Dia’s 95: the ‘Bidhoba’ with a swag!

Dia: the 'Bidhoba' with an attitude.
Photo courtesy: Das Archive
Dia: the ‘Bidhoba’ with an attitude.
Photo courtesy: Das Archive

This is a fancy photograph of Dia, those who have known her will smile at it as this is how she was. Dramatic. Till her last breath.

27th November 2020 would have been her 95th birthday. She passed away on 1st December 2013 at Santiniketan, a place she loved to hate. From her hospital bed, her last sentences were her complaints of being put in an ICU with a bunch of men around and no privacy.

But then she was not happy anywhere. She had moments of happiness, laughter and thrill when she was travelling, discovering places and making friends (she was super awesome at these). Nothing else gave her much happiness in life, other than her beloved grandson, my elder brother Kaushik.

This post is about Dia, in the context of patriarchy, feminism, widowhood, hypocrisy of the Bengali community, sexual need, gender roles, power struggle, and mental health awareness, narrated by her granddaughter in whom she confided a lot but could never get herself to love as much as the grandson. After all, how dare the granddaughter get more importance than the grandson?

This post is also my coming to terms with my maternal grandmother or ‘Dida’ in Bengali, lovingly called ‘Dia’ by my brother since he could not pronounce Dida in his baby hood. Of course, if I would have called her Dia if I had been the elder grandchild I am pretty sure I would have been admonished my entire life and ‘Dia’ would not have been accepted as a sign of love – as you read on you will realise this is not an assumption but a fact. But then I was never the reincarnate of Dia’s dead husband, Dr Murari Mohan DeSarkar, an image she believed was in my brother though I have more of my grandfather’s habits and personality!!!

It’s strange to write of Dr Murari Mohan DeSarkar as “my” grandfather or Dadu (in Bangla). Dia didn’t like to share him with us, he was always her husband; she didn’t even like if Ma referred to him as “my father”, he was to remain in everyone’s memory as Dia’s husband, a person who could be brought to life as and when Dia wished. Period.

Dr Murari Mohan DeSarkar, my ‘Dadu’ at age 32.
Photo courtesy: Das Archive

Dia’s intro: Born Gouri Ghosh in Calcutta to her parents, Molinabala and Kali Charan Ghosh, keeping in the Bengali custom of ‘daak naam’ or the ‘not formal name’ she was called Mukul by her family. She disliked both her parents and didn’t care when they passed on. A widow at the age of 26, her parents had destroyed her life, according to her.

Dia was the second of 7 siblings – 4 sisters and 3 brothers. She liked her younger brothers and sisters and disliked her elder sister. That’s it. No one dared to ask her why. I did as I was always curious about everything but we know that curiosity killed the cat so Dia ensured spiteful responses to any of my queries.

Dia’s father, the eminent Freedom Fighter: Dia didn’t think much of her parents. She liked her father a bit more than her mother but I never heard anything that made her love or respect for them evident. Her father was a freedom fighter, who went to prison several times for several months. Once, after his release his children hadn’t recognised him as he had been in prison for so long that time! Dia spent most of her childhood with Jhima, her grandmother and was proud that she had been an orthodox ‘Bidhoba’! Dia’s mother used to run the household, she came from a rich family so the children were fed and clothed well, she basically took care of everything while Dia’s father fought for India’s freedom and had little or no time for the household or children. He organised ‘bandhs’ and strikes, wrote a lot. He was the personal secretary to Sarat Chandra Bose, Netaji’s brother.

Revered Freedom Fighter,
Kali Charan Ghosh.
Photo: Das Archive

After India’s freedom, he wrote two path breaking books – ‘The Roll of Honour’ where the names of all freedom fighters are listed and ‘Famines of Bengal’ which is so important that it inspired a young man to study about Bengal famines and their causes and later winning him the Nobel Prize in Economics – Amartya Sen. Dia’s father passed away in 1985 with a vast resource of experiences from the grassroots level.

