Friday, 1 December 2017



No one was surprised when Pishi died the same day as Suma.

It was a rainy July afternoon when Suma breathed her last in her big wooden four poster bed, surrounded by her  twenty odd pillows.  She had been brought back from the hospital one day back. The doctors wanted to put her on ventilator, but Kaku was adamant to bring her back home. When Dadai, Suma’s husband had died, he was kept in the ventilator for 4 days.

“Look at his eyes Babu ! He wants to go home !”   Suma had wept and pleaded. But the doctors did not budge.  During the Shraddha ceremony of Dadai, Suma wore a milky white sari with a thin green border.  As usual, I sat beside her holding her hands and Buro sat on the other side.  I was all of 11 years old then. But still I could sense the calm determination in her voice when she told her son, Kaku - she clled him Babu,  about her last wish.

“Babu, promise me that come what may, you will bring me home before I breathe my last. I want to die on my own bed”.  Pishi, sitting on a low stool beside Suma , nodded and wiped her eyes.  She stroked Suma’s feet to console her.

Suma, Kaku, Kakima  were more than mere neighbours.Till quite some time , I knew  Suma to be Buro’s as well as my grandmother .  Ma, Baba and I were closer to them than our relatives. For me, it was like my second home.  I had open access to the house, on Suma’s bed,  Kaku and Kakima’s things and of course everything that belonged to Buro.  When in class 6th , I almost failed in mathametics, I went and hid myself in Suma’s bed, between her pillows. Suma was very possessive about her pillows. Everyday she and Pishi fluffed and dusted the pillows and kept them on top of the wooden trunk kept near Suma’s bed. When any guests came to their house, Suma would pick and choose a pillow and offer it to them and again when they were gone, the pillow would be kept in place.  

Suma did not let anyone touch her pillows. Not even Buro. I was the only exception.  “You are my Laxmi ! “  Suma would look at me adoringly before plucking my plump cheeks.

Everybody called her Pishi.  

In Bangla Pishi means your father’s sister.  Only Suma called her by her name – Bani.  Suma was married to Dadai when she was 15 years old.  Pishi, the daughter of the gardener in Suma’s maternal home, was of the same age as Suma. Two months before Suma got married,  Pishi was married to a farmer in the neighboring village.  One idle summer afternoon, when Suma was dozing and I had sauntered into Pishi’s room to ask about Buro’s whereabouts, she was busy rummaging her rusted tin suitcase where she kept her possessions.

“Tumpi, come , come … see this “ she was giggling like a schoolgirl.

“Tell me … who is this ? “ She held a yellowing black and white photograph in her hands. I tried to snatch it from her which she deftly avoided and pulled me close to her and both of us peered into the photograph. There was a bride and beside her there were three girls in sari and one man with a hat on his head.  Pishi pointed her finger on the girl standing beside the man and asked me again “Tumpi … can you recognize her ? “ .  When I nodded my head side by side , she then pointed at the bride . “Ok . This one you will be able to tell …” and she looked at me expectantly. 

“Pishi, I don’t know  !” I was impatient.  I had to find that brat Buro.  He had hidden my favourite guti – the black flat stone – my lucky charm for ekhat dukkhat (hopscotch).

“This is your Suma … and … this is me .. and this … “ she giggled .. “is my khasham … my husband”…

“You have a husband ? “ I stared at her in awe. Somehow I could never imagine Pishi having a husband !

“Baniiiii …!” Suma called.  Pishi hurriedly put the photograph inside the trunk and said  “Ashi….” and hastened out to check on Suma.  

When I was old enough to understand, I learnt that within a year of her marriage, Pishi was thrown out of her in-law’s place with the accusation that she was a baanjh and would not be able to bear children. She had come back to her father’s place and after six months she was sent to Calcutta to look after Suma , who was expecting her first child.  And she has been with her ever since.

It was Kaku who had first called her Pishi and then she became Pishi for everybody.  And it was Buro who named Suma.   Like Kaku, he started calling his grandmother  as  ” Ma “, when   he was corrected by Kakima.

“Buro, I am your Ma and this is your beautiful Ma… Sundor Ma “.  “Sundor Ma was a bit too complicated for Buro and he called her Suma .   And I too called her Suma.   Just like Buro.

