My grandmother the “white lotus”

My paternal grandmother Kumudini Dasgupta was a special woman.  I did not really know her well nor did I make an effort to get to know her well while she was alive.  I always found her to be distant and a bit of a critical snob.  She was a dispassionate looking woman, who maintained her widowhood by wearing stark white saree kept her hair short, eat only boiled food or really bland food without any onion, garlic or even much spices. All of these were as per the rotten and inhuman customs for Bengali widows, which she and others believed in (or so I thought).    She died at  96 years and I wonder, how did she live for that long, with that diet?

this is not Kumudini, but she could have been. she dressed like this and looked like this. one of the numerous widows in our country.

Anyway, to come back to talk about Kumudini (it means white lotus or moon) … she indeed was a remarkable woman … which I realised rather late, almost 43 years after her death.

Kumudini was quite a tempestuous girl and was married off to an equally colourful, strong willed person, my grandfather Anukul Chandra Dasgupta at an early age.  Her favourite story to tell and retell to her grandchildren was how her parents cried when she was married off to this poor doctor and how happy her parents were when they married off her younger sister to a gentry with plenty of landed wealth.  Her favourite way of saying it was: “so they saw me off crying and waved her off with laughter and merriment”. We all knew by heart what was coming next – the reversal of fate and fortune.  Her husband became this famous Government Surgeon who supported fifty medical students with food and money every month,  while her sister’s husband drank away his fortune, had syphilis and inevitably turned his wife into a destitute. Predictably the sister came to Kumudini’s home to take shelter and remained there till the end of her life.

Kumudini studied upto the primary class in school, but she was a good student and devoted to her husband.  They lived in places called Karimganj and Hobiganj (now in Bangladesh in Sylhet district) and him being a surgeon, local peasants and villagers came knocking at his door at all odd times with wounds of various shapes and sizes which they received after fighting with one another.  Kumudini would often describe to me with glee: “then this fellow came with a spear stuck deep in his stomach, but he was holding his intestines in his hand as they had come out due to the wound”  Her glee was not about that fellow’s wound but that she had the chance to act as a nurse with that kind of wounds while her husband operated on them.   Yes, she learnt the intricacies of being a surgical nurse, trained by her husband as he needed someone at home to help him out at odd hours. She also learnt how to deliver babies with medical knowledge and she would often be called to deliver babies in the town where the lived.  She was also quite accomplished in the usually womanly stuff like knitting, sewing, etc.

She had a strange zest for life that did not include her being a grandmother, or even a mother (all those were mere duties to her) but being with her husband, attending to surgeries being done at home, doing nursing, learning new stuff from him every day.  This is 1910 and 1920s I am talking about.

When he died, rather early, her life changed. I was not even born to see the metamorphosis, but what I learnt, heard and deduced from my direct experience of her and from her children, it seemed to me that she gave up her position of knowledge and expertise, and transformed herself to be a mother and a mother in law, in the usual mode.  Here she was no different than others, a partial mother and a hyper critical mother in law to her daughters-in-law.  As though it was her husband whose presence brought out the different persona in her earlier avatar, and  his absence, shorn her off everything she learnt and everything she was.

She had certain habits that i used to detest, like being hyper vigilant about household chores, belching loudly due to her flatulence, being over critical of everyone and today I know that I only noticed her flaws and not the whole person.  My vision was overshadowed by her not being the perfect grandmother that all story books talk about, kind, story teller alternate mother.  No, she was not like that at all.   She was self righteous, extremely independent and had a strong mind of her own.  She would hardly share her woes with anyone, but would do the duties that she thought belonged to her. She went totally blind for the last fifteen years of her life due to glaucoma but that did not deter her to continue to do household chores, including cutting vegetables with a sharp “bonti” or bengali version of a knife and she would do a perfect job.  She would pick up her sons’ washed cloths and would put them in the right place simply by smelling them, as she knew which one belonged to whom.  yup, like I said, she was a special woman.

The hilarious and ironical parts of it all is that everything that I detested about her, are all present in me today as I stand at the threshold of 60.  I find myself being hyper critical, i have the same flatulence, and I fuss equally over small household chores. I have begun to wonder whether this was Kumudini’s escape route to make herself forget how special she was, to not practice her nursing skills, to not practice her skills of child birthing, to not practice anything that she was good at after her husband left. As though with him, went her life force and her energy and that she had to limit herself, make herself small to be what the traditional society wished her to be (she being part of the same tradition and same expectation).

She was not really meant for marriage and children and grandchildren – that was not who she was – she loved performance and accomplishment and accolades and being an able assistant to a man she worshipped.  Many times I noticed how much her face lit up when she spoke about those days with her husband and what all she did as a nurse and as a expert of many other things.

