There once lived this temperamental Ox that swung its head at passersby, its menacing horns sending shivers down every spine that came within 20 metres. Why? Just because.
It was 1950, and the Ox lived in the vicinity of Ramapura in Benares (Kashi of yore and Varanasi for the modern folk). Same vicinity where a young free-spirited boy was growing up with his parents and eight siblings (he was the sixth born). Around 10 years of age, the kid had a notion to walk his own path, to do what he deemed to be right, and to always make his own stand even if it meant he stood alone against all odds.
One day, neighbours came running to his mother and siblings: “Arrey Shanti! Teenua ke bachai le! Oo Bail ke seengh pakad liya re!” (“Shanti save your son Teenu! He has caught the horns of the Ox!”)
Apparently the Ox, mad with rage after the initial shock of having his horns grabbed, tried to shake the boy like a rag doll. The boy, on his part, held on to the horns with all his strength.
Later, when the very real danger had passed and the Ox owner and other neighbours separated the boy and the Ox, with honours even, the boy’s simple explanation was: “He snorted and threatened me with his horns, so I caught them.”
This story was recounted to me by Baba, my father. The boy was his younger brother, Teenu (Surendra Kumar Mukherjee). I have heard the story several times (the last time a month before Baba passed away in 2015) and it has always been the same and my father’s comments each time always stayed with me: “After the first few seconds, both of them were just hanging in there for survival. I have never known anyone like Teenu my whole life- he was fearless to a fault.”
And this story pretty much sums up my uncle’s upright character and free spirit. He lived all of his life on his terms, taking the good, the bad, and the ugly in his stride. He had many faults, and he had many eccentricities, and he had many talents, and he had many achievements, many ups, many downs … like any other human being.
He taught my father how to swim. And how did he do it? Well, he simply pushed him into the Ganga, again and again, till my father understood that the only way he would let up is if he started using his arms and legs to swim out on his own. A strong swimmer, that’s how Kaka had learned himself: by jumping in to the river and deciding to stay alive.
Tonight I fly to Kolkatta to meet my aunt, and my brother, Shubho. I have been to that city a very few times in my life (3 times to be precise). The first time I went to Calcutta (as it was called then) was in the mid 1970s. We were travelling by train – Baba, Kaka and I. I saw most of that journey from the foot-board of the general compartment – we had no reservations and were travelling with a regular ticket in the unreserved compartment, which was packed to the door. This is how poor and humble-background folk in India travelled across long distances then (mostly we walked every place we wanted to go or took a tonga), and it is also how poor and humble-background people in India travel in India even now. Kaka and Baba took turns standing near the door and sitting at the door. I was mostly in my Kaka’s arms, especially when he squatted at the door … I distinctly remember watching the beautiful landscape of rural India pass by, quaint villages with fields, huts, ponds, buffaloes, children, dusty roads … all mostly upside down. Yep, the sky was below me and all the land above. It was because I was in Kaka’s lap, held in a secure grip, as he sat on that footboard. We were on our way to Calcutta because my aunt (Baba and Kaka’s elder sister) had passed away. It was a long journey from Delhi, and one that taught me a lot about endurance, trust, family bonds, duty, and courage.
This time I am travelling alone to attend rituals for the passing away of Kaka.
My salutations to Kaka: a hero and an inspiration to me; a man who (by example) taught me to understand the wildness in myself and to appreciate the importance of grabbing life by its horns every hour, every day.