Monday, 21 July 2014

Obituary: My Grand Mother (1922-2014)

Gauri Bhattacharjee, my grand mother was my hero.  She was healthy, still going about doing her daily chores when I saw her two months back.  At the age of 92, her self-discipline was uncompromising and very inspiring.

She was a strict vegetarian, cooked her own meals and spent the afternoon reading newspapers, books and magazines.  Her life was governed by a strong sense of moral values, but she embraced modernity with joy and respect.

She once told me, “If you don’t learn to live with time, you suffer the most”.  She appreciated technology: she was fascinated to see my Kindle e-book reader and called it a great device and was also curious to know from my aunt what Facebook is all about.   

For me, she was a testimony of history.  As a child and teenager, I used to spend a lot of time with her whenever I got back home for vacations from my boarding school. I literally grew up listening to a lot of stories from her childhood, notable accounts of India’s great freedom struggle, and the looming horrors of the Second World War over Calcutta.

From her I learnt about the tales of Indian mythologies of Ramayana and Mahabharata, and also about the great scholarly saints and reformers of India like Mahatma Gandhi, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda and Raja Ram Mohan Roy.  The oral lessons she provided made me take strong interest in history and world affairs later in life.

 She was born in an educated family in 1922. Her father was a headmaster and the director of education in erstwhile princely state of Rewa  (now in Madhya Pradesh in Central India).  She had a comfortable upbringing.  In those days women didn’t go to school, my great grand father educated her at home in Bengali.

Her marital life wasn’t full of bliss. She lost her two sons during their youth and her husband died battling cancer.  She, however, didn’t allow her grief to weaken her but rather took charge of her affairs more resolutely. She once told me, “my father always taught me to pray to God to give enough strength to cope with any challenge that life might throw at you.”

As per Hinduism’s rigid caste system, she was a Brahmin: a class of people considered learned, priest worthy and even superior.  As per her religious beliefs she renounced colourful attire and chose to clad herself in white saree after her husband’s death in 1981.

Despite her education she wasn’t an absolute non – believer in the caste system. She vehemently opposed when my mother decided to marry my father- it was a mixed marriage in every sense, something not very common in the society she was accustomed to, but later, she not only accepted their marriage but also lived with my parents for the rest of her life.

With time she refuted everything that was not reasonable about religion or society in general, and became extremely liberal and secular in her outlook. My non- religious attitude didn’t bother her; when I decided to practice Nichiren’s Buddhism, she strongly encouraged me and advised me stick to it. “Have faith in something”, she advised me.

Once, jokingly when I asked her if it was a problem if I fell in love with a girl from some other religion, she remarked,  “is religion written on the skin of a person?”

She was non- political and was angry at the state of affairs in India.  She mourned that the dream of India as envisaged by the freedom fighters have been squashed by people’s greed.

The concept of  “motherland” was supreme to her.  She was very patriotic but equally well read about the cultures of other countries. Despite our family’s strong connection with Britain, she never wanted to visit the country, but cherished my academic achievements in that country.

She didn’t want to die ailing. She didn’t want others to suffer – that was her biggest concern.  Even during her last days she despised my aunt for crying.  She said  it was time to let her go.

She died hours after I took the flight to Delhi from Assam after seeing her for the last time. She was in pain the previous night and it felt as if she waiting to see me.

Personally for me, it’s an end of an era. It’s also time to look forward and take charge of our own lives and world in the very spirit she lived her life.

She taught us to remain determined , never to be defeated in the face of challenges, to respect others, to be always honest and very tolerant – universal values that we  need to make the world a happier and better place.

May her soul rest in peace.