Monday, June 16, 2008
Aita - More later
By S. Mitra Kalita
Jambowati Kalita, wife of late Mohan Chandra Kalita, mother to eight,
grandmother to 20, great-grandmother to four and memorable to everyone
she met, breathed her last on 9 June in her son's residence in
Panjabari, surrounded by family and friends. It was the end of a
remarkable journey that began with her birth in the Kamrup village of
Gorput to marriage in Baranghati to settlement in Sadiya, where she
spent most of her life. In recent years, Mrs Kalita divided her time
among her family's homes scattered across Guwahati. Her heart—and
stories—however remained in an India fast disappearing, where
elephants paid respects before reporting to duty, where households
grew their own food and spun their own clothes, where family was an
inclusive word that meant neighbours and extended cousins.
Despite never attending school and being married at age 11, Mrs Kalita
managed to run several enterprises from home (tamul-paan, vegetables,
eggs, pigeons, cow's milk, bamboo), handle her husband's accounts and
even travel to the US and Canada with her thumbprint image as
signature on the passport and visa. She often detailed what she
learned in the West, from the efficiency of roads and cleanliness to
the tangible loneliness ("Sometimes all you will see the whole day is
one bird," she'd say) to the culturally profound ("Wrestling is fake.
Everyone in America knows.")
During World War II, Mrs Kalita recalled, she would run into an
underground tunnel with her family as soon as she heard the planes
overhead. She lived through the earthquake of 1950, playing a role
with her husband in the rebuilding of a ravaged Sadiya. In the 1980s,
when an MLA came to visit with the singer, artist and Sadiya native Dr
Bhupen Hazarika, Mrs Kalita sat them in her drawing room and listed
all the ways they needed to improve conditions: better roads, schools,
health care. Frequently, she was the voice enlisted by the local
community to articulate their demands. Mrs Kalita feared no one, not
the frequent dacoits and thugs omnipresent in the India of then and
now; at night, if they tried to threaten her neighbours, she would go
out with a kerosene lamp and yell, "Who is this dog who has come?"
(Fittingly, she died on the day of an Asom Bandh.)
She straddled traditional values with modernity and advocacy of
progress. Her three daughters never felt their gender was an obstacle.
Because her illiteracy prevented her from supervising studies, Mrs
Kalita forced her children to shout answers from work tables on the
veranda so they could check each other. Today, each daughter—Nirupama
Mahanta, Bimala Deka, Jyosna Deka—is working professionally.
With each of her sons, too, she shared a special relationship. Her
eldest, Mohesh Chandra Kalita, retired as a vice president from
Citibank, and lives in New Jersey. Her next, Krishna Kanto Kalita,
retired as general manager, Numaligarh Refinery Ltd, and currently
works as an adviser with the ministry of health and family welfare.
Her next three sons carried on the family's businesses: transport,
cultivation, contracting. She cared deeply for her middle son, Jogen
Chandra Kalita, treating each of his three children as her own. Her
next son, Dharani Dhar Kalita, inherited Mrs Kalita's curiosity, love
of storytelling and being with people. As for the last, Mitra Ranjan
Kalita, Mrs Kalita most likened her own temper to his, although she
also passed on decency and a sense of humour.
For her grandchildren, Mrs Kalita served as the ultimate source of
inspiration and a reminder that anything is possible. Like all
grandmothers, she indulged them but, unlike many, was not
materialistic in her demonstration of love. She sought to remind each
of them of their rural roots, how lucky they were but how far they
still had to go—always with hard work and honesty. At family
gatherings, people often remarked: What would have been if she had
been given access to education?
The lack of an answer implicitly conveyed the importance of
learning—for one's entire life.
Her words and ways could be harsh and damning, yet honest. She
remained calculating, shrewd, highly observant, frugal to her last
Yet Mrs Kalita never let a visitor leave without sharing a cup of
tea—and a trip down memory lane. In her final months, her own memory
failed her but she resurrected images of pre-independence Sadiya as a
British outpost and the details of each of her children's births and
temperaments as babies.
While movement to Guwahati was a necessity for the family, it was
clear Mrs Kalita preferred the days where all lived under one roof and
could be self-reliant. Ironically, in death she was granted that wish
as everyone—from seven of eight children to her American-born
granddaughter to her sister-in-law, who once lived down the road in
Sadiya—was by her side as she passed.
Her larger-than-life presence is missed but her family takes solace
and inspiration from her longevity and strength, a purposeful but
divergent path. In her children, grandchildren and the countless
people she impressed and touched, her lessons and stories will always