A SON’S JOURNEY
Utpal Ranjan Chakraborty
FRIDAY AT LUNCHTIME. The message on my voicemail was from my nephew in India, hesitant, uncertain, helpless: "What do I say?…Please call…" I could hear other people in the background, rather unusual after 10-30 PM at my parents’ home on Friday, February 23, 2001. Immediately I knew it was not good news. I started dialing Calcutta. At 10-20, Dad had breathed his last. Mom was sloftly asking, "Can.. you.. come? We will wait.. if you can."
It meant I would have to be there for the cremation. Suddenly, the sky had fallen and no time think. I had to act quickly. I said, "Yes, I can be home on Monday but if I cannot, please don’t keep Dad waiting for me."
After that, I had to make more calls. Because of the devastating earthquake in India on January 26, the flights were full. British Airways had one seat left on Saturday flight from Philadelphia but I could not return before March 15. At work where sometimes even one-day leave was impossible, I would have to be away for three weeks. But my boss was rather sympathetic and understanding. As I left immediately after that, I felt that miracles were happening—besides getting a ticket and three-week leave, I even had the visa! I had just received a 10-year, multiple-entry visa to India. Without that, who knows when I could have gone home, let alone be there for Dad’s cremation? My last trip to Calcutta in August for a nephew’s wedding was well-planned. But it turned out to be a disaster right from the beginning.
On the plane, for the first time, I realized what an extraordinary man of talents my beloved Dad was. Here we were, pulling, what we thought, an insane work schedule, and having no time for anything else. And there was Dad whose work load as a magistrate was so heavy that bringing work home was routine and he had to write so many judgments that he had chronic muscle pain on his right arm. Still he had not only engaged in a number of indoor and outdoor games but won officers’ sports competition routinely. He read and wrote extensively, trekked in the Himalayas to meet the dying nation of Lepchas, learned their language—he was the first one ever to communicate with them directly—did research to write the pioneering work, Kanchenjughar Chhelemeye (The Children of Kanchenjunghar), the first complete record of their civilization. An accomplished writer and poet since childhood, Dad wrote a book for children, Lepcha Upakatha (Lepcha Mythology)—a collection of mythological stories that read like fairy tales.
A perfectionist, Dad even offered to buy his clerk tea everytime he had found a mistake in Dad’s verdict—copies of which, by popular demand, were sold by the government. How did he have time to tutor us at home, do the pujas and write extensively and be so active in the community? The more I thought of his accomplishments, the less significant my kind of life—extolled universally—appeared. Silently, I said, "Dad, I will do whatever is necessary. Just don’t make it painful."
The plane trip was smooth, it was as if someone was looking after me. From London, the plane even left a bit early and landed in Calcutta fifteen minutes ahead of schedule at 1-15 AM. Dad was in Peace Heaven in the same room where Mother Teresa had been in 1997. When I touched his feet, a soft breeze suddenly caressed my hair as if he was blessing me. His carriage, almost new, a glass-covered van, was marked, "Park Circus Sarbojonin Durgotsab Committee."1 Dad was the second one to ride in it. Youth from our community sent two largest bouquets ever for the president of their Durga Puja Committee of many years. The flowers he received from people filled the van. It even surprised the people at the crematorium—Keoratola Burning Ghat about ten minutes from home.
Monday, 26 February after 10 AM. We did not arrive early enough to avoid possible painful delay which had made one of our relatives’ family go far away to another crematorium . Miracle again! Dad was the first one to go in at 10-17. In fresh, clean oven, purifying and holy fire was waiting to receive his last remains. By 11-03. it was over.
There were other miracles too. When I went to the nearby Ganga (Ganges) to fetch holy water for Dad around 10, the water had receded far. Suddenly, even before I started, two waves lapped near my feet. Mother Ganga was eager to oblige! After cremation, as I was performing some rituals by her side, gentle breeze sprinkled water over my head from time to time as if to heal and bless.
Being the youngest child, I had been sheltered from such experiences all my life. Besides, it is the oldest son’s duty to perform these rites. But he being away, here I was—all of a sudden, the head of the family. Throughout this ordeal, I found strength in the thought: "Dad would have done anything for us. Therefore, I must do whatever needs to be done."
In our childhood, Mom often told us a story—always in Dad’s absence. But dad never said a word about it. It was the story of the most frightening boat ride in Mom’s life on the big and Mighty river, Arhial Khan, now in Bangladesh. Dad had taken Mom and my six-month-old elder brother, to a village by boat during the day. On their return trip, ominous clouds appeared and the sky grew very dark. Soon giant waves were lashing at the boat. Like a paper boat, it tossed over the waves, about to capsize any minute. Reaching the river bank seemed impossible. Mom did not know how to swim. Strong, powerful and athletic, Dad alone could survive. But he did not want to. Without a word,
Dad locked all the windows and the door and sat down grimly to face death together with his family. Fortunately, the storm passed quickly.
Small wonder Mother Ganga came up to offer water for his last rites.
As I was leaving, suddenly I saw the image of Lord Shiva—God of destruction in Hindu Trinity. Another miracle! He was worshipped on February 21and all his images should have been immersed on the 22nd. But there he was with his consort, Parvati2…
Shiva is also the ultimate healer.
1 The Hindus begin the journey in the name of Goddess Durga. It was rather unusual that the vehicle bore the name of Her Puja Committee in Park Circus, Calcutta, a seasonal, local organization without any permanent assets, let alone a car. Besides, Goddess Durga is worshipped in September or October.
2 An incarnation of Goddess Durga.