The Impressions Didn’t Die

Anyone got a writer in the family? Other than yourself I mean. I ask this because as I dive deeper into the writings of my maternal grandmother, I find myself in the midst of an amazing discovery.

She died when I was fifteen—an age when much of my sensibilities had already shaped by the influences around me. Titti, as I called my grandma, was a major influence. This had to do more with her personality than with the fact that she was a writer. While in school I had taken a liking to writing and was encouraged by some teachers in that direction. It was natural for me to look up to Titti, the writer. But for the growing me, Titti, the loving grandma, who understood the language of our generation, came first. When she was alive, I barely read any of her writing—fiction or nonfiction. Two years before her death, while shuffling some of her stories in her file she told my mother, “Tutun will get my writing published one day.” She couldn’t have been more prophetic. All these years after her death I seem to have found a small but committed publisher in Calcutta who appreciates her work and has shown interest in publishing them. During her lifetime, Grandmother had had limited publishing success. The main cause of this was her lack of proximity to the Bengali publishing world; living in New Delhi, she didn’t have the easy connectivity with prospective publishers that writers living in Bengal did.

These days I am taking out her ink-fading, paper-withering stories and typing them in Bangla so as to get them ready for the publisher. I feel ashamed to admit this is pretty much the first time I am reading most of her writing. And it is through this process that I am getting to know her deeper, while at the same time reliving the warm atmosphere she embodied as a living person. Writer friend Sandra Kring used to tell me no matter what writers write, all their works contain bits of them. I understand the real meaning of that now.

Titti, the person as I saw her, was compassionate. She cared deeply for people around her. Even as she struggled to bring food on the table for her family, she didn’t stop providing lunch to the domestic help who worked in our house. The maid worked in half a dozen homes in our neighborhood, yet my grandmother was the only employer who fed her a full-scale afternoon meal. I remember, on days when Titti had to go out to the bank or post office, she would put the food she had freshly cooked onto a plate, cover it and ask me to serve it to the maid once she was done with her chores. Titti was also highly aware of what went about in the world—be it regarding politics, sports, or entertainment. A great conversationalist, she gelled with people of all age groups, because of her ability to talk about any subject. The country’s politics interested her a lot, and she would often be seen engaged in intense debates with my grandfather who remained rigid about his political affiliations for as long as he lived. Titti, on the other hand, was a rationalist. “I will love those who love my country,” she would say, never attaching herself to any particular party or ideology. And in the end, my grandmother was modern—a woman way ahead of her times—in thoughts, not appearances. Born and brought up in rural Bengal amid village customs and superstitions, she didn’t care much for rituals. Seeing how much venom had been spewed in the name of religion, she felt the world would perhaps be a better place without organized religion of any kind.

Now, as I read her works, I find I knew but a tiny fraction of her when she shared the living space with us. Her writing reveals all the above facets of her persona—but with so much more depth. In her story about a batch of East Bengal refugees living in a government home in New Delhi following the Partition, I get to see her compassion as her real-life role of the home’s administrator enters the narrative, which, though written in fiction format, is hardly fictitious in terms of content. I see, my eyes getting soggy, how deeply she empathized with the refugee women who had lost so much—land, children, husbands—even when they poured their wrath on her. In her story about the lives of women working as domestic help, I see her journalist-like eye to detail, her dispassionate yet sincere voice, which hits the reader, even when it’s not overly sentimental. Something within me stirs when I read her story featuring two soldiers posted on the frontier, where the senior one can’t make sense of the wars he’s fought, especially when he compares them to the “everyday war” his mother and wife fight in their struggle to lead a life of dignity.

I am only in the initial phase of putting together Titti’s writings for the publisher. Yet, I sense I am bonding with her in a way I never did when she was alive. I can see how all her works contain the person she was. It’s hard to describe, but after all these years, I suddenly don’t feel the void that pained me for a long time after Titti passed away.

For, she kept herself intact in those wilting sheets.


18 thoughts on “The Impressions Didn’t Die

  1. Bhaswati,My heart aches for you that you didn’t know Titti, the Writer while she was still living, but perhaps you weren’t ready to understand and appreciate that aspect of her. What a blessing that she has left her heart on paper for you to know now! She sounds like a remarkable woman.I transcribed and compiled my mother’s lifestory after she died. Nobody even knew she was writing it, and she died while it was still in draft form. I do understand the intimacy that comes from working so closely with someone else’s words. It’s like stepping into their minds and hearts. It’s much more intense than merely reading.

