Sunday, March 11, 2007

Mira Dattagupta : An Amazing Life

I had the good fortune to know Mira Dattagupta as a very close family member. She was a rationalist, a brilliant mathematician, a dedicated social worker, a feminist, a humanist and so much more. She had served as a Lecturer of Mathematics and principal of the women's section of Surendra Nath College, Calcutta. I believe that she is among the first role models that women in independent India had. This is an article I wrote for a collection of essays, memoirs and articles that was published as a book last year on the occasion of her 100th birthday by my father Mira Dattagupta: Ekti Jibon,( (Mira Dattagupta: A life), Publisher & Editor: Rabindra Dattagupta, Kolkata, September 2006.

Can you imagine a world without computers, internet, TV and cell phones? I actually can. It was the world of my grandparents home at 434, Jodhpur Park - where I spent many happy months with amma & dadu my grandparents, and bhaloamma, my grandaunt. There were no computers and no virtual world in those days. And Bhaloamma was not even Dadu's real sister, but his cousin. But they were all real people and everything that I got from them - the whole gamut of knowledge, love, affection, memories, stories and wonderful times together - will sustain me through my life. Even though this is really an essay about Bhaloamma, I cant help thinking about all three of them together with each of them standing tall as the three pillars of our very own world at Jodhpur Park. Moving on to Bhaloamma - she was a powerhouse despite her deceptive slight frame. In fact, she was plagued by various physical maladies too, but her indomitable spirit carried her through all kinds of difficulties.

I do remember for instance, an occasion when she had accompanied me to an eye specialist for a check-up. WHile we were waiting for my turn, she had an attack of palpitations. Bhaloamma was unfazed, she clutched at a vein in her throat - a treatment which a doctor friend had shown her many years ago - till her heartbeats returned to normal. When I went in for my check up, she was very much with me. Bhaloamma knew everything, from the best places to buy clothes, fish or a special sandesh to the difficult bus routes, the good schools and colleges, politics, history, current affairs, names of obscure relatives and of course, mathematics. When she returned from a trip to Germany for a conference during the International Women's Year, Bhaloamma got my sister Deborani and me our very first box of foreign chocolates. I still remember how we treasured it and every night took our pick from the delicious assortment. We had all heard the family folklore about Bhaloamma and how she had secured 2nd position and silver medal for her graduation at the Calcutta University in maths despite not sitting for one full paper. And I didn't even need to see her silver medal to be convinced about her mathemetical knowledge. When she had coached me in maths for a few weeks her sharp and clear headed lessons had helped me score 100% - the only time ever in my life. While for me, it was like achieving an impossible target, for her it was a challenge to teach me maths after my poor marks in an exam caused a lot of anxiety both for me and my parents. I've had other maths tutors too, but none as competent or as compassionate and sensitive as her.

But it was not just maths, history too was Bhaloamma's forte. India's Independence was for her a very personal chapter as an young woman who had become deeply involved in the freedom struggle. We've got insights into that part of our history both generally contemporary and her impressions of various political leaders, many of whom she knew personally to events which changed the course of the nation's tryst with destiny to intensely personal where she had to prove her commitment to her political organsation by spending a night in the same room with a male colleague. Besides maths and history the other subject that I associate with Bhaloamma is of course education.
She had long been the principal of the women's section of Surendra Nath College and a teacher there. There were a large number of her former students who kept coming over to our house to meet her, chat, discuss their career plans, problems at work or just pay their respects and say thank you.

Yes, that was Bhaloamma, when she was around the house was always a hub of visitors and friends..Dadu and amma had their visitors too - but it was through Bhaloamma that we met the most interesting people from different walks of life. From two young girls who had grown up in an orphanage that was founded by her to senior political leaders, intellectuals, college professors - there was always a stream of visitors at Jodhpur Park. Our lives were filled with human warmth and lots of real people. In fact, some of Bhaloamma's friends were very close to us and became close family. Dhiren dadu was not just her very close friend, but a member of our family too. A Bolshevik supporter, he was the first truly left intellectual that I have met. He gave me my first Kafka - AMerica - a book I've always treasured and which opened up a brave new world for me. I recently gave it to my sister Deborani - not just as a memento from Dhiren Dadu - but also because I felt it would in many ways echo her own expereinces and adventures in that country.Dhiren Dadu had travelled widely across Europe and he was fluent in both English and French. ANd what was most remarkable was his relationship with Bhaloamma. We've heard from Amma that in their youth, family opposition and the fact that Bhaloamma was dusky which made her an unsuitable bride had come in the way of their marriage. However, I've not come across a more mature and sensitive friendship between two individuals since I saw them together. Their frienship brought both our families together and helped us forge deep and lifelong bonds.In fact, whether it was friendship or all her other involements - bhaloamma was comletely selfless. She always put everyone else before herself. From constant attention to any one who was ill to helping with college admissions, Bhaloamma was always by your side. SHe was a rationalist, a brilliant academician, a dedicated social worker, a feminist, a humanist and so much more. But all this didn't take away from her being a deeply religious person too, and that's the common ground between her and my amma. In fact, sometimes, I felt that Bhaloamma's deep involvement with everything that formed part of her some started with an from an intrinsic involvement with people. SHe cared for people and that's how she made a big difference in the many lives that she touched and very often improved. She was always reaching out to people.In our own cloistered, small world's today when privacy is the mantra - I feel there are many lessons to learn from someone like her who was such a modern being and yet so much dedicated to the service of people all around her. That world didn't stop with immediate family or friends and I remember her telling me about how an young woman who had landed up at a police station in Kolkata after running loco from home had actually asked to see Bhaloamma - a local MLA in those days. That was many years ago, in the 1950s perhaps. It was late at night, but Bhaloamma went to the local police station and convinnced the young lady to go back home and talk things over with her parents. A lesson for so many of living in our clositered selfish, busy and private worlds.

And it was very apt that when I was filling my form for my higher secondary exams, Bhaloamma blessed me and also asked me to convey her blessings to my friends Simonti, Ananya and Bhavani for our exams. "I know that you'll all come out with flying colours she had said." That was one of the last things she told me. She became seriously unwell and passed away soon after. Incidentally, all my three friends have done very well in academics and are on the quest for knowledge in their own different ways. As for me, I consider myself blessed having known her and spent so much of time with her.


Kaisar Ahmad said...

I'm so glad that you overcame your earlier cynicism about International Women's Day to share this inspiring and heartwarming story with us. Today's generation needs to be reminded of the foundations laid for them earlier by persons such as Mira Datta-Gupta.

sandip sengupta said...

Was she the first woman member of west bengal legislative assembly in 1937?

sandip sengupta said...

Was she the first woman member of West Bengal Legislative assembly in 1937?

sandip sengupta said...

Was she the first woman member of west bengal legislative assembly in 1937?