Shonakaka

Shonakaka with me,  (from right), my cousin Jayanta, my brother, Shantanu,
my cousins Sudip and Suman at our grandfather’s house  in Kolkata. Circa, 1968.
The last time I saw Shonakaka, I knew he was ill.
Gone was the mirth; his enormous zest for life reduced to a meager smile. At a family gathering in New Delhi last December, he could hardly eat a thing.
Shonakaka was suffering from renal failure and had to be most careful about what he put in his belly, especially foods high in phosphorous. His son — and my cousin — Ronny was not pleased his father had put a heaping spoon of daal on his plate.
If you knew Shonakaka at another time in his life, you would hardly believe my words.
He was always the boisterous one; the one who loved to eat, drink and make merry. “Live life king size,” he always said. At my cousin Suman’s wedding in California, Shonakaka danced atop Suman’s brand new Acura Integra.  We laughed, amazed at Shonakaka’s energy, though, perhaps, Suman was a tad worried about dents and scratches on his shiny car.
Shonakaka as a young man.
Unfair then that at a fairly young age, Shonakaka was forced to adopt a curtailed regimen and give up things that he loved. Cruel even.
He was my father’s youngest sibling. Kaka means father’s younger brother in Bengali. And Shona means gold or someone very precious. It used to be the norm to have a naming convention so as to avoid calling elders by their first names. That was considered disrespectful.
Shonakaka was born Ranjan Kumar Basu on July 8, 1942 in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh. He was 18 years younger than my father and grew up as the baby in a family of five boys and three girls.
Now, within the span of a few months, that generation of my father’s family is down to just a brother and sister still living. Everyone else, including my father, is gone.
Many of my friends in America may not understand the pull of an uncle or aunt.
I was raised in an extended family system in which my grandfather’s house was occupied at various times by various members of the family. That meant Shonakaka often stayed in one of the many bedrooms in the house.
Shonakaka holding me. I was about a year old.
When I was a baby, he made me cry and took a photograph of me wailing. Just to be contrary, he said. Why should I be happy in every shot?
From his travels abroad, he brought us back chocolates and other goodies that were non-existent in India in the 1960s and early ‘70s. He regaled us with stories of his travels – each adventure made grander with Shonakaka’s unique infusion of enthusiasm and zeal.
Once, he started growing chickens on the roof. My brother and I raced up the stairwell every morning to see how many eggs we could retrieve. And in the backyard, he built a tank to farm tilapia so we’d have the freshest fish.
Shonakaka (center) at a dinner at my parents’ house
in Kolkata in the late 1990s.
It was understood that Shonakaka would fix the menu for family weddings and other festive events. I’ll always have images in my head of my two youngest uncles breaking into a pot of syrupy sweets before they even made it into the kitchen.
After he married my aunt, they lived for a while on the ground floor of the family house. It was there that my cousin Bideesha — Ronny’s elder sister — was born. I often babysat her with my brother and our housekeeper, Shantidi, when Shonakaka and Kakima went out with friends.
Shonakaka was not far from home when he was attacked on the streets with acid and lived the rest of his life with scars. But he always rose above his woes. He never let anything interfere with living life to its fullest.
Until recently, when his health began to fail him.
Shonakaka with his daughter, Bideesha, in Delhi last
December. That was the last time I saw him.
I’d not seen him in a couple of years when we met last December. He was not even 70 yet but looked frail. He’d lost weight and suddenly, he appeared to me just like my grandfather. At the time, my aunt in California was in her last days of battle with cancer. It was then that I realized how those I loved in India were going away, how I was losing the links that kept drawing me back all these years.
The finality of death brings with it a host of regrets. I always hear people say, I wish I had done this and I wish I had done that. Yes, I have my regrets regarding Shonakaka. I wish I had visited more in recent years. I wish we had talked more on the phone. But I am glad for what I had with him. Glad that I made the trip to Delhi to see him in what turned out to be the very last time.
And that he was still smiling then.
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