I was in Kolkata last month. A tiny trip with my sister. Having her undiluted company for three days, was an absolute treat. Both of us, in different cities with different career orbits and family adventures, has been skimming past each other for a very long time.

The last monsoon showers kept the city breezy and cool, with grand sunsets and green foliage thrown in for good measure. The city was gearing up for its annual show, and there was this atmosphere of joy and camadarie everywhere. Puja pandals were being assembled, and there were cleaning sprees at home and shopping sprees on the streets. We were surrounded by the sights and sounds of Kolkata—beautiful women draped artlessly in crisp cotton saris, pavement sellers calling out to us with those typical, Bengali phrases which can never be translated into any other language, the yellow taxis driven by men who had sucked out their flesh in cigarette smoke, the smell of samosas, fried fish and a zillion other delicacies which can be relished non-stop, in every market.

Friends, Cousins, Mama, Pishis, Jetu..they have been living in Kolkata for ever and they are the main reason for an annual trip from the hills. There is affectionate banter, delightful meals, family stories and so much more to bring back as memories.
This time was not different either.
This time, it was all about playing the cards dealt in life.

Mama, our evergreen, energetic and charming maternal uncle, was our host as always. Divinely delicious meals, spacious airy rooms and comfortable conversations were there for the asking. He has reinvented himself after retirement and the tragic loss of his beloved wife. Honed his photography skills, learnt Photoshop skills and social media, replaced arthritic knees and he has taken to striding all over the world with one finger on the camera trigger. He is feted by the entire artiste crowd of the city, and dancers hope for that “best-picture-ever” when he sits in the third row of the auditorium and clicks away. I love him for his cheerful, never-say-die attitude…I love the warmth and affection he showers on me…and I love the way he keeps his cloak of positivity and gratitude around him.

I have a charming paternal uncle in Kolkata too…Jetu is 94 years old and this time, we could see the life force ebbing away. Earlier trips were all about getting amazed at his memory, his flawless recitation of Bengali poems and English prose, his wry humor and easy charm. Though he couldn’t recognize us now, he exchanged niceties, and remarked how grey hair made me old… That last observation was so typical of him! I love the way Jetu has remained his dandy self, even while senility seeped into other parts of his being.

However, my two Pishis (paternal aunts) were the stars of this trip.

Choosing to live in an airy, clean and comfortable retirement home turned out to be an excellent decision for my youngest Pishi. In her early eighties, she is surrounded by Bengali literature and lore. Good meals, shining corridors, happy friends and a quiet, sunny room to call her own. I love the way she is satisfied with her choices, and making the best possible use of every day, including being active on her smartphone, and exchanging Facebook notes with nieces and grandkids.

I have kept the best for the last…I remember her as this smiling, quiet, affectionate aunt who would be hovering around her professor husband, and sheltering her special daughter, my elder cousin, from the world. The passing years have taken away her husband, her mobility, and finally, her beloved daughter. Confined to an orthopedic bed in a small and shining clean flat, tended by three women from a local nursing agency….alone for all practical purposes, but very much in the thoughts of her sister and my father in distant Delhi, I would have assumed that there would be self pity, anger…at the very least, some dissatisfaction ?!

Nothing could be further from her truth. Beautifully radiant from within, my Pishi was delighted to see both of us. My sister was meeting her after a long time, and every bit of news was reason for cheer. Our favourite childhood snack had been prepared, that fragrant Darjeeling tea (which had to be made just so) was sipped and savored by us, and there was laughter and joy aplenty. Not a word of remorse, not a whiff of self-pity, not a trace of frustration…just a pure and deep serenity emanated from her.
How did she do it?Could her peaceful and serene outlook come from choosing gratitude and optimism over the usual options we associate with paralysis, loss of loved ones, and solitary living ?

I love the way my Pishi glosses over small and large setbacks with a smile and a remark about how she is coping well, thank you. Spectacles, dentures, care-takers, bank cheques—nothing seemed to be an issue.

Pishi looked at this selfie taken by my sister and remarked, “ I haven’t seen my face for a long time.. I am looking quite nice in this picture!” That genuine delighted smile which came with the remark, bowled me over.

A month and more has passed since I returned from Kolkata, but those hours spent with my aunts and uncles remain etched in my heart.

I am jotting down those hours in words, so that I can read them repeatedly and remember that living is all about making choices.
Lest I forget that I can choose to be the way I want to be, even when age and adversity will pull me down.
Lest I forget that we can choose to be heroes in our own lives… heroic souls who may not be feted or admired by the big world, heroic souls who may touch the heart of a distant niece and change her outlook to living, in the most positive way possible!

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