Image and Narrative points contributed by Priyanjali Ray, with help from Ashok and Kaveri Dutt, Kolkata
The photograph on the left, taken at Johnston & Hoffman, a famous photography studio in Calcutta, is
of my 12 year old paternal great grandmother’s sister Pushpomoyee Dutt (nee Bose) in 1911-12. It was taken shortly after her marriage to Jogendranath Dutt, a 21 year old eldest son of Devendranath and Binodini Dutt of Hathwa (a small princely estate in Bengal Presidency, now in Bihar) (Image on Right).
Pushpomoyee, one of seventeen siblings, came from a family of established lawyers in Calcutta (now Kolkata). While the girls of the family were not sent to school, they could read and write in Bengali fluently, and could sign their names in English. Pushpomoyee, a little girl, arrived into her marital home, a large 15 acres estate next to the Hathwa palace, comprising of gardens, orchards and stables, with a companion/play-mate and lady in waiting, Sonia.
Her father-in-law Devendranath was the Dewan – the personal secretary to the Maharaja of Hathwa. Devendranath was well educated and had also authored a book called ‘A Brief history of the Hutwa Raj’. His wife Binodini, Pushpomoyee’s mother-in-law, was a strong willed woman, greatly influenced by social reformers like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, (instrumental in the abolishment of the Sati practice), and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, (the chief campaigners for the Hindu widow remarriage Act of 1856). Unlike a lot of women of the time, she actively helped in affairs of the state.
Their son Jogendranath would’ve gone on to inherit the position of Dewan in place of his father, but within a few months of his marriage, he contracted the fatal Kala Azar (Black Fever), and the family moved to Digha, the Bengal banks of the River Ganges, hoping he would recover faster. Sonia would then dress up the 12 year old new bride Pushpomoyee in beautiful sarees, and flowers in her hair, and escort her to the far reaches of the garden to meet her husband in the middle of the night. She used to say that in the light of the moon, she’d never seen a girl so beautiful.
Unfortunately within six months, the fever took Jogendranath’s life, leaving his young 12 ½ year old wife a widow. Given her age, it was decided that Pushpomoyee would return to her parent’s home in Calcutta, where she might be happier. Binodini and Devendranath would enquire about Pushpomoyee often, and within an year they began to hear of unpleasant rumours surrounding the treatment of their daughter in law, at her own maternal home. So when a serendipitous opportunity for some state related work in Calcutta arrived, Binodini and Devendranath at once left, and stayed at the Hathwa house on 28, Shakespeare Sarani (now Theatre Road). Binodini then dropped in, unannounced, at the Bose household on Gray Street and witnessed what she had feared.
Young widows at the time, were equivalent to being untouchables all over the Indian Subcontinent. And in many cases, the stigma continues till today. They were either exiled far away to widow homes, or be required to live in separate quarters within the house premises. Binodini saw her 13 year old daughter-in-law, with her own widowed aunt in the kitchen, both with their beautiful long hair cut short, draped in white ‘thhaan’, (raw cotton fabric) busy with Ekadashi (new Lunar cycle) preparations. They both had to live, cook and eat in a separate area from the family.
Binodoni was aghast and turned livid. This was the complete antithesis of why they had sent her back. Pushpomoyee’s father, tearfully held her hand and said, ‘We didn’t want this for her, but my hands are tied.’ Even with best intentions, he had been unable to withstand societal pressure, both from outside and within his own family. Binodini is meant to have snapped, ‘If you can’t look after your own daughter properly, we will!’. Grateful and relieved, Pushpomoyee’s father agreed that she’d have a far better life in her marital home. Sonia, her play-mate who came to be known as Houthatha, also became a part of the family, and later the narrator of our family stories.
When Pushpamoyee returned to Hathwa, Bindoni refused to let any of the widow customs be heaped upon her. She even tried to get her remarried, but in practice it proved difficult. Even though the Widow Remarriage Act had been legalised a while ago, the attitudes of people were hard to change. Moreover, the stigma of being the ‘unlucky’ cause of her husband’s death within mere months of marriage, made it impossible. Even the act of keeping a widowed daughter-in-law at home who did not follow any “widow” customs was something that she would’ve had to actively fight for, and it is indeed fortunate that she found immense support in her husband. When he passed away in 1915, in his early 40s, Brojendranath, their 19 year old younger son quit his studies, and became the new Dewan.
Every single decision for the family that Binodini made was taken with Pushpomoyee in mind. Including the decision to marry her younger son Brojendranath, the Dewan (my great-grand father) to Pushpomoyee’s younger sister Snehomoyee (my great-grandmother). The world around her was aghast – even the Queen of Hathwa announced that it was a huge mistake – a girl from the same family would bring bad luck. Binodini is reported to have said, ‘If that is the will of God, so be it – my priority will always be this little girl.’ She had hoped that the sisters would look out for each other, and they did. If anything was ever bought, jewellery or clothes, they were bought in sets for the sisters, and embroidered with their initials. I am told that in our family home in Patna, hangs a family portrait, with Binodini, her husband, her son, grandchildren, and her two daughters-in-law, standing side by side in matching jewellery and colourful saris.
Under Binodini’s love and care, Pushpamoyee blossomed. When Snehomoyee, my great-grandmother, was expecting her first child, Rabindranath, Binodini asked her if she’d consider Pushpomoyee bring him up and Snehomoyee agreed. Pushpomoyee brought up her sister’s first born as her own. She was also made in charge of ‘bharaar’ (everything kitchen related), and looking after her nephews and nieces whom she adored. She was a fantastic cook and her ‘Patna’r aamer icecream’ (Mango ice-cream made in a bucket), Nimki, Goja, Khakri, homemade Butter and Ice-lollies were legendary within the family.
The family continued to live on the estate until their daughters, that is my grandmother and her siblings, were of school going age, after which they settled in our family home in Patna (now Bihar state capital) travelling back and forth between the two houses, especially for Durga Puja that Hathwa was famous for. Fate had more pain for the family in store when Rabindranath, the nephew Pushpomoyee had raised as her son, died of Typhoid in his late teens. His death broke both his mothers, and for the rest of her life, Pushpomoyee had ‘R’ instead of ‘P’ as her initial embroidered on her clothes.
After my great-grandfather Brojendranath, the former Dewan of Hathwa, passed away in 1973, Snehomoyee and Pushpomoyee now in their seventies, relocated to Calcutta, taking turns to stay with their children. ‘Bouma’, as Pushpomoyee was fondly known, lived till her eighties and was adored by generations within the family. Everyone has stories about her – of her grace and compassion, how she loved everyone equally and never ever said no. My wonderful great-grandmother Snehomoyee passed away in 1982, and her sister, our ‘Bouma’, Pushpomoyee in 1985.
I am fortunate to have a legacy of such amazing and strong women, who did the best that they could to better the lives of others. I now own a large collection of ancestral photographs collected by family members, and these are only two of my so many favourites. Only by coincidence, I also came to own an apartment where the Hathwa house on Theatre Road used to be, which I consider yet another blessing to have me remain connected to my roots in some form or another, and with the wisdom that social empowerment truly begins at home.
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