Thursday, July 21, 2011

Mashi in Action

Mashi, my husband's aunt, passed away peacefully yesterday. She had been ailing for some time and she somnolently drifted off, as a stream changes course and leaves everyone around it high and dry.

I have no regrets though, for her time had come. I choose to remember the times when she was full of life. Her element (according to the Chinese five elements) was water, I think, and as I have the same guardian element, we understood each other in a very simple and intuitive way. We also shared many other things - a fondness for cooking (and good food, especially delicacies such as fish heads!), embroidery (though she was far better than me) and gardening.

She was a tremendously good sport, literally and otherwise - her early days were spent in the Shillong Club, playing tennis and dancing, praying fervently to God (to save the Queen!) and also moving through the forest on elephant back from place to place (her father was a gifted forest officer). She grew to be a beautiful and talented young lady (and was called 'Blushing Beauty' in those days).

She married and moved to Calcutta, but her days were spent in camp, along with her well known geologist husband. Even then she was renowned for her food and hospitality. A memory no one can forget is of her traipsing through the forest at night, lantern in hand and young daughter in tow, looking out for the tiger that was supposed to be in the vicinity! Her daughter still shudders when she talks about it.

When I met her she was old and mellow, and we took to each other immediately. It was truly love at first sight. She kept a beautiful house, filled with relics of an intriguing past - an elephant leg stool, an album of elephant pictures, a collection of minerals and beautiful sculptures that the Archealogical Survey of India at one time had sold for a song. Beds were covered with quilts and bedcovers that she had sewn, my husband's favourite orange sweater was knitted by her and she had trained Daya -one of the best cooks in the neighbourhood (from whom I learned how to cook traditional Bengali food).

I spent many wonderful mornings with her - visiting the local Kali temple, hands full of hibiscus, shopping for tiny ferns and mango ginger in the market (and bargaining vociferously) and later, when she could not walk much, just sitting in the sun and reading. There was a feeling of homecoming that I cherished in that large, airy house of hers.

I also saw her struggling with her physical ailments and with the terrible fear that the water element endows, in moments of weakness and fatigue. But what I remember most is her desire to make everyone feel welcome and comfortable and her utter delight in listening to our adventures (mine were mostly culinary). She loved the head hunter's bag we brought back from Nagaland and was delighted with the giant cinnamon stick we presented to her after our trip to Myanmar - she immediately broke off a piece and crunched on it, muttering, "Delicious!"

Through the years she kept for me some of her most loved objects - her capes (from the British days), some of her favourite sarees and, to the surprise of us all, her entire collection of party baking dishes. These are things I cherish and use. I would try and call her after every large party and she would want to know what I had cooked. Then, if I hadn't already mentioned, she would ask, "Did you use my dishes?" And of course I had and she knew it anyway. So - nothing much changes; I still cook large amounts and invite people for meals and use Mashi's baking dishes and wherever she is, she will still know of it and smile to herself.

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