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Saturday, 25 May 2013

My Father’s Last Days – II

Related earlier post: My Father’s Last Days - I

I thought that was the end of the illness and that he had been cured completely. We would be able to enjoy his love and affection for several more years. I could not have been more wrong. A few years later the disease resurrected and he was once again admitted to the Christian Medical College and Hospital, Vellore.

I received a letter from mother which in effect asked me casually if it would be very difficult for me to take a few days’ leave. With father again in the hospital, if she had to make such an enquiry, he would have to be really serious. No order, no pleading, not even a request. Just a casual enquiry if I could take a few days’ leave! The same day I booked a ticket to Katpady in the nearest available train, which was a week later. I also applied for a fortnight’s leave.

After about ten days I reached the hospital. It was around four in the evening that I reached the hospital, directly from the railway station. I went to father’s room where mother too was present. The moment mother saw me, she told father,

‘Look, Jayanthan has come!’

He was lying on his left side. He had great difficulty in turning. Mother helped him and he slowly turned and lay on his back. He looked at me. It took only a couple of seconds for his eyes to become small, endless streams. I could not hold back my tears, either. I had never seen him so weak. He had to be helped for turning on his side! I had never in my twenty five years of life (then) had seen him crying. Not even once. He used to be happy, angry, sad, upset, and sometimes even frustrated. But crying? Never!

He used to be very strong mentally and physically. He used to do a lot of hard physical labour. I remember when we used to engage helpers for working on the little land we had, he used to work side by side with them from morning till evening. He had never been one to ‘supervise’ the work standing on the side shouting orders at the workers!

During sixties when we were studying in schools we used to stay in our ancestral home, which was, after partition, bequeathed to father’s younger brother. Aphan (uncle), for many years, had been undertaking priesthood in various temples earning his livelihood, and stayed away from home. Cheriyamma (aunty) and children stayed with him, too. Now he was coming back and we had to build a new house. Mr Kuttappan, the carpenter was contracted to build the house. The spot where the house was to be built was on a hilly area. We actually had to cut a hill into half and remove tones of soil to make the area flat. I remember the complete soil was removed by the three of us (father, brother, and I) with mother and sisters actively supporting indirectly. We did not undertake it as a ‘work’ but as a ‘game’ and enjoyed the game to the hilt. While it was a routine work for father, brother and I felt very proud to be contributing to such a task as building our own home! And later when we had to dig a well in the courtyard, that too was done by us, with inputs from experts. Father was never tired of nor did he turn away from any hard physical tasks. That was the real him.

And here, look at him lying on this hospital bed, unable to turn on his own, crying inconsolably like a child! However hard I tried, tears flew down my cheeks as well. I sat on the bed and slowly placed my hands over his chest which was nothing but bones tightly covered with skin! There was a small bandage on his chest. It took several minutes for either of us to start talking. Mother was not even looking at us. She went and stood by the window looking outside but seeing nothing, wiping her eyes constantly.

After several minutes father told me, “They took out something from the chest with a long syringe. The pain was excruciating, my Son.”

It was not like a father telling a son, but a small child complaining painfully to his father!

I tried to console him, telling, “Well, is it not to treat your illness, Father? Now they will know better how to treat you. The pain will go away soon.”

“Will it?” he asked. He was looking straight into my eyes as if to draw some more consolation, peace, and strength from them.

“Yes, it will”, I said. And I tried to believe what I said.

He kept quiet for several minutes. He was too weak to continue the conversation. I started gently massaging his chest with my right hand. And he slowly fell asleep while still clutching my left hand with both his hands.

Mother talked for about an hour on father’s health condition. She told me that he had to undergo a biopsy that morning. Mother seemed so much relieved after seeing me. After having a bath and leaving my baggage in the lodge room, I was back at father’s bedside in about an hour. We saw the head nurse, a Sri Lankan, coming to give medicines to father. Even before she arrived mother warned me, “Be careful, this lady is nasty.”

The moment she entered the room, she ordered me out.

She said, “No male is allowed to stay with the patient.”

I had never heard such an arrogant order in such an arrogant tone before this. And that too, from a nurse, to a critical patient’s attendant!

I told her sternly, “Look, my father needs help to get up from the bed, or going to the toilet, or even turning on his sides. Mother cannot help him in all these all alone. So I am going to stay here, whatever you say. You can go and complain to anybody you want.”

