The Stepmother

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Shweta washed her hands repeatedly. Yet, she could not rinse off the stench of death. She had helped straighten the body, the body no one seemed to want to touch…the body of her great grandmother, Shamaboti…

Shamaboti had in her own way loved Shweta very much. She always encouraged Shweta to be an independent and free entity… ready to launch out on her own at any point. And that is exactly what Shweta had done. She had just started working as a journalist and did not want to marry or have a boy friend. She had big dreams, encouraged most of all by Shamaboti. Her dreams included walking on the Great Wall and writing a book on it! Perhaps, she would do a book on many ancient wonders of the world… go to Easter Island, check out the pyramids in Egypt, maybe also Macchu Pichhu… travel to the Arctic… And all the time she would write.

Shweta loved her great grandmother but not enough to weep broken-heartedly. Probably, out of all the great grandchildren, she loved Shamaboti the most. What most amazed her was Shamaboti’s life! Perhaps she could research and write about it eventually…

Shamaboti Devi was born just before the turn of the twentieth century into a Kulin Brahmin family, the creme-de-la- creme of the chosen ones, the most prized of all castes. Her father was a Kulin Brahmin. He had had more than a dozen wives and made a living by marrying as many women as were willing with a fees. Shamaboti saw her father once every two years, when he came to visit her mother, one of his umpteen wives. His job as a high caste Kulin Brahmin was to impregnate as many women as he could marry with seeds of high caste Brahminism to further propagate his clan and collect money from his in-laws for saving their daughters from the misfortune of spinsterhood. Her father never bought his wife or daughter a present but was always given presents by his in-laws, who maintained his wife and daughter for him.

There were many like him that progressives, such as Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, the Tagore family and others, among them some belonging to Kulin clans too, were trying their best to oppose and reform. What had started as a mechanism to retain cultural integrity had been reduced to a corrupt ritual where a sixty-year-old man could be paid to marry a six-year-old girl!

Shamaboti’s mother was married a little late…when she was already past puberty and she had her daughter about four years later. Her father was of an undefined age, which was accepted, as he was a man.

Shamaboti was considered a pretty young girl. She was plump and fair. Youth had loaned her a supple grace.

Shamaboti didnot know her exact age or birthdate, which is why no one knew what her age was when she died. They estimated it was over ninety.

Shamaboti told her great (step) grandchildren stories of her childhood. Most of her stories were centered around how she had fun climbing trees but got scolded for ruining her sarees in the process. She also spoke of hiding raw mangoes in the folds of her saree and eating them on the sly.

When she related these stories, all her great grand children, with the exception of Shweta, reacted with giggles! They could not dream of climbing trees in sarees as such wear was old fashioned and cumbersome. It was the age of hot pants!

Shweta, always a dreamer, wondered what life was like then…a century ago…

Shamaboti played with her cousins till she reached the ripe old age of five or six. Then she was channeled to learn household chores and to work like a spare maid in her uncle’s home. She did wander off to climb trees and pluck a fruit or read a Bengali book hidden behind some furniture, when she had time. She used to read on the sly because it was given out by her aunts that if you read, you would lose your feminity and no man wanted a clever wife!

Shamaboti loved to hear or read a good story… She had learnt to read and write from her cousin and playmate, Dulal.

Life jogged on till one day she heard she was getting married. She thought it was a wonderful thing because at last she would leave her uncle’s home to go to that of her husband! She was so much luckier than her mother as her husband would be only hers and no other woman’s! She had never gone out of the village… now, she would live in Calcutta, the big city…

Oh what dreams the young girl had! She heard Anirvan was handsome and dashing.

At last, she would be a queen in her own home. How delighted was Shamaboti!

Anirvan married Shamaboti and brought her home. On the boat that took them away from her village, Anirvan told her that she had two step sons to care for and he expected her to be a good mother. Shamaboti merely inclined her head and accepted… She said nothing.

When they alighted at his home, he showed her a painting of a woman on a horse and said , “ That is your elder sister Ambalika. She had two sons. The boys lost their mother at a young age.”

Then he said, “Come I will show you the kitchen and your sons.”

