Speaking of Mother
The Child Marriage Restraint Act came into effect in British India on April 1, 1930. It prohibited marriages of women below the age of eighteen. At that time, it was a common practice, both in the Hindu and Muslim communities, to get their girls married at an early age. My maternal grandfather was a successful lawyer, a public figure and a modern man. However, societal pressures and tradition led him to quickly arrange the marriage of his eldest daughter before the operation of the restrictive marriage law. My father in his unpublished memoirs had written that he was unhappy about the haste in going through the marriage with the intention of beating the clock. But family pressure was too great. Thus, my mother left her paternal home in Jalpaiguri as a very young bride and set up her 'sangsar' in Calcutta. She bore two children, my elder brother and me and lived in Calcutta in rented accommodation, until my father built her a small house of her own in Park Circus.
She lived a happy contented life in Calcutta with innumerable family members and friends until the partition of Bengal in1947. She was the third child in a family of five brothers and two sisters. But since she married the earliest and had established a family, her parents and siblings, older as well as younger, had a special attachment to her. If she was not the guiding light, she was the calming and sweet voice of family unity and welfare. In Calcutta, she would go to the movies, theatres, and picnics in the botanical garden on the Hoogly River or in nearby Falta on the Damodar River, where the British retreated when Nawab Sirajuddaula captured Calcutta in 1756. Before marriage, she only had time for a high school education-yet she had the innate intellectual interest and curiosity to subscribe to the daily newspaper, Jugantar and the weekly satirical magazine, Sanibarer Chithi. She would place orders and eagerly wait for the Puja issues of Bashumati and Bharatbarsha. She read plenty of books- from Tagore, Bankim Chandra and Sarat Chandra to Kiriti Roy's detective stories. She was a member of the local public library and borrowed books from there. We would very often be her messengers in this respect.
In August 1947, we moved to Dhaka. Mother set up her family with great skill and pleasantly adapted to the new environment. The earthly privations and non-availability of things we were used to in Calcutta, did not bother her as long as she was able to provide us with healthy food and comfortable shelter. She never complained. Her satisfaction with the surroundings at all times gave us a congenial atmosphere, peace at home, meaning and fulfillment in our lives. In the early years, Dhaka did not have large-city facilities of entertainment and recreation like Calcutta but mother liked its rustic charm. She enjoyed the open spaces of Dhaka with a lot of trees and flowers, particularly in the newer areas of Ramna. She also liked to visit the older parts of the city of four-hundred years, which though congested, had history, traditions and architectural distinction.
In Dhaka, the yard in her house gave her the opportunity to do what she could not fully do in Calcutta. That was gardening, which she liked very much- plants and flowers in tubs and in the yard, as well as vegetable gardening. She was socially active- joined some women's organisations and others doing charitable and educational activities. She loved movies, would go to the Rupmahal and Manashi cinema Halls in old Dhaka, and later to Gulistan and Naz. If there were a play, musical performance, or a traveling magic show of P.C. Sircar or the like, she would like to go. She was never tired of her household duties. Her house keeping was always a model of cleanliness and orderliness. But she also found time to attend to other interests outside the house. As I was writing this piece, my son Javed recalled an anecdote about his Dida (grandmother): “On one of the summer visits in the mid-seventies when I was ten years old, I was constantly asking for 'Amshatta' (dried mango) or other sweets, which she had thoughtfully prepared for us. Even though we were there only for a short time and dida would have liked to give as much as I wished, she always gave me a limited ration. She was strict and so sweet and gentle at the same time. The harmony that we found in the household was due in large measure to the combination of love, discipline and wisdom that she embodied every day.”
In 1983, I had to go to Dhaka on an emergency visit to take her to Bangkok for treatment as she was suffering from kidney ailments. She was an uncomplaining patient and the treatment did her good. While in hospital in Bangkok, she did not lose interest in life. She wanted me to buy her a Thai Ruby ring and some crockery and utensils for her house. The last time I saw her was in the summer of 1985. We were leaving Dhaka for abroad that afternoon and I had gone near my mother who was sitting, as usual, in a cane chair in the veranda. I tried to say good-bye and embraced her. She was already getting very weak due to prolonged illness and did not have the energy to get up. She took my hands and said in a melancholy and resigned tone “have to let you go-what can I do? Alas, it would not be possible to hold you back.” I vividly remember these words, the last words that she spoke to me. She did let me go for the last time and in mid-September, in three weeks she passed away quietly in sleep. She was like a shade tree and even though I was thousands of miles away when I heard the news, I felt as if that tree had unkindly and suddenly been cut down, leaving me under the sky, open to the harsh elements of nature.
When I think of my mother's attributes and the sense of harmony and happiness that prevailed around her, I wonder how that was possible. Didn't she suffer from life's daily grind, have unrealised ambitions and some frustration in life? I found a general answer in Tagore's writing. He felt that the integral harmony of women with her duties in life was due to the reason that “for ages, Nature has defined these duties and modified these duties, and molded her feelings to fit to them. In all her being and doing, she unites grace and skill, her nature and her work- like a flower and its scent." Tagore had written these lines in 1893 well before the birth of my mother, but I know how beautifully it fits her image, which we witnessed as she journeyed through life.
Azizul Jalil writes from Washington.
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