A voice neither shrill nor hard-hitting, yet distinctly feminist.
I first heard about Ektara in one of those notes a friend liked on Facebook. It was by her recently-divorced college mate. “Even a loveless relationship is acknowledged in society. So even if a wad of bondage is bitterly tight and poisonous; even if the result caused droplets of blood to ooze out and signs of death only too apparent, the bonds remained intact.” She annotated Tilottoma Majumder, the Bengali author of Ektara, from an English translation.
Even though she hid behind the quotation marks, like many diffident victims trying to tell their tale, she revealed to me an entire segment of Bengali literature — that of Sangeeta Bandhopadhyay, Taslima Nasrin and Tilottoma Majumder. These authors write mostly about metropolitan experiences and their works carry veins of feminism, often lunging between the two ends of oversimplification or subscribing to the modern theoretical notations of feminism. Mahasweta Devi’s hard-hitting articulation of the twin concerns of rank and gender has failed to find successful reiteration in the hands of these writers from Bengal, but they’ve found a voice nevertheless.
Like many of our generation, whose love for English literature went hand-in-hand with a rejection of translations of regional literature, Tilottoma was a new name for me. Shadharon Mukh, Bhorer Kagaz, Amritani and Ektara; her women seem to do nothing more subversive than show it like it is; tread the difficult path between the desire for independence and pull of family and tradition, but above all, show unsparingly how women can train the gaze upon themselves.
Debarati, Tilottoma’s protagonist in Ektara, discovers how utterly unfulfilled she is in a loveless marriage with Neel and denigrated by Madhabi, her husband’s mother. She finds odd bits of solace in discussing the historical novels of Saranindu with Shibananda, her father-in-law. She finds comfort in the gabs at the kitchen window with Pratima, a flower girl. “I have heard that eating bel leaves kills one’s desires,” confesses Pratima to her one day. And therein begins a constant fervour to keep her self-confidence alive. To not use Neel’s body, even in a detached way, becomes her priority. Walking out of the marriage, living in a hostel in Kolkata, she tries to find her identity. “Page after page I had sought solutions. Four-five-six books. And there I was standing at the threshold of my moment of fulfilment.” Debarati then alternates between vicariousness and socially awkward, from humble home in Ujaninagar to Kolkata, unable to express herself except while writing. Waiting for an outlet to dedicate and direct her words to, she lets go of herself in a flock of ‘blue-and-white writing’, only to find herself fighting the sanctity of her solitary existence.
Tilottoma Majumder wonderfully explores relationships with the objects around her characters in a way only a woman can. The ability to weave in the small, seemingly insignificant details of the world, inject life into them till they resemble humans and emotions.
To the reader, Debarati may not totally alleviate the sinking feeling that all our pursuits of pleasure are only just a pathetic delusion, our carefully assembled identities nothing but clumsy, commoditised ruse. Not that such characters haven’t cropped up in literature before. Now as ‘The Wife of Bath’ in The Canterbury Tales. And then in Protima Bedi’s life memoir — Timepass. These look completely different from the carefully composed, near-lyrical independent women’s lifestyle that we’re used to reading.
Set in the 1990s, Tilottoma Majumder finds her pitch between the too-shrill-a-voice of Taslima Nasrin and the bhashamo (balance) achieved by the iconic Ashapurna Debi. She is aware of the complexities and contradictions of the society she lives in, and while being churlish, she is concomitantly understanding of society’s need to hold on to its old traditions, mired in a lost time, constrained by obscurantism, and why it is suspicious of change. How should women find emancipation then, she questions constantly without getting many answers: “No desire fulfilled, no hope reaches fruition.” Especially if most of the women must find fulfilment in the domestic sphere.