Mother Muse Quintet by Naveen Kishore

“Tree,” William Hicks

Picture this. The child of two. Three and four. Dodging her legs. Adept. Agile. And yes, adroit. Hiding between the folds of her sari. Camouflaged against the “enemy.” All the adults out there. Except her. No. Never her. Shyness as curse? Or protection? In my mind the sari she wore is always a pale pink. Almost ivory. And a Chiffon. Let us give her a name, shall we? Mother.

Then it fades.

Picture this. A clock. Moving backwards. The one hand following the other. Compulsive. Like a magnet refusing to yield. The pace blurring the short hand with the longer one. Like a sixteen millimeter film whirring backwards. Through time. Or the pointer of the wheel. Not the kind that comes adrift while driving. The roulette. Grinding to a slow halt. As you watch in anticipation. Number 9. Not of your choosing. Loser. You find yourself in a park that has now given way to a concrete structure with glass. A shopping mall on the green where the nine year old first bloodied his nose playing cricket. Wasn’t the ball that did it. Wasn’t the bunch of friends either. The scene is hazy here. The frames begin to jump. Something to do with a fight over a dog. Man throwing a stone at a dog. The dog in pain. Bleeding from one eye. Perhaps the left one. Anger. White and blazing. I run headlong into the attacker with all the strength of a niner-in-rage and that’s all I can remember. Timeout. The film slices its sprockets. Pool of black and white at my feet. Silent. Later. I remember telling her that I had walked into Gregory’s wrought iron bedstead.

Picture this. A room somewhere. Old. Haunted by thoughts I hadn’t visited since childhood. An entire lexicon of words concealed behind the pealing paintwork. As I scrape the paint of the walls there is a cascade of faded words pitter-pattering on to the floor. The work of children hiding what they really felt from adults. Broken into garbled sentences. Out of sequence. Words once hidden. Irretrievably lost. Forgotten ideas that once held promise. Gone. My feet and legs drowning in the rising tide of language. Odd. I had no idea that my mother and I had so much we said to each other.

There’s more. You walk in through the door. Into a fog. The grey of the winter morning making its home on your side of the threshold. You wander. Feeling the damp on your bare arms. The air thick with songs that caress your senses. You find yourself slowly drifting to sleep on her lap. Five years old and already you can distinguish between Kishore Kumar and Manna Dey’s voices. It would take a while before I would understand the concept of ‘playback singing’.

It is the seamlessness of remembering that amazes me. Memories. Yours and mine. The ones you enthralled me with on our long walks. And much later my retelling of the “tales” you told me. “Making up” what had slipped past me. I gave them the happy endings you never had. There were times when you took me by the hand and introduced me to your father. A grandfather I knew so intimately because of you. Having been born years after he had passed away. He would read to me from screenplays he had freshly baked. Enacting the various parts for a 7 year old. Many years later you would come home from your Friday matinee and enact the film of the week. Playing twenty different parts. Seamlessly.

And to think that you who gifted me memory were soon to lose yours.

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She was turning seventy-five. Not something that affected her in any way. She neither saw it as something special nor did she appear unhappy at our excitement over her approaching special day. The clear smile hadn’t begun to lose its warmth. It would. Soon enough. It would become a reflex that had forgotten itself. So the warmth will have fled. But for now it glowed. In graciousness. The mist had just begun to appear at the fringes of her universe. The outer borders. Shuffling against its walls. Trying to find the crevices that would allow it to creep in. Take up residence. Entice the fog into following. I remember buying her multiple gifts. Something that was the norm for me. I liked an assortment when I was selecting presents. There were the salwar and kameez sets. Three of them. With contrasting or matching dupattas in her favourite dizzy lizzie fabric or very fine cotton. Weightless. Almost as if the haze that would appear before her eyes was making a peace offering of a bouquet of printed flowers this one last time. Before the siege. There were the lemon roses that she had adored in the past. A dozen of them. Without frills. And a ceramic vase. Deep blue and matt. Like an inverted cone. Its edges tinged in gold. Like they used to gild tea cups. A watch with a thin leather strap. Steel grey. Her metal one had begun to bother her. White dial with simple large digits. One that glowed in the dark. A metallic silver picture frame with a colour photograph of her and dad from some years ago at the botanical garden. A pair of blue rubber slippers for the house. A spectacle case with a sharp magnetic click. Round and olive green. With pale lemon flowers. I forget which ones. And for some reason a wall mirror. At least twenty-four inches in length and around eighteen inches in width with a dark brown three inch wooden frame inlaid with some form of burnished gold floral arrangements. Perhaps I had noticed that other than the mirror in her bathroom she had no dressing table to comb her hair. So this was going to be the one she could use. Later. In the afternoon. For tea. There would be the cake. Eggless. Chocolate. More for our greed for the dark stuff then hers.

