Remembering Supriya Roy, my thamma
It was sometime in January or February in 2020 when Thamma (my grandmother) was scheduled to fly in from Mumbai to Delhi, to stay with us for a while in Gurgaon. I had only heard of a disease spreading fast across China and a few places overseas, over the news and social media. I thought since she was going to travel soon, I must warn her. With a mask and extra precautions, she reached Gurgaon safely.
We ended up spending two whole consecutive years (2020 and 2021, and the beginning of 2022), sharing a room and keeping each other company all day.
We always had a tradition of sharing a room. Ever since my grandfather passed away in 2014, Thamma came to live with us in Gurgaon for long durations, frequently visiting Santiniketan, Kolkata, and Mumbai from there. Being together during the pandemic was a blessing.
Everyone who ever met her, always spoke of her warmth, intelligence, kindness and generosity. I, luckily, can proudly testify. She was unlike anyone I had ever met, or will ever meet. She always carried with her a strong sense of empathy, dignity, gentleness and grace, always prepared to help and assist anyone who came seeking. Her wisdom was unparalleled.
Thamma’s embrace was always one of compassion and understanding, with an astounding level of patience and tolerance. She became a pillar for all around her, holding and safeguarding everyone’s secrets, easing people’s pains and worries, while going out of her way to ensure her family was always comfortable. It is only now that I realize that while she became everyone’s de facto therapist and problem-solver, she rarely shared her own troubles with others.
Turning 79 this year, a septuagenarian like her (a term she loved and continued using for the last couple of years to describe herself, always embracing her age) was fluent with technology. I have seen many her age struggle, and even younger, with smart devices and such. However, my Thamma was one who never shied away from learning, and was modern and open-minded in all senses of the word.
From helping me with my college essays, school projects, my cousins with their writing and studies, to proofreading her relatives’ works and guiding everyone, she was one of many talents.
An eminent Tagore Scholar, she served as an archivist and librarian at Rabindra Bhavan, Visva-Bharati University in Santiniketan, for over three decades, while authoring over 10 books, and curating exhibitions and talks all across the world. She possessed a severely rare gift of a strange, and amazing, balance between acute academic and intellectual knowledge with a deep emotional, spiritual, and empathetic understanding of the world around her.
Thamma cared deeply about her family’s touch with culture. At a younger age, when her three sons were children, she lived with them in Santiniketan working, while my grandfather, her husband, worked in Kolkata a couple of hours away, visiting a few days a week. While he would visit on the weekends, she would often take her sons to Kolkata on some other days. It was during these visits that she would regularly take them to various museums, monuments, and historical sites, showering them with books and such. She took them to similar places in Delhi and Mumbai, ensuring her sons had such experiences.
Thamma was also adamant to ensuring the same for her grandchildren, introducing us to Enid Blyton, Shakespeare, the Mahabharata and such. The Mahabharata was one thing she introduced many to. Always carrying it with her on her Kindle, she read it out to a number of people, from her family in Kolkata, Mumbai to Delhi, everyone would sit around and carefully listen to her.
Her mother, Lila Basu, as she would often tell me, introduced her to the world of literature, exposing her to the works of Richmal Crompton, Enid Blyton, the Bronte sisters, Mrs. Henry Wood, P.G. Wodehouse and more. Her first ever novel was Emma by Jane Austen. Her father, Jyotikanta Basu, was a well-known soil scientist, having worked with the Government of Maharashtra, then the Director of Soil Conservation, Government of India, and also with the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.
“My mother was a serious person, very generous and compassionate, but strict in bringing us up. She was not the mushy, sentimental mother most people have. Both my parents emphasized education and did everything to encourage us in our studies, without a sense of competitiveness. They instilled in us the quality of truthfulness. We never dared to speak an untruth –– that was strictly taboo”, a quote from Thamma for an interview I conducted for a school project in September 2015.
Thamma was born on the 13th of August, 1944, in the small town of Sholapur (or Solapur) in Maharashtra, while her father was working there. Throughout her life, she traveled extensively for work and leisure, touching almost every continent. Having lived in Santiniketan, Kolkata, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon, Faridabad, and briefly in Texas, United States, and Khartoum, Sudan— she was a bird with many nests.
She led a life of achievements and rare experiences, which she hardly ever shared due to her modesty. From having met every single Indian Prime Minister personally since Independence, getting her book launched by the Prime Minister of Japan, to spending an entire afternoon with the 14th Dalai Lama talking about Tagore and Buddha, her life wasn’t without its many adventures.
Dedicating her life to academia, she never sought fame or prominence. She never wanted a Ph.D, but helped countless get theirs. She was the one-stop Tagore encyclopedia in Santiniketan many relied upon, and traveled borders to visit. Her knowledge and understanding was rare, just like her willingness to help without hesitation.
All in all, she led a happy life, surrounded by her family and loved ones. There was never a moment when she was not optimistic. Even during her final days when she was hospitalized, she spoke of reuniting with her parents and my grandfather, never losing hope.
During the pandemic, her health started deteriorating visibly. Her breathing problems escalated, and she was suffering. Even during then, her priority was her family, while simultaneously writing and publishing an entire book.
She became the one individual I was closest to — she was my confidant, and I was her's.
In her life, she had one dream of living under one roof with her entire family, which is scattered across the country. While this may not have seen fruition, she spent her last days surrounded by them and all her loved ones, eventually passing away on the 28th of March, at around 11PM.
Just like throughout her life, facing many hardships, she was smiling and happy, until the end.
The legacy she left behind, will live on.
She now lives through all of us — her family, her loved ones, everyone she met and influenced. The stories she passed on, her memories engraved, her intellect and ideas preserved, and her guidance that shaped many. She now lives through us, with us, looking over everyone, just like when she did when she was physically present.
Thamma is evermore.
13th August, 1944 – 28th March, 2023