Buro’s place and my house is separated by a boundary wall.  There is a window in my parent’s bedroom which is right opposite to the window of Suma’s room.  Since childhood, Buro and I would stand on the respective window sills , holding the vertical iron rods of the window and  spend hours talking to each other.   Sometimes I  would stand on the sill and call  “Buro … Buro … “ ! He would come running and take his position and on other occasions he would call “Tumpi … Tumpi … “  and I would leave whatever I was doing and run towards the window sill.

“Ahh Tumpi … go to his place and talk or call him here ! What is this ? Standing like this and talking!”  Ma would scold.  But who cared !  It was only when we outgrew the size of the window that we stopped standing on the window sill.  Later I found it embarrassing when Ma asked me why I did not talk to Buro through the window.  By that time, both of us preferred to chat either on the terrace or in his small study room.

Suma could not do without Pishi. 

Theirs was a strange love hate relationship.  Suma was fair, plump  and soft, with long strands of grey hair.  Her face was round and she her wide  toothless smile lit up her deep intelligent eyes.  She wore gold rimmed glasses  and though wrinkled, her smooth skin was an envy for Kakima and Ma.  During summer, she just wrapped her sari around herself and did not wear a blouse.   I would cosy up to her and touch her soft ,  sagging breasts and tickle her.   She looked at me lovingly and smiled .   “Dushtu meye !” (naughty girl !). 

Pishi was dark and thin. She was about 2 inches shorter than Suma.  She walked with an awkward gait with a frown on her longish face.  Her hands were rough and uneven. All her frontal teeth were gone and she just had one or two molars left in her mouth.  When she talked, a peculiar breezy sound emanated from the space in her mouth.  She had thin strands of grey hair. Every evening at 3.30 pm, after finishing the kitchen chores and giving crushed Paan (betel leaves) to Suma, she would  go to the terrace, spread out her legs infront of her and comb her hair.  She would close her eyes and mutter to herself and go on combing her hair.  Then she would tie a small knot and look at herself in the small hand mirror.  During the winter  holidays ,  when Buro and I played badminton on the terrace ,  we would quietly go behind Pishi and quickly untie the knot and run away.  Pishi  shrieked and come running after us and Buro and I  hid ourselves.  Several times she complained to Suma .

“They are kids Bani !! Let it be … !”

I don’t know the reason but Suma had a strange fetish.  She would never let Pishi be at the same level as hers.  If Suma sat on a chair, Pishi sat on the floor near her.  When Suma sat on her bed, Pishi sat on a small stool , a little lower than the bed.  After Dadai’s death,  Suma asked Pishi to shift in her room.  Pishis’s bed was moved into Suma’s room .  When Suma saw that the bed was of the same height as her  four poster bed, she asked Kaku to call Hari, the carpenter.  Hari was instructed to cut the legs of Pishi’s bed so that it was lower than Suma’s bed.  During occasions like Durga Puja or visits to relatives places, Suma would call for a rickshaw. She sat on the seat and Pishi invariably sat near her feet, holding the seat of the rickshaw puller tightly.  Kaku did not like it. 

“Ma ! There is enough space beside you and Pishi can sit there !”

“Babu, we are comfortable this way .  Do not worry !  Richsha walla … chalo !” and Suma would ride away with a queer smile on her face.

Sometime it really went to the extreme.  

It was showing Ramayana in the nearby movie hall and Suma wanted to watch the movie. Kaku got the tickets. Ma and I were also invited for the show. There were 10 of us, including Pishi. There were eight tickets in row M and two tickets in row N – the row in front of M.  Buro, I and ran and took the two seats in N. But when Suma saw that Pishi was also sitting in the same row as hers, she created a scene.

“Bani will sit behind me.”

Kaku tried to make her understand that the seat on M was better but Suma would not listen to him. Finally, Suma and I sat together and watched the movie.  Buro sat next to Pishi behind us.  Buro was so furious that he bit Pishi during the interval and got a good thrashing from Kakima.

After the show, Buro was still livid. 

“Ma… Pishi did not let the see the movie in peace. When Ram and Ravana were fighting each other, she kept on asking me  Buro , Buro, who will win ? Will Ravana defeat Ram ? Tell me Buro ! She knows the Ramayana by heart but still she asks me this !!!  I am telling you , I will never ever go to a movie with Pishi ! “

For Pishi, Suma was the role model.  

