It came one fine evening, a phone call from Moon Moon. She was calling from Belle Vue Nursing Home: “Please speak.” I was in for a pleasant surprise. From the other end came a voice, slightly heavy, but still dripping with the same sweetness. It was none other than Suchitra Sen! She just said, “Please come, I want to see you.” I immediately asked, “When? Today, or tomorrow?” The answer came, “Immediately. I am well today. I may not be so tomorrow.”
That day, January 5, I had come back home and was writing for my next book. I had not kept any work. Immediately I called up my nephew Abhishek, and within five minutes we were on our way. Inside me was dancing a strange excitement. I had not met her earlier. What I knew about her was, like the rest of us, from what I had seen on the silver screen. Like countless other Bengalis, I was a helpless but willing prisoner to the fervent emotions evoked by the evergreen Uttam-Suchitra screen couple. I was now going to meet that Suchitra – our world-conquering goddess!
I had come to know just a couple of days earlier that she was in Belle Vue, undergoing treatment under Dr Subrata Moitra’s supervision. It was earlier that day only that I had gone to the nursing home to enquire about her. But respecting the fact of her long self-imposed exile, I did not try to meet her. Instead, I spoke to Moon Moon and her daughters, Raima and Riya, Dr Subrata Moitra, Dr Samarjit Naskar, and the CEO of Belle Vue, Pradip Tandon. My only prayer was that she should get well soon. This time round, the call to meet her came from the dream-weaver herself.
At the nursing home, Moon Moon, Raima and Dr Moitra took me to her cabin. I felt like she was waiting for me only. It is difficult to express in words that feeling on first meeting her. As soon as I entered her cabin, she called me to her side. Taking my hands in hers, gently stroking my head, she said, “Stay well.” I also comforted her, stroking her hands. I spoke to her for a long time, for a part of which we were all to ourselves. Before leaving, she said, “Do come back again.” I left her in a cheerful mood.
WB CM paying her last tributes to Suchitra Sen
Till January 16, I had visited her every day, except one day when I was not in the city; even on Thursday evening I had gone to meet her. But on Friday morning, it was her lifeless body that I stood in front of, paying my last respects. She was a most dear departed.
Some days, I even spent two to three hours beside her. The second day when I went to see her, her breathing was troubling her more. However, the doctors themselves told me that as soon as I was there, the oxygen level in her blood had shot up and she had started to breathe normally. And this happened every time: as soon as I went near her, her breathing would normalise. Moon Moon used to say, is this ‘Mamata-magic’! But I do not want to go into all that. A bigger gain for me was the day she asked me, “Who are you to me?” A few news outlets translated the meaning of this query in a crude mocking manner, to indicate that so sick was she that she could not even recognise the chief minister. I only laughed to myself. I did not feel like explaining anything to anybody. But today I can say that that was not what she had meant. The question came to her lips from the deepest recesses of the love and care she had for me. I had answered, “I am one of your family, someone very close.” She had smiled, a glow of peace spreading across her face.
After that day, whenever I went to meet her, even if she was too weak to speak, she would signal for me to come over to her. She would just hold on to my hands. Or caress my hair. Ask me to have some tea or coffee. All over her hands, holes had been pierced by doctors to insert tubes for various purposes; many of those places had developed black marks. I used to caress those places, and she loved that. They pained her a lot. I had asked the nurses to massage ointments over those places. But she never really complained much about her condition. Yet, I have seen from close quarters how hard her daughter and granddaughters, and of course her doctors, tried to make her return home fully cured.
Suchitra Sen as Paro in Devdas
The other day only we were discussing, since she herself is unwilling to stay in hospital for long, it is better to care for her at home. All adequate arrangements, as in a hospital, could be made at her home. There was talk also of her being treated to khichuri
. She loved khichuri
, and I told her that one of these days I would cook it for her and we can all enjoy it at her place. Alas, none of this was meant to be.
There was something else she loved, which I came to know. The Geeta Dutt song, ‘Ei sundar swarnali shondhay, e ki bandhane jorale go bondhu’, which she had lip-synched to in the film Hospital
, was a favourite of hers. I had told her that after she got well and returned home, I would one day go and sing it to her. That was also not to be. All is memory now.
