Like most of life, books also happen to one in their own time. So it was only this week that I read Daughters by Bharathi Ray, a book which first came out in Bangla in 2008, and in English translation in 2011 (foreword by Dr. Amartya Sen, no less!). Historian, erudite scholar, administrator (Pro Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, couldn’t have been an easy job!), parliamentarian (Rajya Sabha, 1996-2003), she is made a tad more personal for me because she was part of a Parliamentary Committee which visited my organization years ago, and the fact that I am mildly acquainted with her daughter Raka Ray.
Daughters is the chronicling of the stories of five generations of women of Bharathi Ray’s family—from her great grandmother, to her daughters. No dramatic stories, but the telling of everyday life of women.
But through this, it tells many tales. That some women in every generation have fought for what they wanted, and made their own spaces. It is not always dramatic. Rather, it is the story of incremental change—maybe the kind of change that is truly sustainable.
And it is on the shoulders of these women that we stand. What we take for granted today has been possible because of them. The outliers became the role models and then the norm. When a girl who grew up in the early 1900s and was not sent to school because that was not then the norm, shut herself up for three hours every day of her life to read and learn, in spite of the pressures of a joint family, she set the norm that women had a right to their time, and to education and learning. When a young married woman stepped out of her house in 1958 to take up a job in spite of the mild discomfort of her mother-in-law and husband, and became a teacher and moulder of young minds, she made it easier for so many women to pursue their careers.
I am neither a student of history, nor have I had the fortune of being Dr. Bharathi Ray’s student. But her book has given me an appreciation of my place in the continuity of life and women’s lives. And my responsibility to push it forward. I think this is what history should be about.