When I was very very young - smaller than even the smallest me you can picturise, Dhaka used to occupy the central place of my imagination.
More than tuntuni, more than red-riding-hood, heck, even more than random cat under the water tank.
My earliest memory of being told a Dhaka story is when we would all gather around the huge table at the boroghor, gulping down mounds of butter and rice. A dollop of salt, and a generous helping of incredible stories. Which would almost always be told by dadumoni.
It seemed a magical place. A place of less than perfect boundaries. With more than perfect people.
We were told of the steamers till Goalindo and the high-ceilinged musty smelling ancestral house where 35 people lived under the same roof. Scratching his throat, Dadumoni would recall how once he had gotten stuck in a Muslim mohalla during a riot, and how he had escaped with the help of the family dentist, who happened to be a Muslim. 35 people under the same roof, and not a single dent to show for it, he said. All of them having muri and batasa out of a single bowl and rushing off to school. Kilos of fish needed to feed the entire lot. And how my great- grandmother would cook, ghomta in place, throughout the day – huge pieces of ilish, gleaming with oil - and still have time to read the latest Sharatchandra. Dadumoni had come home from school one evening, he said, to find the house in an uproar. Because there were escaped freedom fighters in the chilekotha, and the police at the backdoor.
Each mouthful of rice I took would demand a story. The story of how 35 people slept together, for instance. All my grandfather’s cousins in the same room. All over one another. All around one another. And not one word of complaint.
Eggs being divided with a piece of string, he talked of. Because, heck, you can’t have whole eggs for all 35 people.
Dadumoni, white haired and scratchy bearded, eyes gleaming - would talk of my great grandfather. And how he would teach and look after all the cousins at one go. Correcting phrasal verbs and factorisations simultaneously. With equal elaan.
And then, there was the first journey to Kolkata. So many of them crammed into one space. Ans so much fun.
And then there was the last journey to Kolkata. So much space crammed into all of them. So much nothingness inside each when they came down to India. Leaving old houses behind. Leaving old lives behind. Leaving old blood behind.
35 people! He insisted.
35 people and no dent to show for it. Eggs and ilish maachh. Maths and English. All devoured together. All together. Together.
The old man lives alone, with his wife, in a clingy, house now-a-days. 35 people at the beginning of his life, and 2 at the end of it. The sons and the daughters are scattered in snazzier flats all around the city. There is still a fat cat under the water tank. And the huge table. But no boroghor.
Dhaka still remains. As well as the white beard.
But it’s once again like when they left Dhaka. There is a huge, empty house. And so much emptiness within. So much emptiness without.
I miss you, dadumoni.