Daughters: A Story Of Five Generations

Posted: May 4, 2011

Bharati Ray’s Daughters is a lively, personal and well-translated narrative of the lives of five generations of Bengali women.

By Anjana Basu

Bharati’s Ray’s Daughters, as one expects from the title, is the tale of five generations of daughters in the author’s family. Women, she points out, from the female line, are normally ignored in Bengali family chronicles where women from the male line predominated because of their superior hierarchy. Going against that grain, Ray delves into the lives of her maternal great grandmother, grandmother, mother, self and eldest daughter, pinpointing the subtle differences of social change spanning the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twenty-first.

Professor Ray’s aim through this personal social history is to point out how Bengal’s women have come from almost subservience to standing shoulder to shoulder as equals with men. She ascribes this to the inherent strength of the Bengali woman as seen in the lives of her great grandmother Sundar Ma, married at the age of twelve but determined to live life on her own terms, or Ushabala, Ray’s grandmother, happy to be the wife of an academic or Kalyani, her mother, who sacrificed her career for her family but never lost her zest for living and travelling. Through this selflessness, Ray implies, the Bengali woman has managed to triumph. Her own achievements as Calcutta University’s first woman pro-vice-chancellor and later Member of Parliament in the Rajya Sabha add to the milestones of strength and underscores the fact that with changing times come changing choices.

Side by side with the progress of Bengali women is the progress of the nation, vital here because Ray’s home was not in Bengal but in Hanuman Road, Delhi, a place which experienced the coming of Independence most vividly, with the shifting of the capital from Calcutta, the Delhi Durbar of George V, Lutyen’s buildings and then Independence and its results. Professor Ray adds however that the book ‘is not an intellectual exercise. It is a casual recounting which everyone can enjoy and identify with. There are stories within stories but they are not fictitious’. The narrative travels from small Bengali villages to big towns and speaks of long forgotten traditions and the reasons behind them.

Ray also throws in a sound dose of practical advice. She talks of a woman she knew whose husband brought another woman with a baby in her arms home one night. The husband told his wife that she had to look after the woman and help raise the baby. The helpless wife told Ray the story and when Ray suggested that she walk out, replied that she did not have many options. Ray realized then that ‘advice is easily given. How can one really know what another woman has to suffer, or the problems she has to deal with, if one hasn’t been through the same trauma oneself.’

…advice is easily given. How can one really know what another woman has to suffer, or the problems she has to deal with, if one hasn’t been through the same trauma oneself.

To anyone used to the ramifications of Bengal’s family trees, the long lists of uncles, cousins, grandparents and mothers-in-law are hardly surprising, though a trifle difficult to keep pace with. Non-Bengali readers too might wonder what a ‘piri’ was or an ‘anchol’ or a ‘charan padma’ is since occasionally words have not been translated into English but allowed to stand. A glossary might have made up for these deficiencies.

The book has been translated by Madhuchanda Karlekar from Ray’s original Bengali narrative Ekaal Shekaal: Paanch Prajanmer Itikatha and despite being rendered in English has a very personal touch about it, reminiscent of Ray’s own manner of speaking as those familiar with her will realize. Perhaps that individuality heightens the very personal story she has to tell of the bonding between mothers and daughters, bringing old fashioned words and modern phrases together with liveliness and vivacity.

Publisher: Penguin India
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