The last thing I asked Chhotka before he died was what he had eaten for lunch.
"Shukto, alu poshto, maccher jhol," he said over the phone.
And are you all set for the surgery tomorrow? How are you feeling?
I knew his reply before he said the word: "Bindaas!"
It was his favourite word, bindaas. In Bollywood parlance, kickass, fabulous, rocking it.
I had no clue until I Googled the word before writing this piece that the origin of bindaas is the Gujarati bin-dās, which in turn comes from the Sanskrit vinā + dāsya. It means free, without servitude.
Of course it was his favourite word, because Chhotka was the freest man I've ever known.
I now wish our last conversation had gone differently. I wish that instead of asking him about lunch, I had asked him how and where he had picked up this word, filled with teenage joie de vivre, as his slogan.
Chhotka never set foot in college. He didn't even complete school. Early in his life, doctors told my grandparents that he had a congenital heart defect and would struggle to live beyond thirty-odd. Dadu and thakuma, who raised their four sons and two daughters in a tiny, impoverished village in Bengal in the 1950s and 60s, feared that their youngest boy would not be able to bear the rigours of walking a couple of hours daily to and from school in the neighbouring village. They chose prolonging Chhotka's life over giving him an education.
According to family lore, Chhotka hardly sulked about the deal he'd been handed. He made the most of the freedom that came with it. He didn't get a high-school degree but taught himself enough to hold his own in life and go on wild entrepreneurial adventures. He didn't marry but left behind many whose lives he had touched and healed. He took care of Thakuma and Chhoto Pishi, my youngest aunt, who was born with a disability. He taught me what it means to be an ally long before I knew the word. And he made a fool of the doomsaying doctors by living many more years than they had allotted him.
After he died six years ago during a last-gasp surgery, the doctors said it was a miracle he had survived so long.
They were wrong again. Chhotka didn't just survive. He rocked it.
Any memoir on Chhotka I attempt is bound to disappoint me. Human beings have complicated stories, and I am not sure I am ready yet to seek out the complications in Chhotka's. This is by no means his complete story, only a vignette that is pressed deep inside my memory, the memory that I most desperately need to cling to right now. Even six years on, I have not fully mourned him. I have delayed thinking about what his death means to me. But I must start the process now.
I am scared I am beginning to forget Chhotka's voice. I doubt I will ever forget how I feel about him, but I need to try and make that feeling concrete, lest I do.
A good way to make sense of Chhotka is by cataloguing the astonishing array of careers he held as a response to his lack of conventional education. He was the first serial entrepreneur I knew, a scarcely believable feat in a lower-middle-class family where 'business' was a bad word.
My grandparents lived much of their lives in dire poverty. Dadu, a pious Brahmin man, barely managed to feed his family off the money and food donated by his disciples. He would often return home after a monthslong spiritual tour with an entourage of hungry mendicants, infuriating Thakuma who never had enough to feed her own children.
Of their four sons, Chhotka was the only one who had the aptitude to take forward Dadu's work. For a few weeks every year, he would disappear on his bike and ride from village to village, meeting disciples, counselling them on godly as well as worldly matters, and returning with gifts in kind – rice and vegetables – and some money. He enjoyed these excursions. He would return exhausted but contented.
As I grew older and honed my disdain for gurus and the caste system, I developed a sniggering attitude towards this trade. I wasn't prepared for what I saw on the day of Chhotka's funeral.
The funeral was held in our ancestral village, which my family had left sometime in the 80s after my father and two of his other brothers secured jobs in the city. They decided to pull down our sparse but beautiful ancestral home made with clay and wiped clean daily with cowdung. All we have there now is a small patch of land and a single brick room that was never plastered or painted, a sad-looking reminder that when you move on from history, you always leave behind something incomplete in your trail.
On the day of the funeral, Chhotka's disciples came in dozens of trekkers and Maruti vans and Ambassadors from all over – Dumka, Dhanbad, Asansol, Raniganj – overwhelming the little space.
They howled and beat their chests in front of his garlanded photograph. "Gurudeb, why did you leave us so soon," they wailed inconsolably, like they do in movies. Some men, much older than him, told us stories about how Chhotka's wisdom had helped them through major family crises. Others said how much they looked forward to his loud, warm "Koi re, kothay sobai?" at their doorstep every year. My father and uncles looked a little stunned by this outpouring of grief by strangers. They had no idea of the hefty stature of their frail little brother, the one who was supposed to live a shrunken life.
Apart from his spiritual vocation, Chhotka once started a shop selling clothes in partnership with a close friend. After that business failed, he started an operation as a civil contractor, bagging smalltime construction deals. My family had no influential connections, so it's a mystery how he broke into this labyrinthine field. He once lost a large sum of money he had invested in a project. He was upset for a while but then went right back in.
