there was no cognizance of time within its walls. there seemed to be no awareness almost of the time without. the walls wrapped stately and tall and impervious around an era enunciated in norms and ideas, and words and deeds which were getting rarer every day. actually, which had practically vanished in most places; in the cities, certainly; and among people who came from a similar history; though, yes, not all of it. but here, here in the grand old house, time had not been able to make much of an entry at all.
the men stayed in their own sanctum. aloof, elevated. pre-eminent.
when they walked into a room, the women stopped talking. or they hastily pulled a saree pallu over their heads. respect had to be shown to the father-in-law or the uncle-in-law, or the elder brother-in-law, or the husband.
men’s voices were heard.
women spoke in hushed tones. if anyone screamed or shrieked, a wary look would pass through older eyes: of aunts, great-aunts, and mothers, signalling the woman was somehow less, not worthy of respect, unwise, for she can’t control her voice.
when the men shouted, and a couple of them, especially one, did so often, it soothed the hearts of some, even as something speeded up and kicked in their bosom. or slowed almost to a stop.
for here was a true elder, a master of the house, a head of the family who knew how to put fear in every bit of your being and make you want to scurry and hide.
a lion, a great lion among ordinary men he was.
some of the women reaching for their pallus or keeping silent through these exalted male tirades had post graduate degrees. in english, bengali, in chemistry. one was a phd in comparative literature.
but what had formal education to do with a blithely adhered to way of life? it was the magnanimity of the head of the family that he’d allowed such women to marry the sons of the house. otherwise, when was it ever that women of good families left home and went to school – a public institution, outside the perimeter of the house, where everyone can see you, hear you – beyond the age of twelve or thirteen?
even that, if one were to ponder, was too much. and all because of the influence of the british. and then raja ram mohan roy, vidyasagar babu, and the others getting swayed by them. why did women need any knowledge of mathematics, literature, history, science, philosophy, geography at all? and english? why… were they going to be judge and magistrate? all this newfangled nonsense.
and so it was that the holders of graduate and post graduate degrees were at most allowed to do tuition classes at home, that too with very young students, preferably girls. it was a mystery to many why no one protested, even if meekly.
the secret was perhaps those thick and impenetrable walls.
perhaps as you walked into the spaces they surrounded, an unspoken something silenced you, bade you stay within limits. never question, never try to breach them. never utter your different view or discontent.
the men liked to believe it was all as they deemed it ought to be.
and you might have believed that too had the book not popped up one day.
it was found under a mattress.
it was a book of that kind. you know the kind i mean.
a cheap publication of about five inches by seven or eight, quite thin, not more than sixty pages for sure, printed on slightly rough plain white paper. well, now the pages with their black print were yellowing. the cover had no picture, but one of the words printed on it sent shock waves through the entire edifice of the building. people say das babu, who lived five houses away and was shaving at the time, nicked his jowl so deeply that an ambulance had to be called, which as you know often doesn’t arrive in the city, so it must have been quite a stir.
it was a well-thumbed, dog-eared book.
the new maid had found it while changing the bedsheets in the morning. she had hurried down to where the family sat having breakfast. the men and children ate while the women served, walking around demurely. the maid had waved the book frantically, asking whose it was.
“aw maa! ei dekko go!” oh mother, see this here!
the unlettered girl from the congested bastee beyond the buildings on the other side of the road, had howled. she had a way of exaggerating and extending certain vowels and consonants.
“under the mattress, aww ma! it was there!” the maid informed her audience.
there was absolute quiet around the room, as everyone stared at the book. the eldest grandmother’s gaze instinctively darted to the head of the family’s face, she had no idea what the book was. his visage seemed to have hardened to stone.
eyes were downcast. no one moved. the maid kept waving the book.
everyone braced for the inevitable. the lion’s roar.
but what was that? did fourth daughter-in-law and third daughter-in-law exchange a little smile, hidden behind their pallu? and did second grandson, who had just started college, snigger and look at his youngest aunt, then quickly look away? was one of the older uncles going pale as he stared fixedly at the small, also pale, crisp jilipi served for breakfast every day?
the head of the family got up and left the room.
more changes have been brought about by books in this world than you’ll ever know of. A few insignificant pages, held together by ordinary stitched binding… and yet, by dinner time, even as everything seemed to be going on in their usual way, everyone knew the walls had begun to shake.
another story that beckons from an old old house, that’s almost disappeared. it’ll always be my home in some sort of way, i guess. “jilipi” is jalebi in bangla. “pallu” is the free end of the saree, those who wear sarees know of its many uses, which go way beyond just aesthetics.