Dr. Ketaki Datta is an Associate Professor of English, Bidhannagar College, Kolkata. She is a novelist, short story writer, critic and a translator. Her debut novel “A Bird Alone” has won rave reviews in India and abroad. Her poems have been published in anthologies published by Brian Wrixon, Canada. She has been to Lisbon on an invitation from IFTR [Ireland chapter] to read out a paper titled “Human Values and Modern Bengali Drama”, which got published in the Festival Issue of The Statesman in India. “Indo-Anglian Literature: Past to Present” [Booksway, 2008], “New Literatures in English: Fresh Perspectives”[Book World, 2011], “Selected Short Stories of Rabindranath Tagore in Translation”[Avenel, 2013], “ The Black and Nonblack Shades of Tennessee Williams”[ Book World, 2012] , “The Last Salute” [Sahitya Akademi, 2013] are a few of her notable publications. Read her interview here. Below you can read an excerpt from her latest book, One year for Mourning. Courtesy: Ketaki Datta.
‘One Year for Mourning’ (Book Excerpt)
A stuffy, gloomy cavernous room it is where nurses and doctors with grumpy faces pop in and pop out quite often. One hour is kept for the relatives of a patient to have a quick look at their near and dear one. Especially in the evening. Especially when the last crimson rays of the setting sun are about to be gulped in by the sun-baked earth. Especially when the flicker of life flounders and seeks to escape the cage that harbours it. The faces of the kith and kin of the dying are pictures of pensiveness. After all, it is an Intensive Care Unit of a hospital!!
My mom is struggling for life here since the last three days. I am being allowed to enter the I.C.U. for half an hour at an interval of four hours all these days. I am shouldering a responsibility of keeping her alive by giving her aqua-dialysis regularly. Since the last couple of years I am managing to do it somehow. She has lost her consciousness since last evening. Of late, she is on ventilation. A pathetic sight, each time I enter the I.C.U, to see her eyelids shut, her sprightly self a thing of the past, her trance-like state something unusual with her. Even yesterday, when I came for dialysis, she was trying to pull off the oxygen-mask that sat firm on her face and striving hard to put her thoughts in words. She wriggled in her effort and failed. I failed to hold back my tears. My brother was with me all the time. But, he is too soft to endure all these things. So he stays consoled to be allowed to take a peek at her, twice a day, through the glass window. But I have seen him moping in the dark in the lodge where we have put up, very often.
I really do feel sad to put up with such an oppression of waiting for a lamp of life to see extinguished. This evening when I went for my usual duty, I found her extremely placid. I remembered how she used to sit up and talk lively, once she felt better. But this time, the signs proved all ominous. I could not keep my calm. I went out of the hospital, walked to a temple to say my prayers, I strained my limbs to walk up to a Govinda-shrine to pray for her quick recovery [which I understood was next to impossible]. I even paid for sitting an hour in an internet café, surfing and mailing. I surfed an astrological website and was thunderstruck to find that this night foreboded ill as per my sun-sign. I wept a little sitting behind the curtain, paid at the counter and staggered out. While coming out of the internet parlour, I was overwhelmed by a feeling that she was no more!! A sense of void got the better of me, but
I brushed off the negative thought. All my assiduous efforts proved vain after all!
As I returned to the infirmary-complex, I heard my name being blared on the microphone, on the reception-desk. The ground beneath my feet seemed to give way with a violent convulsion. It seemed to be a total blackout in front of my eyes. I hurried up to the first floor where my mom was laid to rest forever, never ever to wake up. It was again time for the next dialysis. I was so perturbed that with vision blurred by the violent shock, the eyes clouded by the surging tears, I pushed the door of the I.C.U to render my mom the regular support of dialysis. But, Dr. Md. Iqbal, who remained in charge of the I.C.U came forward to ask me to sit in the adjoining cubicle. As I stopped him short by reminding him of my regular schedule of dialysis, he led me gently on to the adjacent cubicle and said, “She has just passed away, Madam. But, please get
composed, do not cry. We tried our best, but failed. After all, she has escaped the terrific gruesome sufferings she would have otherwise had to undergo.” It was a blow to my senses, but I stood up to say, “No, I must take the fluid out of her peritoneum. It will surely cause more pain to her.” He interrupted, “But she is no more.” “I do not believe it. Let me see the cardiac monitor.” I rushed near my mom’s bed. She lay quiet on the white counterpane, her eyes shut firm with strips of leucoplast. The cardiac monitor showed faint movements and I contradicted Dr. Iqbal, “See Doc, a flicker of life is there. The cardiac monitor is still on”.
