He Died Young …

Bubai, Capt. Soumitra Paul

He was my younger brother, the youngest amongst all our cousins. But the one with the largest heart and the greatest generosity of spirit. His loving and affectionate nature won him friends everywhere. My late husband, Tridib, started his eulogy at my brother’s memorial service by saying “Bubai was my brother-in-law, but with his  love and affection he became my very own younger brother….” That sentence epitomised my brother.

Bubai to his family, Gunny to his friends from school and Soumitra to the rest of the world, he was 5 years younger than me. He was born in Calcutta on December 15th 1962. When he was a few months old we went back to Cochin where my father, an officer in the Indian Navy, was posted at that time. He was a quiet baby, so quiet that when he crawled into the kitchen and pulled the grinding stone onto his 11-month old baby fingers, my mother did not hear him till he started bawling. The first phalange of his middle finger on the left hand was almost totally severed, hanging on by literally a thread ! He had to be rushed to the Naval Base M.I. Room and the finger stitched back. Luckily it healed perfectly.

Bubai and I in Delhi in 1969

He had no demands, no tantrums, but immense zid(determination) and a will of iron. He was around 3 ½  years old when we moved to Wellington, in the Nilgiris. My father was a student at the Defence Services Staff College. Two incidents stand out from that time. It was cold and Bubai had some infection for which he had to be given injections. A nurse friend of my mother’s agreed to come home to give him the shot. The first was ok – Bubai was caught unawares and the shot administered amidst a lot of howling while my mother held him down. The second day the lady arrived just when he was being  taken for a bath. He saw her, and immediately scampered off, dripping with oil, and hid under the bed in the extreme corner, on the stone floor in the cold, till the lady went home! Needless to say that was the end of all injections. I don’t think he ever liked the lady after that even though we remain good family friends even today.

Another day he wandered in from the garden and insisted that a stray dog had bitten him. There was nothing to indicate this but this dog did visit the house off and on so to be on the safe side, my parents walked over to the Pasteur Institute down the road and checked with the doctor. We were advised to observe the dog for the next fortnight. The pooch was enticed into the outhouse with food and kept there for 15 days. We fed it three times a day, did not let it out so it messed up the place thoroughly, chewed through all the extra sofa coverings and curtains the house owner had stacked in there, grew fat and healthy. When we finally let it out with no signs of rabies, it adopted us and refused to leave. Bubai, if I remember rightly, became good friends with it !

The Pauls, Bubai and me with parents, Calcutta, 1978

He was one of the most generous people I know. He gave away everything if he thought somebody else needed it. If he didn’t have what they needed he bought it and then gave it away. He would take a trunkful of clothes and other things whenever he went on board his ship and would return some months later with nothing – he had given away everything, including this uniform because somebody else did not have the money to buy new things. The only things he came back with were gifts galore for the family; I do not remember him ever buying himself anything.

This habit of gifting started in childhood. He must have been around 5 years when he took Rs 10 (a biggish sum in those days) from my mother’s purse and bought sweets from the colony grocer and distributed it among his friends. My mother did not realise that the money was missing. Emboldened by this, a few days later he took Rs 100, got another shopkeeper to change it into Rs 10 notes which he then distributed amongst his friends and told them to go buy what they wanted. On neither occasion did he get anything for himself. But the grocer got suspicious and marched all the kids to our place and complained. As a result he was reprimanded by my mother. Nobody thought to see the generosity beyond his actions.

He was a good student but had never studied Hindi before he was admitted to Class 1 in Cambridge School in New Delhi. He could not cope with the subject so as punishment the teacher would not let him go out and play and would not let him eat his lunch. So this little 5-year old boy who left home at 6 a.m. after breakfast,  got to eat his next meal 9 hours later when he returned home, exhausted and famished. He never complained about his teacher but stoically bore the scolding he got at home for not having eaten his tiffin. It was a while before my parents figured out what was happening and spoke to the school about it.