He took her to an adjoining room where two young boys were playing with toy soldiers. “Come here boys,”said the father. “This is your new mother. And this is Rajkrishna and this is Shyamol. Look after them well.”Rajkrishna being the elder of the two came forward and paid his respects by touching her feet. Shyamol followed. But they did not smile at her once! She smiled but there was no response…

Anirvan turned to her and said, “I will stay in my room and pray. My prayers should not be disturbed. You can sleep with the children.”

Shamaboti was stunned. But she said nothing. She just accepted. It was a woman’s job to adapt to every situation, she had been taught well by her mother. She spent her wedding night with her two step sons. The boys were not too friendly. She spread a mat on the floor and slept.

What Shamaboti had not been told was Anirvan had a past and that is what he lived by…

His past was the delightful Ambalika, his first wife. Ambalika was a beautiful, talented woman who at the turn of the century rode horses and spoke, read and wrote in seven languages.

Anirvan was besotted by the clever Ambalika the first day he saw her riding with her father. Her father was a well-known intellectual who had leanings towards Brahmoism, a Hindu reformist movement started by Rammohan Roy in the eighteenth century. Ambalika played the piano and sang like a lark. She knew English ballads taught by her British governess.

Anirvan, an orphan but still a rich father’s son, had no difficulty in marrying the woman of his dreams. Ambalika’s father was liberal enough to overlook the fact that Anirvan was not a Brahmo. And Anirvan didnot care what the Hindu pundits said about marrying a Brahmo. Their married life was idyllic. The social ostracism they faced from the more conventional Brahmos and Hindus drew them closer to each other. They had more than enough to live like kings and have a wonderful life. Money rubbed away the edges of social criticism. After two idyllic years, Ambalika gave birth to a son, Rajkrishna.

Rajkrishna was Shweta’s grandfather. He had an affluent start in life but when he was four-years-old, not only was his mother expecting a new baby but his father’s fortunes collapsed. The two ships owned by him sank at sea with expensive cargo on board. He had to repay the traders. He lost a lot of money and had a tough time running his home. He had to sell off his horses and the expensive paintings from his walls. Lot of his staff who ran his home had to go. They were left with only an old man and the woman who looked after Rajkrishna. No one knows if it was the shock of becoming penurious or the travails of childbirth that took Ambalika to her heavenly abode two days after the birth of her younger son.

Anirvan was stunned with grief. He took to locking himself up in his room and praying all the time. He turned to religious rituals and the Almighty in his sorrow and forgot he had two little children to rear. For sometime, the two servants took care of the household and children but when money wore itself thin, they started finding it difficult to manage. The woman left. Anirvan hired a new man.

Anirvan’s distant cousin who saw his state of finances and inability to make ends meet or bring up children, recommended he rent out rooms to tenants to have enough to put food on the table and the children, through schooling. He also recommended a second marriage as a last resort. The wife could run the house, supervise the servants, cook and look after the children. Then, he could stay with his prayers all the time. For sometime, Anirvan refused to think of marriage. He just rented out some rooms to three families in his enormous family mansion. He found it trying to associate with these families, to collect rentals and to keep an eye on the children. Finally, irritated by having to interact with tenants, children and the needs of the new inefficient manservant, he realized the house needed managing. He agreed to marry.

He had not even seen Shamaboti once before the marriage. He was not interested in having a wife. He only needed someone to keep the house in order and to bring up his children.

Shamaboti’s husband hardly spoke to her. Eventually, after a few years, he faded to death. Shamaboti, in her twenties, wore the garb of a widow, managed the finances of the house, looked after the two boys and had a passion for books and cards. She played cards with the tenants’ wives every afternoon and bought a few books. She was there for the boys, though they resented the fact that she was their stepmother. Eventually, the boys completed their university, started working and got married.

Rajkrishna did well and had four children, two daughter and two sons. He sold his ancestral mansion and split the money with his brother and built a beautiful house in New Delhi, where he worked as a senior director in The Reserve Bank. His brother worked and built a house in Bombay.

Rajkrishna’s eldest son was Shweta’s father.

Rajkrishna took charge of looking after his stepmother though he did not like her much. Shyamol did not want to take charge as his wife hated the old woman. Everytime Shamaboti visited Bombay, her younger daughter-in-law would be rude and she returned early to Rajkrishna. Rajkrishna’s wife, Preeti, was loving and kind and felt sorry for the old woman, who for no fault of hers was criticised by others for being a stepmother… Preeti loved her husband very much and understood his obligations to his stepmother. But, for most others, Shamaboti remained quintessentially the stepmother, who was never loved by her husband or stepsons. She was criticised for being unloved!