Kali Charan Ghosh was revered for his freedom struggle, for his writings and research, his fight for female literacy but didn’t send his own daughters to school or ‘permitted’ them to step outside the house. In return, Dia and her sisters hated their father for his hypocrisy and meanness but nobody dared question him. The sons were educated, two became engineers and one was even sent to Germany for his education but the daughters were confined to their homes and taught how to run a house. One of Dia’s sisters was finally sent to school and she scored the top grades in her 10th standard exams but she was not allowed to study further – no reasons were given. Dia always said that this sister of hers was the most intelligent of all siblings but was ill treated for the same reason. One sister was forcefully married off to a 16-year-older man who was a factory worker and had lied about his age and job.  So much for female literacy and India’s freedom in that family!!!!!!

Our Bangla and lifeskill educator: Dia could read and write and taught my brother Bangla in our summer vacations while we grew up in Jaipur. She initially didn’t like staying outside Bengal but her life there from November 1972 to May 1998 was the best part of her life, she had once admitted to me later. Of course, it came second to her 6 years of married life with Dadu.

She could recite Rabindranath Tagore’s 6 -7 page long poems without looking at the book from memory even during the last months of her 88th year. She pestered my parents with book lists till their orders were placed in Calcutta for the best Bangla magazines like ‘Desh’, ‘Sandesh’, ‘Shuktara’ and the special Durga Pujo editions along with ‘Anandamela’ and even the film magazine ‘Anandalok’ reach our house. We were the first and maybe the only house in Jaipur where Bangla books by Sarat Chandra, Bankim Chandra, Bibhuti Bhusan, Tagore, rubbed shoulders with ‘Kalo Brohomor’, ‘Pagla Dashu’ and works by Narendra Gangopadhyay, Samaresh Majumdar, Sanjib Chattopadhyay, Mahashweta Devi, Ashapurna Devi and our favourite Satyajit Ray.

My parents were close to the Lifetime Achievement Oscar Awardee and Bharat Ratna, Satyajit Ray, he had visited us in Jaipur a few times. Though Dia never came out of her ‘self confined purdah’ to meet him, she always saw to it that Dada and I knew enough to understand him. She came with us for every film shoot of his in and around Jaipur and enjoyed them.

With time, my brother and I realised the importance of knowing our mother tongue and that too a language like Bangla which is the second most widely spoken language in India and the seventh most in the world. Thanks to a maternal grandmother who was never sent to school! Oh, and I forgot to mention “widow” – the “widowed” maternal grandmother – a prefix that the otherwise Bengali community, proud of its high female literacy level, attached to destroy the lives of several thousand young women for centuries. A prefix that is still an abuse and means of torture. A prefix that the proud Bengali conveniently fails to mention while fighting for their superiority over other Indian communities, whom Bengalis consider to be patriarchal and male dominated unlike theirs. The Bangla for widow is ‘Bidhoba’.

For me, patriarchy, feminism, widowhood, hypocrisy of the Bengali community, sexual need, gender roles are not mere words I’ve used, that we read in woke social media posts or in government laws but realities of life I grew up with, understanding their meaning every moment. I will explain how.

‘Sodhobha’ to ‘Bidhoba’: Dia lost her husband to a road accident on 3rd May, 1953 when they were returning from a day long picnic on Ramtek hills in Nagpur where he was posted as the railway doctor. He never let anyone drive their car, a Moris Minor, but on the way back on the insistence of his friend he relented. The car hit a culvert and Dadu was the only one thrown out, he was sitting next to the driver. At the back were Dia, Ma and Dia’s younger brother who was visiting them and for whom the picnic had been planned. Dadu apparently bled a few drops through one ear but had not even one scratch and Dia recalled sitting with his warm body on the roadside for 4 -5 hours till a bus eventually stopped to pick them up.

On the bus, passengers immediately stole Dadu’s favourite watch and pen and even tried to empty his wallet. Dia always used to talk to us to never trust people for the vileness in them; on that terrible night of 1953 this was a lesson that she had learnt. In the hospital, when the whole family was waiting to hear the worst, my 6-year-old mother was told by people to pray to God to revive her dear father. That was not to happen, Dadu passed away that night, he had actually been brought in dead. And, Dia and Ma learnt another important lesson – to doubt the existence of God and the meaning of prayers.

Dia had a small shrine in the house for many years, she would wake up really early and recite ‘mantras’ – only I knew since I shared her room for years that she spent much of that prayer time to abuse and vent out her anger against the world which had conspired to take away her darling husband from her. As with him, she lost everything she loved.

