Not wanting to let her go


On 14th August 2020 it will be three years since my mother, Renuka Devi Barkataki, left us, suddenly, quietly, without bothering anybody. I had arrived at the hospital straight from the airport that hot summer afternoon in 2017 only to find her hardened mortal remains.  In the midst of the bustle, it had suddenly felt very cold and lonely. That feeling has not gone away. There have also been other major disasters in my life since, but somehow I am still not finished with Ma’s going yet.  That house in Panchabati that used to buzz with activity all the time mourned her for a while, before killing itself. Now it has transformed itself into a bad-tempered, unhappy ghost – shrouded over, musty and dark, waiting silently, to be exorcised. 

As the days after her death became weeks and months, I was amazed to see how quickly Ma  faded from public memory.  After the initial few very crowded days, it was simply over. People simply stopped coming, talking or writing about her. Even at the Red Cross to which she had given so much in the last years, some seemed to be in a desperate hurry to remove all traces of her as quickly as possible. The INTUC and the Freedom Fighters’ Association, the other organizations to which she devoted a lot of time and energy in her last years, seem to be entangled in too many problems of their own to have the energy to spare any thoughts for her.

I was surprised. Kids learn about her in school I am told, as the first woman from Assam to become a Minister in the central government. But was that her only claim to glory? I started to count — besides politics, there were many other things that interested her – if one tried to find a pattern then it was that she always sided with the smaller or the weaker party, the ones who could not stand up for themselves  – older people (Pensioners, Freedom fighters), women (Kasturba Ashram, Eastern India Women’s Association, Red Cross), orphans and destitute (Shishugram, Children’s Home), children (Gauhati Public School), juveniles (Juvenile Court), flood victims (Assam Flood Relief Committee first and later the Red Cross), the daily wage workers (INTUC), the deaf and the dumb (Assam Deaf and Dumb Association), etc. While she was a trade unionist all her life, she also had experience of corporate boardrooms at the highest level, being one of very few women to have been nominated as a Navaratna Director of the ONGC.

Her need to do whatever she did thoroughly made her visit and actually insist on going down an oil rig at Bombay High, as a Director of the ONGC, to see how the operations were actually conducted. And she was brave – her exploits in the time she was in jail during the Emergency have become legend, she did much more than just send out Red Cross relief teams during the yearly flood relief operations; not sure how many even know that she used to drive around in a jeep to visit all sorts of remote out of the way places when she was younger, that she personally led the Red Cross rescue and rehabilitation efforts during those difficult times in the aftermath of the Nellie massacre as well as after the Guwahati bombing.  Many older people from Hajo still talk about the time when, as the local MLA, she had fearlessly led a procession of agitated people in the middle of a curfew, thereby managing to prevent a firing. 

As for her politics, when one compares her with the politicians of today, she seems to really be from another generation, another time. In her time, politicians cared about their reputation and integrity, they still had the decency and the common courtesy to be civil even to their political rivals; and in some cases there was even respect and friendship among politicians of opposing factions. Ma always had a very healthy respect for the then Chief Minister Sarat Chandra Sinha, even though Sinha jetha was the person who had ordered her arrest during the Emergency. Even when she became a Minister, she made sure that it did not change much in our personal lives – she carried on helping me with my homework, even as she insisted that I continue to cycle to school. Her official car was meant for official work, not for anything else. 

But even while she tried to remain the same mother for me, she also tried to learn how to be a good minister, and be of some use to her home state of Assam. I remember how troubled she was when the foreigners’ issue first started brewing in the state in 1979. As the only Minister from Assam in Morarji’s government she desperately wished to bring the students and the government to agree on a cut-off date quickly, before the situation got worse. I believe she was part of the government team that more or less convinced Morarjibhai to accept 1971 as the cut off year for the detection, deletion and deportation of Bangladeshi migrants. But the AASU boys scoffed at the proposal. They would accept nothing later than 1951, as the cut-off date. Soon afterwards Morarji Desai’s government fell and Ma gave up politics and returned to Guwahati.  A few years and many deaths later, the government and the students signed the Assam Accord with 1971 as the cut-off year.

Why then was she forgotten so quickly?  It did not take me long to see that although my mother was passionate about her work and had contributed a great deal to many of the organizations she was involved with, there was no one cause that she had made her own, to the exclusion of all others, for which she could be remembered.  Moreover, many of the people with whom she worked were either dead or too old now to actively do anything. The present generation of social workers and politicians probably do not know her, probably have not even heard of her. She had simply outlived public memory.  

It was perhaps my fault as well, for usually it is up to the immediate family to keep a person’s memory alive. After Baba’s death in 1993, Ma had made sure that Baba remained in public memory by setting up a trust and instituting an annual award in his memory.  But I had been too caught up with coping first with the million things that needed to be done immediately after Ma’s demise, and later with other pressing personal problems, to be able to do anything about keeping alive Ma’s memory. Moreover, I had somehow expected Ma’s case to be different since she was a public figure. But it wasn’t. Since I am her only child, I will have to do something, before it is too late. Because, as the days go by, I feel she is slipping out of my hands too, that I am losing her. It is clear to me that in order to keep her, I will have to bring her back in another form, a more lasting form, if not for anyone else’s sake then for my own. 

But what should I do for her? I tried to look back at her life for inspiration. Although Ma had kept herself very busy with her many activities, she had spent the last few years of her life essentially alone, helplessly witnessing many of her friends passing away one by one. She had tried to help the few who were left in whatever way she could – sending the driver to take one to the doctor, sending food for another, going to visit a third. Later she got a ramp built to her ground floor home so that she and her friends could come and go more easily. To ensure that these comings and goings continued, we started ‘Addaghar’ in her home in the ground floor at Panchabati – a meeting place for senior citizens. It started well and was showing signs of becoming stable when corona struck. 

So now I am back at square one. Hopefully Addaghar will get going again after this current crisis is over. But that alone does not seem enough. Unlike Baba, Ma did not leave behind any clear indication of her wishes; so initially I waited for some sign from Ma. But nothing came. People told me to give myself some more time. Not to rush. Now three years are almost over. I cannot wait much longer. But what else could I do? Instituting something like a lecture, a prize, or a scholarship in her name does not seem right. For Ma it has to be something that happens all the time, not once a year, or every now and then….Moreover it would have to be something down-to-earth, something energetic and vigorous that would make a real difference to those we seek to support. Ma had no patience with esoteric ideas or abstract notions of philanthropy.  More than sitting and thinking about the whys and the hows she preferred to go out and do what she could. She was simply a doer.

I need to do the same – go and do what I can to create something in Ma’s memory, rather than just thinking, sitting around and writing about it. All suggestions and ideas are welcome – I am sure Ma would like it much better if it was a collective effort. Of course the general situation is not really right to starting anything new at the moment. I have often wondered how Ma would have reacted to the current situation. I think the lockdown would have bothered her no end – and she would have used her Red Cross card to go out even during the lockdown in order to help those in need. And we would have had huge daily fights with me trying to prevent her from going out and worrying about her exposing herself to the virus, at her age. I have also no doubt who would have won those verbal duels.  May her fighting spirit prevail, and the memory of her rather unusual life, survive these strange and unnatural times.