The door opened with a mild creaking – just like it used to – twenty autumns ago. Strangely, it still smelt of burning camphor and jasmine… I shuddered a bit – though I somehow wanted the fragrances to enwrap me all over again.
“ Mannu , where do I keep this campas ?”
I giggled like a child. “ Not Campas Shibu Kaka, it is called a Canvass”.
“ Arrey re re….look at me! Fool as always…Canvass!” Peals of laughter echoed through the room.
“ Keep it in any corner of the room Shibu Kaka. But no one should see it before Kukku didi and BabuI dada. I want them to see it first”.
“ How far do you think they are ?”
“ Uff Kaka, this is the fourteenth time you are asking this question! Another hour to go!”
Though within myself I knew that my gentle reprimand was actually more a rap to myself than for Shibu Kaka. One more hour and then our dream cocoon would be ready to unwrap into a colourful butterfly! Was there a twitch in my stomach ? Ah, ofcourse! And then there was the extra flutter about getting to meet Kukku didi and Babul dada after an year and half! Will they really like the arrangements ? I really, really hoped they would.
*** *** ***
I didn’t know from where or how I had picked up the name but from the time I had learnt to speak, she was my Pimmi. For the rest of the world she was Hem. Only a few of her close friends and relatives perhaps knew her full name – Hemlata. She was my aunt – my father’s only sister. If there is a standard description of feminity, she ensured that she defied each and every norm of it – she laughed uproariously, she spoke with a thunderous voice and burped in public – much to the embarassment of her family. And she dared to fall in love with an orphan young man and marry him as well. In those days it was unlikely that a young woman from a suburban Bengal village would dream of anything as a love marriage but she was, ofcourse, an exception. Her husband, my uncle, was a brilliant student but an extremely timid man. Being an orphan he had no other place to go, so, as soon as he had enough savings, my aunt compelled him to build a house adjacent to our ancestral home. I was ofcourse all of six months when all this happened.
*** **** ***
“ Mannu, Bannu, Pannu!”, she would scream her lungs out everyday while making her entry into our household. There would be a faint smell of Cantheridine hair oil in the vicinity and I would know in an instance that my aunt was somewhere nearby.
Grabbing me by my hair she would pinch my cheeks, kiss my lips, my nose, my ears and go on to bite my fingers with her lips.
“Kachum, kuchum, kuchum”, she would mumble all along.
That was the earliest memory of my Pimmi.
Everyday, at around noon time, she would ensure her presence in our house, lugging along a variety of expensive food items – huge chunks of Hilsa fish, sweets made of ghee, the best of mangoes in the town……
“Hem, it is the duty of the woman to keep the finances within the closet of her palm. Learn to save! It doesn’t take long for the wheels of fortune to turn the wrong way!”, my grandmother would reprimand her!
“Then I would do a push-push-push and bring the wheel back to position”, she would laugh out loud!
“ Mad girl….immature….childish”, my grandmother would grumble, knowing well that her mumblings would have no exact effect on her daughter!
And it didn’t! Infact, her childishness did not end with that. She would ensure that three of us – her own children and me would involve ourselves in the best of pranks, giving the maximum trouble to our neighbours.
In the wildest of rains she would pull me up in her lap and drag her children along and take us to the paddy field. “ Get wet silly people!”, she would scream – her voice surpassing the incessant platter of the rain-drops. All the while she would cuddle me in her lap asking me to keep my tongue out to ‘taste the raindrops’. The heady smell of the raw,rain-soaked paddy, the feel of the raindrops against the skin and the taste of the raindrops would be so surreal that it would instantly transport us to a different world!
“ Come rain, come out harsh
Come and dance with me!
The paddy fields wait for you.
Oh rain, can’t you see?”
Four of us would sing out loud, if ever the drench would turn mild!
My grandmother would scream, grandfather would rebuke and my mother would shut the door to her room loudly as a form of protest but there was no stopping in our ritual!
*** *** *** ***
Every girl dreams of a fairy-tale life and my life with Pimmi was no less than a fairytale. And fairytale didn’t mean a princess-like, prim and proper upbringing – it was more of a robust and nonsensical way to soak in every charm of life – unhindered. She would encourage things that no adult would…..licking the sal leaf plate after devouring a plateful of alu dum; letting our tongues swirl through the orange-smelling liquid that would slither down our palms while eating an ice-lolly; provoking Babul Dada, the oldest among us, to bring in hot and freshly made jaggery from the nearby jaggery unit…..
“ Taaaah……taatash – your tongue should make just this sound while licking tamarind”, she would seriously tutor us!
But the best thing about her were the story telling sessions. In the ghostly hours of the late evening, we would huddle around the kerosene lamp while Pimmi would unleash her imagination. It was not just story-telling – it was a window to a land of mystery. She would make the stories come alive by using her fingers as puppets – etching out one character after the other – modulating her voice alongside! Seconds, minutes and hours would lapse so fast that we wouldn’t know till she would abruptly announce, “ Three little mice inside three little tummies, says what ?”. This was a cue for us to answer back in unison : “ Fooood, fooood, foooood”.
*** **** *** ***
Grandma was perhaps right – it doesn’t take long for the wheel of fortune to turn! Or may be, not all Fairy Godmothers have a fairy-tale life for themselves. Whatever the truth may be, the fact was that that a freak road accident changed my Pimmi’s life forever.
