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The Magic Spell of Scheherazade’s Nights

Reflections of Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016), translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Courtesy: Wikicommons

Chiching Phank! “Open Sesame!” Two cock-n-bull words. But the spell of these two magical words released the rocky gates of a secret cave hidden by thorny bushes in the folds of a mountain, in front of Alibaba’s dazed eyes… 

The hideout was as mysterious as it was cavernous. With a pounding heart the impoverished woodcutter entered the cave — and froze. Diamonds and rubies, gold and silver filled every corner of the cave; silk and velvet and Persian carpets and God knows what else were stored there! He had never set eyes on so much glitter nor had he heard about such riches. This was the secret locker for the goods ill-begotten by the forty dacoits who had just galloped away on horseback.

By this time even the youngest reader of 1001 Arabian Nights would be wonderstruck by the astounding description of diamonds, rubies and gold coins. “Will Alibaba succeed in loading all these riches on the back of his three donkeys he has left hidden in the bushes and safely take off for his home?”  the reader would wonder, afraid to even imagine the consequences in case Alibaba failed.

If he was captured alive by those dacoits, they would bury Alibaba alive in that very cave and not even a crow would get to know of it. Such anxious moments! Each moment would weigh down the breath of the reader, until Alibaba emerged out of that zone of enchantment — all goods intact — and reached his shelter at sundown.

The spell binding excitement about ‘What Happens Next?’ in the Arabian Nights was planted in us readers by unknown storytellers — and the unreal harvest of curiosity has continued to cast its magic over centuries and across continents. The identity of the original creator of these stories is lost in the womb of time. What lived on were the characters which the author fleshed with dexterous imagination. It has been only three hundred years since the West got a taste of these adventures and became curious about the romance that is the Orient. Truth is these tales come out of the Arabian Nights but why ‘Nights’? The adventures are happening in broad daylight too. Ask, and the answer will lead you to a chatur nari — a very clever woman — and her hoshiyari — her quick thinking, alert mind. 

Scheherazade, painted in the 19th century by Sophie Andersen: Courtesy: Wiki

So, there was this very powerful Persian Badshah who found out that his Begum was carrying on an illicit affair. He not only snuffed out her life, he developed such immense hatred for the gender that every night he would procure a beauty to warm his bed and send her off to be beheaded at the break of daylight.

This went on for a while. The ministers were at their wit’s end: Who knew when their daughters would be sent for? One night, of her own free will, the prime minister’s daughter, the clever Scheherazade stepped forward and entered the Badshah’s bedroom, despite being well aware that the night ends in the certainty of death. The trusted matronly nurse of ample years was entrusted with the job of waking her up in the wee hours of the night. Thus, in the fading darkness, Scheherazade started narrating a bewitching story to the Badshah. Spellbound he listened, until the first ray of the sun interrupted the action at such a critical point in the story that the curiosity to know what happens next compelled the Badshah to postpone the beheading by one night.

By the sheer genius of her sharp wit, that young lady with the sword of death hanging over her head, went on with her storytelling for one thousand and one nights. So what if he was a brutal devil? The pulsating heart of a flesh and blood human entrapped him too:  after birthing three adorable babies Scheherazade became his Begum. And her head stayed firmly between her shoulders.

Centuries have passed since thirst-driven caravans on sandy roads immersed themselves in these stories as they sat around shallow wells to gather their breath or to warm themselves around fires under chilly starlit skies. By word of mouth, from one caravan to another, from one town to another, from a port to another land, these literary gems counted centuries before they were stilled in sentences and paragraphs.  Some parts of this literature, penned down in Arabic script during the 1st century after Christ, have been unearthed in Cairo as recently as the 20th century. These appear to be attempts to recount and record those captivating tales.

Many interpolations must have happened in the process of their journey from one narrator to another. Doubtless these are ancient treasures of the East that were presented to the world at the onset of the 19th century by French archaeologist Antoine Galland. He translated the stories from the Arabic manuscript unearthed in Aleppo and from the stories recounted to him by a Syrian. Not one or two but in twelve volumes he published his version of the tales and stormed the bastion of literary West between 1704 and 1717. Subsequently, it is believed that his work exerted significant influence on later European literature and attitudes towards the Islamic world. 