She tried to talk like Suma, imitating her expressions, pronunciations and gestures.  She wore her sari just like Suma , with all her hand-me-downs.  After Dadai died, Suma started wearing white sarees and gave up eating fish , meat and eggs,  Pishi too did the same. As the years passed, Suma and Pishi looked like sisters – one beautiful and the other one ugly.  They were always seen together.  They chatted .  They quarreled. They listened to the same radio programmes.  They ate the same food.  They sat together. They slept in the same room.  Suma could not do without Pishi and was very fond of her but Suma saw to it that Pishi was always a “level” lower than her !

And Pishi,  always looked for opportunities to be at the same level as Suma !  One day, when Suma had gone for her bath , Buro and I crawled below Suma’s bed where jars of mango and lime pickle were kept.  It was one of our favourite haunts where we sat there and ate pickles from the jars.  Pishi came , looked here and there and sat on Suma’s chair. She closed her eyes and put on Suma’s specs and smiled to herself.    Buro and I came out and suddenly stood before Pishi and shouted “Pishi !!”

She was startled and the glasses fell on the floor and broke.  Her face was pale. She got up from the chair swiftly and  started stammering .. “I … I …”.  Buro pranced around her singing “I will tell Suma.. I will tell her that you were sitting on the chair and wearing her glasses …will tell her … tell her …”.  I will never be able to forget the petrified look on Pishi’s face. 

As Buro and I  came into our teens ,  our pranks became less and conversations became more.  We would talk about our friends in high school , how one boy proposed to me and Buro would laugh and  give me an odd glance as if he did not care  which somehow infuriated me.  When Buro described about one of his class mate who  was very beautiful and how she always wanted to sit beside Buro and be with him, I would make a face and say “Ok ! Then you go and talk to her, I am leaving … !” Buro would laugh and obstruct my path and make faces at me and then say “Tumpi !!! I was just teasing you … let me hold your hand … !”  and extend his palm towards me.  We started liking each others’ touch .  We would now make excuses to go to the terrace where we could sit closer and hold hands and occasionally kiss each other.

One  sultry afternoon, when both of us sneaked on the terrace and were sitting closely on the other side of the water tank, where no one could see us, we saw Pishi. She had come up to collect Suma’s zari sari which she had put there for sun drying.  She then looked around her and  tied the sari. She loosened her hair knot and fluffed her hair on both sides of the middle parting, just like Suma.  And then she started walking around the terrace, imitating Suma’s gait.   We sat rock still, holding our breath, so that Pishi does not see us together at this odd hour.   But we all know Murphy’s law . Anything that can go wrong , will go wrong , Pishi meandered in front of us and stood stock still looking at us.  All of us did not utter a word for a few seconds.  That terrified, petrified look again surfaced on Pishi’s face. But this time we too were sort of guilty.   

Buro , suddenly came to his senses and started staring and smiling at Pishi .

“Wha..ha ..t ?”  She stammered.

“Well , we did  not see you and neither did you see us, right Pishi ?”

It took a while for her to comprehend the meaning.  So mean of Buro. Terrifying Pishi.  Poor thing. But it worked.  Pishi did not utter a word and went away. 

Somehow , I always felt bad for Pishi.  Suma was all she had and that too Suma always had the “upper” hand.  Pishi had only one nephew who kept in touch with her and visited once in a while . He worked in a Jute mill near Howrah and whenever he visited Pishi, he got a pot of rasgullas for her, which she proudly showed and shared the sweets with all of us.

Ma and Kakima too talked about Suma’s “high-handedness”.

“I really don’t know why Ma behaves like that with Pishi” , Kakima once complained to my mother. “What harm will it do if both of them sit on the same seat in the rickshaw? Pishi looks so awkward sitting on the footrest of the rickshaw and I really feel ashamed … all these meanness … and see … that day when Pishi had fever, Ma was so upset that she started crying … I don’t understand these acts at all ! “.

The day Suma was diagnosed with pneumonia,  it was raining very heavily.  

When she was taken to the hospital, Pishi started wailing. “Didi … Didi … “ she cried .  Suma’s condition deteriorated.  The next day Suma’s lungs were infected and she was put on life support system.  Pishi did not leave Suma’s side. She was almost forced by the doctors to leave the ICU.  The next day Pishi contacted high fever.  Kaku was busy with Suma , so Baba brought Pishi to our house and gave her medicines. Later that night, when her temperature reached 105 degrees, Pishi was admitted in the same hospital.  The next day, when the doctors wanted to put Suma on the ventilator, Kaku refused to do so and brought Suma home and made her lie down on her four poster bed , surrounded by her twenty odd pillows.  