That was the part Shweta could not figure out, had she been given a chance to be anything else other than an unwanted stepmother? Would anyone in the current day ever accept the role as placidly as Shamaboti had?

Shamaboti Devi grew old and started withering in front of Shweta’s eyes after her stepsons died of cancer and heart attack, respectively. She did not weep for her stepsons but just started shrinking… She lay on her bed, had to be fed and bathed. A nurse was maintained for her by Shweta’s father. Shamaboti did not want to die. She could still read. She was in the middle of an exciting new thriller and there were more to come… She hung on. She grew frailer and wheezed while breathing. She found it difficult to read. The nurse, Shweta and her mother took turns to read to her.

One day, she died while listening to a story.

Shweta helped straighten her corpse and could not forget the sensation. It was cold and rigid. The smell of death haunted her nostrils for days.

Her relatives had no time for the funeral.

Her father, grandmother, mother and Shweta conducted the rituals for the dead. It was all rather muted. No one had the time to mourn.

After a fortnight, Shweta was told by the family lawyer that Shamaboti had left behind a will of which she was the sole beneficiary. Everyone was amazed, except Preeti who had helped call in the lawyer and witnessed the will that was made. In it, Shamaboti had left behind all her jewellery and a diary that she maintained when she got married and while she was bringing up the boys for Shweta! Her heavy gold jewellery was worth more than twenty lakhs… Shweta had no use for it but she kept it in a locker in the bank for sentimental reasons…

The diary was a real gem for her. She sat and read the diary of the woman who was mourned by none… In it she found a woman of passions who, despite all her docile training, yearned to explore the world outside as much as her step great grand daughter…Here was a woman who had fallen in love , even if the love was never requited, a woman who did her best for her step sons and a woman who married her elder step son to an educated girl… one who had finished higher secondary in days when girls were married, having passed just grade eight. Preeti confirmed she finished school before she married and her mother-in-law had insisted on that!

Shweta, the inheritor of the diary, wrote a book and published it with the help of her editor. It became a prize winning best seller.

As Shweta stepped down from the dias after receiving the Sahitya Akademi award, she pondered over the strange life of her great grandmother…

She wondered if she would have got this award or would she herself  have existed if Shamaboti did not come into her great grandfather’s life…Was it a life wasted, thrown away or lived to the full? Did anyone ever love her? Did she ever feel the lack of love in her life?

A tear formed at the edge of Shweta’s eyes.

 

 

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The Bride

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Detail from portrait of Radha, painting from 1760C.E., Kishangarh, Rajasthan

Wrapped in five yards of gold and silk

The young bride steps into the ilk

Of others of her kind.

What does she have on her mind?

Does she dream of the man who will help her fly

To the distant realms of the unbidden sky?

Or, does she stare with fear

At the stranger so near,

Who will share her bed,

To whom she is wed?

Does she cringe from his touch?

Or, does she want to say I love you so much….

Wrapped in five yards of gold and silk,

A doll who has barely started to think,

Was she asked to marry

Or allowed to choose and tarry?

Was she sold

For the weight of gold?

Was the boy bought with money

Into the knots of matrimony?

Did she have the courage to say,

“This is the only man for me any way!”

Or, did she cry and cringe and give in

To an unwanted fate, which to oppose would be a sin?

Or,

Is she stepping in to the role

Thinking only of the silk and gold?

Another woman trapped by five yards of gold and silk….

The Great Wall of America…?

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I can empathize with Evita. I can empathize with Maria Von Trapp. I can empathize with Hillary Clinton.

The commonality between these women being that they stood and fought for what they believed in. They dared to race against the wave… and somewhere along the way they won some and lost some.

The winning or losing is inconsequential. What matters is to live by your conviction, to do what you really want, to have the strength to stand on your own two feet, to have faith in God and justice and to live by the choices you make. If you lose sometimes, you tell yourself what Scarlett O Hara of Gone With the Wind says when she loses her love Rhett Butler, “After all, tomorrow is another day!” And start afresh.