Since French was widespread then, England and the rest of Europe too could savour the romance embedded in these tales of adventure. But more than another hundred years passed before they were transcreated in English. It was Edward William Lane’s English version, Arabian Nights Entertainment, that amazed English readers globally.

It is logical to ask, from where were such captivating tales strung together? These tales do not belong to any particular tribe, nor are they rooted in any one soil. They have grown out of multifarious dialects and a multitude of emotions. They have been watered by inventiveness and mysticism. Man’s creative soul springs from them like an unchequered waterfall. The essence of India, Persia, Israel and Greece enrich this lexicon of mankind. Hence they unhesitatingly bear the robustness of an archaic tongue and of obscenity too. To ease the pain of a long day’s journey through unrelenting desert, or the rigours of relentless chores, the wayfarers would let loose the fertility of their mind in unimagined colours. Their panache would sketch even impossibly enchanted worlds. Perhaps it did not happen exactly so — but surely it could too! And if by chance or deus ex machina it did? Oh, what thrill that would spell!

Thus the tales crossed the boundaries of nature and politics. Thus they were nourished by the traditions of alien lands. Thus they came to flow as one river, fed by streams brown and blue and white. Since its origin, the human mind has seen little change in its dreams and desires, hopes and heartbreaks, greed and ambition, jealousy and suspicion, envy and enmity, doubts and fears. These make him oscillate from peaks of delight to the depths of despondency. Consequently, these stories have not faced wear and tear.

Magic lamp from Aladdin

The worthless, good-for-nothing son of a poverty stricken tailor, Aladdin spends his days imagining the impossible. It so happens that a magician takes a shine to him, and he arrives at a garden where trees are laden with rubies and emeralds. There he picks up a rusty little lamp. He rubs it, and a genie materialises out of thin air to fulfill every command of his. With his services and generosity, Aladdin gets the world in his fist. Soon as he becomes wealthy, he finds the Sultan’s daughter to be his wife. Then one day, through the machinations of the evil magician, womanly wisdom prompts her to trade off the rusty old lamp for the radiance of a brand new brass lamp. And in a jiffy his luxurious world evaporates before his very eyes. His wife is imprisoned by the trickster and he is tossed into the throes of endless suffering – until the clever Aladdin uses his wit, destroys the magician and retrieves his magic lamp. And when his father-in-law passes away, Aladdin wears the crown of the Sultan! How many minds and men are inspired by this little story to dream of the impossible coming true in their lives!

At the other end, simpleton Alibaba reaches home with the three donkeys laden with sacks full of gold coins. But how will he quieten his hyper-excited wife, Hasina Bibi? The destitute family did not own even a weighing scale. There was no other way but to borrow one from the haughty wife of his brother Cassem living on the other side of their partition wall.

“The family scrapes together barely two meals a day – now what has he brought home that compels him to borrow a scale at midnight?” – Cassem’s wife is not only curious, she is quick witted enough to paste some soft dough on the underside of the scale. A shining gold coin sticks to that and arrives in Cassem’s house, to declare what Alibaba and Hasina had come to own.

Spurred by greed, Cassem discreetly follows his brother at daybreak and unravels the mystery of the cave. And as soon as Alibaba exits the cave, Cassem utters “Open Sesame!” and enters the treasure trove. Things go wrong once he sees the riches stored inside. He goes berserk stuffing sack after sack and in the process totally forgets the two magic words. When he senses that he ought to leave, he realises the enormity of that one little mistake. He tears his hair in despair and keeps uttering “Open Potatoes!” “Open Brinjal!” “Open Cinnamon!” “Open World!”  Alas! The stone wall does not sway a hair’s breadth.

Fear of losing one’s life is so overwhelming that Cassem lost all desire for an iota of the wealth he had so lustily filled in his bags. How desperate he was to see the stone wall budge! And when it actually creaked open, Cassem’s eyes shone at the thought that now he could live to see the world outside. But the shine in his eyes lasted a mere second: the very next moment he was lying in a heap, his body chopped to pieces by the dacoit’s sword. They hung the severed body parts outside the cave and set off again.