The love of her life: Dia loved her husband and everything about him. She loved that he had been a doctor and cured people, she loved that he had so much time for her and their daughter whom he adored, she loved that he loved driving and they travelled all over South India including Ajanta Ellora during his posting at Nagpur, she loved that he would play cards so well, she loved that he used to smoke but gave it up when he lost a bet with her, she loved that he had a deep voice, she loved that he was always calm and rarely lost his temper, she loved his dark skin and big eyes. She deeply loved him till her last breath and hoped she would be united with him. She loved life but wanted to die just so she could be with the love of her life.

Personal loss turned into society’s pariah: When Dadu passed away Dia lost everything she had longed for and more. She not only lost the love of her life but she lost her existence as a human being in the world. She became a widow or ‘Bidhoba’ at 26. Nobody tried to hold her hand and share her pain, they just dumped her in a corner of her parents’ house at 6, Raja Basanta Roy Road, Kolkata. A house she had once hated and thought she had escaped for good. She returned to it with an irreparable scar and a fatherless 6 year old daughter – a burden to all those who lived there. Ma recalls all her 3 Mama (maternal uncle) being nice to her, she was turned into an object of pity and sympathy. She saw her mother not bathe for days, not eat and cry inconsolably for hours, days, weeks, months and years. Dia did not touch shampoo or even ‘kajal’ or kohl since that day of 1953, she had been forced to forsake colour and beauty.

The cruel process of turning a woman into a “Bidhoba”: Dia loved decoration and adornment so much that she used to make me kajal and taught me to “dress up” though I objected. She starched her saris herself and never was one hair out of place, everything had to be “proper” – I could not imagine her in her early years of “Bidhoba”hood, it just didn’t fit with Ma’s descriptions. In the cold of Jaipur when her feet would crack, after being repeatedly advised by the doctors to apply cream/lotion she would finally agree to applying Vaseline as it was colourless and odourless.

For a ‘Bidhoba’ who had lost everything with her husband, colour, fragrance, even good health was scorned. She used to tell us in her fits of anger and pain that she had “eaten” her husband and had to pay for that sin till her last breath!!!!!!! No, it was not her mental state that led her to believe this, it was the Bengali society with its norms and customs that coerced her into believing this.

A Bengali ‘Bidhoba’ was supposed to shave off her head, always wear white, eat protein less vegetarian food with no onion and garlic, not participate in any social or religious function, not talk to any man or rather anyone if possible. It did not matter if she was rich or poor, young or old, loved or not, she was to always remember that she was a ‘Bidhoba’. That she was a sinner and that she no longer was included in society, she was alive to atone for the sin of living of outliving her husband. Some were sent to Vrindavan or Mathura to serve Lord Krishna, most ended up as prostitutes if they did not receive family patronage.

On 4th December 1829, ‘Sati’ – the heinous act of a woman dying alive on her dead husband’s funeral pyre – was banned, so the ‘Bidhoba’ could not even die now – a law Dia hated. She felt that her “right” to have died with her beloved husband had been taken from her by this law. The Widow Remarriage act had been brought into effect in 1856 but how many widows actually remarried?

I used to ask my grandmother why she never remarried and she said that she could not forget Dadu, it’s only a couple of times she said that she wasn’t allowed to talk to men after Dadu left so who would bother about her, a ‘Bidhoba’ with a child? She had wanted to work after his demise but her paternal family had been shocked at how society would react to a young widow who  “had to take up a job to earn money” – Dia used to tell me bitterly that her family, especially her brothers cared more for their false pride and reputation and that they might find it difficult to marry as they had failed to support a ‘Bidhoba’ sister with a little daughter.

Dia gradually stopped liking her siblings with time, she rarely showed any pleasure in their lives and did not really care much if they wanted to meet her. I understood, did they? Who cares? They didn’t care for her; they cared for themselves so why should I care for those selfish people? I cared for Dia and she cared for me, a lot less than she cared for my brother but she still did care a lot.

The trinity of Dia, Dada and Me: Dia lived with us from 1969 -2013, rather 2009 as she lived the last 4 years in ‘Urmila’ an old age home operated by Ashish Kundu who ensured dignity and good company for each of its occupants who lived there by choice. Yeah, you are judging our family, go ahead, feel free to 🙂 Would you have cared for Dia when she was alone in our house in remote Bengal as I was working in Mumbai, Dada was in the US and my parents had gone on a project to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for 6 months? Would you have provided her with the safety, security, medical attention, company like at ‘Urmila’? So I care two hoots about what people think – something Dia taught 🙂 good learners, ain’t I?

