Essays from The Education of a Bengali Gentleman
The Moon in My Soup
By Susim Munshi
“Old nurses tales”, often called in many cultures and traditions, these tales, nursery rhymes, have warmed their way into the hearts of mothers and children across the world. “The Moon in My Soup”, or the moon in the bowl of milk, is one such age old song that I have experienced several times in my life. But it is impossible to explain why I clearly remember my grandmother singing this to me, lying in her lap, on a clear night in her home in the remote village of Galsi, Burdwan, West Bengal. A bright silver moon was playing hide and seek between some puffy, white cotton ball clouds, its reflection swimming in the milk my grandmother was feeding me from a silver bowl with a silver feeding spoon. I was an infant in the cradle of happiness and warmth, surrounded by the smooth folds of my grandmother’s white cotton sari, her sweet voice slowly lulling me to sleep after I had been well fed. She sang, “Oh Sweet Moon come down and place a light kiss on my love’s bright forehead,” repeatedly until the bowl of milk was all gone and my eyes fully closed as I went into a deep and sweet slumber.
These and many other dear memories brighten my life as I enter my own old age. The most comforting memories of my grandmother revolve around delicious dishes and delicacies as most meetings with my grandmother happened over breaks and vacations that we went to spend at my “mamarbari”. “Mamarbari” in Bengali stands for your maternal uncle’s home, which also happen to be our grandmother’s home. Going to “mamarbari” is one of the fondest memories for most Bengalis, each trip recalled with minute details. For us it was indeed a vacation full of feasting, my grandmother being the best cook for preparing traditional Bengali dishes, appetizers, main courses and desserts, all from scratch. As I grew up into a teenager, sometimes I spend an entire month long vacation at my grandmother’s, so my uncle and aunt could get away from Galsi for a length of time. During those times not only did my grandmother prepare my favorite dishes, but she would spoil me further by insisting on hand feeding me, at least the dessert.
Then one day I grew old, got married, and, as fortune would have it, moved to America with my family. It took us seven years to save enough for our first trip back to India, accompanied by our seven year old daughter. Galsi, my “mamarbari”, and all of our family and relatives had featured in many of the colorful stories I recounted to our daughter to help her stay connected with her family, “seven seas away” (from a popular Bengali song “sath samudra parey.”) When we landed at Kolkata airport it felt like the whole city had turned up to welcome us home for the visit. It was still the early days of digital photography, the Internet and social media. What pictures we had been developed, printed and mailed home to the family. It was a very costly affair to do the same in India. What I am trying to say, is that we had very few recent photographs of our very large family of parents, sisters, cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws. I could see very well the change in appearance seven years can make. Yes my parents, uncles and aunts all looked much older. However, I could hardly recognize my nephews and nieces of whom the oldest was fourteen and the youngest three when we had left for America. My daughter showed remarkable patience as her cheeks were innumerably squeezed and kissed, and at times she was lifted high up into the air by a strong pair of hands. We must have been both the headlines and the spectacle at the airport that day, not forgoing that our family is also loud and boisterous, and not one from hiding their joy in public. It took no less than half hour of figuring out the combination about who should ride which car for the drive back home. Everyone especially wanted to crowd into the vehicle with my daughter but of course that wasn’t possible.
Invitations for lunches and dinners, parties and celebrations, continued in quick succession for the first days. There were gifts to be exchanged, stories of good and hard times to be shared, newborns to be introduced to, and quiet visits to elders who had passed on. Soon the days had rolled into two weeks and plans were made to visit my grandmother and “mamarbari” in Galsi. Not sure of how we would fair in a Bengal village in the middle of summer after our seven years sojourn in America, and especially concerned about our daughter, we decided to make it a day trip to Galsi by car, planning to arrive there by noon and getting back to Kolkata by nine at night. We were accompanied by my parents only so that we would be comfortable for the three hour long trip to Galsi. Once we left Kolkata and its suburbs the houses, stores, shops and traffic began to trail off and the road opened up to the lush green paddy fields of Bengal. Paddy fields reached up all the way to the highway; farmers could be seen bent over at their waist tending to their crop. Cows stood lazily under clusters of trees with cowherd boys resting in the shade. The smell of the earth, the paddy, the country all mingled in the breeze as the car steadily picked up speed on the open road. It was then that my mother chose to speak a little softly to share with us that my grandmother had really aged, that she had become weak and frail with age, that she had almost lost her hearing and her sight. She told us this so we could prepare ourselves and our daughter for what would probably turn out to be a not so happy visit.