“No Ma’am, it’s due to the pacemaker.”
I still insisted on doing the dialysis for the last time. He gave in to my repeated request at last. I checked the onrush of the tears to course down my cheeks just as the sky sometimes stalls a heavy downpour immediately after a spell of light rains.
As it was over within half an hour, I failed to hold myself back, keep myself calm and composed. I rushed out of the hall trying hard to check my tears sensing as if the inevitable had an irresistible power of stirring us from our deepest within. It was 10.30 p.m. The hours after that fled away as if they had wings attached to their shoulders. My mom’s body was not taken to the mortuary, she was kept behind an embroidered curtain in the Emergency downstairs. She was so tranquil that though I took her face in my hands and showered kisses, she remained irresponsive, numb, devoid of all ecstasies she otherwise had. I cried, talked to her restlessly, drenching her face with my salty tears. The hospital-staff asked me to leave her alone. But how could I? For me, her demise was a great blow, annulling all interests and charms the life held out to me otherwise. I had a job but no husband to stay with, I had a brother and a sister-in-law who, I was afraid, would ask me to leave the house and settle elsewhere as
mom was not there. Despite that, I was trying to steel myself to the core. The rest of the night was punctuated by my hopping into the Emergency Room on a false pretext of not seeing her even once after her demise and shedding copious tears on her face, her feet, her limbs. From the next morning, her physical presence would be a thing of the past. The sentry at the Entrance was an angel in human form. He could feel the inner storm in me and allowed me to enter the room whenever I felt the urge to see her. It was a night of full moon, though at the corner of my mind stygian darkness of the new moon ruled the roost.
“Today is the Kalipuja, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Don’t you see the string of tiny bulbs hanging outside?”
“Nice really. Well Mithi, are we still in the hospital?”
“Yes. Don’t worry. You are getting well soon. A remarkable improvement, the doc says. You have to live long, maa.”
“But, I feel much weak these days. And I know that I won’t survive for long.”
She heaved a sigh of despair. Stealthily however. But I could hear it. And, that too, quite distinctly.
My mom had to live long because she was the mother of a spinster who needed her most. My mom could never succumb to any kind of termination at the unjustified age of 67+. Just a few months preceding her death when she grew demanding in her everyday behaviour, when she tossed and turned on her bed at night inching deliberately to the edge of the bed to fall down straight on the ice-cold floor of chilly winter, my heart used to get filled with inklings of premonition. I used to shed tears behind her eyes almost every night. But with each passing day, she was turning into a zombie, gliding into a vegetable existence that could hardly be expected of a sprightly, lively woman like her!!She talked of the joys of life and nothing else. To her, sorrows were like froth on the rushing wave on a sea.
I kept looking at the sky with a heavy heart. All of a sudden, my eyes were drawn to a bird sitting on a twig of a tree at the corner of the road. It was preening its ruffled feathers and immediately began its journey upward. My imagination ran wild. The bird must have taken the
multi-shaped blobs of clouds as tempting mouth-watering slices of fruits! Otherwise, why will it try hard to nibble something from the surface of the sky with its long beak? I could see it clearly. It was driven by a frantic hope, no doubt. However inane that could be!
I cherished a hope in the heart of my hearts. My rigorous schedule of regular dialysis must keep her alive for five to six years in the least! But God willed otherwise. He threw down water on all my hopes! How could He be so cruel, so hard-hearted?!
After all, life has to be accepted as it is. It was rather impolite of me to expect beyond my allotted dues.
Next morning dawned with frequent phone-calls from my distant relatives, friends[very few I had though] and my brother who had gone home to bring money. I was facing the onslaught of the greatest misfortune of my life alone. Of course, Aruna Thatal, the PRO of this Hospital was trying to puff up my drooping spirits. To my utter surprise, I found my maternal uncle come all the way from a metropolis to stand beside me and my brother at the time of such bereavement. I was really overwhelmed and tears again welled up to my eyes.
After initial formalities, we started our journey with the corpse to our home, 250 kms off. I accompanied my lifeless mom in the ambulance and each jolt on the road triggered off a strange expectation that she might leap up to life, holding my hands into hers and assuring me of her never-failing presence. That however never happened.