I grew up with Dia, she taught me a lot of Bengali cuisine and hacks in them, embroidery and knitting, gardening and even how to be a perfectionist. Though I do not believe in perfection and am far from being one, I strive for perfection and fail miserably (high up on the list of disappointments Dia had for me).

Dia was a perfectionist; she made the most beautiful sweaters, dresses and other garments. She was my hairstylist till I joined college, and for all my childhood birthdays would dress me up in an entire ensemble and then have a photograph taken. Though she would embarrass my brother and me by stitching clothes from the dress material, we didn’t complain much as it gave her immense happiness to show us off – we were her models, we gave her a purpose in life, a satisfaction sometimes at the cost of my parents’ happiness as she could be a ruthless autocrat, taking out her vengeance on my timid and nice parents, especially her only child.

Ma had always wanted a daughter so when I was born she was very happy but Dia felt that she needed to take me under her stride as Ma would spoil me, I needed to be honed to face an evil world, something she couldn’t do for her daughter! Dia never did love her own daughter and spared no chance of letting her know that!!!!!!

Radical grandmother teachings for her granddaughter:
Dia taught me these important life lessons, crucial to a young girl’s upbringing, far ahead of her times three decades back:
1.) To hold my head high in a world of men, never taught me to hate men but to give them due importance and not more than that – unheard of in a patriarchal society where men are worshipped like God but then Dia never believed in God.

2.) Not to touch people’s feet, especially men… breaking a vital Bengali tradition. She said we’re all equal, age doesn’t add up to more knowledge so why should anyone touch anyone’s feet because of their age or sex?

3.) To always earn enough to not ask any man for personal expenditures like buying undergarments, indulgences like perfumes and gifts for people who matter. One need not aspire be an independent professional but she had to earn something for herself and not “live off” men. She hated the thought of women sitting idle at home and flicking through tv or any activities to merely pass the time.

4.) To never feel victimised, Dia was no one’s victim and she fought valiantly till the very end. She had no empathy for those who sobbed but fought hard for those who did not buckle down. It was like that Rajesh Khanna dialogue from Amar Prem – “Pushpa, I hate tears…”  

5.) She (or my parents) did not believe sticking to groups or communities of any kind. We were to respect everyone equally, nobody deserved undue importance because of their financial or any other background. Definitely not for their sex – a man deserved no extra respect and a woman no extra sympathy. Women and men were equal and not to compete and prove one superior to the other.

6.) To observe customs and traditions if one felt like it, not because one needed to due to societal compulsions. An individual is more important than a group of people believing the same thing just because it’s been around for years.

7.) To be answerable to oneself for one’s actions and not make an “excuse” of family or society to get by in life. “log kya kahenge” or “loke ki bolbe” or “what will people say” was non existent in our family.

8.) Not to spend more than an hour of the day in the kitchen, including the time spent in cooking for an entire household without any help. She insisted planning in advance so that one saved time and wastage. She had seen the Bengal famines where poor women went from door-to-door begging for starch from people’s homes to feed themselves as they could not afford rice so no kind of food wastage was allowed in the house, especially while cooking. She believed in hacks, she taught me to make round ‘luchis’ (‘puris’ made of white flour) by pressing the top of sharp bowls on the dough or to use condensed milk instead of churning milk for hours for making ‘bhapa doi’ (steamed yogurt dessert) ☺ she insisted on being smart in life and not lackluster, dull and boring. Stupidity was scorned upon!

I had a tough upbringing ☺

An artist par excellence: Dia was an excellent planner at everything she did, from cooking to guest lists to stitching. I remember she taught me how to stitch ‘Kanthas’ for newborns where we would embroider in the birth time of the baby, all this required us to discreetly find out what the baby would like, how soft the fabric should be, which coloured threads to use and where to start the embroidery. Sadly, I don’t have any of those Kanthas but am posting images of some of the ‘asanas’ or seatings we made together, some she had made with Ma in her childhood. I could not fathom how someone who was always grieving and hurting could make such insanely creative and amazing stuff, was that her release or distraction?

