“Mrs. R. P. Sengupta”

On December 7, 2014 by admin

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                                                Keya Chakravarty (1975)[i]   

[translated by: Trina Nileena Banerjee]

 

[In 1975, two years before her accidental death at the age of thirty four, Keya Chakravarty, group-theatre actress and long-time member of Nandikar under director Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay, wrote a brief three-page essay called ‘Mrs. R. P. Sengupta’. This is ostensibly not a piece about theatre. It appears, on the surface, to be a record of entirely mundane daily chores of a woman who seems to be exceedingly harassed by the demands of her household activities. However, in the course of just about three pages, ‘Mrs. R. P. Sengupta’ manages to answer several questions about women’s artistic labour in the theatre that were so far deemed unintelligible within the ideological logic of the group theatre itself. Keya makes her most important point perhaps in writing a piece about a theatre actress (namely herself) that seems to have little or nothing to do with theatre. Women’s problems in the theatre have everything to do with their lives outside of it, she seems to suggest; far from being irrelevant, these ‘external’ or ‘personal’ problems determine women’s productivity as artistes/ actresses and must be taken into cognizance in any intended assessment of their creative and political work. This essay was first published in 1975 in the journal ‘Durba’ in the special edition celebrating International Women’s year. It was later reprinted by Nandikar after her death in a commemorative volume called ‘Keyar Boi’ (‘Keya’s Book’, 1981), under the category of ‘Romyorachona’[ii].]

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This is the sixth time I had to get up. In half an hour. That is, in the half an hour that I have sat down to write. The first time it was the milkman, I had to open the front door. My husband could not find his vest, I found it for him. Then it was my neighbour asking for some mustard. There were two phone calls. My husband and my brother-in-law are at home. But there is, of course, no one to pick up the phone but I. The last time I had to get up I felt a little angry. My brother-in-law’s friend came to visit and tea was needed. I have made tea five times since the morning.

I will have to sit down and rearrange everything now. I had planned to write about theatre, but my head is full of other thoughts. Perhaps it’s because I had to get up so many times.

Why do I have to get up so many times when I sit down to work?

But who else will get up? My brother-in-law has his accountancy exams. He sits at home and studies. If there are no exams, he is never at home.

‘He’[iii] wakes up at eight, reads the newspapers while he drinks his morning tea in bed. It gets past nine, he goes for a bath. Then after his food, his college.

I don’t think I’ll find the time to bathe today. I woke up at six thirty am. Till nine, I was making and finishing breakfast. Now it’s time for lunch. He doesn’t like to be served by the maid. I feel it strange too. We have started rehearsing a new play. The director says I must learn to sing for this one. But when? When? Where is the time?

There is a cook – part-time. This is all in spite of that. It’s after marriage, that girls … but why blame marriage? I had no time even in my father’s house.

Father would drink tea without sugar in the mornings, everyone else with sugar, and my grandmother would drink chiretar jawl[iv] on an empty stomach. My brother Poltu would come back from the market and ask for tea. Then there would be his vests, pajamas and undergarments to wash almost every day. Mother had high blood-pressure. It was my responsibility to cook her salt-free meals. Listen, say, Poltu’s examinations. Mine as well. Why would no one ask him to do anything? Because he was a boy? Because he would have a job in the future? Or let’s go back a little further. Poltu was put into an English-medium school. My father had said once, ‘We could have put the girl in one too’, but where was the money? Therefore, I and my neighbourhood’s ‘Saraswati Niketan’. When I finished my B.A., I went for this job interview. I did not get it because I could not speak English. That hurt a lot then. If I had just gone to an English-medium, maybe the job…. But then, father really did not have the money to send both me and Poltu to an English school. To leave the son out for the daughter – but why not? I am the elder one; I have always done better than Poltu at school. Oh, I see! Such a cartload of money would be spent on my wedding, how could one spend more on top of that on my education? Was it that? But no, no … surely my father did not calculate that much. Still, it’s true that my father had to spend a big amount on my wedding. Why? Who had asked him to? Was it in order to protect his social ‘prestige’ amongst relatives? Of course, he did not have to pay any cash as dowry. Other girls’ fathers have to. Why? Does cooking and cleaning for our husband’s family all our lives not pay for the cost of our upkeep? Even a maid to take care of the children must be paid a salary. Oh, I have to go. Someone’s knocking on the door again.

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The peon. Just delivered a registered letter. Mr. and Mrs. R. P. Sengupta. It feels very strange when I see something like this written on an envelope. I feel as if I am not there, I am just not there anywhere at all. Listen, am I not a separate person? Besides this Mrs. Sengupta, I am somebody’s daughter, somebody’s sister, somebody’s friend, am I not?

