Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

A STUDY OF LIFE

KALYANI BHATTACHARJEE

Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)

Portraits of some women

My dear nieces,

I have never had better listeners than you. As babies you loved listening to stories of animals and fairies, and to-day as young girls you listen spellbound to life stories of national heroes and martyrs. I wish to relate to you life histories of some women of Bengal. You belong to the modern age , and you have resolved to create a new society. I ardently hope that you will try to solve the numerous problems these women had faced in their lives.

Many years ago we lived on the second floor of a house in a narrow lane of the city. Two families shared the rooms on the ground floor. The rooms were dark and damp for sunlight could not enter from any corner. Day long a light had to be lit in the rooms. In one portion there lived a widowed lady with four or five girls and boys , the youngest boy being hardly ten years old. He had a sharp intelligent face. He recited long poems by Rabindranath, and also sang his songs to us occasionally. We often commented on his intelligence and predicted a bright future for him.

When he did not come up to our rooms for a number of days we enquired and found out that he was suffering from typhoid fever. The poor family did the best they could in giving him medical treatment.. But a fortnight later we saw him being carried on a small cot to the burning ground. Thus ended the life of the bright young boy ,and all the predictions about his future came to nothing. A few days later the rest of the family left this house and went away.

After almost three months the rooms were still lying vacant. One evening as darkness fell we heard a mournful tune coming from the empty rooms.

"We live with little , so we weep for the slightest loss....." Who was singing , we wondered. Later we came to know that the elder brother of the boy often came into the dark rooms to sing to the memory of his dead brother. He could not get over his grief at the loss.

"He passed away in spring not seeing the flowers bloom,/ Leaving a void behind him."

In the other half of the ground floor lived a couple wth their mother and two small children. We became quite friendly with the young wife.. She was about my age. She had gone to school up to class two when she got married. Her husband did not earn much ,so she did all her household work, After preparing dinner and finishing all her daily chores, she would freshen up the children and come with them to visit us. As evening fell she would hurry down to their rooms to light the evening lamp. One day I told her that the great poet Rabindranath must have written the following lines with her in mind,
 

"Rare is your home in the midst of the blooming bower ,
"Where you spend your hours in blessed loving toil.
"There morning comes with offerings of prayer,
"And evening lamps light up the end of day."

She smiled as she went downstairs. I thought she must be going down to welcome her husband back from work.

All the time she was with us we spoke of current affairs and national problems. She always had a pleasant smile on her face. Never did she complain about her dark rooms or her hard life. Only one day when I was sitting in her room , her mother-in-law gave a mango to her grandson. There was only one mango and his sister wanted a share of it. So his mother asked him to share it with her. But the grandmother interfered and said it was such a small mango, so told the boy to eat it. The little boy ate it up while his sister looked on sadly. When her mother-in-law left the room she commented with a sigh, "I feel so depressed when I can not teach my son the right values." That was the only time I heard her complain. My sisters used to say that she was happy because she had her husband's love. Hardship and want cannot touch one who has happiness. Her clothes were worn and her food was poor , yet she always had a smile on her face.

I was busy with my exams so I did not meet her for sometime. One day I heard from my mother that she was suffering from a slow fever, and finally it had been diagnosed that she had tuberculosis. We thought it was only natural that she had caught the germ in the dark damp room where she lived. I went to see her and found her lying tired and exhausted. In this condition she had also given birth to a little girl. Her mother had taken the baby to her home. I felt sad for her as I thought of her leaving her beloved husband and children behind. There was little hope of her recovery. She did not speak a word, she could just smile. While I was there her husband returned, and I turned towards her to see her happy face. But as I looked I got a shock for there was a hard look of anger on her face, as she looked at her husband. What was she trying to say?

"Open wide the door ,and let me depart this futile life!" At night in bed I thought I must have mistaken her expression.

