One Year for Mourning
Partridge India. 2014
ISBN: 978-1-4828-3345-4 (HC)
Pages 187 | Price: Not mentioned
Tale of a great mom & a gritty daughter
One Year for Mourning by Ketaki Datta, a versatile writer and an experienced academic – an associate professor of English in a Kolkata college, is a welcome and bold attempt for both the multilayered theme and the Stream of Consciousness mode that she has chosen. The story is about a pragmatic girl – from her childhood, to her adolescence, to her entry into employment – along with a perspective on her parents and brother, besides an assortment of kith and kin, with an intimate peep into their lives and web of relations.
The story of and by the protagonist who chooses to remain a spinster is a farrago of incidents and episodes, with their lows and highs and unpredictable turns. Living in Calcutta with the family of her maternal grandma to whom she is very much attached, she studies up to pre-degree at that place. When her maternal uncle “demanded money” if the girl continues to stay there (18), her mom takes her away to the ‘hick town’ Hridaypur where they live. Brilliant in studies, interested in music, and good at writing stories, this girl who is shaping up well is ‘Mithi’ to the family; her name is Kathakali aka Kate, maybe a diminutive of Ketaki. Her love for her parents and especially her mother whom she idolises is selfless and exemplary. A girl in her blooming youth, she runs after one Debaditya and is run after by one Amar.
Her father is Dr Dutt, “the famous radiologist of the local government hospital” (15). Despite his hectic professional schedule, he strikes a healthy balance between his professional and family life. And he is good-natured and generous to a fault.
Her brother Tubu, younger to her, is “a baby with minimum learning power” but their mom leaves “no stone unturned to bring out the best out of this slow coach,” by sacrificing her favourite pursuits (21). Mithi doesn’t speak enough of her brother until his wedding episode that has unforeseen turns in store. Yet she has this praise: “Tubu dreamt of being a lyricist, he set lyrics to the poems he liked. I wondered how he transformed all these drab poems into such beautiful lyrics!” (112)
Tapati, Mithi’s mother, was a “promising student of philosophy and she had an outstanding talent for singing too” (21). “With a dulcet voice, which kept all mesmerized” (27) and “a winsome smile, which could win any heart, howsoever insensate” (181), she was also “a sitar-player, a good samaritan” (28). In short, our sojourn with Tapati, as led by Mithi, confirms her as a lady of dignity, poise, empathy, kindness and sweet consideration – of whom any daughter, son, hubby or friend would be proud. Thus the Dutts come off as a close knit family of accomplishments, values and culture.
In their inner circle of relatives we see how some are snobbish, supercilious and selfish, sans any basic courtesies. Mithi’s maternal uncle even deprives her of the money that her granny earmarks for her education. No decency prevents her aunt from taunting her for switching from science to literature which in her view is “nothing but a sad defeat” (126). So also we see how even a bride like Anushree, when in a peevish mood, can turn even a topic of innocuous common interest like literature into a bitter spat.
The hick town of Hridaypur surrounded by the Tarangini has its share of social bonhomie and petty politics in professions as well as the ladies club. While the hick town is now on its modernization upswing, the human values of its inhabitants go on the wane.
Then we have characters like Rani, Srijita, Keshab and Probir – from upper or lower middle class – who have no compunction in being unfaithful and promiscuous. Easily jumping from one liaison to another and enjoying even more than one at a time, we are made privy to premarital and extramarital relationships, with abortions and love children completing the murky scene. Questions of morality and immorality are dialogically debated, the narrator herself pitching in with her own views, subtly, explicitly or empathically. The characters justify their salacious ways with no compunction and expect everyone to pat them as sinless and noble. Their behaviour reminds us of the Sanskrit saying: Kaamaturaanaam na bhayam na lajja (The carnal have no fear or shame). All the aberrant characters reap the consequences of their brazen indiscretion, barring one – a middle-aged womanizer. Anyway, is there any eschatological code decreeing the span in which such offenders should meet their retribution? But surprisingly, this particular character continues to be held in unquestioned esteem by many.
The jealousies, casualness and carelessness among some of the medical doctors of the hick town point to the inherent human weaknesses, though our tradition deifies the practitioners of the noble profession. The writer has appropriately explained medical situations like diagnoses and treatments in their technical terminology.
The writer could have done well in providing meanings of Bengali terms like ‘Itu Thammi’ and ‘boudi’; the meaning of ‘Thammi’ has been given much later. In a crispy novel, a sentence like “In fact, I came to stay... my own mom, Maa!” running into 12 lines (18) could have been avoided. Since it is no technical context, instead of “vertebral column” (126) and “zygote” (86), the simpler “spine” and “seed” could have been used.
There are a few loose ends or ambiguities that won’t escape the reader’s attention:
(a) On page 19 Mithi says she was seen off at the station, but on page 25 she contradicts it.
(b) It is not clear why the radiologist of a government hospital has to maintain his own private x-ray unit at his home for the benefit of its patients (15, 111).
(c) It is not known what the writer means by ‘ozone-laden, fresh air’ when she says, “I... enjoyed the gush of ozone-laden, fresh air” (122), for this gas is present only at higher reaches of the sky and is toxic.
(d) The mention of Hyderabad (147) appears to be just for muster’s sake, and assigning it to ‘South India’ (143) instead of Andhra Pradesh/Telangana is just too casual.
(e) Tubu’s interviews and tests are talked of but with no allusion to his educational qualifications (137). And he is shown as working both in Calcutta (148) and at Hridaypur (153).
It gives a feeling that the narration at a few places is weighed down by excrescences (as in some sections on 114-115) that do in no way add to the storyline. But then to get to the kernel of a coconut, don’t we have the skin, outer layer, fibre and shell to contend with? Here the kernel is Tapati, Mithi’s beloved mom, to mourn whose death an entire book has been written. In the same spirit we should appreciate, if in the midst of an effusion of flashback, a few ripples of the present pop up all of a sudden.
The reader feels fully rewarded the way the writer narrates Tubu’s wedding and the sequence of passing of her father and mother. The preparations for Tubu’s wedding, its moments, movements, gaiety and fun have been captured very well by the loving sister. This is probably the best chapter in the book. Her father’s death on the heels of the wedding ceremony is a tragic and traumatic irony of fate. With one eye rejoicing the wedding and the other crying out at his death, the tragedy has been touchingly captured. And then when her mom too fulfils her terminal tryst, a distraught Mithi for whom no amount of money for her treatment was big despite her limited resources, expresses her silent & tearless grief: “A feeling of emptiness left me bereft of all words I had” (182). Even the reader would not but feel a similar emptiness. The way the protagonist has been able to come through the traumatic vicissitudes in the prime of her life and has come to terms with it is an eloquent testimony to her salubrious stoicism and emulable grittiness. The icing is the writer’s tender and sensitive poetry – 14 poems of hers meaningfully interspersing the text of the 10 chapters imaginatively titled, besides a festoon of literary/lyrical quotations from Shakespeare, Lord Byron, Begum Akhtar and of course the inevitable Rabindranath Tagore for any writer from Bengal. Kudos to Ketaki Datta for this stimulating book of poignant memories, facetious peccadilloes, lascivious infractions, et al, with sparkles of decent humour un-excluded!