MY SPACE – Nupur Barooah
When my beloved Niti Jethai, Suniti Devi, left us on January 27 last, it wasn’t just an irreplaceable loss for her children and their children, but for all of us in the extended family. And to all those she touched with her presence.
To me, she was always special and I loved her dearly. She was my father’s older (the eldest) sister. They were very close. To her, he was perhaps a bit different; the impatient, driven, athletic younger sibling who she continued to treat like a very young brother, even when he was well into his 70s – much to our amusement! He, in turn, looked up to her with devotion and unconditional love and she was, perhaps, one of the few people he always listened to, throughout his life.
Growing up, I remember my father’s favourite (and consistent!) recount from his own childhood. Infamously restless and energetic, he had, as a four-year-old, wandered off one afternoon to a ‘distant’ neighbourhood in the city. After a frantic afternoon search, he was finally found and, predictably, locked in a room by his furious mother, my grandmother. He would often regale us, rather proudly and with a tear in his eye, about how his two sisters got together and pleaded vigorously for several hours on his behalf. Ultimately, it worked, and he was spared the inevitable corporal punishment.
"As I got older, I developed a deeper appreciation of Jethai's personal resilience, her unconditional love for siblings, and most of all, the kindness and stoicism with which she approached all problems. She was our go-to person for key family decisions..."
Born to Labanyamayee Debi and Joy Kanta Barooah in 1930, Niti Jethai spent her early years in Jorhat and was the first female graduate in our ‘Doisungia’ clan – a remarkable achievement in Assam of the 1950s! From the beginning, she was progressive in her thinking and exemplified poise and grace. Gifted in intricate needlework and a voracious reader, my mother had a special relationship with her, often exchanging books and other reading material.
Jethai had an extraordinarily eclectic taste for someone of her generation. One of my enduring memories is from a visit during the Eighties when I was home on school holidays. She had just returned from a long stay with her son in England and of all topics, she and I would spend hours discussing contemporary pop music! Not only did she enjoy listening to renditions by the French pianist Richard Clayderman, she had also brought back records of the then-Grammy winner Chaka Khan! And this from someone who was entrenched in Indian classical music and equally conversant with traditional Assamese customs.
As I got older, I developed a deeper appreciation of Jethai’s personal resilience, her unconditional love for her siblings, and most of all, the kindness and stoicism with which she approached all problems. She was our go-to person for key family decisions, especially after our paternal grandmother passed away. The unspoken rule in the family – if something had to be ‘endorsed’, Jethai’s was the final word. So we all knew where to get the ‘sign-off! And the fact that she was so indulgent to us all obviously helped!
I last saw Jethai in Jorhat when I attended a wedding just under a year ago. It was a particularly busy time at work and I was struggling to fit in a personal trip in the midst of a hectic schedule with back-to-back travel commitments. However, I was also single-minded about making this trip, if only to spend some time with her on this special occasion. I now know that this will go down as one of my best life decisions.
When saying goodbye on the last day of the festivities, for some reason, I was struck by inexpressible grief. As I looked back one last time at this grand lady, surrounded by her loving family, sitting there in her trademark stillness, draped in a shawl that I had gifted her, I think I knew deep inside that there was that chance I might not see her again.
When I think of my aunt, I think of loyalty, dignity, stability, and grace. She was such an important part of our family. She may not have been a celebrity in the everyday use of the word, but she was truly special for my brothers and I and showed all that’s right about this life.
My world will be different without her and it will undoubtedly take a very long time to come to terms with this loss. The fact that she is no longer (physically) here will always cause us pain but she will forever be in my heart.
Until we meet again, Jethai.
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