The guidebook to ‘Bidhoba’hood: Dia would sit in one corner of the kitchen on one of the ‘asanas’ after she wiped that space with her own hands and took her lunch there for years. Her dinner comprised of two slices of bread and one vegetable preparation, much to her consternation she had to switch to ‘rotis’ later in life for medical reasons.

My parents are very progressive and my paternal side of the family knew a lot of Bengali customs and rituals but they were less imposing than Dia’s side of the family. She said that since my father’s family was from a village they were ignorant and flippant with customs but was secretly happy that they were more inclusive and diverse. I had aunts from non-Bengali backgrounds and other castes in our family while Dia’s family stuck to torturous customs for the sake of their ‘standing’ in the ‘Bhadralok’ Bengali community of Calcutta (now Kolkata).

Two of my uncles had been Dadu’s close friends and this is how my parents had first met, when Ma was 1 and Baba was 11. He had been taken to Dadu for treatment and remembers him more than Ma. All her memories are of a deep loving voice and the smell of ‘imli’ or tamarind tree.

It was only after my brother turned 18 and went to study outside Jaipur that he could emotionally blackmail Dia into quit eating in that kitchen corner and eat on our dining table. After weeks of crying and screaming, when my brother told her that he would not visit Jaipur in his vacations our dramatic Dia relented, but on the condition that she would eat before us. By this time, the concept of ‘shogdi’ had been deeply imprinted in us and many many many fights and arguments had resulted. Dia always won each fight where she would bang her head on the wall screaming why she was even alive and why didn’t she die instead of her husband as then no one would have forced him to follow any rigid customs and traditions. No amount of reasoning helped, though Dia was an extremely logical person. She was so good at presenting her side and winning that everyone who knew her said she would have made an excellent lawyer :p

My difficult childhood: Growing up in that household wasn’t easy, one had to tread very carefully for fear of disturbing the peace. While my parents refused to follow any custom, Bengali or otherwise, that did not have the individual at the heart of it, my father was even more emphatic that my brother and I not blindly follow them. Dia was fine with that, she was cool with no one else following any custom or ritual, except for ‘bhai phonta’ or the Bengali version of ‘bhai dooj’ where the sister prays for her brother’s health and longevity. She loved this one as she would get a chance to formally pray for my brother, whom she lovingly called ‘dadabhai’ or brother.

Dia breaks the ‘Bidhoba’ customs: When Dia grew older she tried to ensure that no Bengali ‘Bidhoba’ in Jaipur ever wore a white sari or renounced non-vegetarian food or any food they loved or lived the life of a sinner. She insisted that they participate in social and religious functions and with Dia around no one dared to protest. She used to say that if her family had been compassionate then they would have ensured a happy life for a 26-year-old widow like her but now it was too late. She was too scared that if she let go of any custom then she would lose one of us. She used all her power, her age and emotions to stop the hideous customs related to transforming a happy, smiling woman into a lifeless ‘Bidhoba’. She fought hard and won each time.

The murderous “inchi paar” sari: The last two decades of her life she did agree to some colour in her sari borders but they had to be the ‘widow sari’ and nothing else. Yes, self proclaimed progressive and highly literate Bengal had weaving centres which specialised in weaving the saris for the ‘Bidhoba’ called the ‘inchi paar sari’ meaning saris with one inch border. They could only be white cotton handloom saris with one inch border in subdued colours, no shade of red like purples or magenta were “allowed” to be woven in as red is still associated with marriages in Bengal and how dare a widow even dream of the same status of a ‘Sadhoba’ or a married woman? Didn’t she lose everything with the death of her husband, wasn’t she the sinner condemned to live?

Bengali Brahmin men who changed orthodox society: One has to read the volumes of literature written by the stalwarts of Bengal like Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bibhuti Bhusan Bandopadhyay – highly educated Bengali Brahmin men who exposed the hypocrisy and filth in society brought upon young widows. In case you are unaware, girls at the age of 5 – 6 and even younger were married to men twice or thrice as older than them. Which meant, the men would die leaving the widow childless or in the prime of her youth, alluring to men who often sexually exploited them. The rate of suicides was high in young widows as they had been banished from society and had no one to turn to.

Two names shine through Bengal since the 18th centuries; one is of course Raja Rammohan Roy, who used his high status in society and influence to convince the British rulers to frame the Sati abolishment and widow remarriage laws already mentioned.

