In the longhouse on the River Skrang, the Iban headman, the tuai rumah, took me for a tour of his village. The longhouse is the entire village; indeed, it is a very long house, built on stilts. Ninety-one families live under one long roof—the ladder is taken up in the evenings.
A row of doors stretches out on my left, each leading to a home; in the yard on my right children scamper around the fresh laundry hanging on clotheslines. We walk down the long covered corridor in between. Young mothers nurse their babies. Old women weave baskets, puffing away on their cigarettes. Naked above the waist, they carry on with their work undisturbed as a transistor radio belts out Bollywood music. A cheap electronic watch gleams on the wrist of an old woman. The others are away, working in the fields. This is the heart of Borneo. The orangutans are close by, and Kalimantan is not far.
The tuai rumah stops under a bunch of what look like small, blackened skulls, hanging from the ceiling like last year’s Christmas decor. Yes, it is a bunch of skulls, smoked and shrunken. The heads of Sea Dayaks—pirates who came two hundred years ago. Glowing with pride, the headman recalls the stories of valor as he shows off the cluster of hunted heads. And I stand there, growing increasingly flustered at my inability to make the right noises. “We have given up this practice now,” he says finally. “It’s banned!” quips the little chap behind him, in English.
Under the trophy skulls stands a door. It sports two stickers: “I ❤ NY” and “Thank you for not smoking.” Energized, I try to take snapshots with my cheap automatic camera—of the skulls, the doors, the stickers, the scantily clad headman and his jeans-and-T-shirt-clad grandchild. And I discover Michael Jackson, neatly taped up, glaring at me from the next door panel.
I beg the headman to let me take a peek behind the door. He deliberates for a while, then goes up to an old woman. “Dangerous” Jackson is pushed aside, and we step into what must be one of the most sophisticated homes in the village. Bamboo walls and floors divide the long, narrow room into three distinct areas. The front chamber flaunts two small, low, Western-style sofas—almost toylike, covered with a pink floral-print cloth. A magnificent traditional brass lamp—a must for Iban wedding proposals—stands in a corner. Then there are several drums and musical instruments, all made of bamboo. The second section is the kitchen. The small gas stove and cylinder are pointed out proudly. A kerosene stove sits on the floor, a sooty aluminum kettle sits on the stove. Ceramic mugs and glasses share space with pots and pans that must surely have been excavated from some prehistoric site. Propped against the wall are a bunch of fierce weapons—bows, arrows, and spears with polished metal points. Clearly not there to lend an ethnic touch to the decor. The third section is in the back. It’s the toilet, I’m told. As I march toward it determinedly, a firm hand restrains me. “It is very dark,” says the headman, “and has a hole in it.”
(On the river Hooghly)
Binididima was visibly upset. People were slow to take in the total impact of the Bridal Spectacle.
The bride sat enthroned like a princess, pinned by the glare of twin floodlights. The floral decor and chandelier dangling right above her head provided regal grandeur. Colorful women of all ages, youthfully wrapped in silk and gold, squatted around her on the rented carpet. Overdressed children hung around, refusing to budge, staring at her with unblinking admiration. The guests coming in drew a sharp breath as they caught a glimpse of the bride. The whole world knows that Bengali brides look like princesses. Only this one seemed to have stepped out of an English fairy tale.
“Why is the bride already in her nightgown?” Binididima demanded, one hand on hip, waving the other toward the apparition in white sitting demurely in the huge chair. “Whoever has seen a bride in a shemij? Boli, eta ki phoolshojjer khat? Chhi, chhi, chii! Is this the bridal bed? To sit in public in a shameless ‘maxi’! Whatever happened to the wedding sari?” Binididima was truly inconsolable. “Hai re pora kapal! Koner mathay sindoor kothay? No sindoor on the bride? And naked wrists? No loha? No shankha? No bangles at all? How inauspicious can you get? Ooh! Ki amanguli kando re baba! Mejdir ki bhimroti dhorechey? Yes indeed, Mejdi must have gone quite senile!”
Thandi tried to help: “At least she had the good sense to put the ghomta on!”
