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The Universe is a person by Tanuja Chandra

The filmmaker remembers her aunt who featured in her last documentary, says that when older people depart, entire cosmoses of histories are lost

brunch Updated: Nov 01, 2020, 14:16 IST
Tanuja Chandra
Tanuja Chandra
Hindustan Times
The author with her aunt, who starred in the 2019 documentary Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha
The author with her aunt, who starred in the 2019 documentary Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha

Last month, my aunt, Sudha, passed away. She wasn’t young, she wasn’t in perfect health, she wasn’t in the midst of some pressing endeavour for which her family needed her. By most standards, she didn’t leave at some greatly inopportune time. But still, so many people, most of whom had met her only in a film [the documentary Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha], felt bereft. As if it was a personal loss.

Why should it have been? Was it because when she spoke of death she snickered as if an old friend had taken too long to visit? Was it that she stole chocolate in the dead of night as her older sister slept beside her, a sister whose lackadaisical ways annoyed her, who couldn’t care less if their shared home was spic and span or whether the jackfruit preparation tasted just right? Why would the last goodbye of an old, finicky lady residing in a small village in north India be mourned by strangers?

Quite a bit of magic

It might be only now, after more than two decades in the business of storytelling, that I’ve had a tactile taste of what’s known as the ‘magic’ of cinema. How else would viewers be drawn to sisters arguing about the virtues of cow milk versus buffalo milk, bickering because the younger one hoarded sarees or the older one never stuck to a precise sequence while making fruit salad? Did a slender documentary in which any kind of love is only whispered of behind the other’s back, immortalise Sudha Bua, something she repeated to me often? The messages of condolence that I and my producer received seem to indicate so.

“Maybe old people, when they go, take with them anchors that hold us steady”

Where does this fondness come from? Haven’t we collectively decided that there is a ‘sell by’ date after which folks are retired to an island of quiet anonymity where we have stopovers on our spare days, days when we tear ourselves away from all our crucial work upon whose axis the world turns? My aunts lived exceedingly happily on one such innocuous island, a place where vegetables grew outside the kitchen, where peacocks came to graze, where half a dozen people of varying communities took care of them and lounged about and chatted, ate meals and smacked their lips on tangy sips of affection. One of them, a doddering man almost as old as my aunt, served as night guard, in case the sisters called out for assistance. Maybe we long for this.

They are the world

Maybe old people, when they go, take with them anchors that hold us steady when waves of heartache, failure, sorrow, infirmity, thrash against us, threatening to throw us out to sea. Maybe when aunty Sudha spoke of the ideal end for her – a sudden, massive heart attack, in the throes of which she’d fall and have travelled onward even before she hit the ground but stopped a bit short, recalling that she was younger than my other aunt by a good nine years, and clearly wouldn’t be the first to go – well, this makes me laugh and cry. An estimation with all the possibility of being correct and yet, turning out to be so wrong; is this not exquisite in its faltering, its humanness?

A still from Tanuja Chandra’s documentary
A still from Tanuja Chandra’s documentary

I feel like old people are universes, each housing inside her lakes, ravines, villages, high-rises, bridges, shopping malls, libraries, amusement parks, cinema halls, winding roads. When an old person goes, all these, in one fell swoop, disappear. Several locations are shared with others, yes, but when those in turn, leave us, that universe is chipped away little by little, until many, many universes are gone.

We must, just absolutely must, archive these cosmoses. The ones we can. So that long after they’ve gone silent, these complex, unique, staggering worlds of varying kinds, of varying languages and ethnicities, of cultures as varied as black and white, would magically come alive again and brush our parched hearts with their feathery wands. Virginia Woolf wrote, “I still have this childish wish for marvels, large or small, I still believe in them.” Is it not a marvel that decades, maybe centuries later, people might watch two aged, impossibly wrinkled sisters plodding along with walkers, arguing whether it should be bitter gourd for lunch or chickpeas?

Tanuja Chandra is an author as well as a filmmaker. She is known for movies like Dushman, Sur, Sangharsh and the Irrfan Khan-starrer Qarib Qarib Singlle.

From HT Brunch, November 1, 2020

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