An Embrace Remembered

1968

It was about 8 o’clock one September evening. I was at Kolkata’s Dum Dum airport to catch a flight for Canada where I was going for graduate studies. The airport was rather empty and quiet. Perhaps my flight was the last one to leave that night. My oldest brother, whom we called Dada, was among a handful of people who had come to see me off just as he had been present in all the significant events in our life.

The oldest of my ten siblings, Dada had the mantle of family head thrust on him after my father passed away in 1961. My old man was never much of a breadwinner. Dada was still in college, an exceptionally bright student, and looked forward to a promising future with immense possibilities. He could have left home to pursue his own dreams, but he didn’t. Still in his early twenties, this handsome young man of few words, with a florid complexion and a commanding gravitas, decided instead to defer his own dreams and joined the physics faculty of a local college as an instructor. The job did not pay much. He supplemented his income by tutoring a drove of students, and with the money he thus made, managed the family expenses, including his siblings’ schooling needs. To see his siblings stand on their own feet became the mission of his life. If he was sad or disappointed with himself, he never let on. We were awed by his personality and treated him with godly reverence.

In a few minutes, my Canada-bound plane was ready for boarding, and the hugs and good-byes ensued. Dada was the last one I hugged. As we were holding each other in a tight embrace, I could hear his squelched sobs. Tears were streaming down his cheeks. I had never seen him cry before. To us siblings, he was a strict disciplinarian. If we ever strayed off in our conduct, he never wasted any time to set us straight. Once when I was ten years old, I had talked back to one of my older sisters and used uncivil language. She squealed on me when Dada came home that night. He had a baton which he used to set us straight. That night, the baton came down on me like flurries of hail until I could not remain standing anymore. He had picked my knee joints as the target for maximum effect. I didn’t protest. I was under the spell of my deep-seated reverence for him. To me, he was larger than life. I was not prepared to see such a tough man break down for me.

As the shuttle took me to the waiting aircraft, he stood by one of the windows staring at me. After I boarded the plane, he was still staring, his roving eyes desperately searching for me not knowing where I was inside the plane, but I knew where he was. I kept waving at him, fully aware he could not possibly see me, until the plane began to roll, snailing at first and then picking up speed, Dada reducing to a blur in the distance, and finally disappearing from view. His somber face, pressed against that airport window, following the path of the departing plane is the last image I have of him. Even after so many years, I can still feel the gentle taps of his fingers on my back from that airport embrace.

1980

One February evening, my wife and I were in our Hamilton, Ontario apartment talking about our upcoming visit to India. This would be my first time back to my home country since I left it in 1968. Being on student stipends all these years and with a family to take care of, although I had long been pining to see my family back home, I couldn’t afford a trip earlier. I was naturally quite excited about our visit, and a chance to see Dada again since our parting at Dum Dum airport in 1968.

We had already finished our gift shopping for siblings and hordes of nephews, nieces and cousins. I had bought a Swiss watch, a tiny Japanese tape recorder, and a German camera for Dada, things I was sure he would love. I was looking forward to the conversations he and I were going to have, his curiosity about Graduate Schools in the U.S., his questions about my dissertation and the challenges I had to face. Just as I was getting up from the sofa to check if I had packed his gifts in the suitcase, the phone rang.

“I’m sorry I’ve some terrible news,” the voice was solemn and subdued. It was Noda, my older brother from Kolkata.

Of all the bad news he could possibly give me, the news of Dada’s death was the farthest from my mind. I was stunned.

“What’s it?” my wife asked.

I do not remember how long I had the phone receiver pinned to my ear, or what else Noda might have said during that telephone call, but I do remember I could barely hear my wife’s voice.

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