Next day on my way home from college I found a group of men walking with the dead body of some 'fortunate' lady with lots of vermillion on her forehead. They were carrying her to the burning ground. Noticing the gentlemen I realized that she was lady of my acquaintance who resided on our ground floor. I had a fleeting thought , how embarrassed she must be feeling , she was so shy of meeting anyone outside her family. I hardly knew of death before this, so the realization of it came as a great shock. I remembered the words of Sarat Chandra , "He who was here yesterday is no longer here today. His earthly body is turning into ashes. No one can recognize him now. Up till now all his hopes and fears centered round his body. In a moment everything has gone. What does life mean ?"

In the evening I went down with mother to meet the old mother-in-law who was all the time praying for her death but would live on for more years of sorrow and pain. She who could have enjoyed life with all its beauty and music ,left before her time. I was immersed in such thoughts when my attention was drawn to the words of the weeping mother-in-law. "I must admit that I had not brought up my son properly. Every night he came home after midnight , God only knows from where. My daughter-in-law would quickly shut the door of my room. She wanted to hide the faults of her husband. But I could hear everything, even at times sound of beating. Many nights she could not sleep at all. At last when her husband fell asleep she would take her clothes and go for her bath. After her morning chores she would start cooking. Then she would open my door thinking that I had heard nothing. As a mother in deep shame I remained silent." Listening to her I remembered my sisters' comments. How wrong they were. I remembered her angry look at her husband from her sick bed. In that look she reminded her husband of his cruelty towards her . She had performed all her duties with a smile ,duties as a wife, as a mother , as a daughter.. Truly , man can bear sorrow that would break the heart of stone.

Many years had passed after we moved away from this house. One day I was in the neighbourhood ,so I walked in to see how the children were. The girl had grown up ,and I learned from her that her father had married again....Their old grandmother was no more. Soon a young woman came and welcomed me with a smile on her face...Wondering what history was being repeated in her life, I left after a few words.

As a young girl I was a leader among my friends. Every afternoon they would gather round me and we would have wonderful games. When a girl got married I was asked to dress her up, and when she left with her husband ,I would also start crying with the rest of her family...I had to be present at the spot when any outsider came to choose his bride. In course of time most of my companions got married. One day we learned that "Puti" was also getting married. She was pretty but her father had no money. He was a lowly clerk in an insignificant office. She got married into a poor family from a distant village.. Leaving us all in tears she left with her husband. Her mother clasped her in her arms and promised to bring her back after a few days.

Thereafter we moved to another house in another locality, and all my friends became shadows in my memory. After leaving school I was then a college student, when one day I had a desire to find out how my old friends were faring. I visited their homes and made enquiries about them from their mothers. One had a daughter , another a son, while one unfortunate girl had lost her husband and was living like a slave in her in-law's home. When I entered "Puti's" home her mother broke out in tears as she embraced me. "Puti"'s new home was far away, and her parents had no means to bring her back, though she wrote letters begging them to do so , for she was very unhappy over there. She threatened to end her life if she had to stay there. When finally her father managed to go and bring her back , he learned on arriving there , that she had died a few days ago of cholera. Her father knew she had killed herself but he was helpless , and without making any charges he returned home silently.

We were locked up in our cells in jail , when a young girl came and sat by my side. She was about twenty-two and very pretty. She was healthy and always took care of herself. She had a little boy with her. She started weeping as she sat by my side. When I asked her what was wrong she told me her life story. What I heard from her made me realize what a sad life she had , although her looks belied her lot. Her father was poor ,but he had given her some education. A handsome young man had wanted to marry her. She had agreed happily, and the date of marriage was fixed. On the night of her wedding she found an old man standing in the place of her young suitor. She broke out in tears but the marriage was solemnized. The young man's father had demanded a large dowry on the wedding day , and had walked away with his son when the girl's father could not comply. The old man was found as a substitute at the last moment.

Sudhira, the young girl continued , that the young man still loved her. She did not love her husband but a sympathetic relationship had grown up between them. She was confused and asked for my advice. I had no words to solve her problem. After some time she was released and left prison. When I was released after eight months I received a letter from Sudhira inviting me to her home. She gave me her address and asked me to make enquiries at a small grocer's shop at the end of the lane. I followed her direction and at the grocer's shop found an old man in shabby clothes who told me how to find her home.