My father and my other uncles were unhappy with Chhotka's progressively risky ventures. They were worried about his ever-looming prognosis. My father would fight with him to stop exerting himself. "Look at you, all skin and bones," my mother would plead with him. "Stay with us awhile. Eat well. Rest."
"Why should I depend on my brothers to feed me?" Chhotka would say. "Don't worry about me. Ami bindaas achhi."
A shared fragility
Chhotka's bond with my parents was special. My father treated him like his firstborn. He was still a young boy when my mother came into the family, and she too immediately adopted him.
For his general cheeriness, Chhotka was capable of great anger. Especially towards the end of his life, he would get frustrated with his failing body. He had multiple accidents and broke his leg twice. He would cough and wheeze and get breathless at the slightest strain. He was bitter that despite all its progress, 21st century medical science had washed its hands of him. On his most painful days, he would lash out at everyone for not having done enough to give him a proper chance. Nobody except my parents dared approach him at such moments.
He was also a finicky eater and would grunt and grumble about Thakuma's cooking. But when Boudi, my mother, fed him the same dishes he found otherwise unpalatable – bitter gourd, spinach, drumsticks – he would polish them off and ask for seconds.
"No one can match Boudi's cooking," he would grin.
When I was young, with both my parents working, Chhotka became one of my primary caregivers. I now think we were connected by a shared fragility. As a child, I too was extremely sickly. Doctors suspected I had all the makings of a cardiac disaster.
When I was 11, a decorated heart specialist in Kolkata decreed that I should give up all childlike activities, including playing sports, never have anything cold or bathe in cold water, and live on penicillin injections – a sort of nuclear option – for the foreseeable future. The injections were painful enough that I had to miss school the day after with fever and a swollen butt. Chhotka was often the one looking after me on such days.
I was too small to compare coping strategies with him. It's only now that I am beginning to understand why I never felt as safe – or strong – with anybody else in my family as I did with him. Why the sound of Chhotka's bike stopping at our gate filled me with a feeling that I now recognise as hope. Or where I got the courage to play vigorous sports and rebel against penicillin after a couple of hellish years.
Before I left home for college, my parents took me for a battery of tests, anticipating something terrible. "He is doing great," the doctor told them. "He will be fine." It was another family miracle.
"You always, always come to me"
But I am getting ahead of the timeline. As a child, I was mortally afraid of my father and his violent anger. One of the lowest points in our relationship came after I decided to study humanities in high school, defying my father's command that I take up science. My father had been a bright student of History, but he ended up working a dangerous and backbreaking job in a steel plant while his science-trained friends made executive positions. He desperately wanted me to avoid his fate. Following our standoff, I felt stifled, disowned, lonely.
One day, Chhotka took me aside. "Remember this byata," he said. "No matter what you decide to do in life, Chhotka is always in your corner. Don't be afraid of anything. Just do what you want to."
"Do what you want to" could have been dangerous advice to an angsty teenager. I guess Chhotka trusted me enough that he never veered from his stance. My most favourite story featuring him took place during a train ride to Delhi. Chhotka was coming to drop me off to college after summer vacations. I was sleeping on the upper berth and didn't realise when my packet of Gold Flake cigarettes fell from my shirt pocket to the lower berth, where Chhotka was sleeping.
He simply woke me up, handed me the pack, and quietly advised me to put it in my pant pockets. I was mortified that my vice was exposed before an elder, but Chhotka acted as if nothing had happened.
By second year of college, I was in the grip of depression. I was drowning in culture shock and struggling to throw off the yoke of the small-town moralisms that I had been brought up with, irrelevant and even repugnant in my new world. What I most feared was falling in love with someone from this unattainable universe, lest it expose me as the embarrassing misfit I was convinced I was. It was the first proper existential crisis of my life, and I took to self harm to numb the turmoil within. On the one hand I was reading Neruda's love poetry, and on the other hand I had burn marks left from stubbing cigarettes.
Chhotka had a word for young love. He called it 'inti-minti'. "Kicchu inti-minti chholche naki?" – is some inti-minti up? – he asked me one day when I was home for vacation. It was all the encouragement I needed to launch into a rant about anticipatory injustices, how oppressive the world is for young people who don't play by its rules, how social status gets in the way of love, how I resent not having the right to marry anyone my conservative family wouldn't approve.
Chhotka could have said anything. He could have, for instance, pointed out that I was 19 and was being absurd by fretting about marriage.
Instead, he heard me out and then said, "Now you listen to me, bhaipo. You can bring home whoever you want, so long as they want to be with you. If your parents don't like it, you come to me. You always, always come to me."