Orphaned, Widowed, Abused: The Incredible Life of My Grandmother
The strongest memory I have of my Thakuma, my father’s mother, is from when I was seven. I was reading a story on Florence Nightingale when she came over and, just like that, started reading the text out loud. In fluent, unaccented, perfect English. My jaw had literally dropped open.
The second strongest memory I have of her is when I watched her coffin get hammered shut with six long nails — and fainted.
Over the years after that day, long after she was gone, I grew to realise the incredibility of my grandmother’s life. I had always absentmindedly known her story, but I guess it took the hard knock of adulthood to fully realise her disasters. Now when I sit and think about her — the woman I never quite sat down to chat with — my heart breaks a little.
Here’s the story of my Thakuma, someone who lived through Umrao Jaan-like separation from parents, astounding abuse, social ousting, famishing poverty and having to abandon her son at an orphanage.
The Benevolent Kidnap by Missionaries
Loss of parents in childhood, though unfortunate, isn’t unusual. Accidents happen, Cancer happens. Sometimes, tectonic plates shift and parents fall through the cracks. For my grandmother, however, this tragedy crept up like the serpent in the Garden of Eden; almost sadistic. And a bit like that of Umrao Jaan.
Born in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, to a North Indian family, Thakuma had a different identity, a different name, one she would go on to forget later in life. At the age of six, some sort of natural disaster (reports get a hazy here) hit the town she lived in while she was in school. When officials from a missionary camp came to aid the victims, they found her in the school, separated from her family. When they were unable to get an address out of the shaken, lonely child, they packed her up and brought her to a Calcutta-based orphanage.
Here’s where my anger kicks in. The missionaries probably had good intentions at heart, but how could the search for a child’s parents stop at her being unable to tell her address? She remembered her father’s name, couldn’t that have been a trail? But as fate would have it, one moment she was caught in a disaster in Kanpur; the next, she was on a train to Calcutta with a bunch of strangers.
Orphanage, Adoption, Child Marriage...Widowhood
After being uprooted from her land, Thakuma was given a new name, a new identity in the Calcutta orphanage. It was here, I believe, where she picked up her impeccable English.
In a few years, she went on to be adopted, along with five other girls, by a wealthy widow in town named Golab Buri. Rumour has it that one of my grandmother’s foster sisters was singer Rupam Islam’s grandmother. I believe that the lone way to prove this speculation died with the two women.
Anyway, back to the story. After a small bite of a good childhood, my grandmother was married off to my grandfather at an early age. A military man in the British regiment, my grandfather — I’ve been told — wasn’t the easiest man to live with. But he, however, wouldn’t be the worst Thakuma would have.
Marriage took the Kanpuria-turned-Calcutta-smart-lady to the nooks of rural Bengal. Here, she saw the death of her first child, a son, days after he won a competition for being the cutest baby in the village. Then, while still in her teens, she got pregnant with my father.
Before my father could be born, my grandfather dropped dead after consuming a ‘tall glass of warm milk’. In his prime, with no medical history whatsoever. My father, to this day, believes that he was murdered.
This tragedy, for my then-teenaged grandmother, would upturn her life yet again, in a crueler way than before.
Married into Abuse...Separated from her Child
My great-grandfather, upon losing his young son, could no longer stand his daughter-in-law, or his sole grandson (i.e. my dad). As my dad recounts, this old man pretty much abandoned them when they most needed his support. And so, when my grandmother became the victim of extreme abuse in his house, no one was on her side.
My grandmother was still so young at this point; my dad, an infant. That’s when the abuse began, at the hands of someone — rumours have it — from her dead husband’s family.
When I heard these stories, decades later, in whispers and hushed voices, I was still too young to understand the horror of it all. Now, I wonder if her in-laws knew about the alleged assault...whether they ignored it. Perhaps, everyone feared her attacker’s ill temper.
Or it was just that, they had no repercussions to fear about. My grandmother, after all, had no family or husband they had to be accountable to for her. She was the ultimate vulnerable entity.
When the whispers could no longer be contained, my grandmother was hurriedly married off. And to whom, but her dead husband’s brother.
This marriage within family came at a great cost. For one, she was outcast by the society. Next, she was separated from her son.
In Thakuma’s new house, poverty was rampant, and a place for my father — the orphaned son from a previous marriage — was absent. After spending the first few years of his life under his grandfather’s hateful eyes, my father was shipped off to a poor man’s free boarding school, which was as good as an orphanage. He was all of four.
