For the last thirty minutes, I tried my level best to hold back tears. Thamma didn’t say much. Not all stories are made up of elaborate details.
I have been listening to this story for years now. I don’t believe anything grips me as more tragic – nothing in my immediate surroundings anyway. I believe it will continue to plague me as much as it had plagued Thamma and her generation of sisters and sister-cousins.
For many days now, Thamma had been telling me that she will dig up her textbooks on Ashokan scriptures and show them to me. In several ways, outside cooking meals, watching mind-numbing television and grieving over my grandfather, Thamma and I could have been scholarly friends. She pioneered my learning of music for eleven years, but that was not an adult relationship. It was mostly me being too lazy for early morning rewaz, and her scolding me into more ragas and sargams.
Well, now, an adult relationship is characterized by talking to each other about interests and spilling unseemly details about life in general.
I am twenty years old. I have lived with her for twenty years. I haven’t had that with her yet.
Thamma did dig up something from her scholarly days. She found a notebook, where scraps of university lectures are written in ink.
There were many levels of me that tremored into existence when I held the moth-eaten sheaf of bound papers, somewhat brittle and amber. It was Wordsworth’s tripartrite experience, I believe – physical, mental and spiritual overwhelming. Physically, the antiqueness appealed to my eternal vintage-loving soul. The pages were fragile and yellowed, the words were written in ink, the script was beautiful. Mentally, I realized I could not have found a better text to fuel my interest in languages. You see, Thamma graduated with honours in Pali, and her notes contained elaborate descriptions on the structure of Magadhi, of Kalidasa’s verse, of Buddha’s philosophy, of the nooks and crannies of the Sanskrit language. Spiritually, I was overcome with woe, as this notebook stood solitary at the starting line of a fifty-year journey down the track of our patriarchal society.
For the best part of the next fifty years, Thamma endured life in a kitchen, cooking for a family of ten.
She graduated from school at the age of seventeen. She was married at the age of nineteen, barely convincing her father to enrol her into a master’s degree course under Calcutta University. Then, when she was of my age – my age (I spent the afternoon watching a Comedy Central and complaining about how I wasn’t allowed to have fried food for another week) – propping my infant father on her lap, she asked my grandfather to help her study for her master’s.
I wanted to write this so as to present a story from within my heritage, about gold that wasn’t allowed to glitter. I also wanted to write it because I knew it would make my grandmother happy. Ever since I cut back on my Hindustani classical classes, she had not had any major contribution to her life from me. What augmented the tears was how she said she was overjoyed to see me poring over her ancient notes. Another reason why I wanted to write this was because – and I discovered it in the course of writing – the tears flow better this way.
I could mentally write a thousand dismayed letters to my great-grandfather, asking him why he would cut through my grandmother’s plea for higher education with a rancid ‘No’, why he would listen to the voices that maliciously asserted that education and age ruined a woman for marriage and that the title of ‘Mrs.’ and a name other than her own was what made a woman an ideal daughter.
What do those letters do anyway? They gather in the dormant postbox of the present and make me a bitter human being.
I know for certain that nobody has talked about literature and languages with Thamma. Sometimes, she asks me how rust is formed, what exactly is a Smartphone or why the people I watch on television do what they do. I just shake my head, or sometimes, summarize potential knowledge with ‘Oishob onek byapar.’
The lady has a master’s degree in language. I might as well tell her that I have been learning French on my own. I might as well ask her to pioneer some classes again, this time, on Sanskrit.
She told me she hardly remembers anything. Because why would she need to? Tyrannous men and blind women led her to believe that she was only good for keeping house.
Thamma’s cousin was not allowed to continue her education beyond the age of sixteen. She took trips to Thamma’s place and secretly studied and graduated school.
I tell my mother how I will never get over this history of oppression. She tries to calm herself down by saying, that Thamma did a fantastic job in keeping house. I am not satisfied. Thamma looks like an academician. With her snow-white hair and sharp eyes, and the trill of sophistication in her voice, she would have resembled a headmistress. She was braver than anbody else in the family my father grew up in. She still is. She’s only a little weak, physically, but the mind seldom surrenders to age.
The men might have been given the customary crown of control, but if there ever was to be any monarchy in this family, it should have been led by Thamma.
That is who she is, and she could have been infinitely more.
The generations before my father’s are filled with a million cases of could-have-been.
Thamma is a singer with a voice that can never aggravate with age – a voice where the notes come to flourish. Thamma is a silenced scholar, who grew up in an era filled with scholars of silence.
If I am to be of any good, I should do something to let the wicker of a lost literary flame rekindle with the fiery encouragement of another.