She is neither a princess nor a divine damsel. Hers is the story of a woman who was overpowered by forces beyond her control and yet, she lives on with grace and dignity.
Chandralekha was born about 73 years ago in her maternal grandparents’ house in Buldhana, a town in Maharashtra, India. She spent most summer holidays there, splashing around in her grandfather’s paddy fields, planting crops and climbing the tall mango trees, with her bubbly compatriots in tow. They were a bunch of happy, mischievous and curious children, as all should ideally be.
The early years
Chandralekha was raised in Patna, Bihar since her father had chosen this city to establish his medical practice. This is where she completed high school – graduating from a reputed missionary run institution. She had a natural flair for languages and difficult as it may seem for most, Chandralekha expressed herself fluently in five, boasting an impressive vocabulary in English, Hindi, Marwari, Marathi and even Bhojpuri. Of course, besides English, the others are possibly all Sanskrit derived but the similarities end there.
Following high school, this young inspiration went on to enroll in the elite Patna Women’s College, where she obtained her Bachelor’s degree. Ever the ambitious woman, Chandralekha even applied for the Indian Civil Services examination. This would actually have been an easy feat for her to accomplish if only she had enjoyed more family support – perhaps just a littlepush to back her up. On her part though, she was always eager to extend a helping hand to her family, more so her mother with household errands. With unfailing commitment, she ensured grocery and provisions were purchased and since she could drive, she would ferry her father to his clinic and her little brother to his school. The arrangement worked well because she would then continue on to her college.
Chandralekha possessed a keen eye for detail; she could even design her own clothes in sync with the neighbourhood tailor and took pride in dressing fashionably. Without doubt, she was blossoming into a smart and independent young lady. In fact, her lifestyle from a few decades ago would seem contemporary by most even today.
Much as she was devoted to her family, this ‘icon from the future’ found deep satisfaction in spending time with the needy and less privileged. Every so often, Chandralekha would set off to rural locales where she found immense satisfaction in spending time with children, reading to them and teaching them about the finer nuances. She was enrolled as a member of a local club too, which undertook voluntary services and educational outreach programmes.
Then Cupid struck
Chandralekha was completely besotted by this handsome hunk who bore close resemblance to Rock Hudson- the Hollywood star of her dreams. He was the college cricket team captain, spoke flawless English and belonged to a prominent family in the Darjeeling hills. The ‘match fixing,’ if we may call it, took place in Eden Gardens, back when Kolkata was still Calcutta. The couple said ‘yes’ to one another and the wedding bugle was sounded.
Following a grand wedding reception, the couple began the homeward journey to the Queen of Hills. The steep uphill drive to Darjeeling did little to calm the flutter in her heart as she edged closer to her new abode, nestled in the hills. She settled into her marital home as the eldest daughter-in-law of an eminent conservative family, deeply steeped in tradition.Tradition demanded that the new bride always wear a sari and oversee the running of the household, which she did without a murmur. Leaving the premises without an escort was an unfathomable idea.
Chandralekha still recalls vivid memories of huge rice laden sacks being unloaded in the family courtyard, which then had to be prepared for storage. She often recounts stories of raw mangoes and tamarind being dried and pickled. She was expected to participate in the whole process and if these skills weren’t adequate, she was also expected to be adept at using a sewing machine. The prevailing sentiment at the time wasthat knitting, embroidery and the like, were fortifying skills for women.
While it was common at the time for women to be tied down to housework, Chandralekha really was meant for other things. The birth of her third child-a son-following ten years of marriage, was perhaps the only spark that redeemed her.
She lives her life still – dignified and tall
Chandralekha could not, however, sustain life’s uncomfortable journey. Her mental and emotional well-being deteriorated considerably with time – wreaking havoc on her immunity system and grossly affecting her physical health. At the age of 41, she contracted tubercular meningitis – an often fatal brain disease and she lay comatose for over a week.She eventually recovered, but the damage was done. There was an atrophy of the optic nerves and Chandralekha became permanently and irreversibly blind.
Perhaps it is the grit she displayed in her formative years that continues to be her driving force. She lives her life still, dignified and tall but her existence is reminiscent of a story that ought not to have ended this way. Chandralekha tells the tale perhaps of many a woman who is living a life of smothered dreams.