Like all well brought up Bengali girls of my time, I was told in early childhood never to address anyone elder to me by his or her first name. As I had numerous 'kakas' and 'pishis', each one had a special name to his or her credit. So, my father's brothers were 'moni'jethu, 'shona'kaku, kaku'moni', and 'kutti'kaku and my aunts became 'moni'pishi, 'phool'pishi and 'chchoto'pishi.
My earliest memory of phoolpishi (the flower aunt), was when I was about 3. My mother had gone out leaving my brother and me at home. I was tired, hungry and crying. How dared she leave me? Didn't she know it was my lunch time?
The ever smiling phoolpishi took charge of the whole situation. She bathed me, fed me, and even told me a story, all without losing her calm. In fact, it was a well known fact that whenever a recalcitrant person arrived on the scene, phoolpishi would sweet talk and gently bring the situation under control.
She was a very charming lady in her youth. Once I had asked my mother why phoolpishi was called so and she replied that it was because she was as beautiful as a flower. She was gentle and soft and had all the kids completely engrossed in her stories. She had the ability to make wonderful things out of waste. A beautiful ring from a strip of golden ribbon, a doll from a wrapper of a candy, a purse out of a cigarette pack for the doll. All the things fascinating for a little girl and I never missed a chance to be with her.
But over the years, for reasons unknown to any of us,from the ever smiling charming lady that she was, she changed into somebody we really didn't know. She became whimsical and eccentric. She openly showed her preference to her sister's daughter over us - her brothers' children. I was anguished by so many of her inexplicable actions. She became a puzzle and I slowly shoved her existence into one corner of my life.
Her beauty, graciousness and love had withered away, leaving behind an empty shell.When old age made her dependent on her family, not many people showed much willingness to support her emotionally. I certainly did not have the patience to deal with her many whims. She was not the loving flower aunt any more and I was no longer the little girl easily swayed by songs and stories.
So when she came to Mumbai for a visit, most of us were reluctant to host her. We were busy with our own lives and it was difficult to accommodate an ageing relative. As luck would have it,she fell seriously ill when it was my turn to host her. She was in the hospital and for a while it was touch and go. When I finally got her home, I realised for the first time how illness and old age stripped off every vestige of dignity one possessed. She could not even take a bath on her own. She needed constant monitoring and was totally dependent on her caregiver for all her basic needs.
Though it was heart-wrenching to see her like this, She became an extra load on my shoulders. I already had other responsibilities and looking after her became a chore that I really did not have the time to do. My whole life revolved around doctor visits, medicines and suitable diets for her. And I resented it so very much.
One day I came home to find Phoolpishi showing my younger daughter how to make a doll with paper. Abruptly all my resentment drained off. I remembered how it was when I was a child. The day Phoolpishi took care of me when my mother was away. And now I was doing the nurturing. It seemed like a pay-off.
My childrens' patience with an old and sick lady taught me a lot that day. It taught me that life was like a flower. It blooms in the morning, giving out it's fragrance. Spreading happiness and love. And at night it slowly withers away. Its former beauty only a fading memory in every one's mind.