My 15th year was also the year of my first love, the kind of puppy love that blinds one to everything, even a monster called cancer, slowly devouring ones father becomes secondary.
But no love, no infatuation, could prepare me for the silence. To prevent the cancer from spreading, the doctors removed Bapi’s voice box. That booming voice, that melodious voice that sung us our favourite lullabies, was silenced forever. That was the beginning of the end. We were trying, fighting, to keep him alive. But Bapi just gave up and slowly slipped. He was soon bedridden, and could not eat. His food was made into a paste and fed through a pipe that was directly attached to his stomach.
The man who loved talking, singing, even doing that silly ‘duck’ dance, the man, whose love for food was legendary, had been robbed of the very things that made him happy. Even today, when I eat some special Bengali sweet, I remember Bapi’s expression of delight, after having eaten his favourite sweet. I still feel pangs of guilt, when I eat something really delicious, and wish I could go back in time and share this with him.
We knew that it was a losing battle, yet, my sisters, my 11 year old brother and I went to sleep each night, praying for just another day with the man who had struggled all his life, who had lost his father at 1 and started working at 14 to support his widowed mother. Bapi led a life of unfulfilled dreams, yet his love for life was infectious, till cancer came knocking. He would sit with the ‘kabadiwala’ and share a cup of tea; he would pick up stray puppies and buy feeding bottles for them, although his income was too little to even support his large family of 5 children. His pride, his garden, was full of bloom, and it seemed at times that he was trying to fill the garden with colours he longed for in his own life. He could not finish his graduation, but he had knowledge that would have put any graduate today to shame. His newspaper was his window to the world, and an unforgettable image of Bapi sitting in his garden, spectacles perked on his proud long nose, eyes glued to the newspaper…….
Cancer had robbed Bapi of his spirit, yet we wanted him to hang on. It was too soon. He was just 53! But a part of us, the unselfish part of us, prayed for his freedom, freedom from that wrecked his body and soul.
That’s how I felt one day, when I sat beside his skeletal body, filled with bed sores. I was reading my first poem to him. Suddenly I wanted to shout and ask him to listen, to understand, that his daughter, the daughter of a lower middle class man, who hardly had any knowledge of English, had written a poem in that language. I wanted him to feel proud. I needed him to be around, so I could make his life a little better…..
My 3 elder sisters were married, but they, along with my brothers in law, were our pillars of strength. I remember once when all the family was gathered together, Bapi looked at my eldest brother in law and then looked at my younger brother and me. It was his silent request, and it was understood. My Jijju took Bapi’s hand and said “Chaitali and Joy will make it”……
On 27th July 1995, around 9 at night, my mom said that the time had come. My sisters were called, asked to hurry and see their father one last time. One neighbour aunty gave me a copy of the “Gita” and asked me to read it to him. Bapi was sleeping peacefully. Ma gave my brother a sleeping draught, to spare him the pain of seeing Bapi go. All, but my eldest sister, were there when it happened. The tears broke out. I could not understand anything. I put my hand on Bapi’s chest but could not hear anything. Everybody was crying now. I was numb, I couldn’t feel anything. My friend rushed to hug me, yet I didn’t cry. It was just a bad dream…My eldest sister arrived 15 minutes late. She sat beside Bapi and sobbed, whispering, “why couldn’t you wait for 15 minutes”.
The rest of the night passed in a whirl. Morning came, and my brother was gently woken up and fed. They were unable to break it to the 11 year child, how does one tell a 11 year old that his father was no more? I, still in my denial mode, dragged him to where Bapi lay, draped in white. My brother shrieked and ran to a corner; he sat there sobbing….all for 5 minutes, then he grew up, never to shed a tear again. He then sat stone faced besides his father’s body, fanning, to keep the flies away. At that moment I realized what had happened. The flood finally broke. I cried as they carried “Bapi” away. The word “Bapi” had become part of memories now. The emptiness, the knowledge that a person who meant the world to you, the person who brought you your first bicycle, as all your rich friends had one, that person would no longer be there. That special smell, that special touch, it was all gone forever.
Bapi left us with bitter memories of that one year, but he also left a family who have stuck together through the worst storms, He left behind the thirst to make it big. We had to do it; for him. We, his children, his treasure, had made his existence make sense. We had to learn to value life. And we did. We made it, Bapi. I know you must be doing you “duck” dance now…..