Petals within pages


“You know the plant is going to die, right?” Sahana said to me with slight panic in her voice, cutting off my effusive gushing over “obstinate ma plant”. In my slightly unbalanced (hopefully temporary) mind, the geranium that I planted the day after ma’s death has truly become her alter ego. Sahana seemed concerned I will plunge back into dooms of despair once the plant has lived its lifetime. I laughed at the panic in her voice.

I was narrating the story to a friend. She asked if I had considered pressing petals of those flowers within pages of a book? I thought that was a brilliant idea. The dilemma, however, was which book deserved the petals of obstinate ma plant? And how did one press petals to dry anyway? The second part was easy since Google has the answers. The difficult decision was which book would ma love to be remembered in? Was it a book by her “pran er thakur” Rabindranath? Manik Bondopadhyay? Mahashweta Debi? Poetry of Sukanto? All of them were her loves but I finally decided on Ashapurna Debi’s “Prothom Protusruti”. My fledgling feminism took flight at a young age when ma first passed on this book to me. Since then I must have read the book and it’s sequels over a dozen times. The story follows the life of a little girl in rural Bengal at the beginning of the 20th century when Bengal society was tightly shackled by social restrictions imposed by upper caste men. The book, while narrating the story of Satyabati, touches on all the restrictions placed on women to limit their freedom – the most important one among many was denying them education. The belief was if a woman touched paper or pen she would be a widow. When Satyabati’s cousin shudders at the fact that Satyabati has taught herself to write, the little girl finds a loophole in that theory right away. How can women touching pen or paper be paap (bad karma) when the goddess of learning, Debi Saraswati is a woman herself? Satyabati questioned each and every tradition that curbed women’s rights and flouted every rule that tried to hold her down. She managed to loosen the chains just a bit for the future generation of women.

Ma too fought patriarchy every step of the way. She refused any kind of limitations to such an extent that I, in my childhood, sometimes thought, “Oh just get along. Give in!” Looking back I realize she was loosening the chains so that her daughter and grand daughter can have space to spread their wings. She emulated Satyabati all her life, at the expense of her own peace and happiness sometimes. I know it is only fitting that petals from “obstinate ma plant” find their resting place in the pages of the book that tell her story.

“Take care of your husband.”


My extended family, neighbors and some friends did not quite see what Sean saw in me. Many wondered, and not in their heads mind you, “What did this handsome man see in her?” when we started dating. Don’t get me wrong. I thought I was adorable. I was a late bloomer, yes, but when I finally bloomed, I was cute. However, I did not measure up to Bengali standard of beauty so although my extended family loved me dearly, they were surprised that Sean was taken by this tall, dark and very slender girl. One person, however, wondered whether Sean was good enough for ME! And that was my momma. She was independent, smart, sassy and a trend setter. When the norm among Bengali housewives of her time was to cook and clean for her families, she loudly declared she did not enjoy cooking and cleaning and would rather read a book. When the other women extolled the virtues of long, black tresses as a sign of beauty, she went and got a page cut. She was one of the first among her female cousins to wear sleeveless blouses and then later salwar kameez and even jeans and top when wearing anything other than saree was frowned upon. While other middle class Bengali moms told their daughters to learn to cook so they could satisfy their husbands and in-laws, my mom pooh poohed the idea saying my future husband should be learning to cook as well to satisfy me. And as far as I can remember, her skin care and beauty regime was more for her own satisfaction than to impress anyone. She taught me men and women should share equal responsibility when they run a household. She insisted that I always claim my half of the sky because that is my right.

Anyway, the point of the story is how this fashionista and trendsetter has changed since Sean came into our lives. It so happens that often when I talk to my parents, Sean is doing the dishes. He comes to the phone, holds up his sudsy hands and complains loudly, “Ma, look your daughter is making me wash the dishes again.” And she mock scolds me for making the poor ‘chele’ (boy) work so hard. I loudly protest that I cooked so he is cleaning. Neither acknowledges my protest. Over the years, Sean has continued to complain to her and she has continued to take his side. 🙂

I must have looked especially unkempt during one of our video conferences a few weeks ago. She gently chastised me for not making an effort to look more ‘put together’. Especially now that Sean is home. Shouldn’t I make myself more appealing?

I, of course, protested loudly. Talked about feminism. Did she realize we are in quarantine? I only dress for myself. I fought the good fight.

She said, “Be quiet. Take care of yourself. Sean is home.” Then she laughed. She knows how to push my buttons. Is it payback for my teenage years?

This morning we were talking about how we both are working from home. I was complaining how loud my office mate was and how I have to retreat to the bedroom from our shared office space to listen to zoom meetings. I also mentioned Sean is so busy that he missed lunch yesterday.

This is what she said to me, “What? He needs to eat to get energy. Why can’t you make sure that he is eating lunch? You can make something for him.”

“But I am working too, Ma.”

“No, still. You need to make sure he eats.”

Seriously? As I am about to start my tirade, she laughs again.

Thousands of miles away, not in the best of health, she still puts a smile on my face as I start my day and her’s ends.