He had a very good ear for music and a great sense of rhythm. We used to learn Hindustani Classical Music from Chhayamashi, a Naval wife. He was the youngest in class, all of six years old. We had to play the harmonium ourselves while we practised our bits. Bubai was too small to do that, or so we thought but he managed to lean over and across the harmonium and use the bellows with his left hand while he played the reeds with his right and also sang the notations correctly. During Durga Puja one year, it was 1968 or 1969, he played the “raja” in a children’s play that was staged on one of the evenings. He was so thrilled to be allowed to put on a false moustache and wear a crown and sit on the throne and preside over matters. He was even happier when the play was televised for Door Darshan and he got to scold me, the maid who had stolen a gold necklace, on national TV !

As a child he was also called Bhutta  – I have no recollection of who named him so. But he referred to himself as Bhutta. Once, in Cochin, some family friends of ours took him to visit one of their relatives. Bubai got hungry after a while, but too polite to demand food – he was around two years old then – he announced in Hindi  ” Bhutta‘s stomach is empty” ! When asked by the hostess what he would like to eat he firmly said “Kishen (chicken) aar porothha (and paratha)“. I am not really sure how she managed to procure these at such short notice but she did. Bubai did not meet them ever again but when his body had to be brought back to India from Barcelona, where he lost his life, and his wife had to be flown back to Calcutta, this very same couple, based in Geneva at that time, went all out to facilitate the process. Strange, the coincidences we come across in life.

Bubai, 2 and a half years

When Bubai was around 2 1\2 years old we moved from Cochin to Bombay. In those days there was a severe shortage of accommodation for Naval personnel.  So when officers were transferred they usually stayed with other officers or in awful emergency quarters till they were assigned their own accommodation. We, Bubai, our mother and I stayed with the Boses – Subroto and Sreela. Our father, I think, stayed on board the ship he was posted to – probably INS Mysore. Bubai was very close to the Boses all his life. Uncle and Aunty were his surrogate parents. Their daughters, Sohini and Ronjini, were his two younger sisters. He cut short his time in Pune, with his new born son so that he could be in Calcutta for Sohini’s wedding and help in all that needed to be done. Unfortunately he passed away before Ronjini got married, strangely enough, on what would have been his wedding anniversary.

Being 5 years younger, in typical Indian tradition, he was told to call me Didi, once he started speaking. But he had a mind of his own even then (which my daughter has inherited in full measure, except that it started at an even earlier age in her case) and insisted on calling me Chumita. I don’t know when and why and how he shifted to “didi”. But didi I remained to the end, sitting very uncomfortably on the high pedestal he put me on. I did nothing to earn or deserve that place but he stood firm in his decision to keep me there. Once, in one of their frequent heart-to-heart discussions, Tridib had asked him what kind of wife he wanted. He very seriously replied -someone like yours – and then got reprimanded by brother-in-law as it sounded very incestuous !

Playing the saxophone, extreme right

When Bubai was in Class III, his best friend – Arup Aditya – was sent to boarding school. Because of the frequent transfers, many Service Officers sent children to residential schools so as not to disrupt their education. Bubai wanted to go too but Ma was adamant that he stay with the family. But when Bubai decided, he stood steadfast in his wishes. He stayed quiet for a couple of years. At the end of Class VI, when we moved back to Delhi, he decided it was time to remind our parents of his desire. So he appeared for the entrance exam for Lawrence School, Lovedale, in Ooty. The exam was in January, we would be informed about the results in April or May. But just in case it did not work out, he was told by Baba he had to try and gain admission in a school in Delhi. He was not happy about that. But he had to perforce cave into our parents’ orders. He got into DPS but refused to join. He was so confident about making it to Lovedale that he would not let Baba pay the admission fees to DPS (Baba may have paid the fees to be on the safe side). God was on his side and he joined Lovedale. He loved school, did extremely well in academics, excelled in sports and in cricket, learned to play the saxophone and made wonderful, loyal friends who remember him with love and affection 27 years after his demise.