It is sad to see how poorly many men in power, especially in the US, regard women. And it is sadder that women like to live up to the role created by such men and perpetrate it. Have they no shame?

Hillary Clinton losing the election has not taken me by surprise because the opponent  is perhaps more appealing to masses who do not understand the concepts of globalization and cohesion. Majority of his supporters have no dreams, no visions, lack the ability to think beyond their own comfort zone. They want their jobs back, preferably an easy job. They fear anything that takes away from the ease of existence. Are these the products of the same education system that created greats like Carl Sagan, Muhammad Ali and Pete Seeger? Is it not strange that despite belonging to one of the most privileged nations in the world, they are looking at people from less privileged countries and communities as a threat? Do they not realize that by building walls you cannot keep competition out? You can only make yourself weaker and less competitive.

 

 

The Creators

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The figures of the man and the girl drew closer. They were holding hands and walking. Jasmine asked Jacinth and JaJa to stay concealed in the bushes. Softly, she stepped out in the moonlight as the couple gazed at the moon together facing the sea. She went and stood behind them and cleared her throat. They turned around, surprised, and the girl screamed: “ Who are you?”

Jasmine said: “Shh…! Do not be scared. I come in peace.” The boy held the girl closer wrapped in his arms as if he was sheltering her from the unknown and fierce. The girl had bright red hair and looked very like Jacinth, except for her bubbly hair and skin coloring, which was pink like the others of her dimension.

Jacinth was dusky with hazel eyes and dark blond streaked hair. Jasmine was taller and frailer looking than the others. She was pale with violet eyes and jet black hair.

“Are you Jolyn?” she asked.

“ How does that matter?” said the boy gruffly. He had blue-black bubbles for hair and was very tall.

“Have you been getting dreams of walking on clouds and writing poetry about the moon?” asked Jasmine.

“ How do you know?” asked Jolyn. “Who are you anyway and why is your hair and color so strange?”

“ Do you believe in a life beyond your dimension? I come from another dimension. I know you are Jolyn. I am Jasmine.”

“Why are you so pale? How is it you look like Jolyn?” asked the man.

“You could call me Jolyn’s replicate from another dimension. There are a number of us in various dimensions. I come from the creator’s dimension. The police there is chasing me and it will eventually try to catch all my different forms from different dimension and put us in captivity. I have done nothing wrong except asked for privacy and freedom to choose. I am collecting all my replicates to set up a new home in a new dimension. The mind police would be looking for me in various dimensions. They do not know of Jolyn’s existence as yet but will get to know eventually if you do not come away with me.”

“Why should we trust you?”

“ I can show you two more of our replicates from other dimensions if that helps convince you. They are with me and behind those bushes.”

“Jacinth. JaJa come out,” called out Jasmine.

Jacinth and JaJa peered out and walked towards the three at the beach.

“That is truly unbelievable,” said Jolyn. “You both look like me a little bit and yet are so different. And what is this?” she asked pointing at JaJa and looking disgusted.

JaJa was staring open-mouthed and drooling.

“That is JaJa from the golliwog’s dimension. She is also our replicate. But, she speaks no English. Jacinth and I do,” said Jasmine. “Please do not regard JaJa as inferior as she is one of the smartest in her dimension and can communicate telepathically with me!”

“What is telepathy?” asked Jolyn.

“ When you can communicate just with the mind without using voices or gestures,” replied Jasmine.

“Please come with us,” said Jacinth.

JaJa squeezed herself between Jacinth and Jasmine, who were standing next to each other. She looked in askance at the new couple. She sensed the newcomers did not want to accept her.

“Why do we all need to go together? We could confuse them if we are spread out all over,” said the man.

“ The mind police functions differently,” said Jasmine. “ They can read thought waves. If we are together and thinking on the same lines, it is easier for us to create a new dimension, a secret hideout to lead our lives safely and to create a new inter-species dimension. The mind police maynot come in person for my replicates but introduce nightmares of death and lead them to either suicide caused by depression and a sense of hopelessness or death by accident. If we are all together and our minds are in sync dreaming of survival and a new world, it will be impossible for them to inject negative and destructive ideas into our dreams or our minds. I have been projecting to you dreams of rainbows and writing poetry about the moon as I know you like to write poetry. Also none of you except JaJa and me can sense others thoughts. That only happens when you open your mind. I know Jacinth is trying but it is not that easy.”

