At least once in your lifetime, on a lazy and listless afternoon, you are certain to come across the resigned form of a Bengali gentleman, weeping inconsolably whilst tightly clutching his paashbalish – as he copes with the rejection of yet another strong willed woman who has had enough of his neediness. Before we proceed, you must fully understand and recognise the importance of a paashbalish – a cylindrical pillow that, over time, plays the role of confidante, best friend and a shoulder to weep on, never judging him once for his many flaws. [There’s no raucous laughter ringing in his ears after another failed job interview – no judgement as he silently picks at his food after yet another disastrous year at college and certainly no condescending remarks as he struggles to tuck in his generously growing middle.]
As such, Bengalis are invariably sentimental. Every artistic aberration passed off as a Picasso masterpiece of the childhood, annual report card, textbook and note exchanged under the prying eyes of the teacher is stowed away into tiny wooden boxes, with dreamy eyes. Decades later, one wintry afternoon, when the balmy sunlight streams into the room through the rusted windows – the wizened Bengali mother, engrossed in her cleaning spree, chances upon this relic stashed away in the corner of the attic; buried in the wreckage of the present, away from the simplicity of the past. Hours of nostalgia, reminiscence and emotional phone calls follow – and the wonderful little family is united in a deluge of the remarkable memories of childhood.
In my case, this entire exercise proves to be a little difficult to emulate – considering my mother’s pressing desire to throw away anything that is even remotely irrelevant to the present. Although her questionable practice means that she never runs out of storage space, I occasionally have to remind her that our house is not exactly a low tech android device in need of cleaning at regular intervals. As such, I often come home to rabid, screaming children in my tee shirts, hurling sticks at our mango-laden trees in summer or sneaking into our garden to raid the guava and pomegranate trees. This ungodly habit of hers has often led to complications – say for instance, the time when she discovered my roommate’s heartfelt letter during our final year of college, and demanded to know why I was cheating on my beautiful girlfriend with a guy.
Her penchant for adopting the comfortable and convenient at the cost of pure Bengali sentiment is particularly notorious. At a time when the world was coming to terms with women who had dared to leave their homes to pursue their careers – she had left the pack far behind, taking courses in programming and teaching underprivileged children in town all by herself. She’s as blind as a field mouse when it comes to handling her android phone, though. Around the late 1990s, when it was almost impossible to imagine a typical middle class Hindu woman in anything but a saree, our quaint little town had to come to grips with the sight of a woman in track pants and my abandoned tee-shirts, strutting around in her Reebok sports shoes. Although she is generally reluctant when it comes to donning a saree, I like to think, they are among the few things in life that she attaches great sentimental value to. For most part of the year, they are ignominiously stashed away in a cabinet, out of our sight and consciousness.
Except during autumn, when the relentless downpour and the dark, sullen clouds of monsoon would give way to intermittent spells of soft sunshine and light rain. The fresh green of the trees would glisten in the afternoon sun, while the immaculate white clouds floated around like tufts of cotton, in a sky of brilliant blue. Around this time, the sarees would finally make their much anticipated appearance out in the open – hung out in the sun to dry, before winter set in. Every year for a couple of days in autumn – our yellow veranda would be embellished in the liveliest of colours, as the sunlight would pass through the lacework in the sarees and throw magnificent patterns on the wall. In the corner, my sister would be seated like in her tiny chair like an adorable little pup, training her watchful eyes on the dazzling display and every suspicious passer-by. One time, when she was particularly young and had only just assumed this position of great responsibility, she had come running to us and complained about a couple of tiny birds perched on the steps. Clearly, she was serious about her first job.
This seemingly pointless exercise did not hold any particular significance for me – however, it would almost invariably mark the end of our half yearly examinations and the beginning of the greatest festival in the life of a Bengali – the Durga Pujo. It was evocative of the unbridled exhilaration coursing through our veins, as we’d hop onto the early morning express to Calcutta – of the waterlogged fields and the glistening rail tracks that would whistle under our noses as we’d watch dreamy eyed into the horizon. It would mark the beginning of the simpler times in life, when smoky evenings and glittering lights, blaring loudspeakers and noisy family dinners were the highlights of our nights.
This practice gradually diminished in importance by the time we moved out into the bungalow with the smaller veranda. It disappeared altogether when I left for post-graduation and my sister approached the end of her senior school. Now that I look back at it, she would probably hang them out to dry just for us – she had learnt the trick to associative memories years before I sat in my first Consumer Behaviour class. In fact, I had forgotten all about it, until she called me up last night in the middle of my writer’s block (I tend to sulk and grow curiously uncommunicative during these spells) and quipped, “Why don’t you write about it?”