I have the most supremely inconvenient habit of drifting off to sleep the moment I board any vehicle.
I developed this habit back in kindergarten when my father used to drop me off at school on his motorcycle. I would rest my forehead against his back and doze off the instant he started the engine. He had to converse with me throughout the ride to keep me awake; time and again he held the handlebar of the bike with one hand and clutched my hands with the other to avert my fall.
Over the years, this quirk put down deeper roots. Photos of my open-mouthed, drool-spilling slumbers en route to family vacations and batch picnics often made the rounds on social media, stirring up fits of hysterical laughter.
Quite reasonably, my mother's anxiety soared upon hearing that I would be travelling to Kurigram alone. She, along with everyone else, had already got there for my cousin's wedding; I had to delay till the eleventh hour to conclude the pending tasks for my master’s thesis. She feared that I might miss my stop for oversleeping and end up in a different location, or that my belongings would be snatched away while I was asleep.
I managed to catch an early morning bus and called my mother to let her know everything was fine. Seeing the empty seat next to me, a lump rose up to my throat. As long as the person didn't throw up, or spit now and then, or get into bloody fistfights with the conductor, I'd be fine, I reassured myself.
As always, I dozed off instantaneously and woke up to my mother’s call after an hour. This was when I noticed someone seated next to me—a bespectacled woman, squinting at her phone.
She wore a wrinkled white sari placing one end over her head as a veil of sorts, with wisps of pearly white hair peeking through. The frame of her glasses was held together by scotch tape. She had the quintessential grandmotherly face—the overly affectionate and humble type, exuding the warmth of a summer afternoon. I felt a huge wave of affection just by looking at her.
I understood that she was struggling with her phone.
“Dadi, do you need help with your phone?” I enquired.
Her face lit up. She grinned, displaying her betel leaf stained teeth, "Yes Baba, please. Could you check if my son called?"
“Sure. Where are you going?”
“Rupsha, Baba,” she answered energetically. The place was two stops after where I’d get off, about fifty miles away.
I looked through the cracked screen of her archaic Nokia phone. “No call yet. Do you want me to call your son, Dadi?”
“Yes Baba, please do. His name is Mahmud. I’ve been learning how to make and receive calls but I tend to mess up regardless.”
I had already started to like this woman. As I scoured through the contacts on her phone, she asked me where I was going; she listened with undivided attention as I described the wedding ceremony. She giggled, “You’re going to have so much fun! I’m jealous.”
“You should come with me!” I beamed. I then asked her about her home.
“I stay at an old-age home in Mirpur, Baba,” she replied in a guilt-riddled voice. My heart sank upon learning this; I wondered if I had overstepped my boundaries. The phone kept ringing but no response came from the other end. “No one’s picking up, may I call someone else?”
“Yes, please try Arpa, his wife,”
“She’s not picking up either.”
A deep sense of melancholy settled on her face. “Maybe they’re busy, they'll call back!” she tried to smile.
“So you’re going to your son's?”
“Yes, Baba. Haven’t seen him in two years,” she choked on her words.
Then after taking a deep breath, she said, “He’s my only child. I conceived him after three miscarriages. He and his wife now have big jobs, they’re always busy. I understand that they don’t have the space, time or will to accommodate me in their lives any more. I neither go overboard with my expectations nor do I claim their affection as my right. But as a mother, my heart aches. So I’ll keep doing my thing, even if he doesn’t reciprocate. Hence this surprise visit!”
This painfully delicate revelation rendered me speechless—this was the kind of thing you’d watch in movies or hear stories about, not encounter in person. Her take on the relationship with her son, heartrending as it was, baffled me; beyond the façade of her frail physique lay such mountainous grit! She didn’t let her motherly instincts cloud her thoughts. I fumbled for words of comfort but miserably failed. I deflected, “If they don’t know you’re coming, who’ll pick you up from the bus stand? How’ll you get to their house?”
“Baba, I’ll figure it out. I have their address noted down, I'm sure I can request passers-by to help me with directions.” She then stroked my hair and added, “Don’t worry about me, sweetheart.”
But I was genuinely concerned.
She retrieved a glass jar filled with milky white squares of shondesh from her bag. “Dear, I made these myself for my son. Would you please try one?”
“Dadi, I’m fasting; I fast on Thursdays.” I answered meekly.
She bit her tongue and mumbled, “Ma sha Allah.”
Our conversation picked up pace. I told her about my family and university. She talked about losing her husband to cancer two years ago. “In our forty years of marriage, we always ate from the same plate.”
She also talked about Billu, the chubby mother of five kittens at the old-age home, who loved to curl up in bed with her. And Belal, the old-age home caretaker who loved her dearly and addressed her as Ammajan—he was the one who dropped her off at the bus-stand.
I dozed off shortly thereafter and woke up to my mother’s call. The bus was standing still while Dadi was fanning me with a folded newspaper. Who knew how long she had been doing this? I requested her to stop and volunteered to do it myself. She smiled, “I insist, dear. They said there’s an issue with the engine, it’ll take a while. You sleep, I’ll wake you up when your stop comes.”
The sights and sounds around me receded into the background again.
When my stop came, she woke me up. I started collecting my stuff hurriedly. When I got up from my seat, I offered to call her son or the old-age home.
“No need, Baba. You get down fast.”
“Dadi, may I stay till your stop? I’ll help you find your son’s home?”
“You have no idea how much your thoughtfulness means to me. But sweetheart, I promise I’ll manage.”
“Give me your phone number.”
“Baba, I don’t have it memorized,” she said downheartedly.
Meanwhile, the bus’s conductor started yelling at me. My cousin who came to receive me had got inside the bus. He said, “Hurry up, brother.” I got down. I could see her peeking through the window and waving at me with a broad grin.
I got immersed in the festivity of the wedding and forgot about Dadi. Upon unpacking my bag, I found that jar of shondesh neatly tucked into my clothes. My heart twitched. Could she find her son’s home?
That night, a nightmare soured my sleep.
She was sitting alone on the bench of a tea stall that was about to be closed. Its owner was yelling something at her but not a word reached her ears. She was squinting at her phone with unwavering attention, unaware that its battery had died. Her glasses, split in half, lay beside her on the bench. Her eyes glistened with tears.