Story Of A Pathmaker and My Search for a Space


A great scholar, academic, feminist, pioneer in women’s studies in India and a leading figure of the women’s movement in post-independent India Dr.  Vina Mazumdar or vina di as she is lovingly known  is an inspiration for all of us.  It is always a joy to spend an evening with her listening to stories from her life. When she narrated the story of her pishima ( bua) I instantly thought of sharing it with all of you and she was more than happy to grant me permission. A woman of great determination and courage.


The time was somewhere in early 1900. In the middle of inky East Bengal ( now Bangladesh) night a door opened and closed in silence. A  young Hindu Brahmin woman aged sixteen, covered from head to toe, breezed past the winding lanes and by lanes of the village where she had come as a child bride.

She walked seventeen miles to reach the river. The river listened to her hurried footsteps with rapt attention ready to carry her to away from her wrenched life as an abused wife of an ill treating husband and his family. Grateful to be a part of her courageous escape to freedom and dignity. With no formal education she defied the system where men did not know how to treat their women.

An old  Muslim boatman sat dozing near his boat. She woke him gently and requested him to row her to her maternal village . As fare she offered him her gold bangles. He asked no questions. Under the night sky he rowed all night while she, exhausted and drained from her efforts, fell asleep.  Each enveloped in silence of their thoughts.

Before the slumbering sun woke up they reached the destination and he took her to the house of her father. She spread her shawl in the open veranda and lay there waiting for the dawn to break. He sat nearby watching over her .

In the morning her father opened the door to find his daughter at his threshold with an old man.

The boatman folded his hands and said ,” I rowed all night to bring her to you.  Here are the bangles she gave me in lieu of money. I want you to promise me one thing before I go that you will not send her back to her husband’s home and take her in and will not thrash or ill treat her. If not , then I will take her to my old woman and keep her with us as our child as Allah has not blessed us with children. ”  He  also told her father that his daughter’s unhappiness must have  been truly unbearable to make her do what she did.

Her father promised the old boatman and then only after a lot of insistence he took one bangle and said, ” I will never sell it. It will stay around my old woman’s hand so she can draw courage from it and in that way from her.”

The young lady stayed at her father’s place and no one in the house ever talked or questioned  about her past.  Vina di recalls how she came  to know about the details of pishima’s life later through her mother and elder relations. She passed away when Vina Di was barely five years old but the enigmatic presence of pishima remained to guide many generations of girls for years.

For a woman to say that she will fend for herself if her brothers did not care for her needs was unheard of and a bold statement for those times.

A  young bride of all but 11 years ( Vina di’s ma) came to the house from the interiors of Burma’s jingles and instantly the sister-in-law took the girl under her charge. The new bride learned all about traditions, customs, social ethics and much more from her and worshiped her like a Goddess. She became the little bride’s friend, philosopher and guide.

The  new bau had tremendous desire to study and the sister-in-law made sure she was tutored by her younger brother-in-law(who was actually elder to her)  against all the traditions. This created a huge controversy in the household. It was intolerable conduct for a young bau to be taught by a brother-in-law seven years senior to her. Maybe it was pishima’s conviction, courage and determination that made her defy the norms and have her way.

It was amazing to see a fiery young woman in those times to first leave her abusive husband and then within five – six years take charge of educating new bride of the house ( just a few years her junior) and other girls.

Years passed every woman, child drew inspiration from this brave woman who could defy  all social norms and break herself away from the shackles that usually bind women and keep them confined to the interiors of male dominated society. By ensuring education for the new bride , pishima began to quench  her own thirst for learning. Vinadi’s ma would read to her about various topics.

Both women developed a strong bond in that process. It was beginning of a campaign  to provide formal education to all the girls of her household against  resistance from the elder men of the home. She made sure that the girls were put in school  no matter what.

Although she managed to put all her nieces in school , in her absence the elder men ( mainly fathers) promptly took them out and that interrupted the studies. The younger generation which included Vina di and her sisters got uninterrupted formal education just because of sheer determination of  the pishima and vinadi’s ma, who supported her sister-in-law in her cause.

