A Cold Case

She was born on September 11th, 1922 and was my Boromashi (oldest aunt), my mother’s sister, a year younger than her. I don’t know when she died. One day in 2003, she left a house on Sarat Bose Road, Calcutta (now Kolkata) and disappeared into the maw of that pullulating city. No one that I know ever saw her again.

Purnima (pronounced Poor-nima), full moon in Sanskrit, was the second child, daughter of a homemaker and a civil servant. There would be two other siblings, a younger sister, four years later and a brother, born posthumously 9 years later.

Boromashi was my favorite aunt. She was my favorite relative bar none. To this day I don’t know exactly why. She didn’t cook great meals. She didn’t tell great stories. She did the following:

  • Dress impeccably. Her armoire was like shelves in an Indian fabric store ---folded, color- coordinated, fabrics, sarees, blouses, shawls, and undergarments, washed and ironed.

  • She laughed a lot. She gossiped. She had a take-no-prisoners straightforwardness that she used like a machete in a fight.

  • She was my “spinster” aunt. She never married and I never knew her to have a romantic relationship. In the world she lived in, this was striking indeed.

  • She worked in secretarial positions all her life.

  • She never owned a car or any other transportation and elbowed her way through the overburdened transit system.

  • She read constantly, both in English and Bengali.

  • She saw movies every week.

  • And she’d talk to my sister and me. She’d write us long letters when we were away during summers. And she gave us gifts, carefully selected, perfectly wrapped, bought from her meager salary, for birthdays and holidays.

Like most Bengali families of my generation, there was far more below the surface than we could imagine. A few years ago I was in New Delhi, sitting with one of my cousins (the child of my youngest aunt) and his wife told me that she had heard from Boromashi that my father wanted to marry her and not my mother but my grandmother said that as the oldest daughter, my mother was the one to be married first. Also, I imagine, Boromashi had far more earning capacity as a trained secretarial help, knowing the essentials of shorthand and typing that were prerequisites of office work, than my mother who’d gone to college and was supposed to be headed for a school teaching career, if any.

My grandmother was widowed at age 32 with 3 girls under 12 and a new-born boy in the early 1930s. She became a sewing instructor in a girl’s school and took in kids tutoring them in English and elementary math. The story goes that when my father wanted to marry my mother, my grandmother agreed with one proviso---that he look after the whole family till they got settled. That was the agreement and that’s what I witnessed. My youngest aunt was my dad’s secretary. She was apparently a whiz at shorthand. When one day she was faltering while he was dictating and then burst into tears, he found out that she’d met a young guy and was in love but too scared to talk to my grandmother. What a great story. I never checked it out. I was an usher in my first pair of long pants, age 6, at her wedding. That I remember.  

Boromashi took over as my dad’s secretary. She was very much like my father. Fastidious, tidy to a fault, very well attired, and a perfectionist. Sometimes I’d go after school in the late afternoons to her office and help her stuff envelopes for some mailing. Also, Boromashi had a remarkable ability of anyone that I knew in my life at that point. She could tell my father that she disagreed with him and that he was wrong, and my father would listen.

Boromashi (right) with my mother. Probably 1943-44.

Long after both my parents had died, Boromashi showed me a photograph of my father that she kept by her bedside. She told me how much she liked him. She didn’t say love. But that’s what I think they had.  There was a period when I was in my early teens when my father was traveling a lot between Bihar (where we had a house) and Calcutta. Boromashi went with him. Once when I was in single digits, Boromashi disappeared. There was a mass frenzy. I tried to find cover by diving into books or going out to play soccer in the rain with friends while the adults tried not to raise their voices but the ceiling rose and fell with the anxieties in the room. Later, I found out that that by father had gone to all the YWCA rooming houses and was finally able to track her down. Of course, I never asked her any of this. Today, I could write a soap opera. Was it a love affair gone sour? Was it an affair with a man or a woman? And on and on.

For a chunk of time when I was growing up, Boromashi lived with us. My grandmother had given up her rented apartment and lived in our house in Bihar. Boromashi went away each Saturday to be with her friend, a woman who was a teacher and her husband who was a dentist. They lived in the posh part of Calcutta near restaurant row and “New Market”, which was built in 1874 as a covered market housing over 2,000 separate stores. It was originally built so that the colonizer Brits didn’t have to mingle shoulder-to-shoulder with the “natives.”  I wanted to hang out with her and resented this departure, I remember. She’d always come back with tales of the movies they saw, the food they ate and how late they stayed up at night.

After my father died, my mother came back to Calcutta to live with Boromashi, in the same house that they had grown up in, where my grandmother had a share in a joint-family Indo-Victorian two-story house with a courtyard. Number 3 Mullen Street.  It was worth a fortune in real-estate by then. Now there’s a skyscraper of boxed condos on the site. Five years later, my mother had died and that was the last I saw of Boromashi, in 1988.

In 2004, my friend drove Arnav, my oldest son, then thirteen, and I into an unpaved alley, masquerading as a single-lane road and parked in front of a corrugated gate in the eastern edge of the city, close to where I grew up. This was a home for the indigent, widows, women who had no families, were old and sometimes mad, living out the last few years of their lives. A shelter of sorts. I’d visited a few shelters for women of domestic violence. I’d spoken to the administrators through barred windows, explaining in Bengali I was looking for my aunt who’d disappeared and rattling off my antecedents (the school that my father ran was known throughout the city) to prove that I was legit. No luck. And so, I enter the courtyard with scraggly grass and withering flower beds and shingled-roofed one-story rooms in an L-shape. I see women mainly in white cotton sarees (the sign of widowhood) gawking at me. Some openly curious and some through a miasma of failed yesterdays. I wanted, oh how I wanted, to suddenly recognize some gnarled bent-over woman, however lost to this world, as my Boromashi. If I were writing a soap-opera, I could make it work my way. All I could do is to remember her, combed and pulled back hair in a bun, starched clothes, thin as a rail, proud and loving. And, what would be in character, saying “fuck you,” though she never cursed in real life.