She opened each gift with care. Being from a generation that liked saving the wrapping paper for reuse. Folding each opened sheet carefully. While making appropriately grateful noises over her gifts and making me feel good and happy that I had chosen well. None of this was forced. But there was an air of detachment that manifested itself without in any way lessening the warmth. I sensed it but it didn’t ring any alarm bells. Nor did I feel she was merely thanking me for that is what one did at gift openings. But then that wasn’t her way. Only when she arrived at the large mirror did she falter and solicit my assistance in opening it. I did. And held it for her to admire. Holding it in front of her face as she sat on the sofa chair.

She looked up at me. Not at the mirror. At my face. Her eyes serious. Quiet. Not saying anything. Then with what seemed for the first time an effort she smiled. Thanked me. And started to talk. About I am not sure what. But no longer about the gifts.

I arranged to put up a nail at her eye level hung the mirror. On the wall that faced her bed. Between the door to the room and the bathroom. Ease of convenience.

Strangely enough. I never saw her using it. She didn’t avoid it but she never looked into it. Continuing to comb her hair in the small bathroom mirror for the rest of the years she was with us.

Later of course it wouldn’t matter because her gaze had already turned inward. Not inward looking. Or seeing. Or meditative. Just. Inward.

The mirror is still there. On the nail. On the wall. In what is still referred to as her room.

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She carried crumbs. Freshly baked. Her own. Every single morning. The smell of bread. For as long as I can remember. For as long as she can remember. She was careful to leave these breadcrumbs. In every conversation. Like puzzles. To solve. Or clues. Ones that would help her find her way home. Later. Much later. When the mist from over there would begin to rise. Stretching. Starting to take charge. Like the inevitable damp. Clinging to things. In and around her. Markers in a treasure hunt. These planted hints. Concealed moles. An advance guard. In a war that would surely take place. In her innocence she had failed. To realize. The first casualty would be the power lines. Short circuited. The enemy would cut off her ability to recognize. To recall her masterplan. The very signs she had so diligently put in place. Now a part of an alien landscape. A geography lesson. Of her own making.

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Her father decided to name her Prem. “It means love,” he said. Later he would call her Prema ji. The “ji” was a term of respect reserved for older folk. But he liked using it for her. Signaling his love and respect for the little girl who would soon grow up to live up to her name.

They were comrades from the time she was four years old. Sharing secrets. And laughter. She was both the apple and the twinkle of his eye. The star he followed. Around their considerably large home. With all its twists and turns. Steps and courtyards full of whistling summer winds. Terraces that invited the winter sky into their home. And a well at the far end of the courtyard which had a colourful braided rope with tiny bells so that every time the father and daughter lowered the bucket a million chimes would go off!

It was like all the temples in the world had decided to ring their bells at one pre-ordained time. He delighted in shooting her every waking moment on his 16 mm camera. The birth of home movies! She didn’t mind. She didn’t pose. She wasn’t playing for the camera. She was just playing. The happy child she was. Full of the love of life. And he, proud father, doted. Adored. He was many things to her. Her horse. Her elephant. Her bear who danced to her tiny drum. Their time together was made up of playing hide and seek; flying kites; reading; and storytelling. They would read. To each other. She from the Urdu fairy tales that were doing the rounds in the Lahore of the thirties. And he from the screenplays he penned for a living. For the silent films.

