|Kaka, standing on the balcony of the house
in New Alipur in the 1950s.
When I was a little girl, we lived in a house my grandfatherbuilt. It was common then for sons to remain in the house with their parentseven after they were married and had children. It was an extended family systemthat is dying out fast now in urban India.
I grew up rich with memories of relatives, close anddistant. I was privy to my father’s family history, told in most vivid detailby my uncle, Samir Kumar Basu. I always knew him as Kaka, the Bengali moniker for a father’s younger brother.
Kaka was only a year and half younger than Baba. The twowere extremely close growing up in Dhaka, Bangladesh, united perhaps in theireye problems that took root at a very early age. Both had macular degeneration.Both wore glasses so thick that I substituted them for magnifiers to look atflower parts for biology class.
Kaka lived on the third floor of my grandfather’s house inNew Alipur, then a fairly new development in Kolkata. He was a brilliant manand soon rose to the top of the companies where he worked. Eventually, hebecame director of Chloride India.
We ate breakfast together every morning. I sat with my roti,potatoes and cauliflower. He, with his half-boiled egg on a porcelain Englishstand and two pieces of white toast with butter.
|Playing chess with my father in Florida, late 1970s
Afterwards, I climbed into the back of his Ambassador for alift to Gokhale Memorial, the school I attended in those days. On the way, we would talk about everything.It must have been irritating for him to have a five-year-old chatterbox gononstop before a hard days work was about to begin.
“Boddo kotha bolish,” he would say sometimes. You talk toomuch.
In the evenings, after homework, after an evening bath, Iwaited anxiously for my Baba and Kaka to return home. Both had a habit ofpacing from verandah to verandah. Kaka would whistle popular Rabindrasangeet. Itried to imitate him. How was he able to get tunes out with such precision?
We sat down to dinner together and Kaka always made sure togrill me on what I had learned that day. He’d quiz me with a geographyquestion. And when I wandered off point, he’d tell me I was talking too muchagain.
|Kaka and me at a family wedding, 2009
In later years, Kaka moved out into a posh company flat. Iwanted to go spend days there not just because of the air-conditioning but tomonopolize Kaka’s time.
He never married or had children. Over the years, he grewaccustomed to life alone, though he was always generous to open up his home forothers. After my parents died in 2001, I often stayed in one of Kaka’s guestrooms.
Evening conversations were never dull with Kaka. We arguedsometimes but he always treated me with respect; asked me about things inAmerica that he did not know well. He was one of the few members of my familywho took a keen interest in my journalism. Even introduced me to his friends totalk about the Iraq war.
|Kaka at Calcutta Club.
He especially liked to gab with his peers at Calcutta Club,a social club that was started in 1907 when Indians were not allowed into thewhites-only Bengal Club. Later in life, when Kaka became frail and his eyesfailed him completely, he held onto his trek to the club as salvation from loneliness.He left exactly at a certain time and was rarely late coming home. He nappedfor three hours, limited his cocktail hour before dinner and ate with extremediscipline. I admired that about him. How he kept to routine. How he neverindulged.
The last time I saw Kaka was in early December. I had stayedwith him for almost two weeks during a visit home. He liked to listen toBengali songs on my iPod. The noise-cancelling headphones, he said, made itfeel as though he were in a concert hall. He marveled at the technology thathis poor eyesight prevented him from enjoying.
Some nights, we watched Bengali soap operas on television.He listened intently to the dialog and when the screen was silent, I describedfor him what was unfolding. Ithought it was grossly unfair that a man who lived by himself should not havethe benefit of sight – without being able to read or enjoy television.
But Kaka never felt sorry for himself or allowed pity. Iwill always think of him as the most fiercely independent person in my family.
Several years ago, the night of my departure from Kolkata,Kaka sat me down at his dining table.
“Wait,” he said, shuffling off to his bedroom, counting hissteps as he always did and feeling his way to his closet.
He returned a few minutes later with an old jewelry box. Ithad once been a rich blue velvet. Now it was worn, the cardboard peekingthrough.
“Toke ar ki debo?” he said. What else can I give you?
I took that to mean that he thought I had all that I needed.True. Or that I wasn’t one for ornate ornaments that most Bengali women ogle.Also true.
He began telling me a tale of a trip he made to Hyderabad,years before my birth. The southern Indian city is famous for two things:Biryani, the Mughlai rice dish, and fresh water pearls, he said.
|My cousin Sudip took all of us out to eat in 2005.
Kaka loved food and enjoyed it throughly.
“I bought this in Hyderabad. It’s not biryani,” he laughed.
A string of iridescent pearls glowed under the light of hischandelier.
“Kaka,” I said. “You don’t have to give me these.”
I wondered why he had bought them. Had they been meant for someone?Or had he just picked them up because it was the thing to do in Hyderabad?
“It’s a very small thing,” he said. “Wear them and think ofme.”
Last November, he’d called me in Atlanta to ask that I bringhim good Belgian chocolates. He loved the taste of cocoa on his tongue justbefore he went to sleep every night.
|Kaka at a wedding in 2009.
My aunt, Pishi, told me that Monday night, Kaka had askedfor chocolate. She took that to mean that he was recovering from a recent boutof illness. But Wednesday, he was gone.
He died in his sleep, peacefully.
In 2010, when I visited Kaka, I had recorded some of ourconversations. Kaka loved to tell me stories about my father’s childhood. I hadplanned to finish those conversations. Ask him questions about a time with few records, save a few old black and white photographs. Kaka was awonderful storyteller and now an important part of my family’s oral history hasbeen silenced.
He was the eldest living of my father’s siblings. Manythought him as the family anchor. I simply thought of him as Kaka, the man whobecame my father after my own died, the man who stood by me always.
I will miss you terribly.