A gloomy, chilly evening awaited us when we hurtled into our locality. A large throng stood in front of our residence. I cast a hapless, vacuous glance at them and a long wail stirred me again from within. It was our maid who stayed with us since the last two decades and shared our joys and sorrows. Her mother, a cancer-survivor too accompanied her. As all my limbs got numb after such a terrible shock, I stayed back in the carriage for sometime. It seemed as if the whole environ was awash with tears for the demise of a dear one who breathed till last night. Even a mother-cat and her kittens, who were fond of my mom who used to feed them regularly and fondle them taking the little ones as well as their mother on her lap, sent heart-rending wails as the hearse drew up into our locality. I sat speechless for sometime and then staggered out for the last obsequies.
“Is Mrs. Dutt at home?” a tall man peeped through the door holding it ajar, as I was preparing my lessons for the following day.
I knew the man, a renowned Police Officer of this hick town who was visiting us quite often these days.
In fact, he got to know my father the famous radiologist of the local Govt. Hospital lately. Hence, the familiarity and such frequent dropping by.
I was glued to the page I was reading. I looked up to answer, “Ah yes, Das Uncle, please come in. Let me see whether she is indoors. I am just back from the college.” I got up to ask him in.
The lanky man slouched a bit to get in and sit on the sofa.
I went into the corner-room and found mom get dolled up to go somewhere. These days she had been up to her eyes with rehearsals of her dance-troupe, she fashioned out of the local body of performers. As I told her about the arrival of Mr. Das [the Police Officer], her face
beamed in joy and she asked me to show him to the drawing room. I said, I did so already. She came up within a minute and their talk ran for an hour till my father’s return from the hospital. They sat with a pack of cards and asked me to join as they needed a fourth person to form a
group. Willy-nilly I did. And at each moment, I felt that they exchanged frequent glances, smirks, meaningful words and I could feel that Mr. Das had developed a special liking for my mom. My mom, too, reciprocated it, quite gracefully. And my father seemed to enjoy everything. He was a person with a sense of humour. But I could make out within a few days that they were good friends and hardly else!
Tapati . . . . The name had many implications! Not only to me, but to many a friend and kith and kin at once! Could Tapati ever forget that she had a voice that could take the world by storm? But could she die happy to see both her children unsettled, struggling to get a job, though carving a niche in the world of music herself? Hence she gave up the lucrative, alluring career in lieu of giving a new direction to my brother’s seemingly bleak future. It is because of her selfless sacrifice that Tubu has carved a worthy nook very lately in his teaching career.
A famous litterateur’s wife the other day kept mourning over the phone, “Your mom was a very good friend of mine at Gokhale Memorial College in the ’sixties. Drop in at my place and I would love to reminisce those golden days”. I knew her. I heard a lot about her and many other
friends of hers.
When I was staying in a hired apartment, just after her dialysis had started in Kolkata[no more our old Calcutta], she used to heave a sigh of despair and observe, “Shall I not overcome this ailment, Mithi?”
One word of encouragement seemed to breathe new life into her, I felt.
“Why have we put up here? Why not in the Lake Road residence of ours?”
“Your doctor says that you need to keep away pets like dogs, cats as of now. As there a retinue of pets reign, you are advised to stay here at least for a month. It is healthy for your CAPD[Continuous Ambulatory Peritoneal Dialysis] Catheter, the doctor says, not I.”
“But what about the expenses?”
“Do not worry. I’ve kept money aside for abrupt necessity.”
She smiled at me feebly. I pumped much life into her, recounting happy days of the past, our happy memories at Digha where in each Puja Vacation we used to pay a visit. But all the time, her eyes got glued to a particular window that remained widely flung open. With dewy eyes,
with shaky reminiscing voice she used to recollect, “In that room our music classes were held. Chhabidi loved to hear me singing. I would have loved to embrace that career, the career of my dreams . . . .” She mumbled on . . . . I threw the eyes beyond her shoulders to cast a glance
at the wall-clock. I’d go to fetch her lunch from Wockhardt, I’d have to drain the infused solution through her peritoneum at about 3 p.m. and . . . what next? I was chalking out the schedule at the back of my mind.
A crow on a hanging twig of a tree went cawing its heart out. I had to get up to dance to the tune of the clock above.