For the last few days, her health had not been particularly stable. Not only the doctors, even we could gauge that. Still no stone was left unturned. Towards the end, she had almost stopped speaking. I tried my best to cheer her up, speak about things she loved, like having khichuri
. But in a corner of my mind, dark clouds had started gathering.
On Thursday, as I was on my way from Nabanna to Belle Vue, I came to know that her condition had deteriorated considerably. The doctors were in despair. Still, when I reached the nursing home, I tried my best to cheer everyone up, to give hope.
Then I entered the Mahanayika
’s cabin. She tried to open her eyes, she held my hand. A drop of tear trickled down her face. Dr Moitra said, “During your treatment, we have given you a lot of pain. I am asking for forgiveness. Please forgive me.” I think Suchitra Sen herself wanted to be relieved from the pain. She wanted to let go, and with dignity. That is why, towards the end, she used to be irritated when needles had to be pierced to draw blood for testing; she tried to refuse when doctors wanted to put her on non-invasive ventilation. She had told everyone clearly that she would not let herself be put on ventilation. She knew her time had come.
We too knew it. She was about to leave us all. So I took up with the administration and doctors to keep everything in order in case she passed away. Everything should be done as per the wishes of her family. She had kept herself in self-exile; she did not want her face to be seen by the public. So we ensured that it would be kept that way even on her final journey.
Scene from the ever-popular song 'Ei Path Jodi Na Shesh Hoy' from Saptapadi
Is Suchitra Sen just a romantic heroine? After seeing her up close for the last few days, I have come to know a different Suchitra. Suchitra the romantic heroine would always remain a fond memory for many of us. That tilt of her head, that lovelorn look, that dulcet voice would hold us, and generations to come, in thrall. But inside that romantic Suchitra was another Suchitra – one that is radiant, rebellious, standing up fearlessly against wrongs. This side of her came up in the film, Devi Choudhurani
, in which she looked like she was not really acting, but living the part. Actually it is this mental toughness which enabled her to act so effortlessly in all her films. The same I would say for the Hindi film, Aandhi
. There too the powerful character of Indira Gandhi that she portrayed was actually a reflection of her true self. Some people have been asking me, “As someone who has fought relentlessly against wrongs, did Suchitra Sen have a special regard for you?” I am not supposed to know the answer to this question. The one who knew the answer is no longer among us. But this I can say. Before asking for me that day on phone, she must have made some idea of my work. After all, I have received her heartfelt blessings these last few days, which I will carry all my life. It is this mental toughness again which helped her face death fearlessly, to know when her time had come, to not unnecessarily prolong her life beyond the natural limit.
The other side of her which I want to speak about is her sincerest belief in the goodness of religion. We all know that she had taken diksha
at Ramkrishna Math a long time back. But the amount of time she spent alone in her prayers in her thakur ghar
is something to marvel at; this transformation, considering that she was the reigning diva of commercial Bengali cinema at one time, the heart of any party, as all her contemporaries say. Even during these trying times in the last few days, flowers and charanamrito
would be sent regularly to her from Ramkrishna Math. The maharajs
from the Math visited when she was nearing her end.
But despite the calmness which came as a result of her immersion in religious activities, she was moody. If she was happy, she could make everyone laugh. If not, her face made it clear. I have seen this myself. But still her regard for people was never any less. Even two days before her death, in that extreme state of health, she did not forget to greet me with a proper namaskar
. And she was so prim and proper that, even when sick in hospital, she ensured that her lip cream was applied regularly.
As Aart Devi in Aandhi
The inevitable question would come up now: What did she look like now? Her more-than-three-decade-long self-exile had ensured that in people’s minds was still alive that youthful look. Let me be frank about it. This question had arisen in me too when I was going to meet her. So what did I see? People would be surprised to learn that she was as when she left the world of films. By this I mean that other than some inevitable signs of age, there was nothing to suggest that she was not the same. She had not broken down in any way. After all she always held her head up high, and such people can never really break down. This thought hovered in my head as I stood before her dead body. A calm and beautiful face, as if sleeping peacefully.
Till the end, the way she always held on to herself, her decisions, her self-beliefs, has made her immortal. And we remain happy witnesses to her immortality.
Written by the Honourable Chief Minister of West Bengal, Ms Mamata Banerjee.
Obituary translated by Anushtup Haldar for Team M3.tv