Latika: I had a very comfortable childhood. I was the youngest daughter and the second youngest child in the family. My father worked with the government during the time of the British Raj. We lived within the boundaries of what is now Bangladesh and travelled a lot because of his job. As a child, I was curious to know about everything. As soon as I was taught the alphabet, I started reading from anything I could find. I loved reading so much that I would wait for the thelawala (hawker) to come so that I could take thongas (paper bag) from him and start reading those as well. Before we were taught grammar in school, I had already read works by Tagore and Sarat Chandra. Of course, it’s a different matter that I understood absolutely nothing of what I read.
My father was a progressive man and never discriminated against me and my brothers. My mother did dote on her sons a little more. But then, I was a very reserved child. I never asked for anything. My sisters would want shoes with high heels and other such things but not me. That is probably why I didn’t get as much attention. Anyway, we were such a large brood of children that my mother couldn’t keep up with all our needs and demands. We were mostly in the care of our domestic help Haridashidi. I lost my mother when I was thirteen, an age when a girl probably needs her mother the most. It left an emotional void. But I suppose her death brought us closer as a family.
Parimal: I was the eldest son and the fifth child in my family. We did okay financially. But then, I lost my father when I was thirteen. Things went downhill since then. We had to worry about our next meal. I had a lot of pressure on me after that to be the “man of the house”. I had to work and attend night school. I had moved to Kolkata for work before Independence, but when Partition happened, we lost everything we had. I brought the rest of my family here and we started rebuilding our lives. My mother had all her hopes and dreams pinned on me. A few years after we moved to Kolkata, Latika’s father put forth the marriage proposal to me. We were worlds apart in terms of our financial situation. But he respected me because I was a self-made man. That’s why he wanted me to marry his daughter.
Latika: I don’t really know if I wanted to marry at all. I think if I could live my life on my own terms, I would be a teacher in some small village with hills and rivers and beautiful trees. I wanted to travel, write and teach. But that’s not a life women could hope for then. When my father wanted to get me married, my brothers tried to oppose his decision. But a father’s word is the last word, so he overrode their authority anyway and I was married off while I was still studying for my BA degree. Thankfully, he made my mother-in-law promise that I would be allowed to give my exams and complete my degree.
Post marriage, it was a very different life for me. I wasn’t prepared for the demands of running a household. My mother-in-law wanted a traditional Indian bahu, someone who would press her feet and wash her clothes, and instead, she got me (laughs). In my natal house, I spent all my time studying. I had nobody to teach me household duties. I couldn’t cook at all at the time. I couldn’t even make tea. By the time I used to wake up, they were all done with their daily chores. When I got married, I was hoping to find the mother I had lost in my mother-in-law, but to her, I was just a constant source of disappointment. The tension in our relationship was a source of a lot of anxiety for me. She would often discuss me and my supposed flaws with her daughters. Sometimes, my sisters-in-law would loudly brag about how well they served their mothers-in-law. Mostly, all this insidious gossip happened behind my back. I think at the time if my husband had stood up for me a little more, my life at home could have been easier.
Parimal: I used to be out working all the time. I had a large family to take care of. I didn’t want to confront all this after a long, tiring day. If I felt like I had to intervene, I would do it in my own way, in my own time.
Latika: I worked all day too! But women’s household work never gets recognised, does it? It’s as if the men work hard and bring home the money and every other work inside the house just gets magically done. And there’s no way for her to work outside the house either.
Parimal: Well, that’s true. The society is the problem. Women are made to be completely dependent on the men in their lives. I suppose this is what causes all the insecurities between them. But I did try and be supportive whenever I could. I took her to job interviews too.
Latika: But I couldn’t take those jobs because I had no support system. I had three little children. Who would take care of them? Even emotional support really means a lot, you know. I was heavily pregnant with my first child by the time I gave my BA exam. My feet were swollen and my belly was huge. I could barely write. Even then, I felt absolutely alone. But this was very important to me and it took all my grit and determination to get through it. Education has been a very important issue for me. Having knowledge gave me confidence. Even as a child, my friends would be scared of ghosts and other such things, but I knew ghosts didn’t exist so I was never afraid. In a patriarchal society, education is kept away from women so that men can subjugate them. How will they feel benevolent if they don’t make us feel powerless? (laughs) So it was very important to me that my daughters got educated too. This was still a time when girls’ education was not taken seriously at all. Within my household, nobody was openly opposed to my decision of educating my three daughters, but nobody was supportive of it either. To get them enrolled in good schools, I had to travel to places far from my home.
I am still proud of my daughters for struggling with me. They were still so young when they had to travel such long distances in the heat and dust. Sometimes they would cry and tell me that they felt exhausted. I felt very bad for being so harsh on them and making them go through all this. But I would always tell them that in this society, only formal education would enable them to live independently. And in a patriarchal society, where women are anyways given such little value, it is important to at least have the potential to be self reliant and financially independent, should the need arise. Again, my in-laws would laugh at me for making such a big deal out of this. They would call me “memsahib”. If I had sons, would they say the same? A girl child was not of much value to them. Of course, my husband didn’t think so at all. It didn’t matter to him that we had daughters instead of sons. He loved them very much. But it still hurt me that he wasn’t as involved in this aspect of their lives as I wanted him to be. Today, my daughters tell me about how involved their husbands are with my grandchildren’s education. I still feel bad that my daughters didn’t get the same amount of attention from their father.
Parimal: I did as much as I could. I took them out on vacations. I made sure they had fun in the weekends. I was very involved in finding the right husband for them. Times have changed now. It’s easier to balance various aspects of your life. In my time, if I missed the one bus that was available in the morning, I wouldn’t be able to get to work at all. And I had to make that the priority at the time.
Latika: He did have to handle the financial situation all by himself. It was a lot of pressure. But I felt he was far too aloof. He was not even aware of which class my children were studying in! It’s funny to think about it now but at that point, it haunted me. It made me feel very alone. Sometimes you just want to feel like there is someone to encourage you. For instance, I love writing. When I was a teenager, I had won many awards for my poems. But there has never been any significance attached to it. The act of women writing is never taken seriously. It’s always seen as some flippant hobby. When we moved houses, all those awards were unceremoniously left behind. It feels violent to have something that is so important to you, be trivialised to that extent. Words come very naturally to me; they fill me up like music. But for the longest time, I stopped writing altogether. I felt so empty and uninspired. That’s how much aloofness can harm you. That’s all I am trying to say. Sometimes I could sense that my daughters felt vulnerable and were scared of being sexually harassed when travelling alone. To make them more comfortable, I would travel a part of the distance with them. But there was no way I could go with them all the way because I had to rush back and do the household work. It’s not too much to expect some sort of solidarity, is it? I am an ethical person. I haven’t ever shirked any of my responsibilities.
Parimal: I am grateful to her for that. She is an honest and committed woman. She took care of my mother in her last days. All my daughters are strong in their own ways and they are all well-settled. She is a big influence on them and how their lives have turned out to be.
Latika: I always wanted them to be independent. It hurts my pride to ask for money from anybody, even if it’s my husband. In the society we live in, people lose their individuality if they don’t own a bank account. I didn’t want my daughters to lose their individuality. I struggled on various levels to make sure that my daughters could make their own choices when the time comes.