Is there a moral lesson to be learnt from this story? The non-confronting, peaceable Alibaba could leave the cave in good time as he did not lose his equanimity, while the wily Cassem was so overcome by greed that he forgot the two magic words ‘Open Sesame’, lost his sense of time and consequently, his life too.

The thrill plays on in the heart and mind of those who watched Alibaba (1937), directed by Modhu Bose and featuring his danseuse wife Sadhana Bose. One of the songs went thus:

Aay bandi tui Begum hobi khwaab dekhechhi

(Hey slave girl! You’ll be a queen, I know that from my dreams)

Aami Badshah banechhi

(I have become the Badshah)

Ami begum banechhi

(I have become your Begum)

Badshah Begum jham jhama jham bajiye chalechhi

(Badshah Begum creating the jingle of coins wherever we go)

Oh, who can forget that fun sequence of song and dance!

Herding camels and goats was the culture of Bedouins, the nomadic Arab tribes who historically inhabited the desert regions of North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, Upper Mesopotamia and Levant. They were neither burdened by heritage, nor did they boast a wealth of literature. Generation after generation, these startling stories became their oral co-travellers. That nomadic lot of humanity with behaviour and actions peculiar to their regions, their atheism and agnosticism, their songs and liturgy became one single flow. Almost 1250 years ago, when the cornerstone of Arab civilization was laid, gathering strength from the various languages, strifes and skills, these incomparable tales became a bulk of Arab literature — and effortlessly got dyed in the Islamic colours of the devotees of Allah. Friendship and affection, wisdom and respect for seniority, belief in destiny, surrender to Allah regardless of personal wealth or poverty — these are the keynotes of all the stories. The action could well be taking place in China or Persia, but the characters are all bound by the discipline of Prophet Muhammad. It is an astonishing harvest of Islam’s golden age.

However, Haroun Al Rashid, who is the protagonist of quite a few novellas, is not an imaginary character. Renowned in history as the fifth Abbasid Caliph who was the sole lord of every life and property in sweeping Mesopotamia — and owner of consequential wealth and splendid palaces, stately homes, chateaux and alquazar (al-qasr) – his rule between 786 and 809 AD saw Baghdad become Asia’s most chronicled trading post. 

The city would bustle with transactions in the most exquisite crafts. Gifted artistes and intuitive minds assembled here at a time when European civilization had yet to scale heights.  Haroun’s Baghdad can then verily be described as the poetic nursery of Arabian literature, a champion of architectural beauty, love, and other emotions of the human heart.

1001 Arabian Nights have gained recognition by learned critics as a truthful record of Islamic civilization at the turn of the 8th century. And not just that: Even today adventurers are amazed to find the wealth of traders being transported through the difficult terrain of the desert on the back of slow-moving camels — exactly as described in the Arabian Nights. It appears to be a breathtaking oral history whose contribution to the social science of the lettered world is immense.

It is impossible to classify this piece of literature as the product of sheer fantasy. The story of ace seafarer Sindbad is a hair-raising description of a new world that can be tallied with reality. None can doubt it as drug-induced hallucination.

During the glorious days of the Caliph, Arab seamen set out on courageous courses across the waters. The lush foliage and dense forests of the Far East repeatedly drew the desert dwellers — and they did not return empty handed. The heady fragrance of the tasty spices, the silk at South Indian ports, pearls — pink and purple, grey and milky; emeralds of the Lankan island and rubies of Burma along India’s east coast — they filled their bags with all this, and their memories with experiences galore. Had they not witnessed these with their very own eyes, the actions and gestures of cannibalistic tribes; the extraction of pearls from the shells wrested from the bottom of the ocean, and the enticing iridescence of gems– it would not be possible for sheer artistry to measure up to all these tasks.

Personable and prudent Sindbad had gone around the ocean full seven times. Then comes the mishap: monstrous roc birds attack and destroy his ship. When she sinks, Sindbad stays afloat by hanging on to a plank of wood and using it like a raft, he arrives at an island. Here, an emaciated old man perches on his shoulder and with his dangling skinny legs he grasps his neck in a pincer-like hold.  The exhausted Sindbad has no choice but to eat and sleep carrying on his back the old man (perhaps like the men who followed the African custom of riding on slaves).

