Trisha di had gone on a solo trek to Sikkim’s very own Tonglu. I don’t remember which route she had taken to reach there, but all I know is that she had clicked some of the most amazing photographs that I have seen till date, which have been etched on my mind. Here I have tried to replicate one of the photographs, and the result is this.
The house right adjacent to our home has been deserted for almost a decade now. The last person to stay there was Sengupta grandma, who had a loud, hoarse voice – a voice of which everyone in the vicinity (including the stray dogs, cats, and crows) was frightened. I remember, once a crow was sitting peacefully on the wall, facing her balcony, pecking at something with great concentration. I was right at my window, hiding and observing the crow’s activities, imagining myself to be a budding Salim Ali (Well, I was really small at that time, and considering that, I shouldn’t be laughed at)!
Suddenly, I heard a threatening roar and a strain of abuses being hurled at the poor bird, and out came grandma with her stick, waving it wildly at the bird. Startled, the crow flew away, leaving its food behind. Seeing me stunned, her scowl soon broke into a toothless smile, and she said that the birds nowadays have become pretty ‘oshobhyo’ (uncivilized!) and they create nuisance wherever they sit.
She never allowed any unwanted sapling in her prim, treeless backyard. Even if a rebellious baby plant protruded from the soil, or from the moss-covered wall, she plucked it immediately. Her rooftop was absolutely plant-less as well.
Sitting in her balcony, on a comfortable couch, she used to shout at passers by, who probably made the mistake of standing near the entrance of her house. I guess she hated people as well. A true misanthropist by heart!
When I was in my 8th class or so, one day, I saw grandma’s daughter helping her out of the house with her baggage. I learnt that she was leaving for good. My own grandmother commented, ‘now there will be a little peace in the vicinity’.
It has been almost a decade since then. The house is still there, while nature wrapped its arms around it slowly and stealthily. Just the other day, I noticed a pretty banyan tree spreading its branches in great vigour on the roof, exactly where the antenna of grandma’s TV was once placed. The roof is now cluttered with mud, and in it are growing various plants, thanks to our gardener who casually throws away grass, unclaimed saplings of neem and succulents on the other roof.
Stray cats now peacefully make love, give birth to kittens, and sleep on the dirtied couch that is still placed in her balcony, just as she had left it.
Warblers and mongoose now nest in the foliage of the unkempt little jungle, that had once been her small backyard ‘garden’. Civets frequently make nuisance over her roof.
Within the span of a decade, I gradually saw her house being engulfed by things she always detested. Her house grew to be a haven for all those she considered ‘uncivilized’, be it the greenery, animals, or petty thieves. Whenever I go out into my balcony, to look at the tiny speck of greenery left amidst the concrete jungle growing around, I always think of her – the uncompromising way in which she always prevented any unwanted being from entering, growing or littering in her premises.
Satyajit Ray’s ‘Ghare Baire’ is based on Tagore’s novel by the same name. The context of the film is the reactionary Swadeshi movement that came up against Lord Curzon’s proposition of partitioning Bengal in 1905-06. The film deals with the complexities of the Swadeshi movement, the intricacies of ‘modernity’ as was symbolically marked on women’s bodies, and a nuanced understanding of widowhood. I find four concurrent themes throughout the film which I will elaborate.
- Contradictions within the Swadeshi Movement
The Swadeshi movement involved large masses of people of Bengal, especially the youth, who enthusiastically rejected every kind of foreign made product, and embraced locally produced goods. The tactics used by the participants of the movement involved boycotting and burning of foreign goods. However, the interesting thing that the film depicts through the portrayal of one of the protagonists, Sandip, is how the Swadeshi Movement had contradictions and problematic areas of its own.
The level of resentment of the native population against the Britishers had reached its height when the proposition of Bengal partition came up. However, the brunt of this collective resentment sometimes had to be borne by innocent Britishers staying in India, who had no role in the larger political scenario of the country. For example, in the movie, one of the local youths throws a stone at Bimala’s music teacher, Miss Gilby, wounding her. This forced her to leave the country. Thus, from a broader vision of trying to empower local cottage industries, by boycotting foreign goods, the movement took certain narrow and violent turns.