By 1920 pishima ( as she was fondly called) had acquired a reputation for being an ardent supporter of women’s education. When a new school for girls came up in the area she persuaded  local families to send their daughters there. She was an enigma and the fact that her social unexplainable status posed no hurdle in getting her way with people around her was something remarkable.

The families were hesitant to send young girls without an escort and pishima , with a wet towel on her head, collected a group of about 20 girls and escorted them to and fro from school each day.

She died in 1932 and everyone from the local girl’s school including old and new students , staff and principal came for the funeral. Many became pallbearers as a mark of respect to her and helped carry her body for cremation.

It was remarkable and extraordinary to see the women who themselves never received any formal education  start a revolution and have strong views on women’s education and other issues. They saw education as a tool to widen the mental horizons and social concerns. Pishima was a part of Vinadi’s childhood, and, perhaps, left an indelible mark  that helped propel her into the struggle against gender violence of later years.

You can read the entire true account  here A heritage of Heresy Within Tradition

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As I listened to Vinadi or ma as we call her , I wondered how many middle class or lower middle class women have that courage and such fortunate circumstances to rebel against the existing norms of this society, to boldly spread their wings and take a flight to dignified living.

Circumstances, especially lack of a back-up support system, comes in the way of many women who are either financially dependent on their husbands or are emotionally bound by the guilt of moving away from the so-called ‘rulebook’ for married women that has been instilled in them since their birth. In fact this whole conversation made me think of how a woman right from  birth is assigned her roles and given  initiation in a moral code of conduct which she has to abide by all her life.

When I talk of women I talk about them in general. There are many who have moved away from such bondage and live an independent life but when I look around I still find the deeply ingrained guilt factor combined with smothered desires and unfulfilled dreams.

I have seen how girls who played in their mother’s kitchens  later spent their entire life caged within those very four walls. Their dreams and enthusiasm consumed by the same fire that warmed their hearts as children.

As they grow up, even after basic formal education, they become part of the grind especially the non working women.

Financial independence is a must I feel now. Having given up my job to become a homemaker by choice at that time proved a wrong decision in my case.

It is strange how a woman becomes a nomad if her limit of ‘adjustment’ and ‘endurance’ crosses its mark in her husband’s home. It is strange that the very house where she grew up in ‘unconditional love and care’ becomes inaccessible to her. It closes its doors to its very own daughter leaving her to discover her own path once their duty of ‘marrying her off’ is done.

The home where she goes with the man she dreamed of spending the rest of  her life with  becomes her cage. The few windows become her only contact with the outside world . Restless, caged within the four walls of her own emotions and restrictions and of those imposed on her she looks at the piece of sky and cringes from within with a mixed emotion of longing to fly free and her own constrains and inability to do so.

For those who have a little more opportunity to spread their horizon it remains a problem. It is frustrating to see the open door and the still no power to cross that threshold for various reasons including lack of monitory backup and a roof over her head to begin with. Why?

Why are we afraid to take our chances?

Will it be worse than what we go through in a mindless existence that drains us of our own life as a human being ? Is it the fear of losing it all?

Or

Is it that years of home bound life makes us weak and unsure of what the world may offer?

Why is it that parents, siblings turn away their eyes (even some of the most radical ones , who talk of women’s rights and social reforms) when it comes to their own daughter / sister?

Where is such a woman supposed to go? What are her options? Isn’t it not difficult for her to fit into the ever-growing , rapidly changing and much advanced society and make her place ?

I remember my house help telling me one day ,” we are lower class and poor women but better off still” . I asked her, how ?

She replied,” we can go work at people’s homes, do anything and earn to support us because no one will give us a second glance but when women like you and many more need to break away and find a source of income after years of subjugation and dependent lives , they are helpless and lost.”

” They don’t find jobs easily, living day-to-day becomes difficult for them and in anticipation of that fear they remain buried in that coffin called “sasural” . ”

I watched her, trying to control my tears and was happy at the same time to see how enlightened she was.