This makes me think of the Indian Panchatantra Tales, which in 550 AD, are said to have been extremely popular in Persian translations. Did the Arabian storyteller adorn the Betaal Panchavimsati tales with further fictional details to create this particular old man of the sea?

A flying carpet

Metaphorically speaking, endless greed and lust can get the better of man and ride him, slave like. Men in those days had to walk for days to their destinations. The Arabian tales are woven from a zillion life situations, narratives and religious beliefs — an effortless journey undertaken on a daily basis. In the garb of fantasy many a historical fact has been jotted down by the fanciful chronicler — a timeless tapestry of fact and fiction. The experiences and realisations of everyman have orally arrived at the horizons of many an imaginary land and have been disbursed to untrod shores. Who on earth can suppress the desire to scour the globe and the heavens too, astride an Uran Khatola — a flying carpet? In practical terms it may not be possible but where is the harm in dreaming of the impossible?

Sir Richard Burton had visited Mecca to witness for himself the glory of the Haj. On this journey full of hardships, he heard the thousand and one incredible stories spun out by Scheherazade, just before dawn. He translated the tales word for word, and published them in English in the first half of Queen Victoria’s rule. The recording of experiences of human head and heart, unadulterated by any critical or moral judgment, opened possibilities of altering the prudish values then prevailing in England. That a vision stretching out into the horizon, the romance of adventure and the thrill of luxuriating in untold wealth can captivate all, is best exemplified by Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels — tales of adventure that have immortalised Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift.

Literature of no land can ever become popular unless it correlates the head with the heart. Unbeknownst to himself Shahryar, that wrathful Sultan who hated every woman, has enshrined his Scheherazade. He may have got a scribe to put into script the tales he had heard in the melting darkness of his bedroom. It added a glorious chapter to the literature of the world. The opportunity to dive deep into the ocean of fantasy, and experience unadulterated joy and thrill became everlasting for generations of readers all over the world.

Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016) resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from a women’s college.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader and spiritual aspirant.

Ratnottama Senguptaformerly Arts Editor of The Times of India, teaches mass communication and film appreciation, curates film festivals and art exhibitions, and translates and write books. She has been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. 

(Published with permission of family)

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Categories
Stories

The Awaited Mother’s Day

By Sandhya Sinha (1928-2016)

Translated by Ratnottama Sengupta

Surabhilata was beside herself with joy as she strode up the stairs of her elder daughter Anuradha’s residence on Park Street. Anuradha’s husband Soumendra was an eminent lawyer, good looking and well-respected. He lived in his ancestral house striking a happy balance with his parents. Anuradha cared for her in-laws, looks after their needs, and had taught her own children to love and respect their Dadu and Thamma.

Surabhilata entered the house to find a stellar congregation in the drawing room. Her younger daughter Bishakha was there with her just-returned-from-US husband Dibyendu. Surabhilata’s husband’s nephew, Aloke, is the bosom friend of Dibyendu – not so surprising that he had joined them with his chubby and cheerful wife Radhika, who happens to be the daughter of Surabhilata’s younger sister. What fun!

“You here all by yourself?!” Anu and Bishakha chimed in unison the moment their mother stepped in. “Didn’t bring Baba along?” Her sons-in-law were well aware that Surabhilata had a keen sense of self-respect and dignity. They cut in, “And why not? It’s so good that she’s come over today – when we are all here together!”

Bishakha and Radhika have both been raised by Surabhi like siblings. The two of them came over and sat down flanking her on either side. Short and plump Surabhi was used to covering most of her sojourns on foot. That day, as usual, she had alighted at the corner of Park Street and walked down this distance. But, that day, she was perspiring.

“Why didn’t you call up once?” the daughters complained. “We would have picked you up. So much trouble! Aren’t your son and daughter-in-law at home? Why didn’t they drop you?”

Surabhi replied that she did not inform Anup that she was going to visit her daughter. “And why fetter my freedom of movement!”