“Ghomta?” Binididima exploded. “That bit of mosquito net on her head? Why, are there no red Benarsi ornas in the shops of Calcutta? Sindoor nei, loha nei, angey ekkhana sari porjonto nei go? No sindoor , no bangles, not even a sari on her! And her hair! Was there no one to pull those white shaner nuri strands up into a bun? Couldn’t someone put on some kajol, to hide those cat eyes a little? Mejdir nahoy matha kharap hoyeche, has the bride’s mother-in-law also gone out of her mind?”
Thandi, poor soul, tried once again. “But the girl doesn’t agree! She said she would feel like a clown in a bridal sari. We had hired a professional ‘bride decorator,’ but the girl—”
But Binididima had no time for feeble explanations. “Dugga Dugga! The more you live the more you learn. Nah baba! Dher hoyeche! I have overlived my time. To witness with your own eyes a newlywed bride dressed exactly like a widow!”
This was a bit much even for Thandi: “Shat! Shat! E abar ki alukkhune katha tomar Binididi?”
“Where did Prodipto get that crazy kurta from?”
“Oh, I think it’s fabulous! In fact, I was thinking of getting one for myself, from Prodipto’s aunt’s boutique.”
“Were you also thinking of getting married again?”
“Come on, Mantuda! Have you noticed anybody getting old lately? Nobody gets old anymore. Everyone is as young as their children—or even younger!”
“How true. Look at the ladies—the shashuris competing with their boumas . . .”
“And if bouma sets up a tutoring class, shashuri sets up a boutique!”
“And both make pots of money sitting at home. Tax free, too!”
“If you pay for the car, she will pay for the cellular phone . . .”
“What do you think of the bride?”
“Queen Victoria and Prince Dwarakahanath! Only the diamonds and pearls are missing.”
“Chhotokaka should have had this at the Grand. It would have been perfect. It’s just because of this yucky lane, this rotten house . . . ti pacha galite, ei pacha barite ei shab manay naki?”
“At least we have a bride looking like Gina in our house. That’s something, right?”
“Na baba! I don’t want a boudi like Gina! Do you?”
“Hmmm . . . not a bad idea really. Gina’s the sexiest in Santa Barbara.”
“You are incorrigible, Bobondada! We’ll find Gina for your price.”
“No thank you. Not as a bride. I said boudi. Want a puff? Mini? It’s Dunhill.”
“Eeesh! Are you crazy? Here?”
She sat in layers of taffeta and fine lace, her shoulder-length ash-blonde hair shimmering under the tiara, from which a lovely chintz veil flowed down, draping over the arms of the chair. Her lips held a fixed smile, her sea-green eyes looked ready to fall asleep. She said hellos and thank-yous and shook hands or did the namaskar as and when necessary. Next to her was her husband, in a flowing dhoti and a double-breasted babu-style silk kurta, tied at three points with golden tassels. He was introducing the guests to his wife. His father stood at the entrance proudly ushering in the guests. Mother was nowhere in sight.
The videowallahs were making life difficult for everyone, adding to the general confusion. They had laid out an intricate trap across the floor to catch the guests and the hosts alike, but more the guests—awestruck by the bridal vision, they toppled over and swore cordially as they were helped to their feet. A glaring light had been focused on her eyes by design, forcing her to shade them with her palm.
“Sorry, Madam. Hands off.”
It was hot and humid. Someone offered her a bottle of mineral water. As she tried to sip it: “No, no, Madam, lift face, lift face to camera please.”
The whole area was drowned in an ocean of darkness, only this house floated in it like a solitary ship, with its tuni bulbs and lighted windows.
Strange sounds of an unfamiliar language spoken loud and fast. Everyone talking at a great speed, in high pitch, and all at once. The omnipresent grumbling of a machine reverberating deep inside her body, twitching her nerve ends. Generators. Generating electricity for the house. The city’s electric supply company has decided to shed its load tonight for some reason. The perfect notes of Bismillah Khan’s shehnai on the sound system accentuating the chaos. Nobody is listening to the music. Strange expressions on faces never seen before. Every eye fixed on her as if she were a hydra-headed monster. Even Prodipto seems like a stranger in this room. Smells of curry mingling with whiffs of familiar perfumes. How can Prodipto stand this? She felt like puking. Never again shall I set foot in this city. How could a family like this produce a Prodipto?
