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Saturday, October 16, 2021

Woman in White

A life shaped by the rigours of widowhood, and the violence of Partition and 1970s Kolkata, finds an untimely return to colour.

Written by Amitangshu Acharya | New Delhi |
Updated: June 9, 2019 6:19:39 am
east Kolkata, east Kolkata LIFE, east Kolkata India, Partition and 1970s Kolkata, Partition and 1970s Kolkata life, Partition and 1970s Kolkata widows, eye2019, eyestories, indianexpress, indianexpress.com, indianexpressnews, winter morning in 1971, Brahmin widow Kolkata 1970s, Naxalites in 1970s Kolkata, history kolkata 1970s Space in a Bengali middle-class home was like a rubber band. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

She had walked into our two-room rented flat in east Kolkata with one tin trunk with a rusty latch. She wore a starched white sari with a sky-blue border that carried the faint scent of the hospital ward from where she had been discharged that morning.

As I clung to her, my grandaunt, my overjoyed six-year-old self noticed consternation in my mother’s eyes. We had to make space in a flat which had little left to offer. “Jodi hoy sujon, tetul paatay naw jon (Even nine kindred souls can live on a tamarind leaf),” my mother had uttered softly under her breath. She always said that whenever the walls of our tiny home had to be stretched.

As one learnt early, space in a Bengali middle-class home was like a rubber band. It is stretched only to keep things in place. And from that afternoon onwards, Dida became a part of our family.

Somewhere in the 1950s, as a child bride, she had left her home in rural Barisal (now in Bangladesh) for the smoke-filled industrial Kolkata to fill up the domestic space for a man who was twice her age. She carried within her the pain of separation that lingered in countless homes in the post-Partition city. Her husband, my granduncle, was a worker in Bengal Potteries in Kolkata, the first industry to produce bone china in India. The couple lived in a tiny house at the end of a lightless and serpentine lane in east Kolkata.

Almost an early omen of Kolkata’s industrial decline, Bengal Potteries shut down in the 1970s. Cancer claimed my granduncle a few years later. Another decade and the same malady snapped at Dida’s heels. To her, her survival — a remarkable medical feat in the 1990s — was only the failure of a dutiful widow to join her husband in the afterlife.

The progressive household that she was now a part of was constantly at odds with her habits. She had convinced herself that only steadfast devotion to rituals could help a Brahmin widow on her way to heaven. Life oscillated between fasting without a drop of water during ekadashi, every 11th day of the lunar calendar, and eating uncooked food for two to four days during the Bengali month of Ashaarh.

But modernity had its appeals. Dida was devoted to the silver screen as much as her observances. A middle-aged widow watching films on her own in a theatre would invite unwanted scrutiny, so her grandchild became an unwilling accomplice. I remember watching Shwet Pathorer Thala (1992, White Marble Plate) with Dida, a film which revolved around the life of a widow. In one scene, unable to bear the sight of his mother in a white sari, the young child of the protagonist tears them up in rage. Over the sound of the rusty ceiling fans and the uninterrupted whir of the projector, I heard Dida’s muffled sobs.

Despite her efforts at detaching herself from worldly matters, Dida was deeply entangled in it. It was visible in her marathon newspaper reading sessions and audible in her strong political opinions. Much of her politics, however, was shaped by personal loss.

On a winter morning in 1971, a few years before the Emergency, bombs had been hurled at a police van near her neighbourhood. A search for the offenders was underway. Unaware of such happenings, Dida’s 14-year-old nephew had returned home for lunch after school. When the family heard that the police was raiding houses looking for Naxalites, fear gripped them. Young men and women who got picked up on suspicion rarely returned home. His family asked him to hide in the toilet. The police barged in, and, on finding him hiding, assumed his guilt and shot him point blank in the head. There was no inquiry into the murder of Dida’s nephew and my uncle, Ajit Acharya. He was just another entry in a dog-eared police register.

Those nights of disappearances, gunshots, explosions and police whistles would haunt her forever. If my brother and I were late returning home, she would get restless and shower us with some of her choicest invectives. “Why do you do this?” we used to ask her. “Things have changed, it is safer now”. “It’s never safe,” she would murmur.

As our family gingerly progressed towards consumerism in a liberalising India, Dida’s frugality and distaste for waste reminded us of what we were leaving behind. Slivers of soap, no longer usable, would be diligently collected and stored. Once she salvaged a sizable volume, she would melt them on an iron kadhai and then cool the viscous and aromatic broth to reclaim an ameboid bathing bar. Sadly, we had little enthusiasm for her homemade recycled product.

But her innovative ways of cooking kitchen leftovers into delectable treats had many takers. Chhanchra — a word which means rascal in Bangla and which she used on me quite often — also doubled as the name for a dish. It was cooked using items usually discarded — namely peels from potato, pumpkin and bottle gourd, cauliflower stems, and other vegetable leftovers.

My favourite item in her repertoire was aloo khosha posto — potato peels fried with poppy seeds. She could, with a little twist — a dash of mustard paste and paanch phoron — convert the same into a savoury chenchki. Bottle gourd was skinned with care to make lau-er khosha bhaja; the green top of a radish was finely chopped to make mulo shaak bhaja — items which were infinitely better than any cooked form of these two vegetables.

In a rapidly concretising city, Dida could still find things worth foraging. Her favourite spot was a little green patch next to a shop called Paris Tailors. While bringing me back from school, she would spend a few minutes hunched up gathering edible plants — halencha (Enhydra fluctuans), brahmi (Bacopa monnieri) and pui (Basella alba).

The chemotherapy she underwent three decades earlier had saved her only to leave behind damaged and fragile nerves. Some of them finally gave way. She found herself back in the hospital ward, a part of her body unable to respond to her wishes. Now she lies in her bed, in our old rented apartment. Unable to find a white nightdress in the local market, her attendant has picked up bright yellows and greens, but she is too distracted to notice her untimely return to colour. Loneliness had got to her much before her ailment. My brother and I both left to build our lives elsewhere. Most of the older relatives she knew had died. I realised then that it wasn’t rituals that kept her going. It was family.

I had to manoeuvre around her abandonment and my guilt. “You look fabulous in yellow, by the way”. She looked at me, and, for a moment, I could see the glint return in her eyes. “Chhanchra!” she snapped at me and smiled.

Amitangshu Acharya is a Leverhulme PhD candidate in human geography at the University of Edinburgh, UK.

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