In the year 1960, when Mughal-e-Azam released in India and the Challenger depth was explored off the US coast as the deepest point that man has been able to dive till then, on the day of the Autumn equinox, I was born. That year, my birthday fell on the fourth day of the Devipaksh and I am told that it was a bright day of blue skies and heaps of white cumulous clouds that made the earth look as if it was on a glorious vacation. In the long 50 years that I have been alive, my life so far has been just the way the Universe appeared to everyone on that 24th day of September, joyful, relaxed, serene and festive. I have everything that any human can possibly desire and what I do not have are not worthy of human aspiration. Today, I sit back with barely a few days to go before I turn 50, wondering and not without some guilt, what I did to deserve this wonderful deal.
It is customary for Bengali families to pray that the first born is a girl child because it is believed that the girl who is the first born is the Lakshmi of the household. My family on both sides of my parents believed little in such superstitions but they prayed for me to be born as a girl because in those days, half a century ago, it were women who were poised to have better opportunities to do well in life. More professions were open for women; better schools were available for them and they had access to other cultural refinements such as music and dance. Boys were expected only to study and get jobs and since Kolkata offered little open spaces for children to play, Bengali boys were also removed from sports. Boys spent their time chatting or writing poetry and became either extremely cynical or masochistic in their outlook. It were the women who moved ahead in everything and if she decided not to marry and instead pursue a career, she became socially well established and a high consumer individual. Life for women looked significantly better than what it was for men. This was the common perception in the 1960’s among families like ours when feminism was sweeping across the Western world.
Strangely enough my parents became unapologetically feminists. So they were thrilled to have me born as a girl child so that I could become a grand experiment in their pursuit of women’s liberation. Though my parents are looked upon as being the most compatible couple around yet I feel that not mushy love but strong ideological agreement has drawn them to each other. They were united in their idea of what an individual should be and I am the visible manifestation of that ideology.
Neither of my parents believed in the institution of marriage. My mother was not so vocal about it because somewhere she felt a nice romance could lead up to a nice marriage, but it was my father who completely saw through the hoax of marriage and romantic love. Never, he observed, is a woman a man’s equal. He warned me that if I were to ever marry, the man would assume that he was my natural boss. My father wanted me to be the boss of my own life. He never saw the reason for me to marry if I could finance my way through. How you are any less than the strongest man, he would ask me. You are good in studies, brave in spirit, can argue your way through, talk as an equal to the President of India and have the will and ability to learn anything that you want to? Why do you want to marry and lead life as so many others would want you to?
My father’s idea was not to make me into a man but to say that a woman can be an individual in her own right just as anyone else can be. My father wanted me to be an individual, free of social stereotypes, free of predefinitions, to make my own judgments and also to abide by them. He was a fan of Dev Anand, and he perhaps wanted me to be an individual like him, smart, suave, self reliant and of course very intelligent. Interestingly, Dev Anand and I are born only two days apart.
My mother’s influence has been the greatest in my life. She has nurtured my soul more than my body. She dropped out of college when she was married and never was she the one to be interested in her studies. She said that she was never taught through systemmatic instructions and what she meant by it was perhaps was that her stuff was not neatly placed in a tabular form, columns and rows, boxes and diagrams. She always systematizes things, classifies and tabulates them and that’s how she taught me. I learnt my alphabets in two days flat when I was barely two and a half years old. I seem to have inherited her kind of mental abilities, and was she to continue her academics; I would have been nowhere near her in merit.
My mother often talked of a strange desire; she imagined herself relaxing in a dark room with instrumental music playing in the backdrop and light and lacy curtains slightly swaying in the breeze. In all her life of 70 years, she never has been able to fulfil this dream. She imagined a life for me in which I could afford to live out this fantasy. Of the greatest reasons why I am neither married nor in a relationship is that I did not want to share in lonely darkness in my life in which the lazy music played in the background to the soft breeze around me.
My parents grand opinion of me even while I was barely a child made the rest of our ilk regard me as a crown princess, someone who was only after Queen Victoria in reckoning. My uncles and aunts always made me their first priority; I have aunts who stayed up all nights nursing my asthma attack, miss examinations and drop grades, I have uncles who stood all night in queues to catch the doctor early in the morning for my medicines and if I ever felt unhappy or bored all I had to do was to call on any of the adults around me and they would appear highly obliged to do whatever errands I asked for. All this doting could have made me swollen headed had it not been for my mother who taught me my greatest value, never to take anyone or anything for granted. It is not merely relatives but thereafter my friends, my colleagues, and even casual strangers have thought of me and treated me no less than an Emperor. I wonder what I have really done to deserve all this. These I feel are my rare privileges that sheer Providence have given me. A real luck by chance..
My mother prepared me to repay and compensate for each little deal I got from the world and alerted me always to my privileges in life which I actually did nothing to earn. Whatever you want to have, she would say, you must see whether you can afford it through your own means. She would tell me how I must be prepared to work for everything that I used, sunshine, water, air, people’s affections and the tiffins and school fees that my father earned for me. This is how she taught me frugality which could have been totally belied by all the easy goodies that was constantly flowing to me. I started learning the price of everything along with its value.
As I am heading towards my 50th birthday I realize that the span of life I have before me will be shorter than the one I have lived through. I suddenly get a sense of belying hopes of people on me. I realize that while I have enjoyed every possible bounty of life I have not commensurately paid the world back of what it deserves of me. I was paid perhaps an advance in the form of my endowments and now I must quickly deliver back. I have enjoyed life far too much and now the few days that I have left, I must count my life in moments so that I can hurriedly fulfil expectations that every person dead, alive and yet unborn have on me because they have not had, do not have and will not have the privileges that I was born with in the form of family and friends who have always been so indulgent and affectionate towards me and thought me as being the grandest presence in their lives.