The movie portrays Sandip as a character full of contradictions. Even though Sandip was delivering fiery speeches about Swadeshi – burning foreign goods, and using goods only made in India – within the four walls of his friend, Nikhilesh’s home, he failed to part with foreign brand of cigarettes. Moreover, as Amulya told Bimala at the end of the movie, part of the money collected for the campaigns went for Sandip’s own luxurious endeavours.
Sandip also represented leaders of the movement who were so carried away by their ideas that they often ignored the cause of the poor people (Muslims in this case). Foreign, factory-made products were far cheaper than locally produced goods, and the quality of the former, again, was better than the local produce. Therefore the poorer sections of the society could only afford foreign goods, which included daily necessities like sugar, salt, matchsticks, clothes etc.
Nikhilesh turned Sandip down by not granting him permission to carry out Swadeshi activities in his Zamindari, Sukhshayor, and not stopping foreign goods from entering the local market. Nikhil argued that the poor traders do not have the luxury of buying expensive local goods, and definitely cannot afford to burn the foreign goods that they require on a daily basis. So, Sandip took up violent strategies of forcefully burning the foreign goods that belonged to poor Muslim traders, and coerced them into joining, or at least support, the movement. However, this did led to further estrangement of the local Muslims from the Hindus, ultimately leading to a communal riot in Sukhshayor.
After Sandip’s speech at Nikhilesh’s place got over, Nikhilesh brought his wife Bimala out into the ‘bahir mahal’ (the public), so that her friend Sandip could meet his wife, a ‘modern’ woman who indulged in literary practices, music lessons etc. Considering the colonial time period of Bengal, where women were confined within the ‘andar mahal’, what Nikhilesh and Bimala did was revolutionary. However, once she stepped out of the ‘private’ sphere, and found herself physically and emotionally drawn towards Sandip, Bimala was addressed by Sandip as ‘Makkhirani’ (queen bee), who attracts a lot of male gaze and becomes the centre of male desires. Sandip seduces her, kisses her and gains her confidence in trying to coax Nikhil to let them carry out their Swadeshi activities within Nikhil’s territories. She becomes so entrenched in love that she even gives out her gold coins to fund the campaigns, which to her unawareness, included forcefully burning foreign goods and sinking the boats of poor Muslim traders so that they fail to bring foreign goods into the village by the river – the only means of transporting goods from the mainland.
- Emergence of the ‘modern’ woman
The onset of modernity in Bengal was considered to be a result of two major factors – the social reform movements, attempting at uplifting the status of women in India, who were till then subjugated by a feudal patriarchal social order, and western education, which was supposed to expose the new upper and middle class Indian elites to western ideals of nationalism, democracy, equality and so on. In the context of Bengal, the growing impact of western education had been most profound on the new middle and upper class elites. Since the woman’s body has always been the site of the operations of patriarchal order, as well as that of the challenges to it, the symbols of ‘modernity’ were also inscribed on the bodies of women in the society. Modernity in Bengal was marked by the changing ideas of ‘ideal’ womanhood. The social reform movements and western education both were influential in marking a change in women’s status in colonial Bengal.
With the rising rate of English education among the elite men of upper and new middle classes, ideas of marriage started changing. A new concept of companionate marriage came up where the wives also had to be educated (preferred if she learnt English as well), knew how to drape saree in the new, upcoming styles, learnt music, and thus served as ‘ideal’ companions for the husbands. Thus modernity was symbolically inscribed on women’s bodies. The same efforts to ‘modernize’ women can be seen in Nikhil’s attempts to make Bimala learn to read and write in English, and making her a ‘modern’ wife; she is made to learn English songs under the guidance of Miss Gilby. Bimala is also seen trying out new styles of draping a saree, suiting the prerequisites of an ‘ideal’ modern woman, who can battle the confines of the private sphere (Andar Mahal), as well as step out in the outside world – (the Bahir Mahal).
However, even when Bimala is shown to be transgressing the boundary that separated the Andar and the Bahir Mahal, she is expected to fulfil her duties of a ‘Pativrata Stree’. After staying in the confines of the Andar Mahal, Sandip was the first ever man she sees in ten years, apart from her husband.
