In loving memory of Koka (B. N. Gogoi)

by Jahnabi Barooah

“The best portion of a good man’s life is his little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love.” William Wordsworth

A framed black and white photograph of Koka, my maternal grandfather, rests on a circular table in my grandmother, Ahalya Gogoi’s drawing room overlooking the Brahmaputra. The photograph was taken when he was in his 50s. Dressed in a jacket and tie, he faces the camera confidently. His eyes have a warm glow—twinkling with laughter behind a thick set of spectacles, much like in real life. A jasmine garland adorns the photograph. Flowers are strewn at its edge. An oil lamp burns nearby. A potent marker of his absent presence.

Koka breathed his last on 14 May after a six-month-long valiant struggle with the debilitating effects of two strokes. He was 90. A pioneering civil engineer, he supervised the construction of numerous flood control dikes, irrigation dams, bridges, and roads. He retired in 1988 as Commissioner & Special Secretary, Public Works Department.

When I contemplate Koka’s life, especially the last six months, I feel incredibly blessed. What a miracle that—although my husband and I live in the United States —I saw Koka the day before he passed away. We arrived in Guwahati on 13 May and rushed to his side. Koka was lying in his room, unconscious and breathing heavily. At the end of our visit, I bid him good-bye promising to come see him the following day. Next morning, instead of greeting him, I found myself preparing to cremate this body: daubing him with a paste of turmeric and moong beans and then gently cleaning him with a gamusa.

My penultimate memories of Koka are at my wedding last December. He blessed my husband and me from his bedside after we got married at Kamakhya. A few days later, he attended our reception in a wheelchair, his left side paralyzed, tears of joy streaming from his eyes. Looking further back, I remember spending December evenings with him reading Lakshminath Bezbaruah’s Joymoti Kunwari with embers glowing by our feet. I also recollect our morning walks, down Nabagraha hill, along the Brahmaputra’s banks, past the Vivekananda Center toward Judges’ Field and then around Dighalipukhuri. I remember opening a Gmail account for him, and teaching him how to use Facebook, LinkedIn, and WhatsApp. Rewinding even further back to my childhood and early teenage days: during winters, when Koka visited our Rajgarh home, he would tenderly rub my chest and feet with nohoru tel to fend off cold. I recall visiting him one afternoon after his heart surgery. His chest was then permanently scarred with the doctor’s incisions. He held my hand and told me that he was afraid that at the moment of his death, he might not be surrounded by his loved ones. I remember accompanying him when he plucked fragrant flowers from the garden and lovingly offered them to deities installed in our puja room. He would sing Madhabdev’s Tumi citta britti mora. I would follow him. Memories of snuggling besides him and being regaled with story after story from the Pañcatantra and the Bhāgavatam and my entreaties, “Koka, golpo eta kua na,” also come back. What a master storyteller he was!

Soon Koka’s ashes will mingle with the swirling waters of the Ganga. No more goodbye hugs, kisses, or waves from Koka when I drive by their home on my way to the airport. But I believe that he will still look at me from the grand photograph in my grandmother’s drawing room. And he will live on in my memory.