She was taken aback at the totally unexpected and emphatic response. She looked at me sharply for a moment. Then she went out without saying anything. I feared that soon I would be forced out by the security forces whom she would summon. But nothing happened.  And she did not say anything afterwards. I continued to stay with father in the hospital.

The next few days were terrible. For every activity, including turning on his side or back, father needed our help. Both mother and I stayed with him the whole day. Despite all the excellent treatment at the hospital, I could not see much improvement in his condition. The hospital also had made an initial goof-up. Even though he had been a cancer patient since several years, he was this time admitted in the general medicine department. It was only after receipt of the biopsy report that he was referred again to the cancer department.

It was the third or fourth day after my arrival. One day the doctor, Dr Lilly George, said that they were contemplating to conduct another surgery on father. It might take a few days before they finally decide, after watching father’s condition. But it was a strong possibility. I was stunned. Another operation? And on this body? I looked at him. One could actually count his bones. He was suffering from pain almost constantly. It is only the pain-killer that provided him some comfort. I also noticed that at certain spots small swellings had begun to appear. (At that time I didn’t know that it was the sign of the disease spreading all over his body.) I doubted very much if he could withstand another surgery.

That night I wrote to brother. An Indian Air Force officer, he was posted at Kanpur those days. I wrote to him that the doctor had suggested another surgery on father and that I doubted very much if he would survive such an ordeal. I further wrote that the moment doctors confirmed the surgery, I would send him a telegram (the fastest method of communication those days) and he should keep himself ready to start any moment. I would not let them operate on him till brother arrived. I feared the worst.

The next few days were like hell. I thought any moment they would come and ask me to sign the consent form for the operation, which I would refuse, till brother arrived. Doctors used to come both in the mornings and evenings, check him and return with grim faces. I tried to read their faces. And what little I could, was not very pleasant.

On the fourth day morning Dr Lilly George called me to her cabin. She said we could take father home. I initially didn’t grasp what she said. I was confused. I blankly looked at her. I requested her to repeat what she just said, because I knew father hadn’t cured and that he condition was very bad. His condition had not at all improved since I arrived about ten days ago. Then how could she ...? And why should she ...?

Dr George continued, slowly, cautiously, calculated,

“I know how difficult it is for you not to show any emotions. And I am sad, too. Your father is my first patient in this hospital. But I have to perform this painful duty of informing you about the situation.”

I didn’t ask her regarding the proposed surgery since I was myself not in favour of that.

But she volunteered, “We had thought of operating upon him as a last attempt to save his life. But even that stage is over now. The disease has spread to several spots on the body.”

I recalled the small swellings which have been spreading all over his body.

And she became silent. For a long time. It took several moments for what she said to sink into me. She was telling me that we could take him home so that he dies at home. And when it did at last sink into me, I did not shout, I did not even cry. I looked straight into her eyes hoping to find some hope. There was none.

I asked her calmly, “How much time do you give him?”

She looked at me. Was she terrified at my calmness? Was I reacting exactly opposite to what she had expected? I don’t know. She looked confused, too.

She said hesitantly, “A month.”

She continued, “We will give pain killers. That is all we can do now. Try to make his remaining days as comfortable as you can.”

I slowly got up. I could not go into the room. I could not face mother. I could not tell her what the doctor told me. I went out of the hospital. There were huge lawns around the hospital. I went and sat under a tree. It was then that the emotions poured out like a broken dam. I must have sat there for an hour. I still hadn’t gathered the courage to break the news to mother. But I had to, somehow. I was in the corridor leading to father’s room when I suddenly noticed brother. He was searching for father’s room. I suddenly went to him.

Brother had not waited for my telegram. As soon as he received my letter, he had applied for leave, and started the same day. He knew we needed his presence. His presence was such a comfort and strength to us.

He suddenly asked, “Jayanthan, how is father?”

I looked at him. My face was reddened and swollen. I had been crying for nearly an hour. One look at my face, and he understood things were not all that right. I told him what the doctor told me about an hour ago. He did not betray any emotions, either. He was stronger than me.

Then he slowly asked me, “Have you told mother?”

I said, “No, Brother, I haven’t. I do not have the courage to tell her. Can you do it?”