She is looked down upon by the other women in the Andar Mahal, who were posed in stark contrast to the ‘modern’ Bimala. They were shown to be trapped in the private sphere doing the chores of the household; their dressing styles reflected ‘traditional’ patterns. Their anxious faces, once Bimala comes back after meeting Sandip, clearly show how scandalized they were of the fact that Bimala had transgressed her boundaries.
- Stereotyping of gender roles
One important aspect to highlight in the movie is how it portrays the character of Nikhilesh as an affectionate, progressive upper class zamindar, who believes in a companionate marriage pattern. However, he is not ignited with the ‘patriotic’ spree of Swadeshi, which he terms as an ‘addiction’. This is why Bimala says that he is too ‘cold’ – implying a lack of masculinity, as contrary to Sandip whose fiery speech impressed Bimala. Nikhilesh, on the contrary, does not seem very passionate; in bed they hold each other’s hands when Bimala tells him that he has never bestowed any compliment on her. Nikhilesh replies, ‘Do I really need to say that in words?’ Nikhil’s lack of ‘passion’, coldness, all implied that Bimala was not quite satisfied with his lack of ‘masculine’ traits. His characteristics were juxtaposed with his friend Sandip’s, who on the very first instance impressed Bimala with just his words, his passion for Swadeshi movement, and his ideology.
Another interesting stereotyping of gender norms is seen when Sandip implies that women lack men’s rationality when he highlights their ‘intuition’ which, he says, is of greater importance in making crucial decisions in, for example, the Swadeshi movement.
In the beginning of the movie, the widowed sister-in-law of Nikhilesh is shown to be a woman who remains within the confines of the Andar Mahal, draped in a white saree, as was the custom in those times. She is posed in a stark contrast to Bimala – the former Bimala narrates in the beginning that by looking at the widow of her late brother-in-law, she could sense that this woman’s life was devoid of a ‘happy marriage’. The widow is shown to be passing mocking comments at Bimala from the beginning of the movie. Initially, when Bimala takes music lessons in English from Miss Gilby, and hums those tunes in her leisure time, the widow exclaims that since Bimala is humming foreign tunes, wearing foreign clothes, she might just become a ‘memsahib’ one day, forgetting her folks. Later on, eyeing Bimala’s dressing table and all the foreign branded perfumes, she exclaims the ‘attar’ of the good old days is enough for her; these foreign products make her uncomfortable.
Her hostility towards Bimala starts increasing as soon as the latter crosses the threshold of the Andar Mahal. Now, one can understand the intricacy of her character from her lamentation that Bimala is unaware of her fortune, since her husband is so caring. When she was a young wife, she used to dress up each night, waiting for her husband to come to the Andar Mahal; but he never came. But when he was on his deathbed, suffering from high fever, he looked at her with a blank expression, asking who she was. He could not recognize the woman who he was married to. This was the extent of lack of personal contact between the husband and the wife. Her repressed female sexuality could hardly find gratification since her only companion that time was the young Nikhil. So, her concern for Nikhil, especially at the moment when Bimala’s interest shifts from him to Sandip, is also quite understandable.
Bimala is looked down upon as she tends to venture out into the public more and more often, to meet Sandip. The widow makes a sarcastic remark – ‘how can I resist the call of Krishna’s flute’. She cannot see a woman’s sexual desires getting fulfilled not only by her husband, but also from a man from the outside world, as this probably reminded her of her own ungratified sexual desires. The widow approaches Nikhil and tells him that, as a husband he had the ‘right’ to force Bimala to remain within the Andarmahal. When Nikhil declines to do so, saying Bimala is not a kid, and has a mind of her own, she goes to the extent of asking him to at least ask Sandip to leave the house.
Once the riot breaks out, Nikhil rushes out of the house to prevent it, only to get killed (as portrayed by Bimala’s transformation from a married woman marked by long hair, a gorgeous saree and ornaments, to a widow marked by a white saree and short hair); the widow calls Bimala a ‘demon’ who ‘sent’ her husband to death, denying Nikhil’s agency in trying to stop the riots, and blaming Bimala for all the misfortunes that befell him.
The complex interrelation between the characters, within the context of a political turmoil of Swadeshi and communal riots, is what Ray has tried to depict. The four parallel themes ultimately merge in an effort to reveal Tagore’s criticism of blind patriotic fervor that the nation was dealing with and, also, the repression of women under the garb of modernization, which was no less patriarchal than its antecedent, feudal counterpart.