Surabhilata’s husband Shantimoy Sen was a highly placed Government Servant who was soon to retire from his job. Anuradha had been married for almost 15 years. Bishakha for about five years. Their only son Anup, second of the siblings, had been married for less than two years. Both Surabhi and Shantimoy adored on the daughter-in-law. The reason? Both her daughters were extremely good looking – they had taken after their father. Anup was a copy of his mother – perhaps that was why they had a tough time getting a pretty, educated, stunning- bride for him despite his academic qualifications and a well-paid job.

Surabhi and Shantimoy were on the verge of depression. Almost by a divine intervention a proposal came out of somewhere – and she was a dream come true. There was no question of dilly-dallying any more. Another six months and the younger son-in-law Dibyendu would have come back from the States but no, they did not wait for even that. In the midst of summer, they ceremonised Anup’s wedding with great fanfare. And the Trinity of father, mother and son seemed to find salvation in the newly wed Bride. Pray why not? Chandana was not only fair complexioned, she had light eyes that seemed to smile at you all the while. The slim and sunny girl won over everyone soon as she arrived. She was Shantimoy’s ‘Mamoni’ and for Surabhi she was ‘Gopal’.

“Whoever’s heard of addressing the daughter-in-law as Gopal? It’s a term of endearment for grandchildren,” said her sister Madhabilata to Surabhi. “Don’t go over the top even in showering affection,” she cautioned. “Excess of anything is bad even for the health of a relationship.”

Bishakha and Anuradha could not agree more. Both of them are married to only sons but their mothers-in-law still ruled over both their households, their wish continued to be the command for the sisters. “All the rules are only for us!” they whispered to each other. “How we feared Maa! Now, the bride has changed Maa’s personality…”

“What to do!” Surabhi would smile. “The minute I set my eyes on her, I noticed the mischievous smile in her eyes – and was reminded of the baby Krishna. That’s why I address her as ‘Gopal’. But dears, she takes no offence on that count. She is also a convent-educated, modern girl.  With her parents she has travelled through America, not once — but twice. If she has no problem with my calling her Gopal, why are you so bothered? She is so happy if you visit us and the children are so full of Mami, Aunty!”

In fact, Surabhi’s house was always filled with visitors, relatives and friends of every age and gender. Surabhi was soon to retire from her job, and so was increasingly busy with Women’s Welfare and Literary Circle. Every now and then she was occupied with penning her thoughts – if not a speech. Shantimoy was not too pleased with these ‘Social Welfare’ activities at the cost of familial welfare. “But what to do?” Surabhi had an infallible logic: “My children are all grown up, well raised and doing well on their own. I have fulfilled all my responsibilities. I don’t take any money from you nor do I waste money on any luxury. So why should anyone grudge my spending time in these activities?”

The sons-in-law fully supported her endeavours. Her daughters were also in her favour: “We have earned our various degrees but writing still doesn’t come easy to us. To top it, Bengali seems to be a particularly tough language to express ourselves in. So, if Maa is good in this, why object? Chandana is so keen about cooking, she’ll be able to handle the kitchen…”

Surabhi wasn’t exactly prepared for what this entailed. Chandana was keen to experiment in the kitchen but it all had to be organised by Surabhi, personally. “This is missing”, “how can it taste authentic without that” — each ‘lacking’ prompted Shantimoy to rush to the market. Every evening Anup and Chandana went out. “This is the age to enjoy, let them do so…” Surabhi and Shantimoy were in agreement on this. Dinner? Surely Surabhi could take care of that; she was not going out, was she?

But when Surabhi had to attend a Sahitya Chakra or some other literary meet? Or, perhaps a Ladies’ Circle gathering? Most of these were scheduled in evenings after the office hours and finished late. So invariably Surabhi would be back only at 10 pm, to find Anup-Chandana were yet to return. Or if they had, she was too tired to step into the kitchen. So Shantimoy has set the table for four and waited with a long face. On some days a kith or kin would drop in. If she asked her ‘Gopal’ to serve tea or sherbet, she would not pull a face as much as Shantimoy or Anup would. Surabhi would recite the lines from Tagore to herself: “The courtiers complain a hundred times more than the king himself…”

Chandana’s mother happened to be a very prim and proper lady. Ever so often she came to visit her daughter – accompanied by her Americanised nephew, Ratul. He had gone to the United States on some deputation or the other but the four months he spent there were enough to turn him into a Mr Know-It-All! Anything that does or can happen within the Americas – he knew all about it. Surabhi had yet to fathom how he managed to mutate himself in mere four months and replace every custom and behaviour learnt over 28 years with new ways, new likings, new lifestyle.