When they brought the body of my uncle to our courtyard the entire village broke down into genuine sobs – he was a much loved man! Only my Pimmi never cried – she hugged me tight and sat in a corner, motionless -till the elders dragged her away for the rituals of widowhood. Contrary to what many feared, she neither protested nor did she turn hysteric! Only thing, she became different that day onwards.
I was too young back then to realise how our economic status holds a key to our well-being! But my Pimmi was perhaps not so knaive as to not realise that! The fact that she was now dependent on her father and brother hit her too soon! Strangely, my cousins too seemed to realize this all of a sudden! While my Pimmi spent endless hours in our family kitchen; my cousins made friendship with their books. She spent the spare moments in her home – offering flower and camphor to the deities.
With that , my fairytale too ended abruptly!
*** *** *** ***
So conscious was Pimmi about her changed status that she never revealed her discomfort or pain till she was in her final stages. Cancer had ravaged her entire body till then.
That night it was almost time – the only doctor of the suburban village had already pronounced the death knell . “Anytime now…..”, he had told us grimly.
I was angry with Pimmi. I hated her. Why, why, why did she not remain the way she was? Why was she going away ? I groaned in an unpronounced pain. Just then my mother came to me. “ Pimmi wants to speak to you”, she whispered. Then she led me to the room where my Pimmi was counting her last hours. With shaky, ice-cold fingers she pulled my face near hers. “ Mannu, Bannu, Pannu”, she spoke in her barely audible voice. I tried to suppress my tears. She paused, as if to gather her final bit of energy.
“ You look like me Mannu – just like me. But we will not share the same fate……”, she whispered amidst heavy bouts of spasm. And then, suddenly, everything was silent. There was silence and the smell of flower and camphor.
*** **** *** ***
“ Mannu, my love, what have you done! I can’t even believe my eyes!”. The voice startled me!
“ Kukkuuuuuu diiiiii”, I shrieked in delight as she snuggled me in her embrace.
“ My gosh! What a huge hoarding you have made them put up- right at the entrance of our village! I made the driver stop and clicked at least a dozen snaps.”. Her excitement wouldn’t ebb away.
“ Did they do the wording correctly ?”. I was anxious.
“ Yes Ma’am it was perfect – Hemlata Memorial Health Care Home…..just the way Ma would have loved. It was clever to replace the word Nursing Home or Hospital or blah….The word Health Care Home sounds just apt!”.
“Did they mention the time of inauguration?”
“Yes baba, they did. 5 pm sharp…..”
“ And how can we thank you enough for spending days, months and years to build this health care facility in our ancestral home ?”. A voice boomed from behind.
“ By taking some time off your busy schedule and making a visit to this centre at least twice a month Dr. Babul Bose!”, I answered in a mock serious tone.
“ Jo hukum mere aka!”, Babul dada teased me in return. Our age and social status hadn’t entirely robbed the child in us.
“ No, but seriously…..I have done my bit…now you both should also take turns to ensure that the health facilities reach to the right people. “
“ We will…..but I am sure we will not be able to match the same enthusiasm and zeal as you! We all had this plan but we all got busy with our lives – Dada became busy, I got engrossed with my research…..”
“You mean to say I am the only workless, worthless one of the lot?”, I teased.
“ Shut up! Infact amongst the three of us you should be the busiest…..Allahabad today, Bangalore tomorrow, Kolkata the next day……your diary is choc-a-bloc with exhibitions I guess”. My big brother woudn’t give up.
“Ah, this reminds me”. I turned and called out for Shibu Kaka.
“ Shibu Kaka! The Canvass!”
“ Here it is Mannu didi. Should I open the cover now?”
“ Yes, yes….it is for Babul Dada and Kukku Didi…..I am thinking of putting this up at the entrance to the health centre. What do you say Dada?”
A long silence followed the unwrapping….
“ Dada? Di ?”, I coaxed again.
” How do you do this Mannu ? The critics have named you rightly – the miracle artist”. Kukku didi’s voice choked as she spoke.
“ There is no doubt about it Mannu – you are the best charcoal artist of our times”. Babul dada seconded her.
I felt happy. A wave of contentment swam through my body – stopping right near the iris that barely lets any light enter through them.
I really could not explain and I perhaps can never explain how my Pimmi gave vision to her almost blind niece. “ Near-blind”, the doctors had declared after a battery of tests as I was growing up. While the others had spent their days crying over my fate, my Pimmi didn’t want to give up. I now realize, that through her numerous pranks she had actually tried to build a vision of the unseen – through sound, smell, taste she built a perfect picture of the world which only appeared as a dull blob of colours to me. The taste of the rain droplets, the smell of raw mangoes, the feel of night-breeze laden with the fragrance of night-queen flowers opened the doors to the world that was so unknown to me otherwise.
As Pimmi wove story after story with her finger puppets every evening, she let my fingers travel through hers – letting me chalk out my vision in my imaginary canvass!
“Is there a title to it?”, my sister asked.
“Have you thought of a title to the picture?”, my sister repeated her query.
I brought the canvass very close to my eyes……it was a perfect picture of a pair of hands creating a figure of a prince on a horse-back!
“The finger puppets”, I whispered.