The memories of Dadu can be imagined as a series of patched up stray clothes sewn together by sticky neurons. When small, we were terrified of the man with this unreliable temper and the brackish vocabulary that was unleashed from him when tempted. It was always in our best interest to avoid the side of the courtyard where he would be sitting and cleaning his gleaming aluminium bucket. Needless to say, we always preferred Momma, with her trailing silver hair and knack for cooking delicious food faster than instant noodles. My craft of making perfect tea has been inherited by simply watching her glowing face peer over the rusty furnace, while Dadu sat glumly on the steps grunting answers or just talking to himself- scrutinizing the Statesman of the day.
While passing him, he would call to one of us. The unlucky one in the group will be rooted to the spot, as the others run, leaving the fallen soldier behind. Despite my eye sight being 20/20 (then), he would call me “Spectacles”; almost like a foretelling. I was the only one able to read the articles aloud, while my cousins would just bawl and faint under his watchful gaze. The smell of the smoked bidi still lingering on his breath when he would lean in and gaze intently at me through his cloudy eyes.
According to him, the family’s insistence on him wearing a dhoti while going out of the house was quite an intrusion. On one such occasion, I came back to find splotches of brown on the white wall descending from his room’s window. The rumour was spread that they were excreta splotches that was thrown down the window as a sign of protest.
We couldn’t fathom the exact reason behind all his eccentricities. His room was well ventilated and consisted of minimal furnishings -one bed, one desk and one chair. Despite our many misgivings, we would peep into his room frequently to ascertain his presence. What attracted us were the two bell jars carefully placed next to the window. One of them contained, translucent sugar crystals or michdi, with a perpetual halo around it when the sun refracted through the glass and then the multiple crystals, forming rainbow coloured reflections on the window sill. The other one was crimson in colour. They contained fake cherries that looked like hundreds of open mouth catfish attempting to clean the slimy insides of a glass jar and flashing their scarlet innards in the process. Since we were quite hesitant to enter the room during his absence, we were terrified when called to be rewarded either of the savouries.
As we grew older, we noticed more and more irregularities in his nature. He was diagnosed with a serious illness related to his urinary tract, which required him to wear a catheter throughout the day. We were told to warn the adults of the house if we saw a trail of blood, as Dadu would pluck it out whenever it tickled his fancy. What they should have warned us about was his untreated schizophrenia.
We were teenagers and my grandfather was already stardust by the time we found out this hushed up truth about him. After his death, everyone remembered him as the man he used to be; except Momma. It was from her that we heard the various anecdotes that helped us recognize him as our grandfather.
His name was Guru Pada, which could be translated as “servant of the guru”. Eldest son of the family, he was the one to build the ancestral home we are so proud of. He was a contractor in his younger days and a voracious reader. I found this out when I shifted into his room and hijacked his collection of books. Since the room was adjoined to Momma, we played quite a successful prank that had detrimental consequences. Visiting Momma through the common door, we moaned, “Bulu, Bulu, amarshathejabe?” (Bulu, Bulu, will you come with me?) To which Momma shrieked and started screaming hysterically, “Na! Na! Na!” (No, no).She adhered to that state even after we switched on the lights, and revealed our identities.
Along with his single bed, desk, and chair, I also found a small diary filled with neatly written accounts. Written in fountain pen was the handwriting of a right handed man, the alphabets almost overlapping each other to fit into the small pages of the pocket book. Yet, it is distinct, and legible. Notes were carefully jotted down to account for every single rupee in Bengali script. Some were written down as reminders for meetings that were supposed to happen 40-50 years ago. I would read through them and imagine the cracked roads that would have been shiny and pitch black when newly inaugurated, or the dilapidated greenish buildings that would be glimmering in the 60’s sun.
When I inquired about his illness, the know-it-all adults would give vague and abstract answers. As a father of four sons, and one daughter, he loved his eldest son the most, who, later in life also developed schizophrenia, and died of stroke at the age of 50. The suspicion remains that the disease is hereditary.
I would like to relate some of these anecdotes, except my memory fails me when it comes to the details. Yes, I am guilty of not knowing or caring to know about that person in the black and white picture. I remember how tedious it was for my family to mourn and look for a decent picture of his simultaneously. That black and white picture is how I envision him. Among hundreds of people sitting next to him at a wedding feast, you spot the solitary figure of him in the crowd. Facing the camera, his legs outwards, with his back to the food, he’s staring at an empty space while clutching onto the brown, wooden, hook-shaped handle of his favourite black umbrella that’s resting between his dhoti clad knees.