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.