“Well, she is not wrong you know,” said Jolyn turning her head towards the man.“ I have had nightmares for the past two days in which I saw us dying in a blaze. I have also felt a need to cry and have felt life is senseless. Could it be the mind police? And I have had the other positive dreams because of which you brought me to the beach today to cheer me up so that I have only good dreams.”

“Block your mind. Think of JaJa, not of us,”said Jasmine.” And let us make a run for it so that if they return with their negative thoughts to the bubbleverse, they will find not find your mind. They will be confused. Perhaps they will think that you have taken your life…”

“ I will only come if you let Gorge accompany us and if he agrees to come. He is my husband and we are pledged together in life,” said Jolyn clinging to the man. “Here men must lead and women follow. I will go by Gorge’s decision.”

Gorge looked at her and said, “ It seems a bit bizarre to me.”

“Please try to understand. The thought police will try to eradicate my replicates and me as well for daring to think different. They are very different and do things with the power of the mind. If they get to Jolyn, you might get to a day when you wake up and find she has disappeared. If they are really upset with my thoughts, they will eventually wipe all beings that could think along my lines, as my replicates could. They will no longer just wipe memories and let us be but they will physically vaporize us so that our minds freed from our bodies eventually lose our sense of bearing and become only a part of the universal consciousness in the creator’s zone,” Jasmine paused for breath. “In short, Jolyn could be killed as could the rest of us. Please, please listen to me.”

Gorge looked confused. “Let me think,” he said. Gorge was not very convinced. For him to give up his life for a strange story from a strange creature was a bit difficult culturally. In the bubbleverse, it was a men’s world. Women depended on men.

“There is no time to think,” said Jacinth. “Do you not understand? Please help save Jolyn and all of us.”

“Well, if it is a matter of life and death, I suppose I had better give in. Still it sounds bizarre. I didnot know there were creatures from other worlds inhabiting the Earth. As far as I knew and studied, it was only us!” said Gorge. “Where are your husbands? Why are they not with you to give substance to your strange words?”

“In our dimensions, women are independent. They can opt to marry or not marry and lead lives where we make up our own minds. Please do come with us. Jolyn has unexplored abilities, as do you. Let us create a new world to discover them. Please,” said Jasmine.

“All right. We will come… though we might return if we are not convinced. Where and how do we go?”

“Great. We pinge to Jamie’s dimension,” said Jasmine.

“ Who is Jamie and what is pinge?” asked Gorge.

“Jamie is another replicate. He is a boy in a post Third World War dimension in a new country called Aurica. We will go to him because he lives in a very bleak world and will give in to the tortures of the mind police more easily than others,” said Jasmine. “ And I will explain pinging to you in a minute.”

“There was a Third World War?” asked Jacinth.

“ Yes. In Jamie’s dimension the United Nations failed completely. There was a war over oil and weapons.”

“Well. It will be good to have another male to help lead. Should we pack our clothes and papers and come back here ‪tomorrow?” asked Gorge.

“Oh dear! No! We must leave because the mind police is already at our heels. So, we must run now. Do not worry about anything else,” explained Jasmine.

Gorge looked stunned but he was listening. Jolyn was whimpering a little with fear. He patted her and said, “Don’t worry honey. We will be all right. Let us just go along with this lady. As I have said we will return if this is some kind of a hoax and I will see to it that these creatures are dealt with with firmness. So, how do we go?”

“Like this… By pinging ,” replied Jasmine. She again took the tong out of her backpack as JaJa scrambled onto her shoulders.

“ Please hold on to me tightly all of you as we pinge to Jamie’s world,” said Jasmine.

Jacinth, Jolyn and Gorge held onto her shoulders tightly and JaJa sat on her shoulders. Jasmine clapped the tongs and they heard a ping and felt themselves swirled through flashes of lights, sound and darkness. They were born on a strong draft of wind and squeezed till they landed in a world with a grey sky!

Jolyn and Gorge started to cough and splutter. Jacinth was finding it difficult to breathe. Her eyes were stinging from the pollutants in the air. Jasmine and JaJa were coughing too. Quickly, Jasmine pulled out a box from her bagpack and gave everyone a mask. “Put these on. The air is very polluted here.”  She gave Jolyn and Gorge two shower cap like head gears too so that their hair would not be affected by the pollutants either and they would not look different from other residents of Aurica.