When you reach Galsi the paved highway stops at the crossroad with the main village road. The car pulled off the highway and began to follow the red earth road that twisted and turned its way through the village and finally came to a stop in front of mamarbari. A crowd of children had been racing behind the car all the way. Their cheering must have alerted my uncle, because soon after the car came to a halt, my uncle opened the doors leading into the house and stood at the foyer, hands resting on his hip, his mouth open in the biggest look of surprise as we began to empty out of the car. We had tried to phone him before our trip but the phone lines were out. My father mailed him a postcard but it must not have arrived either. He knew we were in Kolkata but had no idea of when we would visit Galsi. Once again my daughter endured all the hugging and kissing. Word went around the whole village that we had arrived and soon the house was overflowing with people. We must have spent almost all of an hour sitting or standing in the big living room adjacent to the foyer. Village people and village air have a special smell of country freshness around them. The sounds of cows mooing and goats bleating carried through above the din of meetings and greetings. Finally we were able to tear away from the throng of people pouring into the house and make our away across the courtyard to the living quarters.
When we entered my grandmother’s room she was lying down on her expansive bed. My grandmother used to be very heavy and big weighing close to two hundred pounds or more. But now she was reduced to a thin and frail body, her cotton blanket wrapped tightly around for warmth in the middle of a hot summer. She awoke and rose to a seating position in her bed, and my cousin quickly tucked some extra pillows to prop her up. The first words out of her mouth were, “Is that Susim? Come here my baby. Come and give your old grandmother a hug. I have missed you all these years.” For someone who could not hear or see, how did she know we were there. Or had she been living out this moment in her mind all these years. I approached her bed, touched her feet for her blessings and sat down beside her careful not to hurt her frail limbs. We embraced in a hug that seemed to last for an eternity. It was my grandmother who loosened her grip on me and inquired if my daughter and wife were there. They approached my grandmother and also touched her feet for her blessings. Not having the benefit of sight, she ran her hands all over their faces and hands one at a time and planted kisses on their foreheads. Soon after she addressed my aunt and asked her to bring the box of jewelry she had been saving to give my daughter over the years since her birth. The box also contained a set of jewelry she wanted my daughter to have for her wedding for which she would surely not be around.
My daughter had never met such an old woman before. She sat mesmerized by her great grandmother’s side soaking in all the love and attention bestowed upon her. She knew it was probably the most special occasion in her life. She let my cousin help her try on one jewelry after another with all of us admiring her extra specially aloud so great grandmother could have a sense of our excitement and joy. Gradually my grandmother became tired and worn out. My cousin gently removed the pillows from her back and helped her lie down on her bed. We each took turns giving her a kiss and a gentle hug and began to file out of her room.
The rest of the day passed quickly sharing photographs, stories and memories. My aunt had been preparing an elaborate meal for us which we thoroughly enjoyed. After the hot afternoon sun had begun to set in the horizon, we all accompanied my uncle on a tour of the grounds and the farms. My daughter was excited to be amongst the calves and baby goats and chickens. We all went to stand near the paddy fields and brushed our hands through the stalks of rice. On our way back home we stopped at our “Kalibari’, place of worship for the mamabari Kali diety. When we got back home the moon was beginning to rise. My aunt spread our several straw mats on the courtyard and we sat down under the open skies to recount more stories of both happy and sad times together. We imagined that my daughter was an infant and had her lie down with her head resting on her grandmother’s lap and we all sang the beautiful nursery rhyme, “The Moon is in My Soup”.
Four weeks later the whole family came to bid us goodbye at the airport for our flight back to America. My father pulled me aside and handed me an envelope with a letter and the request not to open to read the contents before our flight had taken off. Even though it was a farewell gathering we were all smiles and laughs, once again the loudest group at the airport. Finally we began to proceed to pass through the security lines to the passengers only waiting area were we no longer could see the family. Once boarding was announced we found our seats and got comfortable for the long flight back. After the plane took off, I reached for the letter in my pocket and shared with my wife that my father had expressed the wish that we not read the letter before we were airborne. My father has a most distinctive, legible and steady hand in writing letters. Even the lines on a blank page where evenly spaced and straight. It goes without saying that he never made any spelling errors or crossed out any words. His letters flowed smoothly, from the beginning to the very end, the last goodbye and warm best wishes. It was always a pleasure to read and share his letters.
He had written that the day before our departure he had received word from my uncle in Galsi that my grandmother had passed. Everyone was asked to keep it quiet for our sake because the hassle of rearranging the trip would be too much of a challenge at such a short notice. He continued to write that after we were safely off, they were headed to Galsi to participate in grandmother’s last rites. He also asked to forgive him for withholding the information. However, he wrote, he knew that her blessings, and all of theirs, would keep us safe and well, and that one day they all hoped to see my daughter at her wedding day adorned in the jewelry gifted her by her great grandmother, one of the finest persons he himself had ever known.
I looked out of the window. Night had descended. My daughter was fast asleep, exhausted from all the attention she had received during the entire trip. A thin moon swam in and out of the clouds. Her head rested on her mother’s lap and her feet were on mine. Together we softly sang to her, “The Moon is in My Soup.” She stirred a little as if she could hear us but her eyes remained tightly shut and her breath came softly as she continued in her sweet sleep.