Most of what she said was true.

Considering that I too am looking for my place of dignified living and don’t have a concrete backup or financial independence, the conversation stirred something deep within.

All these questions and many more haunted  me all night after my evening with Vinadi (ma) . Am still unsure and looking for a direction. Although I give a hoot to so-called social morality it still is a big issue to find my rightful space to live and do what I wish.

My mother, unlike many, understands the  dilemma and hurt. She is ready to support and take me back in her fold if needed and still there is a void. The very fact that she is in her eighties and living on a pension in her son’s home makes it difficult to take action on her own.

So, even if the mother daughter relationship is good it is marred by circumstances which are not in control of either for various reasons.

I have always wondered, what does ” see the bigger picture ” means? What is the  measure  of endurance ?

What is the limit of  ‘adjustment ‘ and where does ‘compromise ‘begin?

I ask these questions to people around me, people who give me advice to hang in there and try to make it work . I don’t really get any worthwhile reply.

Why is it that a woman is only  loved and appreciated, nurtured and defended from hostile forces by her so called family till the time she doesn’t lift her head and open her mouth ?

Why is it that when the question of a woman’s self-respect, dignity and freedom to live her life comes  people turn their faces or give a blank look as if it is a thing unheard of ?

That brings me to mothers. Mothers who stunt the growth of their sons by tying them to their apron strings. My husband has one. I have  first hand experience what it does to men who are never “allowed” to grow up and how they waste themselves in the very hands that once taught them how to stand up and take those first baby steps. The very son she claims to dote upon is not allowed to blossom . His life is one big guilt trip if he as much as says one word in support of the woman he married by choice.

Why do these men ever marry if they have to spill tears later when their mothers wail, ” she stole my son” ?

Hostile , unreasonable ,  jealous,  insecure  and emotionally charged she makes life hell.

Do I ‘adjust’ because she is elderly like my own mother?

Do I give in and let things be just because for 20 years I could not muster courage to step out and say ENOUGH ?

Do I need to take in the vitriol and deliberate malevolence  all my life for a ‘mistake’ I made in marrying her son?

Why do women want to control all the time?

I find it difficult to understand this attitude.

I find it difficult to swallow that a man is weakened and manipulated  to such an extent that his whole life becomes nothing but a twisted entangled mess shoved inside a small hole beyond which he doesn’t want to step.

It will be covered it another post.

The wounds these women inflict on other women do not heal.

Conditioned by society these women are tough to handle and the men who grow up under their shade even more difficult to handle.

I even found that those so-called “open-minded” men who would otherwise scream freedom for women are curled up inside when it comes to taking a stand for their own sister or female relation.

It cuts me to the quick when emotional and mental abuse is not understood and talked about mainly because there is no physical  evidence of it.  It is not even considered abuse and one is told not to create a hype and these things happen in all relationships.

It hurts when marital rape is shoved under the carpet and becomes a taboo topic. When women of all people sympathize but shrink from supporting the woman who goes through it.

How do you define marital rape? , I was asked by a close relative.

I explained and she felt I was being egoistic, stubborn and denying the basic right of physical aspect of marriage by refusing any physical contact.

Who determines the pain and humiliation of a woman who goes through it? Who draws the line?

If I do, why is it that people find it difficult to digest it?

Do I have to barter myself for the dignity and self-respect which actually is mine?

I know many women are seeking answers to such questions about their lives.

I am numb now. Ahead of me there is blank space . I have to pavé my path and I guess it will be a lonely battle. The turmoil deepens with each day. I wont give up or give in but what course I will take remains undecided. The questions are looking for answers. Even I am.

I know my voice was stilled .

But

In this silenced voice lie the stirrings of an awakened heart, buried this long in drunken slumber.

The article also appeared in Talking Cranes , Social site for women of South Asian heritage .

UPDATE – Dr. Vina Mazumdar passed away on May 30, 2013.

Zubaan books published her memoirs – Memories of a rolling stone