Mother had begun to worry because I was gone for long. She knew that I had gone to the doctor. With each passing minute her anxiety increased. It is then that both of us entered the room. She was slightly surprised and greatly relieved to see brother. (I had not told her that I had written to him.)

Brother went and sat on the bed. With all the emotions within him, he still managed to smile at father. He also told him that he would be all right.

And then, after some time, brother slowly broke the news to mother. As expected, she could not bear it. Suddenly her eyes became two tiny streams. She began to entreat all Gods. In about an hour she was back in the room, somewhat composed. Brother then went to settle the hospital bill. Then he went to the railway station to book tickets for us. By the time he returned with tickets for the evening trains, I had settled the bill of the lodge and we were ready to go home by evening.

We then broke the news to father that we were going home. It looked like he knew it coming. He even managed to smile.

The Gods we believe were always with us. I had only a few hundred rupees with me that day. I hadn’t thought it necessary to keep some money for an emergency (so foolish and careless of me!). The instruction that we could take father home came so suddenly and totally unexpected. And within an hour brother arrived and he had enough money with him to settle the hospital and lodge bills and to book tickets for all of us!

That evening we left for the railway station.

[To be concluded]

Friday, 17 May 2013

My Father’s Last Days – I

My father and mother
This photo was taken  a day before father's surgery

I don’t know when it all started. I was a small boy then. Father started having problems in taking hot food. ‘Hot’ not only meant hot from heat, but also hot from chillies. He thought the outer layer of his tongue has probably got damaged. And everybody else thought so, too. It was not then a very common practice to visit a hospital or clinic for every small illness. This was ‘a small’ problem from which he would recover on his own. But he didn’t. Mother used to cook vegetables separately for him without adding chillies. This practice continued for several months, maybe years. It had become a kind of accepted norm or routine. And the problem didn’t give him any other trouble, so father let it be, and so did everybody else.

One day father had to go to Kaithamattam hospital near Kottayam with Valiyaphan (father’s elder brother). This hospital was run by a Namboothiry family from their home. All the doctors belonged to the same family. One peculiarity with this hospital was that one could get any kind of treatment, since the hospital had Ayurvedic, Homeopathic, and Allopathic doctors.  The family has also been known to our family since they were distantly related. Having gone to the hospital anyway, father decided to discuss with them the problem of his tongue. After some initial tests, the doctor there directed him to go to Vellore, Tamil Nadu, immediately and to undergo treatment at the Christian Medical College and Hospital there. This hospital was the best for treatment of cancer those days, the importance of which didn’t strike us then.

To reach Vellore, one had to travel by train to Katpady, which was the nearest railway station. The journey would take about ten hours from Aluva, at a distance of two hours journey by bus from our home. Father had, in his heydays, worked as a priest in a temple at Santhanpara, a few kilometers into Tamil Nadu state from the Kerala border. That was the only occasion when he had travelled outside Kerala. And I don’t think he had ever travelled by train. Also, as explained earlier, except that he was unable to take ‘hot’ food, the disease did not give him much trouble. All these facts made father not to give much importance to the doctor’s advice. And he deliberately forgot the whole episode.

After a few days, however, one of our relative-neighbours visited the same hospital. The doctor asked about father, and whether he had gone to Vellore or not. When he was told that father had not gone to Vellore, he got very upset. He advised this relative to tell father strictly that he should not delay going to Vellore. When he came back he passed on the message to father and explained how angry the doctor was.

Father then decided to do something if only to satisfy the doctor. There was during those days a very famous hospital at Pazhanganattu near Aluva. It had the most modern facilities and very efficient doctors similar to those of a medical college. Father thought it would be equally beneficial to go to this hospital rather than going all the way to Vellore. He, therefore, visited the hospital. Doctors there took out some samples from his tongue and said they would send it to a medical college for detailed testing. The result would be available in about a fortnight or so.

But during the intervening fortnight, something terrible happened. A high ranking army officer, maybe a Brigadier, got his dear wife admitted to the hospital for delivery. The woman had become pregnant after several years of their married life, and after undergoing several treatments, and conducting prayers. When he found that she was pregnant he took extra care of her. He left no stone unturned to see that his wife was safe and comfortable. He was eagerly waiting for the arrival of his offspring. When the time for delivery approached, he got her admitted to the best hospital in the vicinity, the Pazhanganattu hospital. Due to whatever reasons, the woman was unfortunately left unattended on the delivery table when she gave birth to the child. The child fell down on to the floor and died instantly.

