About ten years ago I lost my grandmother on my mother’s side, my Didu. She died in September, so it is not quite an obligatory remembering exercise but more a thinking out loud about someone that once lived and filled my life with such love that I hope to able to repeat that some day with my own grand children.
I have been thinking about her since this morning when I woke up to find two friends had written, one about her mother and the other about her childhood in her Didu’s house.This opened a floodgate of reminiscing, mostly pleasant.
She was born in the early 1900s in Berhampore in Murshidabad. Her father was the Government pleader in the court and she was a much loved eldest child. Her mother was daughter to the famous Kobiraj(physician), Haran Chandra Chakravarti of Bangladesh. He was said to have been the inspiration behind the Kobiraj character in Ashapurna Devi’s Prothom Protishruti, The First Promise.
A childhood of much laughter and love changed abruptly for her when at the age of 8, her mother died of puerperal fever after giving birth to her fourth child. Her father was left with three daughters, one a baby only three months old. A son had died earlier of reasons she did not remember clearly, only telling me that it had been a fever that had taken many infants with it when it swept across the town.
She remembered little of her mother, except that she was literate and had taught her the Bengali alphabet. In the hot summers of Murshidabad, they would lie under the high beds, that used to be common in those times (one climbed into bed via a set of steps) and her mother would fan them with a palm leaf fan. She once said she wished she remembered more about her mother, but that it was easy to say such things in hindsight!
Her father did what many men still do, remarried within just a couple of months. I guess the period of mourning is so much more rigorous for Indian widows because we are so fragile and take so much longer to heal, once broken. This started a period of wilful neglect and ill treatment of Cinderella-esque proportions. The girls were given less food, less love and less attention than even the cows in the dairy sheds along the back of the house. She remembered how the young step mother, a child herself at 16 years, would make a great show of calling them from their games with huge brass glasses of milk, which concealed the half cups of liquid that they contained from the eyes of the older women who might have been able to stop the mistreatment if they had known. The cruelty was always subtle and done with intent. It increased as the new wife herself had children over the following years. My Didu was always very detached when she told me any of these stories; it was easy to see that if she had not done that, her own life would have become embittered and twisted.
However the true horror of having a stepmother came through clearly when she came to stay with us after I had my second child. She spent 6 months in Australia at that time. We talked endlessly, in between the usual business of raising two babies. She said she had always worried when she was ill that she would die and leave her children without a mother. I knew then how much she had missed her own mother while growing up. She was the first one to tell me that it was alright to not feel a Hallmark grade of motherliness towards the babies all the time, saying she would lock herself for a 10 minute break occasionally when her young brood got to be too much. I learnt more about parenting from her than the shelves of shiny How To books at the library.
While she was with us that year, we had an elderly neighbour who asked me who the lady was. I remember teasing her about the interest she was getting, saying perhaps we will see a marriage before long. She was very amused by all this and one day said, widows should be able remarry you know, if men can, why not women? And then looking at my face, she quickly pre-empted my next remark saying, ‘If they want to, only if they want to….!’