TS Rajendra – Passing out July 1981

His heart was set on becoming a Mariner but he wanted the Merchant Navy not the Indian Navy. When asked why he always said the money was better but money was never a motivator for him so I am none the wiser about the reason for his choice. After finishing school he  joined TS Rajendra, the training ship for mariners. That again is an interesting story. He was made to apply to the IITs, to NDA and to a few colleges along with TS Rajendra. He did not study for the IIT exam, he walked out of the NDA admission exam after half an hour saying he would not embarrass the family by failing as he had answered enough to pass and he finally applied to just two colleges in Madras. He joined Loyola College on the condition that he would quit the moment the Rajendra results were declared because there was no doubt that he would get through. And he did. And completed the one-year training course successfully, winning the Silver medal at completion.

Bubai on board a P&O ship as a mid level officer

The only  major black spot during his tenure on Rajendra was that he could not attend my wedding ceremony. It was during term time and they were extremely strict about giving leave to students. The only reason they accepted was the death of a parent, not even critically ill parents. Baba could have pulled rank – he was a senior serving officer in the Indian Navy – and pushed for and managed a day or two days leave for Bubai but Baba being the person he was would not ask for favours of any kind so my brother missed an important event in my life. He never forgave Baba for being so rigid but I doubt he would have done things differently had it been him in that position. He was just as honourable and ethical and averse to breaking laws or taking undue favours.

As it happened he was not present at my engagement ceremony either. He was confined to bed in our home in Wellington with a broken leg while the ceremony was held in Delhi. He consoled himself saying he would be there for the wedding but that was not to be either. Coincidentally, Tridib was unable to attend both Bubai’s engagement and his marriage ceremonies, thanks to the demands of the corporate world.

In Navy House Goa, February 1981, the Pauls with Tridib and our maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother

Bubai enjoyed cooking and was always around to help with the preparations and the actual cooking. Once when Ma and I were both unwell, he politely declined offers from our neighbours, primarily Hashimashi (Brig Anilesh Basu’s wife) and Jayanti-aunty (Col DB Ray’s wife), to send food home. Instead he cooked and served and tended to both of us. Another time we had guests coming over for dinner and the cook went on unscheduled leave. He took over making parathas for some 20 odd guests.  Both these incidents took place when he was not even 12 years old. Tridib and he kept house for about 6 months when I was in Calcutta for my first delivery. Tridib proudly told people – it was a joint effort : Bubai cooked and he ate. I thought it prudent not to enquire about how the rest of the housework got divided.

Bubai with my children Ayan and Payal, a few months old

My brother was very good with children and extremely adept at handling even very tiny babies. He practically brought up Ayan, the first two years of his life, doing everything for him. I used to feel quite redundant and Tridib relieved, that he did not have to manage a squirming, screaming bundle of humanity. Bubai did not get to spend too much time with Payal but in the little that he did, he was just as doting a Mamu as he was with Ayan. But no matter how much he indulged them, there was always an underlying firmness that did not let them get away with bad behaviour of any kind. He would come back from his sea trips with toys and clothes and chocolates and other goodies for them. But he also taught them how to look after their things, how to share them with others, how not to take any of it for granted.

Bubai was not a fussy eater as such but there were some things he did not like. He hated brinjals but didnt know how to say no when he was served the vegetable. And Indians have a habit of forcing you to eat even  when you can’t or don’t want to. So to circumvent this situation, he started telling people he was allergic to brinjals and nobody forced him to eat it anymore ! I happened to tell my children this story about their Mamu and his ingenuity. Payal stored it away in the recesses of her mind. She dislikes coconuts and other nuts of all kinds, so while still very young, she took to telling people she was allergic to them. I did not know this till I visited her once at Rishi Valley (a residential school where she studied) and requested her house mother to ensure that she ate almonds every day. The poor lady was shocked to know that as a mother, I was not aware of my daughter’s allergies.