The other is Ishwarchandra Vidyasagar, who had so much knowledge that his Sanskrit college honoured him with being the ‘sea of knowledge’ – ‘Vidyasagar’ in Bangla. He fought ardently for creation of both these laws and the stopping of child marriage that was finally implemented in 1891. He passed away the same year, absolutely shaking the Bengali society to its core but not shaken enough that even in 1953 my Dia was compelled to be ill treated as a ‘Bidhoba’. But the efforts of these great men have had far reaching impact. Even today in the 21st century, no ritual or custom in Bengal has any mention of the widow, she is still not included in society and has to depend on her family, paternal or the one she was married into, for her existence.

The best tribute of all was what Rabindranath Tagore had written of Vidyasagar – “One wonders how God, in the process of producing forty million Bengalis, produced a man!”

Ma was narrating how as a child she once didn’t want to eat the vegetable she had been served and had dumped it on Dia’s plate (who sat far away). There was a lot of shouting and screaming and Dia not only had to change her clothes, take a bath but even eat a bit of dried cow dung (‘gobar’ or ‘ghunte’) to purify her inner self. Now, we know of the actual intent of Tagore’s tribute to Vidyasagar, the true modern man.  

The degrading Bengali concept of “shogdi”: Let me explain the concept of “shogdi” and fasts for Bengali ‘Bidhobas’. She can consume cooked rice only before sunset, she cannot touch rice after it. Any utensil, space or person that has touched this pot of cooked rice is considered contaminated or becomes “shogdi” – have no idea of the etymology or meaning of this Bengali word. This “shogdi” becomes dangerous for the ‘Bidhoba’ for if someone eating rice has touched her then she gets contaminated and has to undergo ritualistic cleansing, and this is the exact reason why Dia would not eat with us, her own family. She feared being contaminated and vice versa – fear was central to her existence in her ‘Bidhoba’ life. I have also written earlier that ‘Bidhobas’ are denied any protein rich food, so no fish, meat or eggs for her and not even pulses like ‘masoor dal’ or some ‘saags’ or vegetable creepers like ‘pui saak’ as they were protein rich. Basically, with the abolishment of Sati and inability in packing her off to Benaras or Vrindavan or non-committal of suicide, the ‘Bidhoba’ had to be slow poisoned by denying her nutrient food. Why not?

What did she have to live for? That’s the reason given to her, the cruel reality was that with the help of the British rulers the Bengali men I’ve mentioned earlier had ensured that the widow gets some financial share of her dead husband’s property. Since she was younger and would live long, sometimes outlive her dead husband’s sons from an earlier marriage, she would have to write off her property and other legal rights to these sons on condition of being provided for till her death and then gradually condemned to die a slow death in the name of honouring customs and traditions of the Bengali society. Or remember, she could always choose to be a prostitute.

Bengal today, what has changed? Even today, in 21st century Bengal, rituals like ‘Sindoor Khela’ on the last day of Durga Puja exist where married women smear ‘sindoor’ (the red/vermillion powder used by women to mark one’s marital status on the parting in middle of the hair) on each other. Does anyone care for the widow at these times? What happens to the progressive, highly cultured Bengali pride then? How conveniently it is set aside! Strangely, now a lot of regressive patriarchal stuff has gained social sanctions for the sake of a ‘cool’ selfie or groupie! I have noticed how these same people in photos at these visually delightful ‘sindoor khela’ and other such rituals’ will loudly proclaim feminist ideologies and pledge to fight for women’s rights – do they stop and analyse their own actions?

How to spot hypocrisy: Dia taught me to spot hypocrisy and superfluous behavior from my childhood, we stayed in a museum – palace complex in Jaipur the first 12 years of my life and there were lots of visitors who came from all over the world. Dia would point out the Indian honeymooning couples swooning over each other and she would say that most of these men will pretend they love their wife in public and then go home and beat her up or cheat on her as she believed that “emotion and love is not for public display” – she hadn’t heard of PDA. I didn’t want to believe her but we know how PDA (public display of affection) is not related to genuine love and how many women are victims of domestic violence and marital rape in India – something Dia knew from her experience from 50 years back.

