was a long mile away, he could wait. He could always wait. There was never any need to hurry. Life was very long.
When I was a young girl, I would always go to Koka to discuss “intelligent” ideas. I thought he was by far the wisest man in the family. He had taught me how to write a letter, his English grammar was impeccable, his handwriting was beautiful, he could recite entire poems he learnt in school. All these, I knew, were signs of a wise man. So, one day, I told him that I had decided I would be buried when I die and that people I leave behind could come to my grave when they seek me. Koka disagreed. He said human beings take so much from the environment already, and when they leave they ought not leave their remains behind. He was a Hindu and believed that he should not have any possession in death, even that six feet of land. Fair enough. I see his point, but as I grew older I cared less about my own remains, and thought nothing about a grave. Partly my own fears of having a grave with no visitors dispelled any romantic fancy that I might have had as a kid. Remember Thomas Hardy’s poem “Ah, are you digging on my grave?” The mistress who waits in her grave for her kith and kin, only to find a dog digging at her grave to hide its bone. I fear being pushed to abysmal depths of forgetfulness after death and not have anyone to remember me.
I would often think about this phone call from home and it would make me unbearably anxious on some days. I knew I could never go back home if it were to happen. Then memories of Koka would be all that I was left with. But what if memories begin to fade?
After I heard of his passing away, I could not cry. I went about my day as if nothing had happened. He was in my thoughts, but since I could not be part of any rituals it would never sink in for me till I visit that empty room. I thought about the importance of these rituals. I began to wonder — will I not remember him every time I see a ghonsirika or a xalika?. He always had a roti kept aside to feed them in the morning. Will I forget the joy of watching him eat his lunch (I always preferred to sit next to him) as he would have a little bit of his sobji and dali left till the last goha?
Koka and I would read the Dashaavatar and the Mahabharata in the afternoons after everyone went to sleep. In the winter evenings we would walk to Tiniali. Koka would buy the daily sobji as he preferred to eat fresh vegetables for dinner and he would buy me bakoli thaka badam on our way home. At night, when there was a power cut, he and I would meet near the gate and he would point out the constellations in the sky. He had told me about the planetary system, and the Milky Way and about travelers of ancient times who navigated their way with the help of the pole star. I could never discern the patterns of the constellations, but I was so fascinated that for the longest time I wanted to be an astronaut! And like most kids, who dream of becoming an astronaut, it never became a reality for me as well.
When we would hurt ourselves while playing, Koka used to rub crushed gendhaphul leaves on our wounds. In case the wound was “too serious” he would bring out his bottle of the most potent medicine (I absolutely believed so for the longest time) — iodine. No one uses that indigo iodine these days any more. He cut his nails with a blade and he would go out with his khonti to work in his bari. We would laugh when he puts out his bucket of water in the winter sun, hoping it warms up just enough to take his bath with it. He preferred to make minimum use of technology, and made use of medical facilities even less. And eventually he passed away without having to make painful rounds to the hospital. I was happy about this. I did not want to see my formidable Koka being broken down piece by piece against his will by repeated incisions of sharp clinical tools. He died with his dignity, and wish of staying away from hospitals, intact.
As I write, I see a little wasp struggle to get out of the room. I let it out the window. It reminds me of Koka again, how he would talk about spiders and lizards, and caterpillars and all kinds of insects as his harmless compatriots. He even said the same about the monkeys in our neighborhood who regularly create havoc on our asbestos roofs (perhaps, these days people use other materials, I am not quite sure). As I write, this stream of memories of Koka seem unending, too many to pen down even. I feel comforted that despite being far from home, I have them to keep me company.
Most of Koka’s life, from what I have seen, has been without moments of agitation or excitement. As I said earlier, he must have had a different sense of time. Nothing could elate or depress him for long. Eventually, it would pass. Time would take care of it. “Go through the motions”. And now that he is gone, the rituals keep the family busy for the time being. They ensure that the family “goes through the motions”. I wonder when the last visitor stops coming, and when the semblance of normalcy returns, what will happen to my grandmother who would still have to sleep in that room alone. What would it mean to be alone after around sixty years of companionship?
I have not seen the swans since yesterday. I know that they will return. And that there is no connection between them and Koka. Or that it rained so heavily when he was leaving his house for Nabagraha. We would like to believe that the skies beat their chests and cried along with my grieving family and for Aita. But as Koka’r nati I cannot partake of such melodrama. With each passing year I will grow more like him, till my life is inscribed with similar wisdom, and the belief that:
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the shadow
Life is very long.
(Dinesh Chandra Baruah passed away peacefully in his Narikal Bari residence on 17th of June, 2014 leaving behind his wife Renu Devi, and the families of his four sons and daughter. His Adya Sraddha is on the 27th of June )