Nayana opened the door for me, and I peered inside the apartment. My eyes were straining hard to get used to the sudden darkness of the hall in front of me.
It was the apartment where Nayana and six other girls were staying as paying guests, along with the owner of the apartment – ‘aunty’, her smelly dog, Goldie, aunty’s ‘art collections’, her paintings, her showpieces, her abstract sculptures, her books, her furniture, and so on.
I stepped inside the apartment, and the hall greeted me with its gloomy darkness and its damp, stinky smell. Time seemed to have stopped once I entered.
Through the hall, Nayana led me to her room, where we sat and started chatting. Through the half-open door of the room, I saw aunty inside the kitchen, cooking something. She was a woman advancing rapidly towards her seventies – a fit woman who could take care of herself.
After she finished her work, she came to meet me. A jolly old lady, with a toothy smile- and immediately I was won over. Her head was matted with very short black curls; her thick glasses made her eyes look really big. When she spoke, her words got intertwined with one another because of the lack of teeth on her lower jaw.
Smilingly, the lady asked my name. After coming to know that I belong to Kolkata, she went on telling me about her Bengali friend with whom she had once gone to Amsterdam. From the assumption that all Bengalis sing, she asked me whether I sing or not. Learning that I do, she insisted me to sing something. I remembered my favourite Ghazal and sang. The wordings went somewhat like this – “Nind na aaye unke bina, Chayn na aaye unke bina…” (Sleep doesn’t come to me without my beloved; I cannot be in peace without my loved one). The song got over, and I was pretty much satisfied by the way I had sung. Alas, the praise did not last long. Immediately aunty bombarded me, “so, for whom did you sing this song?”
I tried hard to clarify that it is the song in itself that I love; I didn’t mean to address anyone in particular; but she was not at all ready to fathom my argument. “It is absolutely okay. You can tell me”, and gave me a crinkled wink. I got tired and just smiled back. I let her interpret whatever she wished to…
‘Aunty travels a lot! She has travelled all over the world; well… almost’, Nayana interjected.
Apparently, she went to Paris, Switzerland, Beijing, Tokyo, New York, and I cannot even remember all the places that she has been to. She spent three months in Tokyo, learning Japanese; two months in Beijing, maybe learning Chinese. She talked about the people she had met in each place, their lives, and their ways of thinking. And the most thrilling part is that, this enthusiastic woman is a solo traveller! Recently she had gone to Nepal, with a group of senior citizens, for a trek, at the age of nearly seventy!
Now, she loves making all these abstract sculptures and collages with scraps of junk. Her hall is filled with those. You cannot see the walls; you cannot see the corners of the room; even the ceiling is hidden forever. There is absolutely no systematic manner in which her ‘artwork’ or the rest of her things are arranged— everything just lies here and there. Well, to put it in the right manner, they are piled up in every possible ‘empty’ space throughout the house, so that, in the end, there is absolutely no empty space left whatsoever! So I asked Nayana, “How do you manage to even move about inside the room, without disturbing the showpieces and everything?” She replied casually, “We don’t. As in, we can’t move inside without dropping a thing or two. So we just keep picking things up!”
Nayana’s room, also, was not at all pardoned from the responsibility of storing piles of miscellaneous stuff. Apart from the two beds kept side by side, and the suitcases underneath, the rest of the heaps of things around belonged to aunty. The cupboards were bursting with books. Anytime these precious books might gush out of the cupboards like a volcanic eruption, if the doors are even slightly opened. The cabinets behind the two beds were stuffed with innumerable objects which I do not have further count. Strings overhead, full of half-dried clothes, crisscrossed the entire room- ‘they are all aunty’s clothes’, Nayana noted, after my surprised gaze at them.
Apparently, very recently, aunty had indulged into this sudden spree of making paper mash sculptures. She had taken the bucket of Nayana’s room-mate, without even bothering to ask, and had soaked newspapers in it to make sculptures later on. Bhagyashri, this unfortunate roommate of Nayana, had vowed to herself that day that she will leave this place as soon as she found a job!
