Let me be honest, I don’t read Bengali literature frequently, so it was with a lot of trepidation that I started reading অগ্নিসম্ভব (Ognisombhov/ Inflammable ) earlier this year. It’s a novel set in the second half of the twentieth century in Kolkata. Written by my aunt Reeta Basu, it’s loosely based on the lives of my grandparents and their family.
For me, this book was a revelation into these two generations: the generation of my grandparents, who came over from the eastern part of Bengal (that is now Bangladesh) before the Partition of India; and that of my mother and aunts, who grew up in the late sixties/early seventies in Kolkata. It is illuminating how much society, and our outlook has changed within these fifty-odd years, especially in its expectations and attitudes towards women.
The second part of the narrative, called অগ্নিকুসুম (Ognikusum / The spark), is set in the past decade and the main character is drawn from our generation.
When I was growing up, the Bengali books I mostly read were the Feluda books by Satyajit Ray and the historical fiction by Sunil Gangopadhyay. Though I’ve also read a smattering of other Bengali fiction and our bleak literature canon in school, and apart from Pratham Pratisruti, I hadn’t come across a strong feminist perspective or many well-crafted female characters in the Bengali literature in my youth. So what stood out for me here was the specifically Bengali female gaze of the narrative, carried through by the inner monologues of the main characters, and the empathetic and compassionate depiction of all the characters.
For me, reading these two books was a very special experience.
Even though it was fiction, the characters that were based on my grandparents (my mother’s parents) were very lovingly drawn, right down to their inner lives and the little details of their day-to-day rituals. The history unfolding around them influenced their generous natures and community-driven values. Getting to know them through this book, learning about their challenges, the integrity of their choices, and how little they asked from life, was a proud and humbling experience. They have always been revered and cherished by us, and they are even more of an inspiration now. I felt lucky to get such a rare and deep connection to our family history.
The narrative arc illuminated how rapidly lifestyles have changed for middle-class women of that milieu – from being mainly confined to housework and child-rearing in their homes, to having the opportunity to be employed and financially independent in the seventies. Even then, it was no cakewalk – without a supportive husband, who didn’t see it as a detriment to his male ego, and an acceptable profession – it was fairly impossible. The academic profession, teaching in colleges or schools, was acceptable, but most other professions were deemed unsuitable. In these middle-class circles at the time, society and the norms it imposed were rarely questioned. In the second book, the daughters of the current generation make their own non-conformist career choices, and that creates great unrest among the parents – first for choosing an “unsuitable” profession, and then, the realization that their daughters were independent and empowered, and that their resistance was futile.
Another theme that was insightful for me was the rise of individualism in the second book. In অগ্নিসম্ভব, the sisters were good, dutiful daughters, who accepted their father’s decisions as final. On the rare occasions they had a different opinion, they did not dream of expressing themselves, and always accepted their father’s choices as the righteous ones. On the other hand, we saw ourselves reflected in অগ্নিকুসুম, where the main character doesn’t hold back in expressing herself through her behavior and life choices.
While reading this book, I finally understood the discord that had defined much of my adolescence and early twenties – my expectations and those of my parents were clearly at odds. Around me, I saw cousins being highly individualistic and took my cues from them, but what I didn’t realize was that the rules were still different for girls and boys! My parents were not prepared for this either and their tolerance (or the lack thereof) was the cause of some radical life choices.
Wise men have said if you don’t know your past, you don’t know where you are going in the future, and these books really serve that need – for us to know the world of women and their history, through their own voices.
Title from a poem in this book