When the father came to know of what had happened, he could not control his anger. He caught hold of a couple of steel chairs and started destroying whatever or whoever came in his view, be it hospital equipment, beds, doctors, or nurses. Nobody dared even to try to control him. The police was called in. But by the time they arrived, the hospital had been turned into shambles. He was arrested and taken to the police station. The army officer was released without punishment. Father said that the inspector told the army officer that if he had been in the latter’s position, probably he might have reacted the same way. I don’t know the rest of the story, but we were told that the hospital ceased to exist from that day onwards.

And father’s tests and treatments ended half-way, along with his forced enthusiasm.

It was several months later that the same doctor happened to visit this neighbour-relative of ours to attend some family function. He hadn’t forgotten about father’s case. He demanded to see father. It was with great reluctance and apprehension that father went to see him. And as expected, he was given a good tongue-lashing by the doctor. He also asked if this could have been dealt with by Pazhanganattu hospital, why did he at all ask him to go to Vellore?

Now, father had run out of his options and excuses and at last decided to go to Vellore.

The ChristianMedical College and Hospital, one of the largest and best in Asia, was founded by the American missionary-cum-doctor Ida Scudder. The hospital serves thousands of in- and out-patients daily.

I have no details of how father went to Vellore, who accompanied him, or such other details. That is because by then I had already moved to Delhi working in a government office. Also, father or mother did not keep us informed in detail, because they thought it would serve no purpose other than getting us worried. Both father and mother were always like that. They were comfortable and glad suffering and facing problems, but not in informing us children of those. I only know that once he was admitted to the hospital and diagnosed as suffering from cancer, several people including relatives and acquaintances went to visit him.

I took leave and stayed with him in the hospital when he was undergoing radiation. The left side of his face including part of his head and neck was marked. He was an outpatient then. We used to stay in a lodge and go to the hospital at the appointed hour for the radiation. He was in no mood to go out of the lodge except to the hospital. He was, kind of subdued. Mother also said he did not like to go out. This was very unlike the father I knew. Father used to be carefree and fearless. He would do what he thought was right without bothering to speculate on others’ opinions. But he had changed now.

I decided that I should try something to bring him out of his melancholy. One evening I insisted that we (father, mother, and I) go out for a walk. We had to, kind of, persuade him. It was mainly because of the black markings on his face that he was hesitant to go out. I told him that it didn’t matter in this hospital city. Also nobody would pay any attention. And even if they did, we need not bother. At last he hesitantly agreed.

Mother and I took him to an old fort in Vellore, about a kilometre from the lodge we had been staying. We roamed around for a couple of hours. I was glad to find that by the time we returned, father had changed. After that day, his hesitation to go out had markedly reduced. It could be because he realized that nobody was actually bothered about the markings on his face. Also, we noticed a couple of others, also marked for radiation, strolling in the fort.

His melancholy soon began to vanish and I dared to take him and mother to watch a Hollywood movie ‘Poseidon Adventure’! They were watching a Hollywood movie for the first time in their life. No Malayalam or Tamil movie, which they could have enjoyed better, was running in the nearby theatre then. Off and on I explained to them the story (as much as I understood, for I did not get the conversations fully, either). I was very glad to find that in about a week his hesitation to go out had completely vanished and he was, kind of, eager to go for a walk in the evenings. Once the radiation sessions were over we returned home.

After a few years he was again admitted to the hospital. Despite the radiation, the virus had not died and resurrected. This time the doctors said he had to be operated upon. Part of his jaw had to be removed. Thus exactly half of his jaw, right from below the left ear to the middle of the chin was removed by surgery. As a result, except for the cheek, nothing remained on the lower left side of his face. The operation affected his neck which had become extremely tender and weak. Every time he lied down and got up, he used to support his head with his left hand. The neck had become so weak that it could not support his head.

I was not beside him during the surgery. Mother was with him and many of our relatives visited him regularly. He was admitted in the hospital for nearly a couple of months then. I had known about the extent of damage happened to his face as a result of the surgery. However, the first time I met him after the operation when I went home on leave, I was in for a rude shock. He had only one side of the face! His cheek on the left side from under his ear to middle of his chin, had gone right into his mouth. Half of his tongue too had been removed. It seemed as if half of his neck did not exist at all! I thought I was looking at a stranger! This cannot be my father! But that was, and I got familiar with his new figure soon enough.

