Anyone got a writer in the family? Other than yourself I mean. I ask this because as I dive deeper into the writings of my maternal grandmother, I find myself in the midst of an amazing discovery.
She died when I was fifteen—an age when much of my sensibilities had already shaped by the influences around me. Titti, as I called my grandma, was a major influence. This had to do more with her personality than with the fact that she was a writer. While in school I had taken a liking to writing and was encouraged by some teachers in that direction. It was natural for me to look up to Titti, the writer. But for the growing me, Titti, the loving grandma, who understood the language of our generation, came first. When she was alive, I barely read any of her writing—fiction or nonfiction. Two years before her death, while shuffling some of her stories in her file she told my mother, “Tutun will get my writing published one day.” She couldn’t have been more prophetic. All these years after her death I seem to have found a small but committed publisher in Calcutta who appreciates her work and has shown interest in publishing them. During her lifetime, Grandmother had had limited publishing success. The main cause of this was her lack of proximity to the Bengali publishing world; living in New Delhi, she didn’t have the easy connectivity with prospective publishers that writers living in Bengal did.
These days I am taking out her ink-fading, paper-withering stories and typing them in Bangla so as to get them ready for the publisher. I feel ashamed to admit this is pretty much the first time I am reading most of her writing. And it is through this process that I am getting to know her deeper, while at the same time reliving the warm atmosphere she embodied as a living person. Writer friend Sandra Kring used to tell me no matter what writers write, all their works contain bits of them. I understand the real meaning of that now.
Titti, the person as I saw her, was compassionate. She cared deeply for people around her. Even as she struggled to bring food on the table for her family, she didn’t stop providing lunch to the domestic help who worked in our house. The maid worked in half a dozen homes in our neighborhood, yet my grandmother was the only employer who fed her a full-scale afternoon meal. I remember, on days when Titti had to go out to the bank or post office, she would put the food she had freshly cooked onto a plate, cover it and ask me to serve it to the maid once she was done with her chores. Titti was also highly aware of what went about in the world—be it regarding politics, sports, or entertainment. A great conversationalist, she gelled with people of all age groups, because of her ability to talk about any subject. The country’s politics interested her a lot, and she would often be seen engaged in intense debates with my grandfather who remained rigid about his political affiliations for as long as he lived. Titti, on the other hand, was a rationalist. “I will love those who love my country,” she would say, never attaching herself to any particular party or ideology. And in the end, my grandmother was modern—a woman way ahead of her times—in thoughts, not appearances. Born and brought up in rural Bengal amid village customs and superstitions, she didn’t care much for rituals. Seeing how much venom had been spewed in the name of religion, she felt the world would perhaps be a better place without organized religion of any kind.
Now, as I read her works, I find I knew but a tiny fraction of her when she shared the living space with us. Her writing reveals all the above facets of her persona—but with so much more depth. In her story about a batch of East Bengal refugees living in a government home in New Delhi following the Partition, I get to see her compassion as her real-life role of the home’s administrator enters the narrative, which, though written in fiction format, is hardly fictitious in terms of content. I see, my eyes getting soggy, how deeply she empathized with the refugee women who had lost so much—land, children, husbands—even when they poured their wrath on her. In her story about the lives of women working as domestic help, I see her journalist-like eye to detail, her dispassionate yet sincere voice, which hits the reader, even when it's not overly sentimental. Something within me stirs when I read her story featuring two soldiers posted on the frontier, where the senior one can’t make sense of the wars he’s fought, especially when he compares them to the “everyday war” his mother and wife fight in their struggle to lead a life of dignity.
I am only in the initial phase of putting together Titti’s writings for the publisher. Yet, I sense I am bonding with her in a way I never did when she was alive. I can see how all her works contain the person she was. It’s hard to describe, but after all these years, I suddenly don’t feel the void that pained me for a long time after Titti passed away.
For, she kept herself intact in those wilting sheets.