It was about 50 years ago – the first wedding in the family. The bride to be was the eldest daughter; she was my sister Sharmistha. The venue was going to be our home in a residential area of New Delhi.
With only two days to go for the main wedding ceremony, the house was abuzz with activity and excitement. Guests were streaming in from far and near.
From the balcony, I noticed a diminutive figure, in a printed floral saree, stepping out of the family car and being escorted indoors. I was told that she was my boro pishi — a Bengali form of address. Boro means eldest and pishi means paternal aunt; in my case, boro pishi was my father’s sister.
I learnt later that after repeated requests, and a great deal of persuasion, she had agreed to grace the occasion. We’d heard a lot about her and this was the first time that my siblings and I were meeting her.
The trials and tribulations of India’s partition
It was during the mid-1940’s that by a cruel turn of fate, my aunt had been widowed. She then returned to her parental home in Dacca, in erstwhile East Pakistan (present day Bangladesh), with her three children – two daughters and an infant son. Soon after, the turbulence of partition dealt yet another blow to the family and they were forced to leave East Pakistan and move to India.
My boro pishi decided to settle in Kolkata (then Calcutta) with her children. She rented a house in a modest neighbourhood and began the lone journey of a single parent. She fended for her children with her meagre savings, supplemented by earnings through private tuitions.
Over the next few years, she enhanced her academic qualifications, obtained a Master’s Degree in Bengali from the University of Calcutta and managed to secure a job as a junior lecturer in a local women’s college. She kept pretty much to herself and focused on her children’s future, until they became financially independent.
Boro pishi also managed to construct a house of her own. At a much later stage, she retired as vice principal of the same college where she’d begun her career. Life had been full of challenges for her.
A widow’s code of conduct
I was a wide-eyed teenager at the time of my sister’s wedding, with little knowledge of life’s nuances. Yet, I could not help but notice the lines of suffering on my aunt’s face, even though she often tried to mask them with a serene look.
I was aware, of course, that as per established norms, a widow was expected to wear white, avoid using make-up and eat only vegetarian food. The first shock waves were palpable when she came downstairs for lunch and seated herself at the table where non-vegetarian food was being served. A pregnant silence ensued, followed by incomprehensible mutters.
Disapproving looks were exchanged among some of the women and a few even sniggered. Boro pishi however appeared unaffected. It also became obvious that whenever she tried involving herself in the pre-wedding activities, her efforts were scuttled. Some were of the firm belief that being a widow, she would bring bad luck.
The wedding took place and soon after, amid the blowing of conch shells, my sister took leave of her parental home. Boro pishi too left immediately since she had to get back to her job.
Just before leaving, she walked up to me and said, “Your mother seems to be rather busy right now. Could you please convey a message to her?”
“Tell her that I want to apologise,” she continued. “I fear I may have offended some people by not following the expected code of conduct for widows.” I listened intently.
“As you would have probably guessed, I have been a part of the mainstream for a long time. Wearing white and not eating non-vegetarian food is no longer my way of life. However, I am leaving with a thorn by my side.”
‘Thorn by my side’ is a Bengali expression for a feeling of hurt and discomfort. I was totally nonplussed and taken aback. I touched her feet as a mark of respect. She gave me her blessings and left.
Time marches on
The years rolled by. Towards the culmination of the 1990s, I happened to be in Kolkata to attend a family reception at an exclusive club in the city. It gave me an opportunity of renewing ties with some of my relatives.
Boro pishi had passed on by then, but many of the ladies who had attended Sharmistha’s wedding around 30 years ago, happened to be there. Among them were some of the members of the self-styled moral police force of the yesteryears, including the disapprovers, the ‘sniggerers’ and the manipulators. Many of them had lost their husbands.
Times had changed remarkably. I was truly glad to see them dressed in beautiful sarees of lovely hues, with subtle make-up and coordinated accessories. They were enjoying themselves immensely and helping themselves to the wide array of fish and meat delicacies that had been served.
Little drops make a rivulet
Amid the bonhomie, many questions came to my mind. Why do so many women not understand the pain of another? Did these women, some 30 years ago, resent the grit and determination of another woman who had the courage to reject the dictates of an oppressive social order? Is a woman only defined by her marital status? Was my boro pishi instrumental in contributing towards the first rumblings of social change by standing up to social censure?
Of late, there seems to be hope for social justice, women’s empowerment and a change for the better. While each one of us is free to follow our individual belief systems, when these become an unquestioned set of practices for a group at large, they play a detrimental role in bringing about progress in women’s upliftment.
Desirable social changes cannot take place unless discriminatory and misogynistic practices are eliminated. Prejudiced attitudes towards women are archaic ideas. Time alone will tell whether lasting changes will come about in the days to come.