Chaitali Sen on Real Life Inspiration: Traces of My Grandmother


Chaitali Sen  The Pathless Sky

My grandmother was born in East Bengal, now Bangladesh, in a town named Dinajpur, around the year 1909, according to our calculations. She was married at thirteen to a man in his twenties – my grandfather, who outlived her by almost ten years. She had her first child at sixteen and all together gave birth to seven children, raising six to adulthood. She died in 1971 of heart failure, when I was a year old.

For most of my life, the things I knew about my grandmother were like this: numbers, data, isolated facts. None of the bits I collected from my mother or aunts ever came together to form a full picture, or more accurately, the feeling of grandmother that I craved. I don’t know if she was a warm or affectionate person, if she was reserved, gregarious, fond of being alone or in groups, or even if she was a good mother. My mother sometimes joked that by the time she was born, eighteen years after her eldest sister, my grandmother was already worn out. Seemingly, my aunts did their fair share of parenting, and it’s unclear how much time my mother and grandmother actually spent together.

Only one thing I’ve always heard about my grandmother gives me any idea of who she was. My mother often talks about her accomplishments and how intelligent she was. Without a formal education, she had no choice but to seek outlets for intellectual stimulation in the domestic sphere. She managed the complicated household finances of a large family, at one point in two countries while the family was split between Burma and India. She stayed on site day after day as a new house in Calcutta was being built, supervising its construction down to the mixing of the cement that would become the walls and floors of their new home. She was an accomplished cook who learned dishes from a variety of cuisines, and her intricate embroideries have been passed down to us on bedcovers and handkerchiefs.

Perhaps more surprising is that my grandmother became keenly interested in politics during the movement for India’s independence. She attended meetings with Subhas Chandra Bose, a Bengali nationalist who disagreed with a non-violent approach to the freedom struggle. He felt the British would only leave by force, and my grandmother believed in his cause so strongly she enlisted my two eldest aunts into the nascent Indian National Army that was forming in Burma. There are photos of my aunts in uniforms, looking formidable, holding bayonets. Bose was later killed in a plane crash, and after Independence, my grandmother satisfied her interest in politics by reading the newspaper every morning on the veranda. Over their cups of tea, she and my grandfather would sit and discuss world events, my grandmother reading the Bengali paper and my grandfather reading the English.

Then, well into her forties, my grandmother insisted on learning how to drive and tackled the chaos of Calcutta traffic to drop her children off at school every morning. My mother can furnish even more examples to make me imagine a woman who was always moving, always hungry, rarely satisfied with what she already knew. I wonder if she thought of herself as an intelligent woman, and if she’d ever had dreams of achieving things beyond her own household.

In my novel, The Pathless Sky, there is a scene in which one of my characters, a young woman named Mariam, is looking at a picture of her grandmother. Her mother is about to tell her something important about her grandfather, but momentarily, it is her grandmother who holds her interest.

She knew a fair bit about her grandmother, come to think of it, little things Mama had told her over the years. She knew her grandmother was very intelligent, through not highly educated. She was a lover of card games, and ruthlessly competitive at them. It was the only time she raised her voice, playing card games.

I was interested in how notions of women’s intelligence are passed down from one generation to another. Mariam is the first woman in her family to attend college, yet she underestimates her own intelligence, and like her mother and grandmother, her own education is unexpectedly stalled when her father becomes ill.  Despite their best efforts, Mariam is forced to continue a pattern of truncated education that has been repeated in her family through the ages. For her grandmother, and mine, marriage was the great disrupter. For Mariam’s mother, it was war and displacement, and for Mariam, illness and finances. The world over, women have channeled into alternative spheres their aspirations to learn and be thoughtful participants in society. It seems my grandmother was one of the lucky ones. She had people in her life who encouraged, or at least tolerated, her attempts at intellectual stimulation. The women in my novel develop similar coping mechanisms, sometimes hiding their intelligence, sometimes expressing it in unexpected ways, sometimes entrusting it to someone else.

Readers ask me if my characters are inspired by people I know.  In a way, of course, they all are. Not their exact blueprints, but their situations, their struggles, their survival skills can probably be found in someone I have known, or in the case of my grandmother, someone I have never known, who has only left traces. I gave Mariam a moment I have had in relation to my grandmother, the handing over of an inheritance not of heirlooms, but of precious information.

***

Chaitali Sen is the author of The Pathless Sky, published by Europa Editions in 2015. Born in India and raised in New York and Pennsylvania, she currently lives in Austin, Texas with her husband and stepson. Her short stories, reviews, and essays have appeared in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Colorado Review, The Aerogram, Los Angeles Review of Books, and other journals. She is a graduate of the Hunter College MFA program in Fiction.

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