I feel sad that Kumudini did not allow herself to live as who she could have been.  She was not meant to be a loving grandmother, but she was meant to be a great teacher, a professional child birther or a doula, or something else that could have had her fancy.  but instead, she reduced herself to fit into a role that was too small for her.  She did not even enjoy it, I could see and all her grandchildren could see that.  We used to crib about having an unloving grandmother, but today I know better.

Not all women have to be mothers or grandmothers or even loving for that matter.  they don’t have to reduce themselves to fit into socially desirable roles.   I wonder even today, how many women, reduce themselves to fit into roles that are too small, too narrow for them, for unknown fears, apprehensions, reasons, compulsions ….. ?

I wish I had the wisdom to understand Kumudini while she was alive and become her able companion …but there are others … many others … like Kumudini, making themselves smaller than they are.

do you have a kumudini story to tell?

 

I am a Management Consultant who works in the area of Diversity, Gender, Culture and Leadership Development with corporate and non-corporate organisations, groups and individuals. I am also an executive coach. I find myself as the best laboratory and incubator for my learnings about myself and human nature and hence like sharing my views, life stories and other narratives that I build as I go along. I am interested in people, society, culture, ways of life, individual and collective narratives/stories as they allow us to connect with one another as nothing else does. I also write about coaching, people's lives, culture, stories, work as a therapist, mother my daughter, believe in a feminine way of life, and most of all that all politics starts from the self and personal convictions

9 thoughts on “My grandmother the “white lotus”

  1. What an honest tale to tell… and what a remarkable woman your grandmother was! It’s nice – even though in hindsight – to recognise a person for who they are or were, especially when it’s a legacy one has inherited. It was a lovely read Sarbari!

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    • Thank you Ypsilon2007. I guess it is very difficult to be objective about people when they are in front of you and you are living with them. It is too much in your face for both parties to be objective.

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  2. Reading this story reminded me of my paternal grandmother, who used to be very ambitious for her children and grandchildren. One of her strongest opposition was of getting the girls married off at a young age and fought with her sons and daughters about it. She once told a story about being sick with typhoid when her kids were young. While she was recovering she ensured she had a glass of milk every day even if it fell short for her kids. Her explanation – if I don’t look after myslef, whose going to take care of my kids? In a lot of ways her strength and independence got inter-generationally transferred to some of us.

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  3. I read your posts with interest.
    I was reminded of my grandmother, Sailabala Mazumdar, who was married to my grandfather in 19th century.

    She spent her initial period of married life in Mymensingh, now in Bangladesh. She ygave birth to three sons and one daughter. Her daughter, my Pishi is still living and is 99 years now.

    My Thakuma travelled from Mymensingh to Shillong and lived there for quite a few years before moving to Varanasi. She had to leave Varanasi sometime in 1934 due to spreading of beriberi in Varanasi. Both my grandparents and Pishi moved to Allahabad. My grandfather died in Allahabad in November 1948 and I recall having been there for the last rights.

    My grandmother lived till February 1967. She lived in Calcutta, Kanpur mostly. She lived with my father in Jullundur City and Varanasi for sometime. Maximum time she lived in Kanpur, she died in that city.

    I have some vague and some strong memories about her. Her grandchildren were always excused for anything wrong, which we might have done, especially the grandsons.

    Unlike the widows, she really liked my dog Rony, an Alsatian, who was very obedient and gave her great respect and NEVER entered her room. In response, whenever there were pujas organised by her, she never forget to call Rony and make her sit along with us, in the same row for distribution of prasad. Rony used to sit in a very disciplined manner and was selective in eating the prasad…
    My grandmother Sailabala was adequately briefed by my mother about the item’s Rony ate. Like an extremely disciplined dog Rony ate and listened to my grandmother. She regularly asked about Rony’s food in the same way as she used to ask about us.

    I think, I have digressed a lot, Sarbari. Please excuse me

    I was carried away by your post, which are always lovely and real life stories.

    I love them.

    Please keep Posting.

    Best wishes and God bless.

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      • Yes, you are absolutely correct!
        I might share that my wife also saw her when she came to Varanasi for a short stay at my father’s house… I was still studying Engineering in BHU at that time.

        Another important factor, she was short but my grandfather was very very tall

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  4. Loved how you have described your grandmother and her shrinking into herself due to the pressures of society. My paternal grandmother was compassion incarnate, as per my elder siblings and mother’s account of her. She had passed away before I was born. My maternal one was stern and a disciplinarian by comparison but was also affectionate. Her grandchildren were not close to her because we felt that she didn’t love us. After hearing tales of her from elders, today I feel we could have made the effort to draw her out to be a grandmother who didn’t shy away from showing her affection. Sigh.

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    • Thanks Zephyr. Such similar tales I have heard from others. The message that women, specially that generation constantly received was control, monitor and to be proper. Very little space for expression was there and they also internalised and owned it, hook, line and sinker. I am so glad that today’s generation of women are expressing themselves, which has become possible to stand on shoulders of the previous ones.

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