He did not have alcohol as far as I know but he may have when he was on board his various ships. In our family, like in many Bengali families, youngsters did not indulge in “vices” such as smoking and drinking in front of their elders. In fact in most cases the elders were not even aware or chose not to be aware of their juniors partaking of tobacco or alcohol. My father is a case in point. He did not smoke even in front of his elder sisters. It is possible Bubai was the same.But when he was still in school he once wished to have a drink. And he was too scared to ask our father. So he enlisted my help – I had to go and tell Baba that his son wanted alcohol. When I did so, I was instructed to tell Bubai to get the beer out of the fridge and two beer mugs out of the crockery cabinet and take them to the drawing room where Baba would join him. My brother got the beer and the mugs to the room and then developed cold feet and disappeared into his bedroom. Baba came in to find his son missing from the scene. This was in the afternoon. Bubai finally surfaced at dinner time. He never spoke about this incident again, neither did Baba. 

Bubai joined Scindia Steamship Company after completing his training on TS Rajendra and stayed with them till recession hit the shipping industry and threw people out of jobs. He was unemployed for almost a year. A year that he spent with Tridib and me in Bombay. A year when we would see him going out every work day morning looking for an opening, any opening and returning dejected in the evening. The situation was very very grim. It reached a point when he physically went knocking on the door of every company that had a shipping vessel. But nothing came through. It broke my heart to see him becoming more and more despondent and losing hope as the days turned to weeks and the weeks to months. It took a year for Scindia to call him back. That year was a terribly distressing and demoralising time for him but finally the clouds lifted and he went back to sea.

All dressed up for Bubai’s wedding

Bubai got married on 15th August,1991. His wedding was the last one in our generation in the immediate family. It was à time of great fun and enjoyment for all of us. But Tridib could not attend as he was still in London. Relatives and friends who had been unable to attend my wedding since it was held in Delhi, joined in the festivities with major enthusiasm. The house was chock-full of people from days before the actual ceremony. We had a “thakur” and team installed at home to cook for everybody the old fashioned way. For a week Baba had open house for all meals – we never knew how many guests to expect for each meal !

Bubai had bought an array of ‘foreign” cosmetics and perfume and whatnots for his bride which prompted Ronjini to firmly tell him that he had to find an equally generous and indulgent husband for her too. There were one or two last minute glitches : the one which I remember is the suit for his reception. It was not ready on time and when Bubai, accompanied by Ma and Ronjini went to Nu York Tailors in New Market to pick it up they found that the sleeves of the coat had been stitched on the wrong way round – the cuffs were attached to the armhole ! It took a lot of haranguing and show of temper before they corrected their mistake.

Calcutta December, 1992, our last time with Bubai

Bubai was just short of his 31st birthday at the time of his demise. He died trying to help a shipmate. On board the ship he was commanding. In Barcelona, far from home. One of his men went into the ship’s hold to check the cargo that was scheduled to be delivered at the next port, in Italy. Bubai must have figured out something was wrong because he followed soon after. The junior-most officer went in after Bubai. It took a few seconds or minutes – I don’t really know. None of them reached the hold. The first man died on the 15th or 16th step, Bubai on the 7th and the youngster on the 3rd. They suffocated on gas so poisonous that it took just seconds to stop them breathing. I sincerely hope that it was only just seconds. We learnt later that there was an accumulation of poisonous gas in the hold. Seawater had probably seeped in, damaging the cargo and releasing whatever it was that killed three men. This should never have happened and it would not have  if the First Officer of the ship had done his duty and checked the cargo regularly as he was officially supposed to. He did not but reported that he had done so. I don’t know the reasons for his actions but we were later told that he had mental health issues and that impacted his actions, or rather non-action. Whatever the reason, his negligence cost three lives and left behind three shattered families.

Bubai died young and will remain young forever, for us. He had told me once, when he was about 19 years old, that his life line was very short and he was destined to depart the world long before the rest of us. When I protested he just laughed and said well you know what these jyotishees(astrologers) are like – they are quite inept and don’t really know what they are predicting. And I was reassured. I don’t even know if he had actually had his palm read or it was a premonition or something else. But we lost him far too early. Maybe because he was the best amongst us all.

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Sumita Sen divides her time between New Delhi and Kolkata.

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