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‘Those shouting loudest about ‘Women’s Lib’ are ones who don’t follow it’

26 February, 2020 20:30:38
‘Those shouting loudest about ‘Women’s Lib’ are ones who don’t follow it’

Bengal had produced several ‘Renaissance women’ and one of them was undoubtedly Leela Majumdar --- an author, teacher, playwright, art critic and above all a brilliant mind, much ahead of her times. Born on February 26, 1908 to Surama Devi and Pramada Ranjan Ray, who was also the younger brother of Satyajit Ray’s grandfather Upendra Kishor Ray Choudhuri, Leela Majumdar was brought up in an extremely liberal environment. The best part was her childish positive spirit that always wished and did spread joy among children as well as adult readers. Her books are thus so relevant in today’s world of hate and negativity, they have an instant feel-good factor. Till the last day of her life she wanted children to develop that ability to see the world around them as something magical and beautiful, full of light and happiness in which even the inevitable sorrows and ugliness dissolve and are washed away.

Leela Majumdar was a true ‘feminist,’ though she hated that term and ‘Women’s Lib’. Her granddaughter, Srilata Banerjee once said in an interview that Majumdar believed staunchly that to thrust the concept of freedom forcefully in everyone’s face didn’t necessarily bring freedom. Just because a woman remained at home, cooking and looking after her household and family didn’t mean she wasn’t liberated. “In fact, according to Didibhai (that’s how she called Majumdar), such women had enormous power and the ability to mould destinies. I think you’ll find a reflection of that in ‘Manimala.’ Also, she always said that those who shout loudest about the so-called ‘Women’s Lib’ are the ones who don’t follow it to the spirit.”

Majumdar had a very strong personality but she never imposed her will on others. Her autobiographical sketches, Pakdondi and Aar Konokhane are much acclaimed not only for their literary merit but popular for Majumdar, treating her readers at par and communicating with them honestly with a frankness that is very difficult to acquire. She had immense faith in her readers and trusted them innately. In Pakdondi, she narrates unhesitatingly the story of her unconventional marriage. Refusing to marry any groom selected by her parents, Majumdar married renowned dentist Dr Sudhir Kumar Majumdar, in 1933. Dr Majumdar was a graduate of Harvard Dental School and had a flourishing practice in Calcutta. Her marriage resulted in bitter acrimony between her and her father who refused to keep in touch with her after the inter-caste marriage. Undaunted by this decision, Majumdar stuck to her gun. Despite being aware of the consequences, she declined to visit her parental home even once until her father’s death.  

She devoted herself to housekeeping and intermittently taught in Ashutosh College. Her son Ranjan was also a dentist and daughter Kamala got married to Maninishi Chatterjee, an oil engineer and grandson of the first female painter of Bengal School, Sunayani Devi. But while maintaining a family life, she never gave up writing. After two decades as a writer, she joined All India Radio as a producer and worked for about seven-eight years. While at AIR, the feminist aspect of her character came into the fore. For a special Mahila Mahal series, Majumdar created  Monimala, the story of a very ordinary girl, growing up in a typical Bengali middle class family whose grandma starts writing to her once she turns 12, continuing into her marriage and motherhood. It is amazing to notice how much a feminist she was, her letters for Manimala makes you think there is really nothing called a generation gap. She seemed a free-thinking, free-spirited sort who had the guts to address various issues that a teen-aged girl faces while growing up. Manimala was a reflection of Majumdar’s own thoughts and feelings. 

Leela Majumdar was also a great cook. Her foray into the culinary world was again an extension of her storytelling. She co-authored Rannar Boi (1979) with her daughter, Kamala Chattopadhyay. She always insisted that cook-books introduces the technique of preparing a dish along with providing insight into the associated culture. Cookbooks are essentially the literature of the senses. The narrative of her recipes can reveal complete food ideologies, prejudices and beliefs that shape the aesthetic preferences of a community, hierarchies of social relation and gender role formation, among many others. 

Majumdar believed that women have a larger role to play in society. One’s personal and political lives could co-exist. Her glittering array of children’s writings have also reflected her memories, and a brilliant mind, much ahead of her times.

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