Later father told me that it was only because of mother’s very dedicated and loving care that he survived. He said a few people who visited him in the hospital, too, commended on her efforts. For several days after the operation, he could not use his mouth for anything. He could not spit or even move his lips properly. Pus used to fill up his mouth constantly which had to be removed nearly every half hour. Several kilogrammes of cotton were used in this activity. A stick several inches long used to be covered with cotton. Mother used to remove the pus from all over father’s mouth. If pus was not removed at regular intervals, it would have choked him. Mother did not have even an hour’s continuous sleep for several days after his operation. He said pointing at his body, “But for your mother’s dedicated service, you would not have seen me like this.”

But all of mother’s love, care, dedication, and prayers could not save father.

[To continue]

Saturday, 11 May 2013

My First ‘Article’

There was a letter that day. It was a post card addressed to me! The short message on the 5-paise post card which I collected from the post office read:

“Dear student,

Your article has been selected for publication in our college annual 71–72. It will be sent to the press on 8th March.”

Our home was quite inside the village about two kilometres from the post office, and postmen usually did not come thus far. We used to pass the village cross on our way to school or college. For visiting shops, library, etc. also we had to go through the cross. At that time we used to collect letters addressed to anybody at our home or to our neighbours. Sometimes the neighbours used to collect letters for us, too. That is the advantage of being in a village. Everybody knows everybody and all are ever ready to help each other. The village cross was where we had our ration shop and other shops, the sole tailoring shop owned by Mr K.K. Krishna Kurup, a barber shop, the post office, the bus stand, the lower primary school, etc. Well, I should not forget the toddy shop, situated about 300 metres away from the cross on the main road, which becomes alive during evenings. (Once brother sent a letter addressed to K [raised to the power] 4, Tailor, Veliyannoor, and the postman had no difficulty finding out who this person named K4 was, because there was only one tailor in the whole village and his name was K.K. Krishna Kurup, or KKKK or K4!)

Now, let us return to our story. So, I collected the post card from the post office and read the contents. I could not believe my eyes or senses. I read the post card again ... and again ... and again. I turned over once again to make sure whether the post card was actually addressed to me or was delivered to me by mistake. I checked the address again. It was addressed to me, all right. I did not know how to react. My contribution to the college magazine has been accepted for publication! Wow! I felt I was suddenly rising to the seventh heaven. I was going to be an author! An author! I might have read the card a hundred times! Each and every word, every letter, full stop, coma, everything was etched in my mind like a photograph. And I saw that photograph in my mind a hundred times during the next several weeks and months. Even now, 42 years later, if I close my eyes I can still see that photograph! “Dear student, ...”

The ‘article’ in question was, however, not an article in any conventional sense! It was a small quiz that I had been told by my brother. He had said that this had been asked in some examination and he had read, or heard, it somewhere. He was serving in the Indian Air Force. When he used to come on leave, we used to talk about everything under the sun for long hours. He was (and still is) more of a close friend to me rather than a big brother. He used to tell about his experiences both in the forces and outside it. We used to take our cattle (usually one or two cows and calves) for gracing and that is when he used to tell all sorts of stories.

I had written this particular quiz down along with the solution and sent to the student editor. I had requested that the solution may be given in another page with a cross reference in the original page.

The quiz went something like this.

Three persons (A, B, and C) are standing one behind the other. A fourth one (D) brings five caps—three red and two green—which are shown to all of them. D places the bunch of caps behind C. Then D places one cap each on their heads. C can see the caps on the heads of B and A, and B can see the cap on A’s head. D asks C to tell the colour of the cap on his head. C says he does not know. D asks the same question to B who also gives a similar response. D then asks A to tell the colour of the cap on his head and he gives the correct answer. What was his response and how did he arrive at the correct solution?

‘A’ said he was wearing a red cap.

It is simple arithmetic. There were only two green caps. If, therefore, A and B had green caps, C could say his cap was red. Since he said he did not know the answer, B understood that either he or A should be wearing red cap. If A had green cap, B could safely say that he was wearing red cap. When B also said he did not know the answer, A understood that he himself was wearing a red cap.

