Nostalgic journey
Reviewed by Jai Brar

Daughters: A Story of Five Generations
By Bharati Ray. Penguin. Pages 318. Rs 399.

Daughters: A Story of Five GenerationsA narration of women of the authorís family through five generations, Daughters, begins in the late 19th century with her great-grandmother and ends with her daughters in the early 21st century. For a major part of the book, the Indian freedom struggle, the Hindu-Muslim riots and the 1950 massacre of Hindus in Dhaka form the backdrop. Set in the environs of middle-class Bengali culture, this chronicle deliberates upon the life stories of three ordinary women on the maternal side of Rayís family tree, namely her great-grandmother, grandmother and mother, then Ray herself and lastly, her two daughters. First published in Bengali as Ekaal Sekaal, this exhaustive family portrayal has been translated by Mudhuchhanda Karlekar and the foreword has been written by Amartya Sen.

The story describes the lives of these women amidst a time span of social and cultural change. It gives the reader enough food for thought to compare and contrast the different generations of women.

Woven intricately, the saga begins its journey with Rayís great-grandmother, Sundarma, born as Shailabala and married off to a doctor, at the age of 12 years. Later, Sundarma establishes herself as the matriarch on 48, Hanuman Road, New Delhi, commanding a retinue of servants, deciding menus, handpicking grocery herself, putting up a multitude of guests and forming the New Delhi Mahila Samiti. She also introduces the idea of Ananda Mela in the Delhi Kalibari. She supports the freedom movement, writes a diary, learns Sanskrit on her own and translates the Bhagvad Gita into Bengali.

Thus takes off the maternal empire, so talked about in this book. The next in the family tree line is the authorís grandmother, Didima, born as Ushabala. Thereafter are the sections on Kalyani, Rayís mother, then the author herself; and finally the authorís two bright daughters, the illustrious Isha and an independent and distinctive Tista.

This nostalgic memoir shows the authorís sense of humour when she mentions that Jyotishchandra, the authorís grandfather would suddenly go on a fast on Ekadishi, probably all for the lure of the delicious meal that was to be served to him later.

The author remembers the bull calf that was used for her late motherís last rites, petted by everyone the whole day long and in that process, everyone forgets to fed him.

As Ray moves from one generation of women to the next, she brings to light the fact that along with the changing of times, the concept of priorities and values also changes, albeit along one bloodline.

While Sundarma and Didi ma spent the major part of their lives looking after their kitchens and reciting Tagore, Kalyani chose to adopt different interests and toured the subcontinent with her civil servant husband.

Ray chose to be the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of a university, Rajya Sabha member and later, join the United Nations. Isha and Tista decided to carve out their identities and destinies abroad and the idea of divorce ceased to be as shocking as it had been earlier.

Though Madhuchhanda Karlekar has succeeded in helping Ray draw out situations from the past most vividly through his simple and lucid language, the myriad of character sketches and accounts of daily mundane happenings seem to stretch on and on throughout the book.

The content is not in congruence with what the title of the book suggests, as in each chapter, for every main character in it, there are a number of peripheral characters, each of whom have been talked about over the same amount of space and given the same degree of importance as the main character herself, if not more. Searching for important attributes to give to the character concerned is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Besides, though all the people mentioned, described and discussed in the book might be imbedded deep into Rayís nostalgic mind, the commonality of a bloodline alone is a weak thread to hold a laymanís attention for him to appreciate a book.