I never met him. He had moved on before I was born. He must have known that his beloved land would soon tear itself into two. Not wanting to see this happen he simply walked away. To the other side. Leaving her behind. To finish his incomplete stories.

I heard these stories from her. His. Theirs. The family’s. The life before. And after partition. She had a knack for narrating the worst possible inhumanity known to man with a matter-of-fact style that made you feel that nothing would turn her into a bitter person. This was what people did to each other. One had to make the best of it. Survive. With dignity. Pick up the pieces. Rebuild. She had put their initial play to good use. And become a master story-teller. Not just at bedtime to us youngsters but at any time of the day. She didn’t just describe scenes. She lived them. Intuitively. Conjuring up an entire scenario before my amazed eyes. Complete with sound effects and unheard music. My ears hanging on to every nuance and tone of voice as she played the various parts. The characters coming alive. I would often reach across and touch them. Become a part of their life. And tale. It was a gift she had inherited. From him.

I decided to call her by her name. Prem. With a ji. So Premji. The loved one. In my case it was more because I grew up listening to all her family, sisters, her mother, her aunts calling her Prema. So before I could graduate in earnest to ma it was prem. And it stuck. Other people found it strange. Even annoying. They found it odd that a young person would call his mother by her first name. For me it was natural. And special.

And she? She was generous enough to let me do this.

For the rest of our lives together.

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There were days when she didn’t remember. Failing to realize something is amiss but nevertheless knowing something is not quite right. Hesitation. A parallel tango of knowledge with its lack. Of knowledge. Just the fog that visits unannounced. Entering without knocking. Creeping in from under the door. Like this morning. When only a moment ago everything was seemingly normal. The parting of last night’s curtains. Letting in the light. Bright. The gold of the tea. In the porcelain cup. The one with the wide mouth. Light. Glinting off the silver service. Into her eyes. The sparkle anticipating a day. One that was showing signs of beginning afresh. Like a promise. Like it had not known last night’s staleness. Then the walk. To the mirror. Anticipation. The smiling at an image. Of oneself. Familiarity turning to despair. In a single particular moment. Of knowing. Not knowing. The eyes staring. At the rising fog. Unable to register. Its rise. The image in the mirror. A face that stared back. But failed to see. Through the fog. Her face. No longer her own. The shutters were beginning to descend. The descent into the well. Always the descent. Each time. But never the same well.

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I held her in my hands. Her once cold body. Now warm. Hot even. Like a rising fever. Scalding my hands. Wanting something to remember her by. I squeezed my hands shut. Tight. Like my eyes. Till the tears came. Then I opened the hand full of ash. Slowly bent down. At the edge of the river. Itself charred from countless immersions. And let go. Giving what remained of her. Up. Into the care of the river. Watching her bob up and down. Make her way. Deftly sidestepping all the other remains. Charting her own course. Gone. All that remained was the gift. The scar. On the palms of my hands.

This too will heal.

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Born in Calcutta in 1953, Naveen Kishore received his bachelor of arts degree in English literature in 1973 and began working as a theatre lighting designer. He then established Seagull Books in 1982, a publishing program in the arts and media focusing on drama, film, art and culture studies. Today, it also publishes literature, including poetry, serious fiction and nonfiction. In 1987 Kishore set-up the Seagull Foundation for the Arts as a non-profit Charitable Trust. The Seagull School of Publishing was set up under the auspices of the Trust in 2012. Kishore is a photographer who has extensively documented female impersonators from Manipuri, Bengali and Punjabi theatre practices. In particular he photographed Chapal Bhaduri, a female impersonator of the Bengali folk theatre, Jatra, in a project entitled Performing the Goddess. He is also the recipient of the Goethe Medal and the Chevalier Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.