Generations of extraordinary women

Daughters: A story of five generations Bharati Ray Penguin, 2011, pp 318,   399

That is a thoughtful comment indeed, for both accounts of society and of families can very easily lapse into tedium: the first runs the risk of proving witheringly dry and the second can be lush with uncomfortable sentiment.

Bharati Ray impresses, almost immediately, with a freshness that wafts through her book, much like the evening breezes that cool down Kolkata in sweltering summers. She begins her story with her great-grandmother, Sundar-ma, who “was no beauty” but was, nevertheless, Sundar-ma, beautiful-mother, to all her family. Sundar-ma, Shailabala Sen, was married to the author’s great-grandfather, Gyanadakanta Sen, a medical doctor. A successful practice resulted in an enormous mansion in New Delhi — 48, Hanuman Road — that was populated by innumerable family members. Apart from her own eight children, there were nephews, nieces, guests and a large staff.

To manage a household of this size would have been a taxing job, but Shailabala did it efficiently. Yet, beneath the facade of the traditional Bengali housewife, Sundar-ma was restless. It is here, excavating beneath the apparently calm surface of Sundar-ma’s life, that the author displays her skills of perception. She tells us how Sundar-ma plunged into her spinning and reading after the day’s work and how “she did everything else as a matter of duty.” This restlessness finally led Sundar-ma out of the house, right into the Freedom Movement, where she attended Gandhiji’s rallies, formed the New Delhi Mahila Samiti and took to writing.

This unusual streak also manifested itself in Ushabala, Sundar-ma’s eldest daughter and the author’s grandmother. Married young to Jyotish Chandra Das Gupta, a college teacher, she was again an exemplary housewife, yet, her afternoons were devoted to reading. This passion resulted in her forming a women’s association in Berhampore, where women met to read newspapers, spin the charkha and make handicrafts.

Not unusual then, that Bharati’s mother, Kalyani, who had been married at 18 to Byomkesh Sen Gupta, a brilliant man and member of the Bengal Civil service, took her BA final exams when pregnant and ranked first in Mathematics and Economics among the girls of Delhi University. Yet, unlike the two women before her, she forsook a career outside her home, a fact the author laments, to be a homemaker by her husband’s side.
When her time came, the author did not flinch.

A brilliant student, she excelled at school and college. After marriage, despite her responsibilities as a mother to two young girls and a wife to her successful husband, she plunged into a career in teaching. She started out teaching in Bethune College and then moved onto Presidency College before being appointed the pro-vice-chancellor of Calcutta University on March 14, 1988. There followed seven challenging years at her prestigious post and it ended only with her being named a Rajya Sabha MP.

Bharati Ray’s two daughters , Isha and Tista, proved brilliant students too. Isha went on to study at Oxford and Tista at Bryn Mawr.

The women in this story are undoubtedly brilliant, but what shines through making their story so compelling is the strength of spirit, the generosity of soul and passion that they all possess. The author manages to capture their lives with great skill, embellishing it with her endearing descriptions of things such as the snacks they loved to eat. Just like the mouth-watering bori-bhajas, chirey, muri and mowa, the author’s mother and aunts offered her in childhood, Bharati Ray’s book is a delicious read.

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