Still, Surabhi was pleased when they visit because her ‘Gopal’ was delighted, even if Anup was visibly discomfited. Just a day before Chandana’s mom and Ratul had terminated their week-long stay and gone back to Ghaziabad. Surabhi was too preoccupied with her chores to call up or chat with her daughters. She had overheard some whispering about going to some destination of her choice in order to celebrate her impending 60th birthday. Dilapidated remains and undated temples had always been of much interest to Surabhi. Panchalingeshwar in Balasore district of Orissa had a forceful rivulet running down a mountain slope. Under the waterfall in the midst of verdant green, you could reach out to touch the five Shiv Lingas that were supposed to be the icons of sage Parasuram in the distant past! Ever since she heard this, Surabhi has been lamenting that there had been no occasion for her to visit the site. And so Soumendra and Dibyendu had been planning to give their mother-in-law a surprise Birthday present — a trip to Panchalingeshwar. To plan that in secret, the fivesome had gathered that day. Surabhi’s sudden appearance led them to change the topic of discussion within the flutter of an eyelid.

Radha smiled as she enquired of Surabhi, “What have we learnt anew about the US of A, Mamoni?”

“Yesterday at the dining table Ratul spoke at length about Mother’s Day Celebration in America. Gopal let out, ‘What a coincidence? The 12th of May happens to be Mamoni’s birthday! So we will celebrate Mother’s Day on a grand scale. Don’t entertain any other programme that day Mamoni – I’ll be really upset if you do!’”

This was what had brought Surabhi rushing to Anuradha’s house. She would be the protagonist of that day’s celebration.

“It will be a day of all play. No work,” her Gopal had declared.  

Bishakha raised her arched brows on hearing this. “What are you saying Maa? A full day’s holiday? Your Gopal has not, out of sheer love for you, requested you to prepare a signature dish for her? I hope it won’t transpire that you refuse to join us on a special outing that day and ‘Mr America’ Ratul ensures that you get left out of Chandana’s ‘Mother’s Day’ do!”

Surabhi could not take kindly to Bishakha’s snide remarks.

“Why are you so full of negativity?” she asked.  “Only last night Chandana’s mother and Ratul returned to Ghaziabad. Is it likely that they will come back in five days flat?”

“What did your son say on hearing his wife’s plan?” Anuradha asked Surabhi.

She replied, “Gopal is quite naughty – she did not elaborate exactly what she plans to do, or where… ‘All in good time’- she kept repeating with a Monalisa smile. ‘Wait till 12 noon of 12th May – you’ll know it all.’ None of you ever celebrated a Mother’s Day – are you jealous because Gopal is planning one?”

“Why would we Moni? We’re happy so long as you are happy. Whether your Gopal has planned it or us is immaterial.”

“You know what,” Surabhi now shared what had been on her mind. “I am myself keen to see how Gopal celebrates the day centred round me. She has never had to take full responsibility of anything. She spoke with such enthusiasm in front of her mother and brother! How would she have felt if I had not accepted her proposal? So great was her excitement that Ratul burst out, ‘Oh Chandana, you are such a spoonfed silly babe! The Mother’s Day is for your mother.’ Gopal was furious, ‘So what?’ she’d asked.”

May 11 arrived. In the evening, on their way to Panchalingeshwar, Soumendra and company stopped at her house with a sari, a gold-covered nowa, the auspicious bangle for married women, and two kilos worth of Manohara Sweets. They pressed on the calling bell and got no response. They peeped in to see no lights were on, either on the ground floor or the one above; only a single lamp in the courtyard was keeping the darkness at bay. All of a sudden an unknown fear gripped Anuradha and Bishakha – they tugged at the iron grill and shrieked, “Maa! Maa!!”

Surabhi’s voice brought them back to normalcy.  She rushed out of the kitchen trying to hold up her pallu with pea-paste smeared hands and stopped short on seeing them. “What’s the matter?” they called out in unison.