It is this 200 word quiz that the magazine had agreed to publish and called it ‘my’ ‘article’! And as promised it was published in the college magazine. But the solution immediately followed the quiz and the reader did not even have a chance to think. I was disappointed. But, what the heck! An ‘article’ contributed by ‘me’ was published in the college annual! And the college magazine became my most precious treasure for many years. That was the first time ever when I saw my name in print.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

A Visit to Kolkata, the City of Joy

[I was visiting Kolkata last week-end, and hence could not post. It may be apt, therefore, to describe the visit this week. And here we go.]

I met Ria for the first time on April 14 last year. The day was Vishu, the second most important festival for Keralites after Onam (Christmas is not counted, since it is a global festival, other festivals such as Dussehra, Holi and so on are not counted either, since these are not very popular in Kerala). Etathy (sister-in-law) had gone to Kerala since her mother had not been keeping well. We invited ettan (elder brother) and his sons to lunch with us. We were asked if Sujay (the younger nephew) could bring one of his friends, too.

I said, ‘Yes, why not?’

I, however, asked, ‘Is he a Keralite?’

I was told it was not a ‘he’ but a ‘she’ and not a Keralite.

Seeing the close interactions between Sujay and Ria I thought theirs was more than mere friendship. Ria is a Bengali and April 14 happens to be the Bengali New Year.

I asked Sujay in Malayalam half jokingly and half seriously, ‘Did you bring her to introduce her to us?’

He laughed and said, ‘No’.

But the ‘no’ was not very convincing. Not only that, he immediately translated my question for Ria. A couple of months later ettan told me that Sujay wanted to marry Ria.

To cut a long story short, the marriage was fixed for 29 April this year with the consent and blessings of parents from both sides. The wedding was to be solemnised in Kolkata, the bride’s native place.

Eleven of us, including Sujay, ettan, etathy, Suji and Sonu (elder nephew and niece-in-law), cousins (Santhi and Leela) and Leela’s son (Appu), my wife and son (Jayasree and Srikant) and I, started our journey to Kolkata, the ‘city of joy’, a city of which I have heard a lot, but not visited even once. I have several Bengali colleagues and they, too, were thrilled when I told them that I would be visiting Kolkata. One’s birthplace is the greatest on any day and under any circumstances! I asked them what is there to visit in Kolkata in one day (the maximum time I thought we might have).  They told me about the famous Kali temple (‘filled with filth’, one of them had said), the Victoria Memorial (which everybody supported), and the Howrah Bridge. However, one of them had warned me that it would be terribly hot and humid and advised us to stay inside without venturing out.

I noted one peculiar thing, however. Whichever place or monument they talked about, it all ended with naming a few good places or hotels where we can have excellent food. When I reminded them that I was not very particular in having a lot of food, they said, Kolkata was famous for food. (I was not, therefore, surprised when a colleague started his conversation on my return by asking what kind of food they served us! He also started assuming, ‘They must have given you this and that, or such and such food and beverages’, etc.) It had even been suggested that we could tell the hosts to serve us typical Bengali vegetarian food! How can I suggest we want this and that? Again, why should I do it at all? They knew that we were vegetarians and didn’t consume egg or fish. It goes without saying that we should expect them to serve us vegetarian food. Let me emphasise, what we received was far beyond our expectations.

We started our journey in the late evening of 26 April by the Sealdah Duronto Express. Four of them including the bride, her father, cousin, and uncle were waiting at the station to receive us. We were put up in Thara Mahal hotel in the Park Side Road area. We all had either double or triple sharing air-conditioned rooms fitted with TVs and cable connections. The hotel served its guests complimentary (South Indian!) breakfast. Their service was excellent, too.

The bride’s family invited us to dinner the day we arrived. Several of their close relatives and friends visited us there.  The dinner was good with a lot of sweets, which, unfortunately I could not enjoy being diabetic. Our daughter Ruchi and Suji’s in-laws arrived the next day. Also our niece Veni and her family, staying in Kolkata, visited us the same day.

The engagement ceremony was held on the previous day of the wedding in an auditorium not very far from where we were staying. Both in this and the wedding ceremony, it was interesting to find many similarities with our own ceremonies with a few changes. (Mohua would later say, ‘Well, basically all Hindu rituals are the same.’)

