Raising a glass to Rani Mashi

Anjana Basu | Updated on February 23, 2018 Published on February 23, 2018

Within her lay shores of Sri Lanka, Lahore, Chennai and Bengal. Her columns spewed wit and humour, and her old-age home was where nostalgia flowed over drinks and conversations

Mayalatha Rani Sircar — that was her full name, the Mayalatha coming, possibly, from a Sri Lankan ancestor. But I called her Rani Mashi. She was my friend Sanjay’s widowed mother. She had grey hair, an imperious manner and spoke in a vaguely British accent. The Sircar family moved from the relatively accessible South Kolkata to the depths of Alipore at the time I knew them; while they lived upstairs, downstairs lived Rani Mashi’s sister-in-law. It was evident that upstairs and downstairs did not get on very well.

I knew Rani Mashi had a daughter who had married a Brazilian and lived in Washington, though I had never met her. Sanjay oscillated between China and Australia and, ultimately, settled in the latter, leaving his mother to her imperious independence in her upstairs flat, with its bearskin rug.

Though she could have been yet another grand lady content to dominate her household, Rani Mashi wrote columns for a once legendary newspaper on the life and times of the boxwallahs (corporate sahibs) she had known. Her writing was full of wit and humour, but true to her feisty nature, she used to haggle over every comma with the paper’s sub-editors. She had a point because her prose was colonially precise, but — sub-editors being sub-editors — would argue and lose every time. They would be ducking under desks when she arrived; not that she ever revealed that — the stories came from the sub-editors.

Rani Mashi had grown up in Lahore, moved to Chennai and mastered Bangla with a proficiency that enabled her to write a paper in the language. She was, in every respect, a woman of independence and character, with a decided opinion on everything. So troubled was she by her sister-in-law living downstairs that Rani Mashi decided to exile herself from her apartment to an old folks’ home in Salt Lake — then an unthinkable concept and Salt Lake, an unimaginable distance away from civilisation as the Bengali upper middle class knew it.

The old bearskin rug that Sanjay coveted was rolled up and handed over to be shipped to Australia.

She had her reasons, of course — independence and freedom from the bother of arranging meals or chasing household help who never turned up when needed. She found herself an attendant named Krishna, whom she would call every few minutes in the evening to do her chores — ultimately, Krishna was one of the few with her till the end.

In that conservative place, she was like a cat among pigeons. Eight o’clock in the evening was the civilised time for a tumbler of whisky. Not scotch or single malt — but Blender’s Pride ferried over by her nephew once a month. I would never be there long enough to raise a toast to her in Blender’s Pride, almost always making do with sober apple juice served by Krishna. We sat in that room surrounded by books, with a photograph of her husband perched on the bookshelf, and talked of people she was afraid to forget while a filmi soap sobbed in the background.

She had her knee replaced and a cataract operated on while her investment manager tried to balance her books and find her missing health insurance papers. The physiotherapist visited regularly because a fixture refused to connect her limbs. Eventually, even going to the church on Sundays gradually faded out of her life, though sometimes the Parish cleric would come visit her.

By the time the tale of her life wound down, she had two books to her credit — Dancing Round the Maypole and Strains in a Minor Key. Both books took light-hearted jabs at Calcutta’s life and its elite, telling tales of Christmas cakes from Nahoum’s, gas meters in Chowringhee flats and all the nuances of being Christian with a distinguished family lineage. At the time she wrote them she had moved far away from the city centre.

Rani Mashi would flip through her diaries, trying to remember the names from those books. Sometimes she would mention a visit from a niece who lived out of town or her granddaughter from America. Sometimes she would ring up frantically, trying to recall something she had forgotten. and then hesitate over my name, though in her heart she always knew it perfectly well. A thread of fear remained unexpressed because she was never one to give in to it.

In the end the conversations between us became more about Krishna and the missing evening attendant than anything else, though she was still in touch with the librarian friend who had helped her with her second book.

She refused to write any further or even make the effort. All stories come to an end. So did Rani Mashi’s. Perhaps the refusal to write further was a sign. There is a sofa heaped with papers waiting to be cleared — the bearskin in the Alipore home would have wept.

Anjana Basu is a freelance writer based in Kolkata

Published on February 23, 2018
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