My long-lost Cousin Mithu: A Tribute to Innocence

Bhaswati walks down the memory lane. She recalls her association with her cousin, Mithu, in a soulful account.

The title is a misleading, because she was never lost, and it is me who had been away, yet that’s the adjective that came to my mind when I thought about it after seeing her.

I was perhaps three or four when my father decided that it was necessary for his children to know all their relatives and be among them for learning social values etc. So we were there in that large house in a rather large estate in the headquarters of a district in West Bengal. But as it turned out, I felt quite lost in that house as there was no one of my age. My mother was absorbed, together with others, in the daily routine of the large extended family, and I remember myself taking stock of the house, the garden, the ponds, and as much of the neighbourhood as I could looking out the window. 

But it was different when Mithu was there. She was a cousin, one year my older, disappearing from time to time with her siblings – two little sisters and a brother – to see her extended family. But when she was there, we would play, and later go to school together. Mithu was my window to the world outside the familiar one. It was she who told me that a married couple did something in secret to make babies, and that babies came out of the place we urinated from. Really? The idea did not sound appealing. But she had lots of uncles and aunts and cousins as her source of information. So it was difficult to ignore her altogether.

We used to play together and in one game we often played, she would be the husband and yours truly the consort (no, we didn’t try anything secret or making babies!). As far as I remember the other cousins – Mithu’s siblings – were our children. It was a household of togetherness: we used to pluck fresh leaves and cut out round pieces from the centre to make puris; we would rush out to collect some sand from the corner outside the house and water from the pond to make halva which was topped with a layer of caramel made from powdered brick. We were dismayed to find our earthenware pots and pans, bought at the fair during the Rathayatra, the chariot festival, dissolving into the water. While buying we had no idea they had not been baked! Sometimes the family went on a tour and a branch of the guava tree was enough to carry a family of four anywhere in the world from Kashmir to Cape Comorin. While the head of the family would play chauffeur, the mother had to look after the needs of the children. We were a happy family.

Later at school she was in class IV B, and I in class III A. Not being in the same section had its privileges. I remember telling the head-master one late morning that I was required at home as my mother would have to undergo a surgery on her left leg. The unsuspecting gentleman granted me leave immediately. At home I was asked where Mithu was if the school was over. If the reader can’t guess the answer, only the students of section A were free to go home!

We left that city and I went to a new school in a new place. When I was in college, Mithu told me once over the phone that she was in love with a bank officer. I attended her wedding and got special treatment from her husband and her in-laws due to our special bond as kids. I visited her once in her new home, but as I pursued my studies and began living a peripatetic life, lost in touch with her since. I heard from other relatives that she had a daughter and a son. 

I saw Mithu the other day, after about three decades, when I happened to visit the city on work. She hasn’t changed much in all these years, to me a sign that she has had a quiet, happy life. We both talked about our games and she recalled an incident which I can still see in my mind’s eye.

Among the four ponds part of that estate, the largest one was just outside the backdoor of the house. There was a veranda followed by twelve stairs going down into the pond. The third stair was actually a slab, more like a sink, large enough for three to four children to sit on and play. During the rainy season, when the water level of the pond kept on rising, that naturally filled large stair would function as our bath-tub. If it was not cold, or not raining, children were given bath in that pond, and we were not supposed to step down into the water on our own.

One day both Mithu and I were waiting for someone to come and attend on us, but all of a sudden I saw Mithu swimming. Surprised, I watched her enviously as I thought this was again a new trick she had learned during the time she had disappeared last. When she kept on swimming, I thought it was my duty to warn her that she was going too far, and I begged her to get back to the shore. She didn’t listen. Then, as if alerted by an electric shock, I felt that there was something terribly wrong. I began screaming at the top of my voice, “Mithu is drowning.” I did not know where her mother was, but she appeared next to the tulsi pedestal at the top left of the staircase and dived into the water from there (yes, she was in a saree!). By then all we could see of Mithu was her head full of jet-black hair. But in no time my aunt reached her, grabbed her by the hair, and swam all the way back to the ghat. By now others had gathered and Mithu was carried up and laid down on the narrow veranda leading to the stairs. She was unconscious and had swallowed too much water. First the water was pumped out manually by pressing on the sides of her stomach. Then followed mouth-to-mouth breathing. After some time, she slowly opened her eyes. Her mother, my aunt, who was holding her breath all this time, burst into tears.

“It was you who saved my life that day,” recounted Mithu. “It was your mother” I said, hugging her tight, both trying to conceal our tears.

Pix from Net

Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Bhaswati Bhattacharya

Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a historian based at the Centre for Modern Indian Studies at Göttingen. She has recently co-edited 'The diary and photographs of Jan Kornelis De Cock during his trip to India' 1909-10 (in Dutch), Leiden: Instituut Kern. She has edited together with others special volumes of academic journals and has published widely in peer reviewed journals. She translates from Dutch into English and Bengali. Her 'Much ado over coffee: the Indian Coffee House and Neighbours of the mirror town: the Armenian diaspora in Indian Ocean and India', 1700-1947 are due in 2016.
Bhaswati Bhattacharya