Wednesday morning at five o’clock as the day begins . . .
—Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Radharani left home when she was twenty-eight. She could not tell her in-laws. They had been so sweet to her. Always. Next morning’s dailies published the sensational news. The poet Radharani Dutta, a child widow, had got married to the poet Narendra Dev. The papers described them as the “Browning couple of Bengal.”
It was the month of Asharh. I don’t know which day of the week it was or what time of day. All I know is, it was during monsoon season in Bengal. Was it “as the day begins?” Was it late at night? I don’t even know whether it had rained on that day. But in my mind the picture is of a dark, rainy night, when a slim girl in white left home to find herself. With a name like Radha, leaving her in-laws’ place for a rendezvous with her lover, only a wild monsoon night seems right. Unmada pabane Januma tarajata / ghana ghana garajata mehe. . . . I often wonder who accompanied her from Bhabanipur to my father’s countryside home where the marriage party was waiting. Kunjapathe sakhi kaise jawaba / abala kamini re. . . . Married at thirteen and widowed at thirteen, Radharani had never traveled alone. She was very fortunate with her in-laws; they were far kinder to her than her parents were. That made leaving difficult. Why would she treat us so thoughtlessly / How could she do this to me? / . . . Something inside / that was always denied / for so many years / . . . She’s leaving home / after living alone / for so many years . . . .
Narendra Dev was sixteen years her senior and a bachelor. The Devs had received their jaigirdari from Aliwardi Khan. The Office of the Indian National Congress was housed in their family home for several years. They accepted the widow remarriage without much ado. Her former in-laws were the next to open their doors. Her parents were the last.
Nabaneeta was born nearly a decade later. And was offered everything Radharani was denied. A decent education, freedom of movement, and the choice of a career. When she was eighteen, Nabaneeta met a bright young man in Calcutta and got engaged to him two years later in Cambridge, England. He came from a different caste. A fact that was not overlooked but tolerated by both sets of parents because the boy was otherwise quite suitable, and so was the girl. A gala wedding followed, in Calcutta. Nabaneeta still had her fellowship abroad and her academic husband encouraged her to continue. So with her research and her housework, her husband and her children, Nabaneeta spent many happy years till the day the divorce came. Then she crossed the seas once again, returned with two daughters and three degrees to a widowed Radharani, and found a suitable job. And lived happily ever after.
My daughters grew up in an all-female household, with many fierce cats, two gentle dogs, and three generations of single women. I had always been a single child. Now I was learning to be a single parent. Then little Antara and Nandana grew up, and I was again the only child in the house, with three stern mothers telling me what was good for me. After her graduation, Antara went to Smith College. Nandana didn’t wait that long. She finished high school and pushed off to my alma mater, Harvard University. Radharani, in the meantime, had received the Tagore Prize, the prestigious state literary award.
I spent long hours awake in bed deliberating on my future, trying to work out a strategy—of how to fall in love again. I had only practiced the keep-off signal all these years. Now I need to relearn the come-hither look. But my eyes had grown rusty.
Antara returned and joined a newspaper, like everyone else. She didn’t waste any time planning strategies, she just fell in love. He was a decent Bengali boy. Unfortunately, a Brahmin. His parents were honest enough to admit the fact, but I decided to ignore it. Especially because I had very little choice.
And just as my parents-in-law had not objected to bringing into the family the offspring of a widow remarriage, Antara’s parents-in-law didn’t mind the daughter of divorced parents. The two were formally engaged, and Antara took off for Delhi, where all the acceptable jobs seemed to be. Her fiancé followed. And was it not a sheer waste of money to run two households, rent two apartments, furnish two bedrooms, when you could make do with one? Wisely, they shared their scarce resources till the resources weren’t so scarce anymore, and a grand wedding was in order. Their parents were ecstatic. So were the relatives, rather pleased to have a home in Delhi now that the den of iniquity had been blessed by the Registrar of Marriages.
