EVERYONE in their family and the families around them were awestruck when Putul, the youngest daughter of Meena, the part-time maid, not only passed the Higher Secondary examination but secured a First Division. But that was not all. Many other families were awestruck, too. Meena worked in six affluent homes in South Kolkata — in an area where the residents preferred to call the city Calcutta.
Most adult members of her employers’ families found Putul&’s results quite incredible and, as is the wont of privileged folks, they unanimously cursed the times, the government, the education system and lamented that such things would never have happened if the British were in charge of administration.
Of all her sisterly employers, the “Didis” of the households Meena worked for, she knew Srimati Didi, who was the principal of a college, was the best one to advise her about her daughter&’s next step into the world of higher education and jobs. In fact, the male employers, the “Dadas” of the households, had limited roles to play in domestic administration. It was the Didis who were domestic supremos, though the salaries were often paid by the Dadas. But that has to be another story.
“My daughter is determined to study Bangla Honours,” said Meena. The last word in that sentence was a tongue twister for her and she said “onor” with a shy, defensive smile. Srimati sensed there was no way she could dissuade Putul and urge her to study a general course, a combination of Bangla, History and Sociology or even Sanskrit, if the college concerned permitted such combinations.
Putul did get admission in a nearby girls’ college and also got a poor student scholarship. She came to meet Dr Srimati Banerjee on a Sunday morning. Srimati asked Putul, “Why are you so keen on Honours, wouldn’t pass course have been better?”
“But I want to study MA, I want to study at the university.”
Srimati Banerjee was impressed and touched. Her own daughter, Ranjana, who was several years older than Putul, had opted for Media Studies and was dreaming of becoming a filmmaker and, if that didn’t work, then she felt she had it in her to aspire towards a career in investigative journalism. Bangla Honours in comparison seemed so much more achievable than all these new fangled areas, grumbled Srimati Banerjee.
She had taught geography for about 15 years in an undergraduate college and then felt she would opt for a position in academic administration, and after the mandatory process of application and interview, she joined a girls’ college as its principal. Ranjana was applying to all the universities in English-speaking countries that ran a course on media studies, or so it seemed. Ranjana, just like many of her friends, felt that all opportunities in higher education and profession were available outside India. Most educated parents supported this notion and even TV advertisements on bank loans and long term investments made wives almost dictate to their husbands in an unabashed tone that the target in life for the children was to begin with a vacation in America followed by an education in that country.
The advertisements emphatically highlighted the rhythmic jingle in the words vaca-tion and educa-tion; the lilt in “tion” being underscored as the way to go and definitely not to be shunned.
Well, to return to Putul&’s ambition to secure a Bangla Honours degree. She tried very hard to concentrate in the endless Bangla literature classes, but her mind wandered. Early Bengali literature, those difficult Sanskrit words, all such imaginary domains, were too much for a young girl from the neighbourhood slum, where most people were either illiterate or semi-literate. Her own father was a middle school dropout. He drove the car of a lady doctor and felt that he was very fortunate that he had such a caring employer who gave him free medicines whenever he was unwell.
Also, though everyone raved about Bankimchandra Chatterjee&’s novels and Rabindranath Tagore&’s short stories, Putul was at her wits’ end. And she was not the only one. Many of her classmates felt the same. After all, they were not the potential first class students studying in elite undergraduate colleges; they were students in the “other” undergraduate colleges, and they needed help.
The solution was simple. Tutorial classes. The tutorial centres were not hard to find, they were everywhere, but again there was a class difference in the classes of these private enterprises. But Putul needed to clear the examinations and the classes helped her immensely. No one checked whether she understood her lessons or not, Putul knew she had to memorise answers, hope that her “luck” would support her and, voila, after three years she did become an Honours graduate.
Yet, after the initial excitement and mandatory mistis, Putul found to her dismay that her rather low Honours level scores meant that she could pursue her dream of obtaining a Master&’s degree by enrolling in a distance learning course and not in traditional face-to-face classes held at the university. She also realised with some shock that the competitive examinations in which she appeared regularly were too tough and she could not even reach the preliminary rounds.
Meanwhile, her mother — who had dreamt that her youngest daughter who was so diligent in studies would become a schoolteacher — became impatient and anxious. Putul&’s elder sisters, both school dropouts, were married, had several children of their own, and while one worked in a local beauty parlour, the other was a part-time maid like her mother, Meena.
Meena began looking out for a suitable boy for Putul. She found one, too. He was a driver by profession and choice; he claimed he was a graduate, that he had studied in a college in South Calcutta. No one asks for marksheets from desirable suitable boys. Initially, Putul was reluctant. Not a driver as husband. Her own father was a driver but her mother was illiterate and worked as a domestic helper in six homes, washing dishes, clothes, sweeping and mopping floors, among other odd jobs.
