I have returned to the scenes of my childhood and in my mind’s eye I see people long departed; my kakima, oiled hair flowing down her back, the keys of her household jangling at the end of her sari; my grandmother, filling the paandaans with betel nut, supari, lime and all the other necessities; my pishimas, laying baris out in the sun to dry, along with sliced mango and lime for pickles.
Now, as I pace the corridors, avoiding the compassion and curiosity that I see in my relatives’ faces, inhabiting that bleak land on the other side of remembered happiness, I feel like a sea creature stranded far from its element and when occasionally the tide of grief recedes it leaves in its wake remembered things, as the sea retreating, uncovers shells, driftwood and debris sticking out of the sand and so I remember Shona.
Shona pishi was what we children called her; golden aunt, for Shona means gold and pishi stands for paternal aunt. Everyone else called her ‘returned daughter’, a sort of annotated sub-text of her history.
Shona was my father’s cousin. In the manner of joint families, my father inherited her as his father had inherited Shona’s mother when she returned to the family house as as a widow with three daughters.
Grandfather had arranged marriages for the 3 daughters as soon as they reached puberty and they had gone off to their respective houses while their mother stayed in ours, one of its many dependents.
Ours was and still is a typical Bengali joint family, every room in the house occupied, sections of the sprawling old mansion with its courtyards and corridors assigned to different branches of the family. There was no individuality (although sometimes, a younger daughter-in-law or junior sister-in-law grumbled or jostled for more power) but there was an attempt at separateness through which we children streaked like multi coloured fish against and across the currents. No section of that much partitioned house was barred to us. We grew up never knowing loneliness.
When Shona was ‘returned’ by the family into which she had been married, it was to us that she came back, to the only home or family she had ever known. Her bridegroom, they said, in whispers that reverberated around the old house, returned her because she was not quite right in the head. Others asserted that it was because she could not produce a baby. A feat so ordinary that no one thinks anything of it until the possibility arises that one is incapable of this commonplace miracle.
Looking back now, I wonder, for Shona did not stay long with her husband before she was so unceremoniously returned, hardly any time at all. Was it her mind or her body that was found wanting, something missing? But is the human mind so easily plumbed and found empty?
They all called her returned daughter, all the adults in the house, but to us she was Shona pishi, she who told stories, wonderful tales of derring-do, long ago faraway myths. Shona wove her stories as others in the household knitted and sewed and her tapestry was a delight of colour, sound, song and magic. She a child who was no longer a child, cast out from a child’s magical world into a cold adult realm of practicality, what we call the real world, in which she could not sustain herself.
Shona died a long time ago and it is now many years since I married and left the old house; many years since I returned to Bengal for I married a non-Bengali and went to live in faraway places. Now, exiled from happiness, returned like Shona, my thoughts turn frequently to her and I see her and all those who had then formed the kaleidoscope we call family, differently.
When Shona was returned from her brief sojourn into matrimony, it was as if she had never been away at all. If there was grief, it was (like mine now) a subterranean thing running through caverns measureless to man. That is the way with women’s grief, it must not be allowed to brim over into madness.
The family found good use for returned daughter, or perhaps she assumed it because everyone needs a reason for living. Shona made the tea that was prepared daily for the women of the house. Then it was the turn of the laundry; having served the tea, she gathered up the dirty clothes from each section of the house and took it to the wash place where for hours she banged, lathered and squeezed the shirts, lungis, saris, frocks and underwear, then hung them out to dry in squadrons where they flapped on the line like family ghosts. In between she told us stories as we squatted around her, giggling as she banged the clothes against a huge stone and watched the rainbow drops of soapy water that flew around us.
Oh yes, returned daughter made herself useful all right, but every day at 4:30 precisely, neither later nor earlier, dressed in a clean crisp sari, Shona went out to the park near the house. She never ever asked anyone, child or adult, to accompany her. She went alone and sat alone on a bench, watching the world go by.
Ayahs walked by with babies, children played among the flower beds, elderly people sat and gossiped, all escaping from the small noisy flats that fringed the park.
Shona sat in the park for one hour precisely and then before dusk fell, she slowly rose and walked back home. This happened every day, as the seasons came and went: the burgeoning bougainvillea, the paling petunia, the resurgent rose, the colours and scents of a Calcutta winter superseded by the heat and humidity of summer, the thunder and lightning of the monsoon.
Now, as I sit on that same bench, looking back across the years, surrounded by happy families, children, joggers, as the scent of winter flowers assail my senses, I wonder what my golden aunt, returned daughter, the Scheherazade of a thousand and one nights, had thought about as she sat there day after day, year after year.
Sitting in her place, looking at the people in that little park as they walk and jog past me, or sit in vacant dreamlessness on the benches opposite, I wonder what sadness, what privation, lies behind their eyes. Perhaps Shona, too, had wondered, had questioned whether sadness and longing, loneliness and the despair of empty years ahead were her portion alone.
Ours, as I have said, was a joint family in that we all lived together, the generations and the branches huddled under the same roof, sharing our rice, pooling our income, but what had anyone known of the others? Not one of us knew what had taken place when young Shona went to her brief marriage and we knew even less what took place when not much later, she was returned. It was enough for most of the family that she knew her place, carried out the duties assigned to her. Her time in the park was her own, something she had carved out of her day for herself and no one gainsaid it. If she had secrets, and are there not sections in every human mind that remain like locked rooms to which no one has the key, returned daughter took her secrets with her when she died.