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?
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?