The turmeric ceremony is somewhat similar to our important pre-wedding custom of ayaniyoonu. However, ayaniyoonu, the last major feast before the marriage, is conducted the previous day, whereas the turmeric ceremony was conducted on the morning of the wedding day. Participating in ayaniyoonu is almost as important as participating in the marriage. In place of turmeric, we apply oil on the bridegroom’s head. Also ayaniyoonu was separate for the boy and the girl and conducted by their respective relatives. Here, however, the girl’s brother and sister-in-law and cousin came to conduct the ritual. They had also gone to invite Mother Ganga (River Ganges) to the wedding before coming for the ritual. They also carried a pot full of water from the sacred river symbolising the presence of Ganga at the wedding.

One somewhat strange ritual was that the height of the groom was measured with a string, which was inserted into a banana and the bride’s mother swallowed it! I don’t know what the significance of this ritual is. Mahua said that since the mother couldn’t give birth to the groom, this could be a symbol to show that she accepted him as her son.

Another ritual that is not found in our custom is the hoisting of the bride sitting on a piri (seat) by her brothers, uncles, and other relatives and making seven rounds around the groom. The two piris used in the wedding ceremony were special. One of their own relatives had made beautiful paintings on them. The same set of piris, I was told, had been used in several marriages! They then had got it laminated. Ria’s cousin Sandip and his wife Sima make excellent paintings, too. We saw one specimen when they presented Ria with a painting of Krishna and gopis. The packet was immediately opened and kept near the stage for all to see. An extremely nice painting, it is. My hearty congratulations to you, Sima.

Krishna with Gopis - Painting by Sima
One interesting incident was Ria’s panic when she was hoisted high in the air after making the seven circles around the groom. She even forgot that she had the two betel leaves in her hands covering her face from the groom. She clutched the piri with both her hands in panic. She was also shouting something in panic. It looked like she was asking them to put her down! It would have been then the groom’s turn to be hoisted in the air by his relatives. But it didn’t happen. Maybe because he was tall enough and did not need another hoisting! Another reason could be that this was to have been done by us, the groom’s relatives. Since it is not in our custom, they probably decided to by-pass this particular ritual! It looked like that the bride’s side saved us from several such embarrassing moments! 

We walked down to the Kali temple in the morning of the 28th. It was certainly not as filthy as one of my colleagues had warned. We had gone there in the early morning, so there was not much rush either. There were, of course, several priests who approached us offering us ‘direct’ entry to the abode of Kali if we paid fifty rupees per head, which we gracefully rejected.

On our way back we happened to pass beside a tram store. And we went straight inside to see some of the trams parked there. Mr Verghese explained to us that the difference between the two ‘classes’ is that there are fans fitted in the costly class. These days, however, the tram service has been negligible, with the prospect of the starting of metro services in the city. We, however, saw a few running trams while travelling from Sealdah railway station to the hotel on our day of arrival. We also visited the Guruvayoorappan temple.

The other place we visited was the Victoria Memorial museum. It would have taken a day or more to see all the exhibits and read their inscriptions, and we had about an hour! So, what happened was we saw them, without actually understanding what they were!

We also found that the Kolkata roads were much narrower when compared to Delhi, with quite heavy traffic. The whole area (at least those areas which we happened to see) was much cleaner as compared to some areas of Delhi.

This note would be incomplete if I did not talk a bit about the hospitality we received from Ria’s family. As I already said, we were received by Ria and her relatives at the railway station and taken to the hotel. They also had kept a vehicle at our dosposal. Everybody, including her relatives and friends, was found to be extremely courteous, open, and sincere. They had made special arrangements for us to have only vegetarian food and one or two of them always stayed with us while we dined, to help us with anything we wanted.

I would also like to specially thank Mr Verghese and his wife Ms Omana for giving us company throughout our stay there and for being ready to be of assistance. They have been staying in Kolkata for the past forty years and have been friends with Ria’s family throughout. They were going back to Kerala to settle down there permanently. It was Mr Verghese who voluntarily accompanied us to the Kali temple and warned us of the touts in the garb of priests. Thank you Mr Verghese and Ms Omana for your invaluable help and guidance!

The return journey was uneventful. I, however, returned with a bad cold. If the cold can be compared to a carnatic vocal recital, the recital was accompanied by fever on the violin, cough on the mridangam and body pain on the ghatam.