Being Women

Fearless and Fabulous: A Portrait of My Didima – My Grandmother!

Aditi pays a tribute to Didima - her maternal grandmother in this essay.

I wore a favourite sari of mine. It’s a Tussar saree with cutwork embroidery done by a shop in Kolkata more than 50 years ago. It also happens to be my ‘Didima’s (grandmother’s) which she lovingly gave to me. And it was also her favourite. As I draped the sari, I thought about her.

Whenever my mother reminisces about her own Ma, the first word she utters is ‘fearless’! A lady tall in her physique and a brave mind with independent thoughts.

A Glimpse into Didima’s routine

One of my favourite images of Didima is her in a lightly starched ‘taant’ saree, a sleeveless blouse, a mammoth bindi on her forehead made with powder sindoor, some of which settled on her large nose while applying, her salt and pepper ‘pachapere’ chul (hair longer than the hips) wet and open, the huge diamond nose pin shining bright, and the numerous ‘shoru churi’ (thin gold bangles) jingling on her wrists as she stirred the sugar in her signature enormous morning cuppa!

She would sit in the massive easy chair, her alta-smeared feet resting on the side stretcher of the vintage marble-topped table, especially known as ‘Didimar Table Chair’! Sheet-Grishho-Borsha (throughout the year, irrespective of the season), Didima would wake up at 5 a.m., take a bath, and wear fresh clothes. This routine was repeated every evening in the sultry Kolkata weather before the ‘Shondhe Deoa’ or evening puja, where she blew the conch and lit diyas. She hated shabbily dressed people and always maintained that one does not need costly clothes to stay neat.

Chop and chatter: How she ruled the kitchen

As a child, I used to be in awe of the way she diced vegetables. Sitting on the wooden ‘charpai’, her hands would run back and forth at an unimaginable speed as chop chop chop went the ‘shaak-shobji’ (vegetables). The amazing part was that her eyes would not be on the bonti (a traditional cutting instrument), but at us giving orders for the lunch menu, telling the maid her next chore, or just regaling us with stories! She was exceptionally fast in her work and didn’t approve dilly-dallying of any kind. None of her kids matched up to her speed, and this was a source of constant bickering between them and constant entertainment for us!

An excellent cook, her Shukto was legendary. This dish is a difficult preparation, with a motley concoction of vegetables and bitter gourd lending it a faintly bitter flavour that can go wrong easily if not mastered well. I would also wait for the ‘Kuler and Tentuler Achaar’, especially during my summer vacation stays. My father has always maintained that he has been blessed with three amazing cooks – his mother, his mother-in-law and his wife.

A legacy of literature

She was a voracious reader. I have been lucky to inherit some of her books, where Dadu lovingly wrote her name and gifted them to her. Those were the days when people gave books as marriage gifts, and I inherited some of them.

Her world of melody

She and Dadu had an enviable collection of discs for Rabindra Sangeet, Thumris, Tappas, Bhajans, Indian classical, etc. As a child, I did not understand these genres much and would prefer to play the Hindi and Bengali film songs from my uncle’s collection. However, the magic was working on me, albeit subconsciously. Constant exposure gave me a lifelong friend later on. During my darkest hours, a soulful Rabindrasangeet becomes my only solace.

A fearless traveller who left behind her tales of travel

Like in any Bengali household, there is an ongoing discussion on travel throughout the year. She had nerves of steel. Once when her children or husband kept postponing trips citing family and professional commitments, she went ahead and booked with a trusted tour operator ‘Banerjee Special’ for a trip to Kedarnath-Badrinath Dhaam in the Himalayas! Dadu started having cold feet. He was fearful for her safety, health, and comfort at that age. He also knew that no amount of cajoling or pleading would dissuade her!

She wanted to visit as many places as possible before old age made travel impossible. Being the eldest in the group on this trip, everyone sought her guidance while shopping for authentic stones, handlooms, etc. and showered her with much love and respect. She enjoyed herself so much that her next trip with Banerjee Special was to Nepal. Eventually, she travelled to quite a few places with them. When she was old and could not travel as much, she assimilated and hard-bound all her favourite travel articles from various magazines, thus creating her travel book. Didima always gave us tips on where to plan the next trip!

The strict disciplinarian

She had studied in a school run by English ‘Mems’ (women) so was very particular about punctuality and etiquette. Ma always said that both Didima and Dadu were extremely strict parents. Dadu had mellowed down over the years, and I only witnessed his soft and fudgy emotional side, but Didima retained some of the no-nonsense attitude! Didima was a stickler for time. Even a 10-minute delay would make her furious. She travelled light, would always be ready on time, could engage in enjoyable conversations with any age group, truly enjoyed nature, wildlife, and history immensely, maintained excellent health, and was an excellent travel companion.

A progressive woman

Dadu was quite conservative and wanted the daughters to be married early. Didima stealthily went and filled out Ma’s college form and later gradually convinced Dadu. She made sure both her daughters completed their studies.

A woman of a different league, can you imagine that she advised her daughter-in-law to have fun in the initial years of marriage and not have a kid immediately?

A devout follower of the Ramakrishna Mutt, she was never into ritualistic worship. She believed in ‘Daan’ and did a lot of charity throughout her life.

Travel and tea – Her passion

Ma teases me that I have inherited Didima’s love for travel and the mammoth porcelain cups of Chai that were specially bought for her! I can still see her sitting on a verandah in the cottage nestled amidst the hills, sipping on a large cup of Darjeeling First Flush Tea and recounting stories of tea from her teenage years.

Her memories are like a balm on difficult days. I owe a lot to this strong lady. I am thankful that I could create wonderful memories with her throughout my growing-up years before a dreadful disease snatched her away from us. She would have turned 94 this year! I am sure she is continuing her adventures wherever she is.


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