I am in this house, walking the corridors Dev Mama walked, sitting in his chair, writing at his table. Everything seems so much smaller than I remember it. We used to crouch around that chair while Dev Mama’s voice, characteristically serious and deep, floated out above our heads, droning on in long complicated sentences. We were very little then, and had to concentrate hard to understand the stories he was trying to tell us. We would have long discussions in the verandah later, when our parents were gossiping in the bedrooms and Dev Mama was napping in his study. We would try and sort out the stories, picking at the details in our childish voices, but it was never any use. It was many years before I revised the fantastically melded stories of my childhood, and learnt to accept the correct and much more boringly simple versions.
This was the first arrow: “Dear Devrat”, he writes, “This matter is of such moment to me that I cannot spend time on the customary pleasantries. I come straight to the point. It is tremendously difficult for me, so much your junior, to bring such a delicate subject up, but the situation I find myself in leaves me no peace till I apply to you for any plausible justification you can give me for your conduct. I have not wished to give offence, but the offence you have given all of us is beyond bearing…” The ‘all of us’ was the second barb.
My father was always Dev Mama’s favourite, and some of that light shown down on me. Dev Mama was a sort of frater familias, the bachelor Elder Brother of a large family of siblings and cousins. He was the axis, firmly secured in the Blue House, from which radiated the rest of the family, revolving around him, and staying connected through him. At least, that was how it was when I was growing up. The summer would bring all of us down to Neel Niwas, running around wildly in the gardens while the grown ups sat around, Dev Mama at the heart of the group, catching up with each other. There was much laughing and a lot of talk in those days. The older cousins among us would bring us snippets of the adults’ conversation, but this was usually to tell us who the current favourite of the uncles was, and whose marks were being discussed. That is how I first heard about Amba Aunty.
“…Some of us are of the firm opinion that you need immediate psychiatric attention. It will give you some idea of the gravity with which we view your condition that I have already made enquiries and have located an eminent doctor who specializes in cases such as yours. I respectfully submit that you consider the sentiments of the family…” The arrows were coming thick and fast, now. This is a letter written coldly, from a distance, from a pedestal. The familial “We” has already been reconstructed to exclude Dev Mama. This is not a letter from an affectionate favourite to his revered mentor, this is the Family Spokesperson sounding ultimatums to the Shamed One.
The concept of suicide was novel to most of us at the time. Of the dim memory I have of Amba aunty, I remember a tall, handsome woman, liable to snap at you for no comprehensible reason. “Her husband left her and so she killed herself”. This left a lot of questions unanswered. Why did her husband leave her and where did he go? And why did she get so upset that he left? Didn’t he tell her when he was coming back? Why did she have to kill herself for it? The older ones didn’t bother to explain anything to us kids. “Methods of Killing yourself” was an exciting area of investigation that gave us many afternoons of morbid fun. Those afternoons were the only reason I remembered her name, when it came up again after all those years.
“…This has also sadly resurrected the rumours of you and Amba. Already at the time many in the family were wondering why you undertook to shelter a woman without a husband and a grown child born out of wedlock. Now to find that very child embroiled in this scandal is too dreadful to speak of. You must forgive the strong language, but you must see that it is warranted. My intention is not to pain you. However, since I feel I do have the right to speak openly to you and do not wish to see you shunned by the family, I offer these facts as argument that you acquiesce to the suggestion we offer of psychiatric treatment…” The intention to give pain is there, all the same. My father was probably just passing on words that had been said to him. That was how the brothers worked, in those days, collective decision and collective action. Any qualms my father would have had in writing thus, would have been drowned out in collective censorship. But it is my father’s hand shooting the arrows. I find it difficult to allot collective responsibility for that.
Today my hands tremble as I open each letter and read it. I become one with Dev Mama in my head. I feel what he must have felt, I react as he might have. We share a common brotherhood, Dev Mama and I, across the generations. So I wasn’t surprised that I caught my breath when Shikhandi’s photograph fell out of a sheaf of dusty letters. The only word that can definitively describe that face was beautiful. He was at Neel Niwas the last summer we visited Dev Mama. He was nice enough to us, though our parents’ expressions warned us not to have anything to do with him. Many took an instinctive dislike to him, and I was always a little scared of him.
“…Shikhandi can be dealt with. Luckily he has a character that is easily bought, and we attach no small price to your respectability. After all, you have done much for all of us, and we are ashamed to find ourselves in the strange position of chastising you who have been our teacher and mentor in more ways than one…” They never finally dealt with him, for he disappeared into thin air. It is as though Dev Mama’s Nemesis had come with this single task in hand, and had no reason to remain on the scene once his part in the plot was played out.
It was also my hands that were Dev Mama’s undoing. I had dragged my father to his study that afternoon, wanting to show him a drawing of mine that Dev Mama had promptly pinned up above his table. “I’ll come see it later, beta. Dev must be resting now.” “No Papa, see it now!” Don’t blame me, I was only seven. I put my hands on the door and pushed it open. Why hadn’t they latched it! I understand now that they were coming up from a kiss, but all I thought I saw then was a hug. My father’s brows knit, then he turned around. Dev Mama’s face was ashen. I hate the memory of that expression. I want to root it out of my head. “Arjun!” he called out, running out behind my father. I was alone in the room with Shikhandi as he put his shirt on. Why did he smile then? Why did he pat my head on his way out?
“…My respectability is my responsibility, and I reserve the right to preserve it the only way I know: with dignity. I will not have that right stripped from me, even if, as you say, I am shunned by all of you. I choose to die with honour and at peace with my conscience, and if it must be at the cost of isolation from the family I love so dearly, then so be it…” Dev Mama’s last stand was a letter that was never sent, for it is still sitting here in his box of correspondence. As he wrote these words, he was already on the bed of arrows. I was allowed to visit him once, in those days when none of the brothers would have anything to do with him. It took many tantrums and a day of refusing all food, but it was worth it to run into Dev Mama’s arms. Those arms were already tired by then, it seems to me now that he could barely lift them to say goodbye to me when I left. Dev Mama chose his hour of death 18 months later. It means more to me than you could ever realize, Mama, that you were at peace with yourself at that hour.