“That was sudden and quick!! What next?” asked a surprised Gorge adjusting his cap and mask.

 

 

Book of the week

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Title: Three Cups of Tea
Authors: Greg Mortenson and Dan Oliver Relin

Three Cups of Tea is an amazing, real life adventure of a philanthropist among the mountains of what most consider  “terror- ridden” areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Greg Mortenson was a mountaineer who failed to climb the K2 in 1993. He was lost and hurt when some Balti villagers located him. They took him to their homes and heart and healed him. Touched by their kindness, Mortenson tried to take to them what they most needed, a secular education. This book takes us through his gripping adventures to open schools in the Korphe region of Pakistan.

Mortenson lives with the local people and takes education among all children, especially girls who had been banned from schooling. Jean Hoerni, the multi-millionaire scientist, helped fund his dreams. Mortenson’s was an amazing life!

I like and agree with some of his perceptions about terrorists and tackling them. They are very relevant in today’s world. He says in an interview about the reporters who went to Afghanistan after the 9/11 bombing:  “I tried to talk about root causes of the conflict — the lack of education in Pakistan, and the rise of Wahabi madrassas, and how that led to terrorism… But that stuff hardly ever made it into print. They only wanted sound bites about the top Taliban leaders so they could turn them into villains in the run-up to war.” He received hate mail in USA in response to his perspectives. Mortenson met a Taliban soldier who took to terrorism because that was the only available job. He was paid 300 dollars by the Taliban to terrorise people. He had wanted to be a telecommunication technician but there was no such job to be had!

This book is the story of a man who believed in peace without guns or forces, peace through education, pen and paper. It takes the reader to the heart of areas which I would imagine would be inaccessible to most. That is another thing that makes the book very appealing to me. I can also trace cultural similarities between these people and others in the Asian sub-continent. The kindness of the villagers to a lost mountaineer is also very touching.

I have read that Mortenson and Dan Oliver Relin were sued over the authenticity of the contents of the book. Relin committed suicide at age 49 over the allegations, according to his obituary.

I do not agree or disagree with the authenticity of the book, but I do see an unusual visionary and a great philanthropist in the character portrayed by the protagonist, Mortenson, in the book. He is a humanitarian who does not see borders or race but just tries to help people in need. Here, I found an echo of my own voice which believes education rather than guns and peacekeeping forces can solve major issues like terrorism.

My belief is people who think that killing villains will uproot all evil are being very simplistic. Can terrorising into obedience with guns, nuclear weapons, peacekeeping forces, laws and borders be a long term solution to all world problems?

Book of the Week

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Title: The Wreck
Author: Rabindranath Tagore

The Wreck(1921) is a translation by the Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore of his own Bengali novel, Naukadubi(1906). It has been made into a film in 2011. Though the movie does capture part of the essence of the story, it does not do full justice to the original novel.
The story revolves around shipwrecks( rather boat wrecks) caused by the sudden onset of a storm on Ganges. Two newly married couples get separated and the bride of one party mistakes the groom of the other one for her own. The story revolves around her being united with the real groom. The man she took as her groom lost his bride in the storm to death. In contrast to the surviving bride, Kamala, is her rescuers’s highly-educated and westernised girl friend, Hemnalini. The love and personality of Kamala is unique. She is strong and upright. When she discovers she is with the wrong groom, she leaves him. She doesnot want to live on charity and pity. She has self-respect. She starts working as a cook till she finds her true husband and love.
What I love most about this book is not just Tagore’s lucid writing but also the way in which he brings out the strength of an uneducated, mildly-lettered village girl. Despite having no western-education or formal schooling, Kamala emerges stronger, more courageous and more focussed than the western-educated Hemnalini. Kamala actually proves true what the philosopher Vivekananda had said that education is the manifestation of knowledge already existing in man(woman, in this case).
This book also gives a glimpse of the status of women in the nineteenth century Bengal society. Women were cherished and regarded with respect. They were not objectified or judged based on their appearance or level of schooling.
I love reading and re-reading this book. Each reading gives me inspiration and fresh food for thought.
The book is now available not just in paperback but as a free google download too.