Whatsoever, the whole of summer went by, and all the girls in that apartment requested, urged, pleaded aunty, in as many ways as they could, to persuade her to finish those paper mash sculptures. Meanwhile, the not-so-pleasant smell had already started hovering all over the rooms, offending their nostrils. Aunty, however, oblivious about the plight of the rest of the world as usual, spent the two whole months of summer painting… water colour, oil, pastels, crayons, etcetera and etcetera.
Soon enough, monsoon, in its due course burst in, drenching the entire city, making everything damp and gloomy; and striking enough, it just suddenly reminded her of the pending paper mash work! Therefore, in a jiffy, she was huddling over the paper pulp pile, making ‘African dolls’, without even bothering to think how they will dry.
‘She made those dolls and had kept them in my room! Moreover, since she doesn’t let that dog stay out for long, it urinated inside the room! And both the stench of the dolls and of pee made me want to stick my head out of the window for the rest of the day! At night, after aunty had slept, my roommate and I dried those dolls with a bloody hair dryer!’ Nayana’s frustration gushed out!
Aunty had gone out for a while. She soon came back with coffee. We sat for a while and chatted. Later on, she called me to show something. I went out into the hall with her and a sudden surge of putrid smell greeted me all over. With immense pride she showed me the ‘African doll’ she has made – a pride with which a child displays her new set of crayons!
Maybe she had poor eyesight, or maybe she just did not care how the girls suffered from dampness and stink in her P.G, because she neither seemed to notice the fungus that had accumulated on the two shoulders of the doll, nor the incredibly large number of small, black flies hovering noisily over it!
‘It’s fantastic, aunty!’ I said, unable to suppress the twitching of my nose (to let as little smell enter my nostrils as possible) and violent hand movements to shoo the flies away from my face. She seemed pleased by the compliment. The dog kept on following me wherever I went. ‘She likes you. She likes to hang around new people!’ aunty explained to me.
The dog sat in front of me, staring at me with its puppy-face, leaning with all its weight against the stool where the doll stood. The doll jolted a little. Aunty was oblivious. I told her that her hard work might get spoilt. Then she quickly patted the dog on its head and told it to sit aside. However, the dog remained stationed. And she, also, did not bother much to persist. I smiled and came back to Nayana’s room, my lungs rebelling for fresh air.
Nayana gave me some biscuits to eat. I crunched along and chatted with her. Suddenly I felt the last piece of the biscuit slightly moving between my fingers, and then there was this wet feeling on my palm. I understood that Goldie had casually licked it. I saw her standing beside the bed post with her innocent puppy-face, occasionally wagging her tail. I left a half-sigh, wishing I had finished it earlier, and gave it to her. Happily she gulped it down as if she had not eaten for ages!
At this juncture, I came to know about the fact finding report on aunty’s refrigerator where all the food that have crossed their expiry dates are stored inside, and are often given to the poor dog.
Bread that has gathered fungus – “Goldie! Come along… Food!”
Biscuits that had just crossed their shelf-life, which no one can eat – “Goldie! Food!”
Three to four days’ old chapattis that had turned harder than asbestos sheets – “Goldie…..!” And in comes the dog, bouncing along, licking its plate clean!
‘We feel really scared when aunty offers us food. Who knows, we might die of food poison!” Nayana explained.
I fearfully looked into my coffee cup, which was almost empty by then. I couldn’t contain my anxiety. However, she comforted me by telling that only coffee was a safe choice in this place.
Once, all the girls, including aunty, went out to have food in a nearby restaurant. The next day, aunty suffered from severe stomach pain. “Outside food does no good to your health”, exclaimed aunty, concerned about the girls. “Maybe you just cannot digest fresh food”, muttered some mischievous souls in their rooms.
The clock went on ticking, time flew past, and I suddenly realized that I had spent almost six hours in that damp room, chatting. I wanted to say goodbye, but suddenly I saw aunty coming inside, sitting in front of the mirror. I waited a little more…
We kept on chatting and she kept on dressing up, putting on make-up and accessories. Once she was done, after twenty minutes or so, she waved her hand and said goodbye. She was wearing a decent looking sleeveless Kurta, a huge black neckpiece, dangling earrings, with a tinge of kohl on her eyes…
“Are you going somewhere aunty?” my friend asked.