My father, to this day in his late sixties, vividly remembers the day his mother left him at this Indianised Dotheboys’ Hall, never to return.
He smiles dryly, now, when retells this story. How he was still nuzzled in his mother’s arms, still breastfeeding, still too reliant on her...and incredibly unaware that he was being, by all means and purposes, being abandoned by his last remaining family.
The cycle of tragedy had made a full circle at this point. A woman who was torn from her own family in tender childhood, abandoned her toddler in an orphanage.
There are women who turn goddesses when it comes to fight for their children. My other grandmother — my Dida — was one of them. But my Thakuma did not belong to that kind. She was of the weaker kind.
As angry as this episode in my father’s life leaves me, I somewhat understand my grandmother’s side of the story. She was barely in her 20s, unemployed, outcast, and with no maternal home to flee to or in-laws to count on. Her choices were to either take on the world, with no support whatsoever, to keep her child, or to leave him for shelter and a fresh start. She picked the latter.
While my father grew up in extreme neglect at the missionary shelter home — much like a protagonist from a Charles Dicken’s novel – my grandmother had four more sons.
In her new home, poverty was an autocrat. There was never enough money and always too many mouths than food. I heard from my grandmother’s own mouth: there were days when all she and her children got to eat was rice and salt. My mother, too, recounts that when she first visited my grandmother’s house as a newlywed bride, all she had in the house to offer her was a sugar in a spoon.
During those dark days, one of her sons once asked her for one rupee, which she refused to give, probably because in a house were food was scarce, she couldn’t afford to give away even that small an amount. As a kid, I remember that ‘uncle’ of mine boasting about how that refusal made him work hard to become a wealthy man.
He did become a wealthy man, with a big bungalow and buckets of money in the bank. And then, he used this story as an excuse on why he shouldn’t support his aged mother: because she had turned him away when he asked for a rupee, he should turn her away too.
In her last days — fellow villagers recount — my grandmother had to walk from one such son’s house to another asking for food.
Thakuma’s Last Days...and My Mother
Through my life, I saw my mother bring my grandmother to our place multiple times to stay, but for some reason, her love for her younger sons always trumped her sense of self-sustenance. She would always insist on returning to her ‘children’, sometimes going as far as leaving without informing us.
The last time she visited us, during my brother’s wedding, I watched her and my father break down as she requested him to ask his ‘brothers’ to not hit her. Whether this is true or old age delirium, I have no means of confirming.
During her last days, she lost her sight. My aunt, I clearly remember, would call my mother multiple times a day, asking her to come and take care of Thakuma. “Yours is the only name she remembers,” she would tell my mother. So my mother left for my uncle’s house, to take care of a mother-in-law in whose house she wasn’t welcomed to for a single day.
The moment my mother entered my Thakuma’s room and opened a crack of the window to let in some light, my sightless grandmother called out, “Anima, tumi eshecho?” Her wrinkled, broken face lit up in smile. Anima, you have come? I was a witness to this moment.
My mother was the only person she remembered in her last days; not her sons, not her grandchildren, not even her own name. After a life of lost parents and ungrateful sons, her last ray of sunshine was a stranger’s daughter, wife of the son she had abandoned. Her daughter of sorts, I guess.
Over the next few days, we watched her crumble to death. And in death, the only people who shed a tear were my mother and a woman who’d helped her wash Thakuma’s body before burial. Not her sons.
In 2012, I stood at a familiar graveyard and watched strangers nail shut my grandmother’s coffin — a scene that sprouted the seed of panic disorder in me. I watched as my grandmother, born decades ago in a different world, to a different culture, get laid to rest as a Christian in her husband’s old grave.
I wonder what would’ve happened had she not gone to school that fateful day, had she not lost her parents. Would my grandmother’s life been better, raised closed to her roots, amid her biological family and culture? Would her family watched her back, would her husband been better? Would she have had better sons? Would she have know love, care and nurture?
I like to believe that, in some other life, she will find all that.
Today, as I sit and write this, I’m sobbing. I’m sorry for not having been a better granddaughter, I’m angry for her not having been a better mother to my father. But mostly, I’m remorseful for not having done more to know her, to help her...to have, at least once, chatted with her over a cup of tea.