Phoolpishi

Phoolpishi and Pishemashai on their 50th anniversary.

 I had just begin to cross the Atlantic yesterday when inCalifornia, my aunt lost her struggle with cancer.
I had hoped to return from India and be able to go visit her one more time. A deep sadness set in at the thought that I would never beable to see her again, hold her hand, share one last laugh.
She was my father’s youngest sister. My only other livingaunt, my Pishi in Kolkata, could barely stand to speak on the phone.

“Of us eight brothers and sisters,” she said in Bengali,“only four are still standing.”

A young Phoolpishi in Kolkata.

My eldest aunt died in the 1980s. Then, several yearslater, one of my father’s younger brothers died, quite suddenly. My fathersuffered from Alzeheimer’s for many years and was finally relieved of his agonyin 2001.

My aunt in California or Phoolpishi as I called her, wasdiagnosed with breast cancer a long time ago. She fought it and lived inremission for many years. She survived pneumonia in 2005, even after thedoctors warned my uncle and cousin Suman to prepare for the worst.
She was a fighter. Weak physically at times but steelyalways on the inside. So when we learned last July that her cancer had comeback, many of us believed she would get through this round, too.
But the prognosis was not good and somewhere deep inside,Phoolpishi knew her time on earth would end soon.
When I visited her in California, I sat on her bed forhours, talking about my childhood, our family and her only son, Suman.  She showed me the jewelry she hadinherited from her mother and her mother-in-law. She gave me two of her ownsaris, a gold necklace and one made from magenta Czech crystals.
“You will wear them, won’t you?” she asked.
“Of course, Phoolpishi,” I replied, not realizing then justhow precious they would become.
Suman and his son, Saraf, were the light of my aunt’slife. Her eyes brightened when we spoke of them. She worried for them. Whowould care for them if she was sick?
When Phoolpishi visited Suman in Washington or New York,she often stocked his refrigerator with home-cooked Bengali meals. When Ivisited her in 2006, she made chicken curry, even though she disliked chickenand wouldn’t eat it even if you paid her.
She insisted on wheeling herself into the kitchen
 to make payesh for me.

This last time, she insisted she make payesh for me. It’sa traditional dessert eaten on birthdays. My birthday was two weeks away stillbut Phoolpishi was adamant.

“I don’t know when I will be able to make you payeshagain,” she said.
She wheeled herself into the kitchen, and made the payeshwith vermicelli and a special molasses from Bengal. I ate three heaping bowlsbut she was disappointed.
“Bhalo hoyeni,” she said. It’s not good.
I hugged her and told her I couldn’t remember the lasttime anyone had made payesh for my birthday since my mother fell ill in 1982.
Phoolpishi holding me in
Kolkata, 1963

It was tough to leave California at the end of September.I knew then I would probably not see her well again. I knew I would probablylose another close connection to home; someone who strengthened my own roots;someone who had known me since I was born.

Now, on this bright winter day in Atlanta, I am sifting throughold-fashioned photo albums and remembering Phoolpishi.
With Saraf and Pishemashai  in 2005.

How she easily dozed off in a car as soon as it startedmoving – a trait shared by my father. How she loved to play bridge, as did myfather. How she shared with him another passion – Bengali mishtis or sweets.When Phoolpishi visited us in the 1980s in Florida, she and my father spenthours in the kitchen making sandesh and bhapa dahi.

Before they bought their flat in Kolkata, Phoolpishi andmy uncle, Pishemashai, stayed with my parents. My father was especially fond ofhis little sister and Phoolpishi was devastated when my father died. He hadspent several months with them in Concord during his illness.
It’s often in death that we think about how loved ones influence our lives. We sit and wish we had done more with them;spent more time; made a greater effort.
I visited her in September in California.

I am feeling all those things today. She was the only oneof my father’s generation who was in the United States. And yet, I saw her morewhen we both visited India together.

My grieving today is tinged with regret.  But I am thankful I was able to see herin September.
Before I left that Sunday morning for the BART station,she held my hand tight.
“I am very proud of you,” she told me.
And I, of you, Phoolpishi. Brave. Courageous. Generous. Kind.Inspiring.


You are free of your pain now. Free of the hard journey. Rest in peace.

A family photo taken in the early 1970s at my grandfather’s house in Kolkata. Phoolpishi is on the right on the front row. I am sitting in the middle of the front row. Suman is to my right.






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3 thoughts on “Phoolpishi

  1. Chumkidi, i cried as i read your words. Am glad ma was able to meet rubapishi in june…..and we the last time she visited……i was still expecting Drishti…..cant believe that there are so many people who arent there any more……people who were important to us…..

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