But I am a separate person. Then what happened to my name – why has it disappeared? How was it just wiped out – who digested it? ‘Miss’, ‘Mrs’ – how anglicized it all sounds! Swarnakumari Debi, Anurupa Debi, Hashirashi Debi, Ashapurna Debi. What was Ashapurna Debi’s surname? Was she ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’? I don’t know. In our Indian way, ‘Debi’ or ‘Dasi’ is enough. Why does the whole country need to know if I am married or not? With men, you never need to find out.

‘Yes yes, why don’t you grind the onions? I will come and put the mutton on.’

She has been putting so much turmeric in the food these last few days, husband, brother-in-law , everyone is disgusted as soon as they sit down to eat. Let me go and see.

I remember, after marriage, my salary was stuck for seven months – because they needed an official confirmation of the change in my surname. Why should I change my surname? When I asked him, he burst out laughing. ‘Are you mad? Will we never have children? What will their surnames be?’

I was not able to answer him very clearly that day. Now I feel – why? Sukamal Sen Chakravarty, Sutapa Sen Chakravarty – do these sound so bad?

In the unrest of 1969/70, my brother – the one who I have resented in all things all my life – that Poltu, he died. I have lost my surname after marriage. My father’s house – the house in which I have been brought up for twenty-three years – no, the house where I have been made into a ‘woman’[v] – the surname of that house has been wiped out. I have no surname that is my own, no name. I am only such-and-such babu’s wife. I wear sindoor. Why do I do that? What is it a sign of? It is laudable to be a sati, but to be a ‘straina[vi] is shameful. Why?

I wanted to go and see a film society show this evening at the Academy of Fine Arts. He asked me not to. He has a meeting in the evening; he will not be able to bring me back. The show gets over at nine – it would not be right to come back alone from that neighbourhood so late. I know there will be boys there – boys who are younger to me, and perhaps not as bright. There is nothing to stop them.

Ajitda[vii] had said: ‘Broaden the sphere of your experience. The more you know life and human beings, the more you will grow as an actress.”

Let me go and serve lunch to my brother-in-law. Ajitda, how do I broaden my sphere of experience? I can’t even return late from the Academy of Fine Arts. Where can I go? And where is the time? The household waits. In the papers, there are advertisements for brides with domestic skills. And there are undressed women in films, on posters, even in plays these days.

Where is the demand for women with broadened-spheres-of-experience? And if there is no demand, who do I supply to? Besides that, where is the time?

Therefore I, Mrs. R. P. Sengupta, will clear away the dirty plates and head straight to the stage.

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Notes:

[1] Keya Chakravarti, ‘Mrs. R. P. Sengupta’, Keyar Boi (Kolkata: Nandikar, 1981), 161-163.

[1] The closest term in translation would be ‘Belles-lettres’, but in Bengali, the word is sometimes understood as ‘humorous, semi-fictional and light reading’.

[1] This is ‘Uni’ or the Bengali honorific ‘he’, culturally understood as referring to the husband, whom it is seen as bad form for the woman to address/refer to by name. Here and later in the piece, the respectful pronoun ‘uni’ (the connotations are obviously not entirely captured by ‘he’) is used by the writer for her husband. It was customary for Hindu wives not to use their husband’s name in conversation or writing, and always refer to him respectfully.

[1]  A particular kind leaf and twigs soaked in water and drunk, traditionally meant to improve digestion.

[1] ‘Meyemanush’.

[1] A man who is subservient to and dominated by his wife.

[1] This was how Keya referred to Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay.

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Trina Nileena Banerjee is Assistant Professor in Cultural Studies, Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta. Her doctoral work was on the women in the group theatre movement in Bengal. She is currently working on a monograph on women’s political movements and theatre in contemporary Manipur.

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[i] Keya Chakravarti, ‘Mrs. R. P. Sengupta’, Keyar Boi (Kolkata: Nandikar, 1981), 161-163.

[ii] The closest term in translation would be ‘Belles-lettres’, but in Bengali, the word is sometimes understood as ‘humorous, semi-fictional and light reading’.

[iii] This is ‘Uni’ or the Bengali honorific ‘he’, culturally understood as referring to the husband, whom it is seen as bad form for the woman to address/refer to by name. Here and later in the piece, the respectful pronoun ‘uni’ (the connotations are obviously not entirely captured by ‘he’) is used by the writer for her husband. It was customary for Hindu wives not to use their husband’s name in conversation or writing, and always refer to him respectfully.

[iv]  A particular kind leaf and twigs soaked in water and drunk, traditionally meant to improve digestion.

[v] ‘Meyemanush’.

[vi] A man who is subservient to and dominated by his wife.

[vii] This was how Keya referred to Ajitesh Bandyopadhyay.

 

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