Nandana, the youngest, went farthest. After taking her degree, she was offered a decent job in a decent publishing house in America and stayed on. Then, like her didi and her ma and her dimma, she too met a charming young man and fell in love. This time it was not a Bengali but a suitable German boy, with green eyes, a Dutch mother, and a Berliner father. He had grown up in Australia, worked in Italy, and proposed to Nandana at Harvard. And radiant in the white bridal dress stitched by her mother-in-law, amid family banter, wedding corsages, homemade vows, and a registrar’s book, Nandana linked her life with a pair of green eyes in the Connecticut River Valley.
Now why have I inflicted this family saga on you? Because the story of Radharani has so many firsts in the family. The first widow remarriage, the first intercaste marriage, the first time a girl goes abroad for higher education, and—naturally, as Binididima would say, what else would you expect?—the first divorce. What followed was natural too. Is it surprising that Radharani’s elder granddaughter would be the first in the family to live openly with her fiancé and shame her relatives? Or that the younger granddaughter would be the first to break the last bonds of race, religion, and nationality? (But this, though a first in Radharani’s family, was not new to Nandana’s own. Her father had done it already. My daughters have a gorgeous half-sister and a tall, dark, handsome half-brother in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And all four have a wonderful stepmother—a living refutation of the age-old image of step-mothers—in Cambridge, England.)
Radharani’s story stops here for the time being, with Nandana’s receiving a green card. The first NRI in Radharani’s family. Our baby’s gone / . . . She’s leaving home / after living alone for so many years . . . But in this global longhouse where we live, this is not goodbye.
In less than eighty years, from Radharani’s child widowhood, when her parents didn’t allow her even a drop of water on fasting days, to Nandana’s marrying a foreigner, the family has graduated from being one of the most conventional to one of the most unconventional in Bengal. Radharani’s story encapsulates the history of the changing social values of the urban Bengali middle class. It could be Calcutta’s own story.
The House Next Door
The house next door has been demolished. A beautiful white two-story house with long verandahs where we used to play hopscotch on the black-and-white marble squares. The bedroom floors were cool green. Our bedroom and theirs had facing windows on the second floor, where our mothers would stand late at night after the day was done and we had been put to bed. They would face each other through the window grilles and talk softly into the night. In my sleep, I could hear the slow drizzle of their words scatter around me like fine drops of rain. The moon crept into my room through the leaves of the palm tree that loomed over the neighbor’s roof, to nestle beside me like a striped tabby cat.
We children played on that roof where the moon hung. It was safe, with its high brick walls that we couldn’t scale or lean over to peer down at the street. A jackfruit tree grew in their backyard, the countless fruits much like the numerous children in that large house.
The house next door was sold to a developer after the owner’s death. Her grandchildren needed the money. So the two daughters, both lively widows in their late sixties, left their mother’s house and promptly died one after the other in their daughters’ homes. Not that they didn’t have sons.
A gigantic structure has risen where the lovely house once stood. It rose quickly, within a few months. How long before it collapses on ours? Ours is sixty years old. It has witnessed my birth, my marriage, the death of both my parents, and the marriage of my daughter. This is where my daughters outgrew my childhood toys. Will it be strong enough to survive the impact?
I often wonder how the sisters must have felt, seeing their home of almost seventy years being taken apart, chunk by chunk. Carefully dismantled Burma teak doors and windows, British bathtubs, Belgian mirrors lay scattered among the rubble waiting to be sorted out. Passersby stopped to ask their price.
With the first blow on the roof of the house next door, my heart skipped a beat. As the pounding grew harder, my heart learned to live with it. Hour by hour, day by day. It wasn’t easy. And it wasn’t even my house. It had only housed a part of my childhood.
Our other, ancestral home in north Calcutta is three hundred years old and enormously overcrowded. Any day now we will hear from a friendly neighborhood developer.
Calcutta Catches Up
About ten years ago, the news of Ayn Rand’s death came as a terrible shock. She lay dead in her posh Manhattan apartment for five days before her body was discovered. I couldn’t believe it. Didn’t anyone call on her? No friend? No literary agent? No postman? Not even a Fuller Brush man? Nobody needed to see her in five long days? A whole work week?