“I’m going to my swimming class. Goodbye.” Then, turning over to me she exclaimed happily, “Come to meet aunty soon.” And thus, leaving us profusely amused, she left – a charming woman, who lives exactly as per her own diktats, her own set of rules.
There was a woman who used to clean our hostel; a sweet lady who was really passionate about her job.
Whenever she came to clean the washroom, we were doomed. She would sweep and wash, scrub and mop the floor, and take an eternity to either come out or even let us in.
If we tried to enter while she was cleaning, she would first scowl. If the person entered, neglecting that grumpy face, she would shout out loud in Marathi; and if she found out that the concerned person doesn’t understand the language, immediately her tone of voice would come down (I have seen that some people in this city has this strange feeling of awe towards students from far off cities from outside Maharashtra. The farther it is, the greater awe it evokes). Politely she would tell the person not to step inside, since she’s cleaning. She was not bothered at all by the fact that the person concerned might wet her pants. She also overlooked the fact that the washroom would get mucky once she leaves.
She was also a concerned person. Sweetly she would ask you ‘didi, aap gussa to nehi ho gaye?‘ (sister, you’re not angry, are you?) How can you remain irritated after that!
Once I went to the washroom while she was cleaning the floor. Irritably she asked, “what do you want?” In my mind I answered, “to enjoy the weather, to see the blue sky…!” Probably my sarcasm reflected on my face, because she didn’t say anything except, ‘didi, aap gussa to nehi ho gaye?’
She used to scold us anytime, any place. Whenever her magic broom was sweeping and girls were stepping close by, a strange scowl used to be drawn on her hardened face. A sharp remark essentially followed on how clean she has to keep the building every single day. But one fine day, the girls in the hostel collected signatures of every hostelite to replace her with the former cleaning lady. I also eagerly signed.
After two days, that woman was nowhere to be seen. Now, the former person comes and goes silently. I haven’t even noticed her face. A tingly feeling of guilt overpowered relief. Due to our petty problems, a woman lost her job in this ever hungry world, and I lost contact with another amusing person.
You wake up one fine day and find pegion poop all over your bedroom; you desparately look around in search of the culprit. And of course! You find the daunting pegion waggling its behind at you and flying away. Your mistake! You had forgotten to close the skylight, silly!
Right when you’re about to sleep, someone nudges at the door. As it opens on its own, you find a four legged creature’s silhouette, wagging its tail in a friendly manner. Don’t you worry, that’s our everyday visitor. The dog is really friendly. It comes in the night only in search of food. Poor thing!
She’s harmless except the times she overturns all the possible dustbins around, scattering the stinking garbage all over the place!
Every morning, when you’re just about ready to bathe, you take your bucket to the washroom, and behold… there are atleast fifty buckets standing in queue in front of you! Well… today atleast is not your day!
You’re going to brush your teeth. You start brushing. In the end, you want to rinse your mouth with water… behold again! The water’s gone!
Oneday before the exam, suddenly your lights are gone. You lodge a complaint. Both you as well as the authority hope that the electrician will come on time. Later you realize that it’s not a problem of your room. It’s some loadshedding business. So you chill. A couple of hours later the lights come back. You start preparing for the exams.
Two days later, someone knocks at the door. You open it.
A man is standing outside with one woman guard – “You lodged a complaint. What problem is there in your room?” – looks inside the room from over your shoulders.
You, with a lost-faith-over-authority’s-ability look, say ‘thanks, but the problem is solved already!’
Yes! This is the hostel life that I’ve been blessed with. Such a bliss!
So, the wildfire has started…
A “small incident ” turned out to be big! Really big!
It seems like a house of cards; you dare to poke one card, and behold, the entire house turns out to be a devastated heap… It’s like a snowball, rolling and crushing everything on its way!
They are rising…
They marched, they sang, they demonstrated, they organized plays… it’s not anymore a matter of a few. Now it concerns the entire nation.
They are quite ready to take the blows that might cross their path. They are completely armed – with pen, and paint brushes and guitars…
Very rightly they said, “the pen is mightier than the sword”.
Who says students nowadays are not bothered – not concerned about what’s going on around them?
Dear state mechanism, you still need to figure out what lies in store for you!