 “No one at home? Where’s Raghua? Hasn’t Baba come home from office? Where’s Anup- Chandana? What are you doing in this darkness?”

Surabhi smiled to cover her embarrassment. “Won’t you come in? Or do you want to finish your interrogation at the gate? Raghua has been in bed with high temperature for the last three days. So I have sent him off with his brother to see the doctor. Gopal has gone out with your Baba to streamline her top secret arrangements for tomorrow. Anup had to leave for Pune this morning to attend an important conference. That is why you see no one at home. This past hour I have spent in grinding peas to make kachori – that’s why I could not switch on the lights. See how you’ve worked yourself up for no reason!”

“But why bother to make kachoris when Raghua is indisposed?” the daughters demanded of Surabhi. “What could I do?” she lowered her voice to explain. “Gopal was so keen, she said, ‘Mamoni your kachoris are to die for! Why not prepare about 100 kachoris and 50 banana-flower chops? Incomparable! Everything else I’ll manage!’ I couldn’t refuse her, you know! Everything’s ready, first thing tomorrow morning I’ll fry the chops and kachoris and store them away in a hot case. Dum Aloo is already done – why don’t you kids try some?”

Bishakha, being the youngest, still spoke to her mom. “Listen to me, I say; there’s still time for you to pack and come with us. This Panchalingeshwar trip was planned because you are so keen about the destination – and you want to spend your birthday in the kitchen frying kachori and Mochar chop! Make sure that you are not left at home while the others make a feast of these!”

“Don’t you dare to think evil,” Surabhi scolded her daughter. “Go on and enjoy yourselves without a single care. When you’re back I will tell you how I enjoyed Mother’s Day!”

They waited for another 15 minutes, but since Shantimoy and Chandana were not back, they set out just the way they had come, creating hullabaloo. Surabhi put the latch on the door and paused. She felt that she had unwillingly created a grudge in her daughters and sons-in-laws.

“What!” Shantimoy burst out when he heard about the Panchalingeswar trip. “You let go of such a golden opportunity?! hope you don’t have to regret this decision…”

But he just wouldn’t divulge what has been planned for the next day. He simply said, “I am honour bound not to utter a word about it. Have patience: it bears you the sweetest of fruits.”

On 12th of May Surabhi was up really early.

She had a bath, finished her prayers and entered the kitchen. She fried the kachoris and chops, and packed them neatly. The dum aloo and chutney had been already put away the previous night. Now she placed the box of sweets next to them.

Chanadana came down the stairs neatly dressed and holding a bouquet of flowers in her hand. She touched Surabhi’s feet, gave her the bouquet and said, “Mamoni I haven’t brought any sari or jewellery for you because I wish to give you what you will truly enjoy. Please don the sari that Didi has got you and be ready by about 1 pm. Baba will come directly from his office. I am going in your son’s car – someone will pick you up sharp at 1. I’m taking the food with me – they’ll all lick their fingers to the bones! I’m feeling awful that I could not help you one bit – I had to run around so much to arrange everything on a grand scale! You will see for yourself when you get there Mamoni.”

Chandana spoke at one go, picked up the car keys and left. Just as Chandana started the car the phone rang. Shantimoy called out – “Your phone, ducky!”

Surabhi noticed that Chandana stood at one corner of Shantimoy’s room and spoke into the phone, intermittently pausing to listen. Almost five minutes later she put down the phone and drove off. From the kitchen itself Surabhi could sense that something had gone awry with Chandana’s plans for the day…

“Who was that on the line?”  she called out to Shantimoy. “What were they talking about?”

“No idea.”

While leaving for his office Shantimoy told Surabhi, “It’s a red-letter day for you! Wish you the best of luck and many, many happy returns of the day. See you in the evening.”

“Where are we to meet?”

Shantimoy put a finger on his lips as he replied with a sly smile, “Top secret!”