Putul would never perform such demeaning jobs, she was a would-be Master&’s degree holder. She should be marrying someone working in a government office or bank; moreover, she would find a job, too, preferably a teaching one. But her mother reminded her that such eligible bachelors of her dreams would shy away from marrying a girl whose family lived in the slum along the rail track. Meena reminded her daughter, “Remember that boy Tapan, he had initially wanted to marry you, but when he and his family realised how poor we were and where we stayed he just disappeared.”
Tears rose in Putul&’s eyes. After all, she was a student of literature, and expectedly sensitised. The stories she read as part of the syllabus addressed issues of poverty, class and gender, yet could those stories represent her plight? The difference between truth and fiction sometimes can be unbridgeable and cruel.
Meena invited the parents, uncles and aunts of Sunil, the eligible young man. Some found Putul too thin, some thought she was beautiful, after all she was light-skinned and did not match the tone of the earth&’s colour. Ultimately, after several intensive sessions, Sunil&’s family expressed their interest in going ahead with the negotiation. But then Sunil&’s father and uncle insisted that the bride be given a 22 carat gold necklace and a pair of gold earrings. Meena staked all her life&’s savings and then pleaded with the Didis of the mansions and apartments where she worked to give her loans. She said she would work without payment till the loans she had taken were squared up.
But Sunil&’s family hadn’t yet asked Meena to pay for the expenses of the marriage reception. Now they did. Meena rushed to the Didis and they said they would help her. But then it was Putul. Imagine, after reading and writing answers on Tagore&’s Dena Pauna, Aparichita and the narratives of Ashapurna Devi, Putul pestered her mother that she wouldn’t marry unless Meena could give her a pair of gold bangles. “How can I enter their home with bare arms or with artificial bangles?”
Putul remained adamant, she wanted gold bangles and a thin gold case for the iron bangle that most married women wear as a sign of marriage. Mothers-in-law could compete with the sheriffs of the police administration of the USA in their passionate desire to handcuff their sons’ brides, thankfully they restricted the handcuff to one wrist, a good plan to ensure rigorous manual labour. Men did not wear such iron bangles, such signs were not compulsory for them. The permanent nature of marriage was already claustrophobic and then a iron band made as a symbol and metaphor for wedlock — there was a limit to what people can accept, reasoned the men who were, of course, always wise and right.
But Putul thought differently. If it was only possible she would have wanted to wear all the ornaments that one could dangle from her body and look like a jewellery hanger. And she was settling for so few! Just look at those women in the serials with their dripping jewellery, if only… but the bangles were a must or else she would die of shame! When her father had named her “Putul” as she looked like a wee light-skinned doll, little did anyone understand then that no name other than doll-like Putul could have been more appropriate for this young woman graduate.
Meena asked Srimati Banerjee for some more money and said, “My Putul is so well-educated, I struggled from dawn to midnight working in so many homes, cooking at home, getting drinking water from the local tubewell, standing in queues for rations, kerosene, even queueing up for saris donated by rich Marwaris during various festivals. But everything has been useless, it seems, Putul just can’t understand how I am struggling to get the money… nor could she become a schoolteacher.”
“No,” Dr.Srimati Banerjee said, “your efforts have not been useless, Meena. Putul came to meet me last evening. She will be joining a boutique as an assistant next month. She wanted to surprise you so she hasn’t told you yet. Also, Putul is determined to keep her job at the boutique even after marriage and she will not rest till she can find a job in a school.”
When Meena left, Srimati Banerjee sighed. She felt so helpless to admit the fact that for women jewellery and marriage were both essential and neither dispensable. She remembered attending a seminar on gender issues where a speaker referred in detail to an article by the iconic woman activist and educationist Rokeya Sakhawat titled, Alankar naa Badge of Slavery. Srimati decided to order two copies of Rokeya&’s writings and present them to both Putul and her daughter Ranjana.
Though Ranjana may be dreaming of spreading her wings, pursuing a career in a global university, Srimati had a gut feeling that she and thousands of her ilk would not be ready to delink jewellery from marriage. Just study all those jewellery advertisements and the TV soaps, even young unmarried girls in professions were shown to prioritise an investment in jewellery, passionately pursue EMI or variable payment plans offered by glitzy jewellery shops. But strangely no advertisement or serial represented empowered women buying cars, houses, farms or investing in real estate. After all, how much of the immovable property of the world did women own? Srimati Banerjee did not believe in tokenisms and supported Putul completely. In fact, she entered a jewellery shop, more in number than sweet shops in her area, and ordered a pair of earrings as a wedding gift for Putul.