Saturday, November 21, 2009

See How they Run

"See how they run",a line from 'Lady Madonna' by the Beatles,reminds me of one of our domestic maids who came,worked and fled.When we moved to North Bangalore,like the average urban Indian family,we needed a domestic maid.This 'amma' (a term of endearment assigned to a lot of domestic maids) was recommended by nearly all of our neighbours. She worked in several other houses and had a reputation for being honest,pious and meticulous.

One could see amma cleaning the premises of the local temple,during the wee hours of the morning for absolutely no charge.She would then clean our house as all of us left early in the morning.She had a striking young daughter who was an excellent cook.The duo worked in our house during the evenings as well.Although generally reliable,she was also known for going on sudden pilgrimages and trips to her 'native town'.She also suffered from stress related health problems owing to the domestic work at ten different houses.

Her personal life was unimaginably complicated. She had a truant husband who happened to be an unemployed parasite in the bargain.He cheated on her and married his mistress.Amma paid for the wedding and she also funded his life with his second wife(bigamy among Hindus is illegal but not uncommon).The daughter was married to a man who epitomized the proverbial 'bum'. She had a school going son and had a kind of 'on and off' relationship with her husband. Every time the daughter separated from her husband she came to live with amma.

As a family they lived beyond their means.They had a refrigerator and a plasma TV.They splurged heavily on ornaments and religious functions and were always short of funds when it came to paying the school fees of the little boy.In due course of time the daughter went back to her husband and they kept five purebred dogs as pets. As amma's health was taking a turn for the worse,she decided to quit domestic work.She opened a convenience store in the heart of the slum and ran it with the help of her daughter.

Setting up a convenience store and living beyond one's means almost never go together.They needed an initial investment and a loan.Most domestic workers are unaware of facilities provided by cooperative banks and hence don't have bank accounts.Banks usually don't grant loans to 'slum dwellers' over issues related to getting a surety.Entrepreneurs like amma end up relying on wily creditors and dubious chit fund schemes to fund their ventures.When business doesn't go well and the chit fund fails to pay,they default on their loans.

Amma and family were no exception.Their creditors were after them.Things went on till the day they just disappeared.No one ever saw them or heard from them again.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Bengali Names and Colonial Hangovers

What lies in a name? A hidden agenda or a colonial hangover? It is my luck to have a surname that differs from that of my parents even though both surnames are effectively the same.

Bengal bore the brunt of British,French,Portugese and Dutch colonists.It is also one of the last states to rise,sleepy eyed,from an extended colonial hangover.The signs of this are very obvious.There is the restaurant in Kolkata named 'Moulin Rouge',the Victoria Memorial-the house of colonial relics;then there are sprawling colonial mansions lining the banks of the Hoogly river on Kolkata's outskirts and of course shortened surnames.

My surname is Banerjee,short for Bandyopadhyay.I am quite accustomed to arched eyebrows and eyes brimming with questions every time I submit a form. My surname reads Banerjee and my father's reads Bandyopadhyay.Individuals with a tendency to be curious ask,sometimes politely and at other times pointedly,about the apparent discrepancy.My answer,that the British shortened Bandopadhyay and made it Banerjee because the latter was difficult to pronounce,is met with guffaws and sighs of relief.

Interestingly,my grandfather's surname was also Banerjee and at one point of time so was my father's.The education board in it's zeal to make a patriotic statement changed his surname to Bandyopadhyay when he was awarded his high school certificate.He lived with the name for the rest of his life and my mother acquired it by virtue of marriage.My parents decided to spare me the agony of having a last name that non-Bengalis find difficult to pronounce(that hasn't spared me the agony of having Bengali first name which is pronounced differently in all other languages).

When my friends ask me why I don't consider using the original Bengali name as my surname I have only one thing to say.Bureaucracy,a part of the colonial hangover.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Tales from the Crypt

My mother often narrates these stories about two women in her extended family.One who dared to live on the edge and the other who was shunned into complete obscurity.Although they make great case studies with respect to the general paradigm shift in the perception of women;to me they serve as a grim reminder of what my life could have been like in their time.

The first,a distant relative of my maternal grandmother,chose to become an actress. She starred in the Bengali version of 'Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam'(titled 'Sahib Bibi Golam' in Bengali) alongside Uttam Kumar,the then superstar of Bengali cinema.I did a little research on the internet;starting with Uttam Kumar's IMDB page and moving on to bits and pieces about the plot of the movie to conclude that this is she . Regrettably,very little is known about her. There are no photographs as the family had nothing to do with her,owing to her 'exploits' in the film industry.Bengal,in the days preceding India's independence,was superficially the capital of the 'forward thinking'.As I mentioned,'forward thinking' was a superficial tag.Acting was typically considered to be the forte of individuals with 'loose and questionable morals'.For a woman,a profession in the performing arts was akin to one in prostitution.It breaks my heart to think that she had to live the way she did;bearing all the burden of societal censure,being ostracized by her loved ones,and hopping from one man to another(as was believed about every other actress no matter how chaste she may have actually been).

The second,a relative of my great grandfather,languished because her horoscope was as horrendous as she was beautiful.It was decreed that she would be married to an alcoholic who would drink himself to death.Her father ensured that such would be her fate.He got her married to a man who was drunk nearly all the time and hired a bodyguard so that her husband wouldn't come near her.Thus she lived;till her husband died,leaving her widowed and destitute.Indian families rarely acknowledged widows and her family was no different.I sometimes try to picture her;moving around like a creature of no significance with her tonsured head bowed in shame,never daring to look another man in the eye.It is said that she died alone,her body remaining unclaimed till one of her nephews became aware of her plight and gave her a decent funeral.

I often recount these stories in my mind and I am thankful that I live in a different time.I am fortunate to live in a city where it is occasionally possible for a woman to shed the inhibitions imposed by gender, and think like a human being.