In a flash Surabhi could almost see Shantimoy of forty two years ago – when they had just got married. She shut the main door and sat down on the cane chair in the veranda. She could see the years in her mind’s eye… So true! She would complete six decades! It seemed just the other day when she left her degree course incomplete to step into this household as a bride. Time, the Ultimate Helmsman, had rowed her life upstream, through every conflict and inclement tide…

Presiding on a pile of unleashed memories Surabhi had perhaps released herself into the past. She was forced to return into Time Present by her parakeet parroting, “Oma, where’s my food?”

Chandana, in her hurry, had probably left her pup locked in her room – that too was barking its head off. Surabhi was back on her feet with soaked gram for the parakeet. Soon as she let out the pup it started jumping around her feet, indulging in his favourite game of tugging at the end of her sari. She fed him with biscuits and milk, then entered her room to dress up for the day.

A glance at the watch startled her. It was 12 noon already! The car would be here at 1 pm to pick her up. Her heart was aflutter with anticipation and the uncertainty of it all. Still, she got dressed as fast as she could. At the stroke of 1 she locked all the rooms and came down to the ground floor hall with her vanity bag. Waiting for the car to arrive she took a deep breath. Waiting is one act that doesn’t let you rest in peace. Time does not wait for anyone, the watch tells us. Surabhi could not focus on anything and started worrying. Where was she supposed to go? Chandana had not told her anything, nor had Shantimoy. The surge of excitement she had been riding on these past few days was losing its sheen. A sense of disappointment was raising its head. To quieten it, she started leafing through 100 Images of Maa Sarada. Every time she read this spiritual biography she felt at peace with herself and the rest of the world…

Surabhi did not realise at which point she had fallen asleep. The relentless ring of the telephone woke her up. She sat up with a start, fearing the worst.

“Where were you all this while?” Shantimoy at the other end sounded extremely worried. “Listen, an unexpected situation has developed – and it’s rather disgraceful. Knowing that you would love to watch the solo ballet of Mamata Shankar, Chandana had booked four front row seats days in advance. I entered the hall at the start of the show and found Chandana’s mother and Ratul in the seats meant for you and Anup. They arrived in the afternoon, and that is why the car could not go to pick you up. I have no interest in watching this show but Chandana is feeling miserable. Tell me, what should I do? We are the elders – we must excuse them even their lapses, right?”

Surabhi wasn’t prepared for this. She could only think of a line from Mother Sarada’s biography: “If you desire peace in life, don’t find faults with others. Instead, look for the faults within you…”

Calmly she spoke to Shantimoy, “No, why will you come away without watching the ballet? But listen, you have the front door keys, please don’t wake me up as you come in.”

No matter how much she tried, Surabhi could not look for the faults within herself. The rush of ceaseless tears just would not let her do so. Her Gopal had already got an inkling of this on that sudden phone call, so why did she keep up the pretence? Was it because she is only her mother-by-marriage?

Sandhya Sinha resumed studies 17 years after marriage, completed her Masters in English, embarked on a teaching career and retired as a senior English teacher from the women’s college, Nari Shiksha Niketan.Many of her articles were published in the magazine of the Bangiya Sahitya Samaj in Lucknow, of which Sucheta Kripalani was a founder member. At the age of 75, she embarked on a career of authorship, having successfully played the roles of a mother, a social worker, mentor, community leader, spiritual aspirant. Through these years, in her free hours she would put her thoughts, ideas, convictions and experiences into short stories and essays. Now she turned her spare time habit into a full-time vocation of love and remembrance which she would gift to her children and grandchildren.

Ratnottama Sengupta turned director with And They Made Classics, on the unique bonding between screen writer Nabendu Ghosh and director Bimal Roy. A very senior journalist, she has been writing for newspapers and journals, participating in discussions on the electronic media; teaching mass communication students, writing books on cinema and art, programming film festivals and curating art exhibitions. She has written on Hindi films for the Encyclopaedia Britannica; been a member of CBFC, served on the National Film Awards jury and has herself won a National Award. The former Arts Editor of The Times of India is also a member of the NFDC’s script committee. Author of Krishna’s Cosmos and several other volumes, she has recently edited That Bird Called Happiness (2018/ Speaking Tiger), Me And I (2017/ Hachette India), Kadam Kadam (2016/ Bhashalipi), Chuninda Kahaniyaan: Nabendu Ghosh (2009/ Roshnai Prakashan).