If you are a non-Bengali, then you might not have heard about Leela Majumdar. But for us, who have brought up on the constant diet of Bengali children literature since childhood, Leela Majumdar epitomized the image of a cozy grandma who wrote stories about harmless ghost, adventure of fearless children, hidden treasure hunt and above all- the joy, resilience and positivity of living.
It’s when I grew up and read her autobiography ‘Paakdandi’( the spiral path of mountains), a bulb lit up inside my head and I realized what a path-breaking woman Leela M. was. The way she molded her fate on her own during the not-so-women-friendly period of 20th century Bengal, had made her one of my personal sheroes.
She had a remarkable childhood in a historically turbulent time
If you read Paakdandi in future (I don’t know whether its English translation is available in the market, if yes then do grab it), you can see it for yourself how beautifully she showed the after-math of First World War, the deconstruction of Bengali morality, the uprising of Bengali noveau class in Shillong, women education all in the first 50 pages of the book in the form of tidbits.
The matriarchal system of Meghalaya tribes, the easy social acceptance of children borne out of wedlock among the natives- you will find all of these interesting nuggets in Paakdandi. The candid language only helped the cause.
The mother-daughter sex-talk in the most no-nonsense way
One of the most favorite parts of the book for me when Leela M. received her first ever sex-talk from her mother (the mom even brought some books on sex, birth etc. and gifted to her daughter. Another milestone)!
Sex being a taboo topic and how Indian parents till date feel touchy-feely in speaking about it to their kids, it was quite unimaginable how in the first part of 20-th century a Bengali mother from a middle-class household could teach her adolescent daughters on sex and pregnancy.
Leela M. moved out of station, changed cities –for her job
This is another surprising aspect for me. I could never imagine (till I stumbled upon Paakdandi) that a young woman from a modestly wealthy Bengali family could change cities for her career in first part of 20th century. How did she tackle all the moral guardians blocking the way? From her auto-biography I gathered that her father (Pramada Ranjan Ray- a formidable patriarch who was also a forest ranger-sharp shooter-cricketer- an author all rolled into one) was dead opposite to her career move.
But the reckless young ‘thing’ she was, she brushed aside all and went to Darjeeling as an English teacher in a notable girl’s school. No mooning over knight-in-shinning-armor. No- silly- my- father- has-so- much money- why- should- I- work tantrum.
She married quite late (in those days parameter) and it was a rebellious stand
Being born in Brahmo Samaj (a monotheistic and progressive branch of Hinduism), her father was dead opposite when Leela M. fell in love with a non-Brahmo dentist and tied the knot with him.
Besides stirring a storm with her matrimony, Leela M. found herself in the eye of storm as she was of ripe age of 25 during her wedding. Remember this was back in 1933-34. Even nowadays a major percentage of Indians prefer their girls to be married by 23 and push out at least one baby by 25. So this was in itself quite a revolution and I doff my hat to the lady.
Her life makes me want to believe one can have it all
Now we all know that no one can have it all, especially if you belong to the fairer sex and I am quite okay with it. But turning the pages of Paakdandi (which I do at least twice a year) will make you believe that here was a woman who had it ‘all’.
Apart from being an auteur of importance, Leela M. was a- brilliant mathematician, a gourmet chef, a radio producer who had done some mind-blowing creative stuff in All India Radio (AIR) in Kolkata, a hands-on mother, an organized home-maker, an effective party-host (reading out the portions where she described how meticulously she planned her parties and invited the who’s who of Kolkata literati was fun) and some more.
Seriously, I don’t know how many of today’s generation (pardon the clichéd term) have read (or even heard) of Leela Mazumdar. But if you ever get the chance of laying your hand on ‘Paakdandi’ (somebody please translate it in English and promote) – you should indulge yourself with it. This is pure slice of history.