I was quite happy to see her neat little home. But after some time the old grocer entered , and to my utter dismay she introduced him as her husband.

I knew he was an old man but I had never imagined him like this. I was really sorry for her ,and after a quick lunch I went home with a very heavy heart.

After some more years when I returned from jail again , I tried to find about Sudhira. I came to know that she was now a student studying from a boarding and some gentleman was bearing her expenses. One day I was busy entertaining some friends in my new home , when some one told me that a lady and a gentleman were asking for me. I ran out to find Sudhira , well-dressed and beautiful, standing with smiles on their faces. She extended her arms to embrace me , but I could not reciprocate. After a few moments she said ,"Shall we go back?" I could not say in reply, "Please do not go." Slowly they went down the stairs. That was the last time I saw her. They are lost in the vast crowd of life. I do not know if I shall ever meet her again. I have failed to find a solution to the problem of her life.

I was a college student then. I often visited the girls' hostel where my main task was to collect them and take them to meetings and rallies. There I met a girl , let 's name her Sunanda. A brilliant student was in love with her. Sunanda was also a good student, and was pretty too. It was only natural that such a girl would have admirers. They were often seen going out together. After completing his studies the young man started working in a college. Now there was no obstacle to their marriage. It's true they were not of the same caste, but that could not stand in the way of their love. We all thought that their love for each other would be everlasting.

After some time when I came out of prison I had an opportunity to see their home. It seemed God had showered all his blessings on them. Sunanda seemed to declare with great pride that " without her the glory of God's love would have been in vain." Their love's fulfillment had come in the shape of a little child , whom the parents just adored. It was a perfect picture of heavenly bliss.

Many years passed when I lost touch with them. Time's chariot rolled on and I had no opportunity to meet them or learn about them. One day I was visiting my sister , when in front of her house I saw a boy of five or six playing around.. There was something familiar about the boy's looks. On enquiring I learned that he was Sunanda's son. Sunanda was working to bring up her son. With a shock I asked if her husband had died.. In a sense he was no more , for he had gone abroad with a foreign scholarship, and had returned with an English woman. He was now living with her. How I suffered when I heard this terrible news. Their pure and pristine love which was supposed to be eternal had come to this sad end.

"Nothing survives , dreams perish, tears dry up , even sorrow is consumed in death."

She was two or three years older than me so I used to call her Pravadi. She was the head-mistress of a school run by the Calcutta Corporation. A few years ago she had got married and had gone to her in-law's home , where on the bridal reception day she found the house in turmoil. The groom had refused to enter the bridal chamber , or meet the bride. He was in love with another girl, but his family had not allowed him to marry her , for she was widowed early in her childhood. When Pravadi learned all this she left for her father's home. She had no other alternative when her husband refused to accept her.

She completed her Matriculation and after taking a teachers' training course, she started working. We were her friends, so we took her with us in our political work, where she tried to find some fulfillment. One afternoon she came to me in great excitement. After so many years her husband had come to take her back. He had broken off with his lady love and so he needed her now.. I noticed that Pravadi was weakening and was feeling tempted to go. I told her not to go. Was a woman's life so cheap? Was she to depend on the whims of her husband ? Be always at his beck and call? Did she have no self-respect?

Woman's eternal desire for a family ,a husband and children was tempting Pravadi to return. A few days later her husband came again to take her back, but this time she sternly told him to go back and never try to meet her again. I was glad to learn that she had spoken like a truly liberated woman. I read out a few lines from one of Bina's poems,

"Let all the dregs of my forlorn life , "Burn in the fire of my sorrow. Alone I face the heartless burden, "In that lies my pride."

After this we were separated for a long time. She had to suffer for her political allegiance, and was in jail for some time. Tuberculosis comes with poverty and soon she was its victim. Her relatives kept away in fear , and she had no place to stay. A few months later a friend found her in a small hospital. Her dead body lay uncared for in a corner of the place with flies buzzing over her blood-stained mouth. Learning of this I recalled these lines, "Through the fire and brim-stone of this heartless world,

"I shall proudly carry my burden alone".

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