And I was glad I didn’t live in New York City. I was so glad Calcutta had no sense of privacy. No defense against friends just dropping in and robbing you of your invaluable working hours. What a relief not to have a work culture! This could never have happened in Calcutta.
Last week, there was a small news item in one of the Calcutta papers. Shudhamoyee, seventy-one, lay dead on her bathroom floor for four days before her body was discovered. Both her sons had brilliant careers in the United States. They never failed to send her money.
Shudhamoyee lay in her bathroom for four days on Rowland Road, a crowded residential area. In Calcutta.
The stench was unbearable.
This Is Tahmina
It came by the morning post. From Barasat, dated 26 July 1995. “Didi, this is Tahmina,” it began. The name was not familiar:
Did you see the newspaper report a few days ago about a girl being refused admission to the BT College, Habra, despite her topping the admission test, because she did not have a religion? That was me. I had put an X in the space marked “religion” on the form. I have been doing that since my Madhyamik exams, as I don’t believe in god or religion. Although I was born in a Muslim family, I am not a Muslim, and the person I have married, Sukumar Mitra, does not consider himself a Hindu. We are very strict about our secular principles and do not compromise.
I stopped to catch my breath. This was no feminist antifundamentalist explaining revolution to an international audience. Rather, it was a secularist-fundamentalist risking her career in a small town for her faith in not having a Faith.
We ardently believe that as long as we define ourselves by our religions we will continue to breed communal disharmony. Why can’t I identify myself simply as “Tahmina Khatun, wife of Sukumar Mitra”? That should be enough in a democratic society.
My admission was denied for two reasons, the authorities informed me: (1) I did not have a religion, and (2) I did not carry my husband’s Hindu surname. They showed me to the door for these flaws in my character. When I insisted, they showed me the court. I did go to court, and the judgment was in my favor. But they ignored the judgment just as they had ignored the merit list. I can’t even step into the college compound—the doorman has been instructed to shoo me away. I wonder why this college was named after Gandhiji and not after Nathuram Godse.
I am writing to you because you are a writer. Can’t you do anything at all to help me? —Tahmina
I read and reread the letter but still found it hard to believe. This was no BJP/VHP/Shiv Sena/Jamayat–controlled state. Nor was Habra in the wilderness. How could this happen in communist West Bengal?
The letter had taken six days to travel from Barasat to Ballygunge in south Calcutta, and before I could reply to Tahmina, a two-column report appeared in an English daily, with a photograph of the incorrigibly secular couple. How can a Khatun be the wife of a Mitra? asked the heading. It was the story of Tahmina and Sukumar, two faithless, obstinate elements, universally recognized as a danger to our society. Hence, they are hounded from house to house and thrown out of hotels even after producing their marriage certificate—a document they haul around the way we carry our passports in a foreign land. To say that you are “secular” is part of your basic civic sense. But to try to practice it in everyday life is injurious to the moral health of others. So we can deny your right to an education and a career, your right to a decent life in a friendly environment, so we can stone you in self-defense or burn you at the stake.
The photograph showed a short, slight, innocuous-looking man of uncertain age with his eyes shut (probably against the flash), dangerously resembling the victims of the Ghagalpur blindings. Who would have thought he was such a fighter? It also showed a charming young woman, laughing heartily. Could she be going through such agony? The two were sticking to their guns, stubborn as they are. But the stress has started to tell. And now Tahmina needs regular counseling.
When the rich Vietnamese were fleeing Vietnam, they took their whole families along with them, including their maids. The US immigration officials didn’t see the need for domestic help. So the maids were dismissed unceremoniously, with a wave of the hand, while their masters stepped through the security cordon. It was a matter of survival.
As the “new Bengalis” of the changing middle class in West Bengal step into the grand work culture, Shudhamoyees and Tahminas wait in the house next door. Can we really dismiss them with a wave of the hand?
Also read the accompanying memoir Remembering Nabaneeta by Carolyn B. Brown