She was married off when she was thirteen. Daughter of a rich businessman from Rangoon, she traveled all the way to a village in Cumilla district of Bangladesh with her husband. After reaching the village, her husband, a manager in a coal mine, left her under the care of his elder sister to resume his job. Though her sister-in-law was caring, she would often mock her as the ‘rich man’s daughter’ who didn’t know how to cook. She gave birth to her first child at fifteen. She was a proud mother of 10 children – five daughters and five sons. Her husband passed away when she was in her fifties and she lived the next 25 years as a widow, wearing white and having only sattvic food. She was my Dida – my paternal grandmother.
I remember Dida sitting on the chaukhat or on the staircase next to the courtyard, in a completely white sari worn in Bengali style, her grey hair tied up in high bun, chewing pan and fanning herself with a hand fan made of palm leaves. Her calm and loving face bore traces of the beauty that she was in her youth. In summers she would prefer not to wear a blouse and we would tease her endlessly for that. “It’s too hot, let the old lady be”, she would say.
After school I would chit chat with Dida for a while. I would tell her about my friends and the lessons while she would talk to me about Bengali literature, plays, jatra (folk theatre of Bengal), sometimes about movies of Uttam Kumar. She was a big fan of the Bengali superstar Uttam Kumar, I think she had a crush on him. Dida was a voracious reader. She had read the entire volumes of Tagore, Sarath Chandra, Bankim Chandra and other prominent Bengali writers many times over. “Your father would get me books from the library. I would read every afternoon after finishing lunch. Sometimes there would be no new titles in the library, but I would ask him to get a book anyway,” Dida once said. Those afternoons with Dida probably developed my knack for literature. She would tell me her favourite stories, discuss her favourite characters with me. Soon I started reading myself, sometimes I would read out to her. For a woman of her times who hardly had any formal education, her views were modern and progressive.
Sometimes on those afternoons she would fondly remember my Dadu, her late husband. “Your Dadu was a man of principles,” she would say, “He was against dowry and would not attend any wedding function where there was any kind of dowry exchange.” Dadu had passed away even before my parents got married, whatever I know of him is from those stories. She would talk about leaving Rangoon as a girl with Dadu, spending the first year of her marriage with her sister-in-law while her husband was away at work. “She taught me everything, though she would taunt me at times as ameer zaadi.”
Dida was the centre of our family. Every morning mom would go to her to decide the menu for the day. While mom would take care for the non-vegetarian kitchen, Dida used to do all the vegetarian cooking herself. My memory of Dida is strongly associated with the flavour and aroma of her dishes – kochu bata, vegetable made from jackfruit seed, sheem (broad beans) and baigan sabzi and many more. She would insist on mom serving us macher jhol (fish curry) everyday, something that I strongly resisted. As a girl I wasn’t fond of macher jhol, but Dida felt a meal wasn’t complete without fish. “I couldn’t eat even one day without fish,” she would often say to convince me to have fish. “How do you eat now?” I would retort. “I eat just fine,” would be her reply. I would sometimes wonder how she could give everything she loved one fine day and not complain about it.
Though widows on those days were not meant to touch fish, Dida would make an exception for her grandchildren whenever we insisted that we would eat fish only if she feeds us. I still remember the nights before a pujo (Lakshmi or Saraswati) when Dida, mom and all the other women would be busy making naaru, sandesh and other delicacies to be served to the goddess next morning. We cousins would hang around the kitchen hoping to sample some of those delicacies. While the other ladies ignored us, Dida would sneak some sweets out of the kitchen for us. “God resides in children,” she would say, “you need to give them first.”
On weekends, after lunch when Dida would sit with her paner bata (paan daan), making a paan for herself, with her transistor next to her listening to the play. AIR in those days used to air a play every weekend. I developed quite a taste for those plays and would listen to them with her on lazy Sunday afternoons. Picture of Dida is incomplete without the brass paner bata and the transistor, those items were always next to her.
We lost Dida to cancer when she was in her seventies, the disease that she dreaded. “I hope I don’t get cancer,” she would always say. Tobacco that she would chew with paan gave her cancer. Doctor suggested surgery. “Please don’t cut me up,” she pleaded. We respected her wish. On the last few months of her life she could hardly eat. She would break out in fits of cough whenever we tried to make her eat. She would never complain, just lie peacefully on her bed most of the time. Fortunately, most of her children and grand children were around her at that time. One morning her frail body gave in and she passed away peacefully.
This post is a tribute to Dida, a woman who lived her life abiding by traditions and yet managed to hold her own and inspire the generation after her!