Anjali was born to a middle class couple in undivided Bengal. She studied in a high school in Jessore, growing up with four siblings, unaware as all little children are, of what the future held for them. Que sera sera, she must have said to herself as a young girl, whatever will be, will be. And then came the war. Masterda Surja Sen planned the Chittagong uprising. News floated in of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose planning to overthrow the empire with Japanese support. Gandhi called for Satyagraha, as Bhagat Singh, Azad and the others rose in rebellion in different parts of the country, demanding purna swaraj for India. Anjali Sengupta joined the freedom fighters’ congress in the Khulna district of erstwhile East Bengal and became an active part of India’s freedom movement, along with her brothers.
Wars can impose curfews on people, but not on Nature. Spring came, as it always does and romance blossomed in the background, even as the war became everyday reality. Young Anjali fell in love with a fellow freedom fighter. Shanti Sharan Roy Chowdhury, son of a titled zamindar from undivided Bengal, was doing his Bachelor of Arts in English from Daulatpur College, Khulna, when he responded to Netaji’s call, joined the freedom struggle and started fighting under his leadership. That’s when he met Anjali. The road to eternal happiness, however, is always strewn with impediments. Bengal was partitioned in 1947. Anjali’s father, Annadacharan Sengupta, who was the postmaster general of the districts of Khulna, Jessore and Faridpur, came over to West Bengal with his family and started life afresh.
Boundaries, as they say, are political; they can control people, but they cannot contain birds and beasts, fish and fowl, love and lyrics. Shanti Sharan’s father, Mr. Banerjee, who later started using the title that was given to him by the British – Roy Chowdhury – also moved to West Bengal with his family after the Partition. Shanti Sharan and Anjali met again. While they were apart, Anjali had completed her Bachelor of Arts in Bengali from Ashutosh College; Shanti Sharan in the meantime had been imprisoned by the British for five years. This time, their parents decided to take things in their own hands and arranged their marriage: an inter-caste, inter-class marriage – Shanti Sharan was the son of Bengali Brahmin zamindar; the Senguptas were Baidyas and did government jobs; and this was in the 1950s.
The young couple gave birth to three daughters and brought them up as best as they could. Living in their second floor apartment on Ripon Street, Calcutta, they sent their daughters to Pratt Memorial School, one of the premiere English medium institutions of the city, because they wanted modern, progressive education for their daughters. Anjali, even after Independence, continued to be a part of the Freedom Fighters’ Movement which demanded that the district of Khulna be included in the Indian polis. She later went on to complete her Master of Arts in Bengali, from the University of Calcutta, while bringing up her children and managing her family. Eventually, along with her husband Shanti Sharan, she received the Tamrapatra and the Freedom Fighters’ Pension from Smt. Indira Gandhi.
“Your grandmother went on to work for the government of West Bengal and she retired as the Deputy Secretary of Secondary Education in Bengal”, my mother told me. “I am what I am and you are what you are because of Anjali Roy Chowdhury”, mum asserted at the end of her narrative. When you educate a man, you educate a person. When you educate a woman, you educate a family. I couldn’t recall whose words those were, but they kept returning to me, as I looked into my mother’s eyes, a little shaken by the personal history that had been shared with me. Mum laughed and added, “I was young when Ma was doing her Masters. She would sit in the living room on a rug laid out on the floor. I would go and turn the lights out every two minutes or so to thwart her attempts to study! But she still managed to get that degree! That says something about the sort of person she was; her sense of determination, dedication and discipline.”
My editor asked me last night about what comes in my mind when I hear the phrase “son-preference”. I had told her in jest that my family did things a little differently. My grandparents loved daughters and they had three. My parents also wanted a daughter, and they had me. In my family, for generations, it seems, it has worked the other way round! She coaxed me to share the story with her. I did.
I did because I realised that our history is largely strewn with annals that are bloody. These stories of individual effort and triumph, these stories of hope and inspiration, these little personal histories of resilience and tenacity get lost somewhere.
I have often felt nostalgic about places I’ve only dreamt of, never been to; often felt a deep sense of longing for people I’ve only imagined, never met. Anjali and Shanti Sharan Roy Chowdhury are two such people. I’ve not had the good fortune of being cradled in the comforting lap of my grandparents but when I hear their stories – those chronicles which are not archived in the libraries that house piles of moth-eaten, jaundiced volumes of yellowing history – I wish they were alive. Alive to tell their tale. For now, I shall humbly act as their mouthpiece.
I had asked my aunt, Bandana Purkayastha, my mother’s sister and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of Connecticut, when she returned from Lahore last year after addressing a plenary session of the United Nations, about what she thought the challenges that feminists faced today were. Very cryptically she had told me that patriarchy is not the biggest challenge that feminism has to deal with today – and by patriarchy she meant the predominantly male setup that dared to govern the social lives of individuals. After watching NH10 last week, I could make more sense of what she had suggested. Deepti Naval’s character, the sarpanch of the village in the outskirts of Gurgaon, engineered the murder of her own daughter because the young girl had not only dared to love but also marry a man from a different caste. Honour killing and gender biased sex selection are realities in India. And they are realities not only because men want it to be so, but because sometimes, sadly, women, either by actively supporting such misguided causes, or by remaining silent witnesses to such acts of barbarity, become accomplices to the men.
My mother, my grandmother could do things not only because they had the support of their fathers and spouses, though that also, but because they had an agency of their own as well, which we cannot choose to ignore. As Alan Sinfield and Jonathan Dollimore had once argued, it is not enough to think a radical thought; the idea or thought has to be articulated – how subversive the idea is and how capable of effecting change, will depend on how many people were touched by this thought or notion, how many acted on it, and under what circumstances.
I told my mother, as she sat misty eyed, thinking about her mother, “Dida was such a brave woman. She gave them all a tough fight!”
My mother looked at me calmly and said, “What you grandmother did was brave, but we need to stop treating these stories as singular. The day these stories stop sounding extraordinary, the day these become everyday realities, you’ll know your Dida has won.”