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Family, Food and Feminism

Anuradha Marwah

By Bharati Ray Translated from Bengali by Madhuchhanda Karlekar.
Penguin India, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 318, 399.00


To me the Bengali title that alludes to an older well known work, Rajnarayan Basu's Sekaal O Ekaal, seems more appropriate than the English title. Ekaal Sekaal —Now and Then—would lead the reader to expect a story meandering between the present and the past. Daughters, on the other hand, gestures towards the much-interrogated mother-daughter relationship and builds up the kind of feminist expectations that, to my mind, are bound to remain unrealized in a story that celebrates the extended family. Undoubtedly the book is about five generations of exceptional women. The writer, Bharati Ray, was the first woman Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Calcutta University; founded the Women's Studies Research Centre at the university and is currently Vice-President of ICCR. Her daughters are well-regarded academics. The three generations of ancestresses whose lives she narrates: Sunder-ma, Didi-Ma, and Ma were strong and unusual women of their times, more erudite and educated than most others. However, none of the female characters except Ray’s daughters, whose lives she outlines very briefly, are perceived to be challenging patriarchy in any significant manner in the book. Even regarding Tista, her daughter who divorced and re-married, Ray observes with maternal pride: Tista has no children but she is deeply attached to her husband and the affection is reciprocated. A beautiful partnership! Ray conceives the family basically in traditional terms: the result of heterosexual union and the site of all primary relationships. The pre-eminence of conventional familial expectations and the need to fulfil them runs through the narrative; so does pride in East Bengali customs and cuisine. The 'then' or 'Sekaal' that Ray describes is tinged with nostalgia. Patriarchs, all on the maternal side, are basically good family-men, exceptionally successful in their chosen professions—the author’s great-grandfather became a successful doctor; her grandfather, a professor; and her father, who she clearly adored, was a civil servant in Bengal. Ray herself married a man proposed to her by his mother and recommended as belonging to a family 'rich in our hearts' and gave up her ambition of joining the IAS when her husband-to-be explained to her that a potentially transferrable job for the woman of the house would be inconvenient for the extended family. Ray provides interesting glimpses into the exclusively women's quarters in the teeming family homes created by her heroines. The most heart-warming sections deal with female bonding in the kitchen and the collective making of ...

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