Dia hated to love me! She didn’t love to hate me! When I was growing up my brother left for his higher education in India and then to the US it broke Dia. She was immensely proud of her darling grandson and wanted him to conquer the world but the reality that he was not around her physically and she had to live with me was terrible. She had always compared us and I had always got scolded for fighting with him even if he was at fault, it would surprise him and our parents. They did not know till a few years back that she had rebuked me when I was 7 -8 years old after a simple sibling fight by saying that I should wash my elder brother’s feet every morning and drink that water so that I might become even a fraction intelligent like he was. That killed me and damaged my self-esteem and confidence for decades, I couldn’t ever match up to him with anything, he was always way ahead.

I was the maverick, with bad grades, not good at anything that would have made the family proud while he was the pride of the family, his school and even Jaipur. This disheartening comparison just increased over the years and I, who was always a quiet, introvert child lacking self-motivation, with multiple learning difficulties, trying to figure out a complex and complicated world in my own way, just got shoved into a deep abyss. There were many times when Dia needed me for her work like spying on my parents and guests for her crazy diary writing habit but when I didn’t comply then she made me a punching bag and released all her frustrations.

Dia and her daughter: She hated the shift to Bengal by my parents and fought with them once and left to live in her own room in her paternal home in Kolkata around 2004-5, to only quickly realise how difficult it was now that she had got used to the comforts of living with us, with relaxed or non existent rigid traditions. It was only after she broke her hip after a fall and her brothers who lived in the same house did not bother to take her to the hospital that she came back to live with us – she never failed to mention that she was doomed to live in her daughter’s house even though everyone loved and respected her there.

Dia finally approved of me, with conditions: In later years, she came to terms with me but there were always conditions attached. I had become financially independent, living in big cities like Delhi and Mumbai and she could finally flaunt about me too so she also calmed down in her criticisms of me. I laugh whenever I remember how she baulked when she saw I had put on weight, something she had missed through her cataract-ridden eyes. She was so shocked that I was no longer that slim girl she felt I should have remained that she remarked that she wished the cataract hadn’t been operated upon. This happened a few years before her death and I had accepted her with all her faults and the pain she had inflicted upon me.

Aim for the skies 🙂

I never really blamed her because I had seen she had been shunned by society, though my parents fought to break every taboo for her. She was a product of a painfully hypocritical society for whom she gave a damn. She owed them nothing and lived on her own, mostly dictatorial, terms. Towards the end of her life, if she found neighbours were boring her she would loudly proclaim how tired she was and abruptly walk off in the middle of a conversation. She hated sob stories. She should have won many Oscars, she was hilarious 😛

How would she have reacted to my divorce? Dia was happy when I got married, when she met my ex husband she immediately took to him for his dark skin, big eyes and singing voice as he reminded her of my Dadu, her dead husband for whom she had terribly started pining for towards the end of her life. She was not alive to see me divorced but I know for sure she would have been the only family member who would have stood by me. She wouldn’t have judged me or blamed me but would have impatiently said something like “stop wasting time, get on with life…” maybe added  “he was quite a bore” 🙂 She would have been happy to know that I didn’t take any alimony or ask my family for any financial help but I faced it independently, without bowing down in shame.

I imbibed my impatience towards people showing off their hypocrisy, and love for travel and befriending strangers from Dia. Also, I make damn good ‘Bhapa Doi’ and other Bengali cuisine with near perfection. Watching her from so close, I have learnt not to compare people and not to use people as my punching bag. My father always taught that one has to learn from people not only what one should be but also what one shouldn’t be. Dia taught me a lot of both of these life lessons.

Happy Birthday Dia 🙂 everyone you knew talk of how you continue to inspire them. The ‘Bidhoba’ who brought respect, dignity and honour to a derogatory, centuries old, custom ridden, termite eaten, defunct patriarchal system of institutional abuse.

‘Dia’ was her identity and the essence of her very being, where she needed no male associations. Dia lives on through so many of us 🙂

Thank you Kaustav, your Tedtalk touched a painful chord somewhere. I show it to all my students and we are left speechless, with tears in our eyes and a lump in our throat, and a spirit to be inclusive and fight for those who are rendered speechless by society.

I contacted Kaustav Dey on Instagram a few months back and he replied positively when I wrote that his talk reminded me of my Dia – he inspired me to share her story. It took me some weeks of hunting for photographs and Dia’s old saris. And, this is her story in LONG post.

All photos are from the Das Family Archive, kindly credit @VarnikaDesigns for using them.


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