All stories are not dramatic. Some, in fact quite a number of them, arise out of simple day to day life and situations that force a noble heart to take up an uncharted course. We sing paeans to the heroes under the limelight and forget the ones closer to us, quietly leading a life in no way less remarkable than any of the former ones. Such stories too need to be told.
One such unsung simple yet heroic woman was Mira didi. A few years senior to me, she lived near our ancestral house in a small suburb of Kolkata. Her large smiling eyes held stories of deep sorrow for anyone who could read them. A buck-toothed smile always lit up her face at the slightest pretext, yet that did not speak of a carefree happiness. It was mellowed by a sad wisdom that she had acquired in her journey of life.
She was very popular in her neighbourhood. And I used to be completely enchanted by her in my childhood days. Whenever we visited our ancestral home, which was generally a biannual affair during our summer and winter breaks, Meera didi ruled over my every waking moment. As a child I would often visit their house to meet her. Each time I would notice a room that was always locked from outside and each time I would ask them who was in it. They always told me that big brother was sleeping there. I used to feel a tinge of envy for that unseen big brother who had a doting mother to let him sleep to his heart’s content. On the other hand was I, daughter of the most authoritarian mother of this world who had set up a military regime of daily chores for me. My only breathing space was these holidays when the iron clad routine of my mother was replaced by unlimited pampering of my grandparents and uncles. So each time I saw that locked room, I would be deluged under waves of self pity. How often I wished myself to be on the other side of that locked door! Much later had I realised the price that the big brother had to pay for being that so-called luxury of that room.
One particular evening, still etched strongly in my memory, revealed the mysterious big brother to me. During one of my visits to my grandparents, I walked up to Meera didi’s house, as was my usual habit, and entered through the open door. Once inside the house, I found the door to that enigmatic room open and saw a particularly handsome man sitting on the bed and staring at the floor. My curiosity got better of my manners and I kept staring at him. Finally, I was getting a glimpse of the person of whom I had only heard. He must have sensed my presence too, because he soon looked up straight towards me with his bloodshot eyes. There was something wild in his expression that scared me and I screamed, “Meera didiiiiii”! He did not move from his place but darted an angry look that rooted me to that spot. Meera didi had immediately rushed to my side, comforted me, and made me sit on a chair away from that room. That was the only day that I saw him in a long time but it left a strong impression on my mind.
As I grew up, I learnt the truth. The violently schizophrenic elder sibling of Meera didi had to be locked up in that room, particularly during the day time when there were chances of outsiders visiting their home. Jadu dada, the big brother, could not tolerate strangers. Every unknown and little known face was a threat to his mental equilibrium. At times he grew violent even towards familiar people. But there was a unique bond between the siblings. Even during his most violent fits, Jadu dada never hurt his little sister. In his worst phases too, he would take his meals only with her and be calmed down by her. Parents did not have much say in his life. In fact his violent fits often caused bodily injury to these two people; as if, shunned by the rest of the world, he took out his anger and frustration on the people responsible for bringing him to this world.
His attachment with Meera didi was of a different kind. She was the only anchor in the swift changing contours of his mindscape. In fact when he was extremely agitated or paranoid, only she could calm him down. His medicines, food, exercise, medical checkups and counselling – everything had to be handled by her and she happily took it up all. She was younger than him, yet she mothered him. She began spending most of her time in his company, taking care of him, soothing his agitated nerves and even playing with him – so much so that even her own studies took a back seat.
Once I had grown up, I heard the stories of how Jadu dada, a brilliant student and a sculptor, was everyone’s favourite and how all of a sudden everything had changed when he woke up one morning screaming incoherently about some plot to murder him. At first his family thought it was a normal nightmare and tried to calm him down. But soon it became a recurring event to the point that he started getting scared of the night. At times his distress would go up to such heights that he sobbed and pleaded for some sleep. The family had no alternative but to seek medical intervention. Thus began an unending cycle of physicians, psychologists, and psychiatrists. These stories, in hushed voices, lingered around the family and their acquaintances. As a child I did not have an access to these but later heard a number of tales of the tragedy that completely disoriented the lives of the members of this family.
Meera didi was the only one who did not lose hope in face of such a dire catastrophe. She tended to her brother’s health and to her parents’ spirit with dexterity beyond comprehension. She was only fourteen then and Jadu dada was eighteen – the age when all Indian parents dream of carving either an engineer or a doctor out of their brilliant offsprings. In this particular household, institutional education took a backseat as the parents channelled their time, energy, and money to procure a decent everyday life for their children. Gradually once things settled down a bit and Jadu became more self-dependent, and Meera didi tried to find some time for herself. Amidst all this turmoil, she did manage to scramble through her schooling and become a graduate. She did not want to go back to institutional studies any more, in fact she had lost too many crucial years to go back to get degrees. Instead she did a few courses on special education and training of children with special needs and started running a crèche for special children. Her experience had made her realise the sacrifices that the caregivers had to make, especially the working mothers, simply because our society turned a blind eye towards the needs of these people. There were not too many takers for her service initially. But her repeated visits to various counselling centres, narratives of her personal experiences, and recommendations from her brother’s doctors gradually helped people trust her and send their children to her. Thus began Meera Didi’s second journey as a caregiver. Jadu dada still remained her first responsibility but her constant attention had given him a greater grip upon his life. He still had hallucinations and fits of temper but he could muster them much better now. In fact, in some of his better days, he also helped out Meera didi with her work.
I remained an occasional visitor to Meera didi. It was during one such visits that I met Mr. Ayan Bose. He was a doting uncle to one of the girls in the crèche. He would often stay back in the crèche and help didi with sundry things. One look and I could feel his deep feelings for her. But didi was hesitant, scared. She did not want to commit to a relationship where she could not give her full attention. She knew that Jadu dada was her lifelong responsibility and she did not want another attachment to take up her time.
Sometime later, during one of my trips to Meera didi, I found the brother and sister hugging each other and crying bitterly. Mr. Bose stood quietly in a corner. I looked at him questioningly. He gestured me to keep silent. Suddenly I heard a broken voice – come here. Jadu dada was pointed his fingers at me and called me to his side. His eyes were red once again, just as I had seen the first time. But the anger had given way to a deep sadness. In fact his eyes resembled his sister’s so much that I was quite taken aback. I quietly approached him and he said – “tell your didi that Ayan is good. She should marry him. I am well enough to take care of myself now. Still, whenever I need her, I know Ayan will let her come here. But if she doesn’t marry, I shall never be able to forgive myself. I promise to be good to ma-baba too.”
He said all these in a single breath and abruptly turned away to leave the room, not giving anyone a chance to even say a word. We all stood dumbstruck. Mr. Bose was the first one to break the silence.
He held Meera Didi’s hand and softly said – marrying me does not mean leaving the crèche or dada. We can all stay together and be one big family. How and where, we can always discuss and finalize. Please don’t refuse now.
A year later Meera didi and Mr. Bose were happily married. And they quite efficiently took care of the two sets of parents as well as Jadu dada. Under their care, many little angels also found a secured shelter, giving all those parents the space to pursue their dreams as well. And my unsung hero – she happily multitasked between her various chores, her smile lighting up the lives of whoever came in touch with her.
About the Author
Dr. Nabanita Sengupta is presently working as Assistant Professor in English at Sarsuna College, affiliated to the University of Calcutta. Her areas of specialization are 19th century travel writings, women’s studies, and translation studies. She has participated in various translation workshops and presented papers in national and international seminars in India and abroad. Her creative writings have been published at various e-journals like Muse India, Coldnoon, Café Dissensus, News Minute, etc. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.