That July afternoon,  when all of us were standing near her bed, weeping, sobbing, Suma opened her eyes. There was a blank look in her glance. She looked at our faces as if searching for someone …  Kaku held her hands. Buro and I sat near her feet, stroking her, Ma consoled Kakima … Suma opened her mouth to say something but words did not flow … and after a few minutes she was gone for ever!

An hour later, Kaku got a call from the hospital that Pishi has breathed her last a few minutes ago.  Kaku asked Buro to inform her nephew and made arrangements to bring Pishi home.

Kaku’s younger brother , Ajay Kaku , who lived in  Delhi was informed about Suma’s death.  The cremation could only happen when Ajay Kaku reached Calcutta the next morning.  Suma was decorated with flowers .  Kakima and Ma wrapped a white sari around her.  They put chandan on her forehead. Through misty eyes, I looked at her. Suma was looking so beautiful and serene !  Ma and Kakima also decorated Pishi and wrapped her with one of her saris.  Suma was lying on the bed and Pishi on the floor below her . 

When the hearse came, Suma was put inside the glass box with Rajanigandha flowers all over her. The scent of the incense sticks filled up the hearse . She was taken to the Peace Haven mortuary where the body would be preserved till the next day. I had insisted to be with Suma till the mortuary. I felt strange when I saw Suma’s body put in the refrigerator box . Suma … I will never be able to see you again … Buro held me tightly … my eyes were dry … tears did not flow from my eyes … an inexplicable feeling shot through my body … the temporariness of our existence !

When the hearse carrying Suma had departed , Pishi’s nephew called up. He said that  due to the heavy rains, the train lines of Howrah station were submerged and all the local trains were halted.  He would only be able to come the next day, so could we please keep Pishi in the mortuary till that time ?  So , Pishi was also taken to the Peace Haven mortuary.  

But when Pishi’s body reached Peace Haven , there was a problem.

The only other refrigerator box which was free had been suddenly taken up by the Christian trustees as the mother of the Bishop of St. John’s Church had a heart attack and died.

“So, what do we do ? “  Kaku was distraught.  “Are there any other mortuary nearby ? “

Buro and Baba tried to contact the other mortuary, but there too it was the same condition. The torrential rain had brought the city to a stand still.

“Well , as of now , I think there can be only one solution “ , the manager of the mortuary said.

“What ?”

“The refrigerator where your mother has been put , is one of the original ones from the British era. The length and height of the box is almost double the size of the newer boxes … “

“So ? “

“Well, we can put the other body in the same box … if you permit .. “

Kaku looked at Baba. He nodded.

“Okay … “ Kaku whispered. 

It was almost 11 pm and he was tired – both mentally and physically. Buro placed a chair for Kaku to sit .  Kaku slumped on it.

As all of us stood there, Pishi’s body was carefully lifted on the stretcher and put inside the refrigerator box….  on top of Suma …..

Both of them rested there waiting to be cremated .

Just that during this wait time,  Pishi  was  at a “higher” position than Suma .

30 November, 2017, Belvedere, Alipore


  1. Sometimes death fulfils the wishes which life can not.The story glorifies death in a very dramatic but dignified manner.The undercurrent of autobiographical tòuches have made the story lively an appealing. Very well written story with a language that directly reaches the recess of readers'heart

  2. After going through this well narrated love and hate story I could gather the following three aspects of it .. if I'm not mistaken .

    One , love has no labels .... It's infact the inseparable intimate relationship of love between the two .. Sumo representing the high and Pishi representing the low class of the society . Even after their great social differences , they are quite fond of each other and could not live without each other , evidently into their death on the same day as if proving ... what would one do without the other ?
    Second , though created equals , humans are the prisoners of social customs and traditions . On the one hand Pishi though tries to imitate Sumo , she never crosses her limits . Even though , at every opportunity she often gets into the attires of Sumo , she is very careful of not being noticed by Sumo. She has no complain whatsoever of her present situation . There at the other hand , Sumo is always careful to put Pishi at a lower level than her ... though her fondness for her is obviously evident through her acts , she never ever thinks for a moment to come out of her prison .
    Third , nature's design is incomprehensible and unpredictable .... after death all the social differences are put to end and once again we are proven to be created equal before entering into the realm of nature .

    The author in this short story has shown her great indepth in dealing with the intricacies of human nature and is equally successful in penetrating into the intimate mystery of nature which touches our sense of wonder and awe .

  3. You captured the human nature as well as the omnipotent irrevocable death being the final leveller.