  2. Your excellent piece about your grandmother made me want to read more about your family. And so I suspect, Bhaswati, that there is a book in you.

  3. Sharon, how eloquently you put it. Indeed, it’s as if my grandmother herself is breathing and speaking in person through her stories. That’s wonderful about you transcribing your mother’s lifestory. And what a coincidence, too. While sifting through Titti’s writing file, I stumbled across her memoir draft…incomplete, which she had most probably begun just a few months before her death. It gave me the chills to come across it. Sid, all I can say (besides heartfelt thanks) is that you are very intuitive. The book actually is in progress. It’s a memoir in which my grandmother is the focal point (no, it’s not her biography). The entire present scenario is pretty surreal, my writing this book, working on getting her writing published–all at the same time.

  4. Hi Bhaswati,This is a sweet, lyrical, warm piece. Thank you! I find myself drawn into your grandmother’s life and also yours. Isn’t writing so magical! Your grandmother’s writing draws you to her across the years, and your writing draws your readers to both of you across thousands of miles. Words cross so many bridges. I’m looking forward to reading more of your writing.Jerry

  5. I was enlightened to read this post. Your grandmother seemed a special and talented woman. It’s a blessing to place her thoughts in book form. Great wishes for a prosperous journey in this endeavor.

  6. Jerry, thank you so much for being my guest and for such effusive encouragement. Words do cross bridges, but I think more than the words it’s what lies beneath them–the enduring emotions–that speak universally and timelessly. Vanessa, thanks. My grandma was indeed special, if I may say so myself. I am yet to find another human being so warm, talented, and forward-looking. Yet, all she got in her lifetime was suffering and then some. Thanks for the good wishes. I truly appreciate that. 🙂

  7. Thank you, Leonard. I have pondered that, posting some of her writing here. Not sure if I’d be able to do justice to them in translation (am never too sure of that), but I might just post a story or two.

  8. Bhaswati,This was a beautiful post honoring your grandmother. You mentioned you were ashamed to admit you hadn’t read her writing before this, but perhaps you wouldn’t have appreciated it as deeply as you do now. You have a beautiful writing style and writing her memoirs will be a loving tribute to her. I lost my maternal grandmother when I was 16. She was my mainstay of security in many ways. Losing her was difficult, but her memory lives in my heart. The grandmothers in my novels often have many of her attributes. Lisa

  9. I can so relate to what you say about your grandmother, Lisa. However much distance death may seem to create between us and our dearest people, they never leave the precincts of our heart. You write beautifully, too. Now, when I buy your book to read, I will pay special attention to the grandmothers who appear. 🙂

  10. How wonderful that you’ve taken the time to read her works now. It sounds like she understood that you would read them and learn more about her after she passed. Isn’t that, in a way, what we all want to do with our writing – live on?

  11. Nienke, thanks for the good words. I was very close to my grandma, and like any granny, she took great pride in my writing. To read her works now is helping me renew that sense of bonding all over again, as a granddaughter and as a writer. 🙂

  12. A great post post about your grandmother!My mom has written a few poems here and there which are pretty good, but I don’t think she would actually take it on full time. Though it does make me wonder if I’m the only one who has ever done this.

  13. Thanks for reading and commenting, South. :)You mean to say you wonder if you are the only one who’s taken up writing as a full-time vocation? I am sure not! It’s what I do for a living, too.You are talented and have a great voice. Please pursue your writing dreams to the fullest. Ever thought of getting your mother’s poems published?

  14. I really enjoyed reading this post. My great grandmother used to write revolutionary & feminist poetry in Tamil – My grandmother got it published a few years ago. Her recollections of compliling the work were tinged with sorry — the inability to understand her mother better!

  15. Thanks, Harini. That’s just amazing about your great grandmother. Revolutionary and feminist poetry in that day and age!I can so relate to your grandma’s thoughts while publishing her mother’s works.

  16. best of luck with getting your grandmother’s work published. lovely post. Ira Pandey wrote a lovely book about her mother Shivani, who was a very well known hindi writer… it’s called Diddi. Your post reminded me about that book.

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