A Tale of Two Women

by Sudeshna Rana

Tracing a gendered lineage of migration and mobility, the author negotiates with the past and charts the impact of plurilocal existence on interpersonal relationships, to explore ideas of freedom and the desire for autonomy.

Malti and her Husband; date and place, unknown. 

Courtesy of Author’s family.

It was the 1970s—the decade of the Bangladesh Liberation War, Amitabh Bachchan’s Angry Young Man dominating popular culture, Indira Gandhi’s call for Emergency, and the first nuclear weapons testing on Indian soil. In those turbulent times, a young woman with grey eyes and a daughter, left the village of Dubrajpur in the Bankura district of West Bengal with her husband, migrating in search of a better life.


This is the story of Malti and her daughter, Superna. Malti became the first woman in her family to move beyond her rural roots, cross the threshold of traditions and travel to the other end of the country. Superna was the first girl in her family to finish school. Their journey was marked by struggle, misery and pain, as well as opportunity, mobility and hope. 


My existence is tied to their story.


Malti followed her husband, whose work revolved around cement factories, first to Punjab, where she delivered her second child, a son. Later, they moved to a small town called Nimbahera in Rajasthan, and welcomed another son. The couple returned, almost every year, to their desher bari (village home). In one of those trips, Superna was left in the village since educating her in the town was deemed unimportant and a discretionary expense. 


Superna, who had grown up between cities and states, suffered the disjuncture of language differences between East and West India. In Nimbahera, she had become fluent in Hindi at school, but back in her native village, at the government school where she was enrolled, all lessons were taught in Bengali. Yet, she persevered, for she loved studying more than anything in the world. 


When the family made another move and finally settled in Satna, Madhya Pradesh, Malti died in a fire. Superna was brought back to take care of her brothers and the household. Her father remarried and had two more daughters. She was enrolled in a Hindi-medium school again. Despite several disruptions, her studious nature ensured that she became a topper in her class.

Superna with her father and grandfather in front of the Taj Mahal; date, unknown 

Courtesy of Author’s family.

In 1993, facing familial pressure, Superna left her dreams of emancipation and higher education. She had to drop out of college and was married off. The elders had decided her fate and settled on a groom as per endogamous caste customs. She moved again, this time to her in-laws’ rural house. The next year, I was born. 


My story, too, began in a village in Bankura. This time, Superna followed her husband to a coal-mining city, to raise her daughter away from the conservative countryside.


In my language, relatives are called attiyo shojon (আত্মীয়স্বজন), literally translating to ‘people dear to your soul.’ Away from one’s people, amidst alien tongues—the migrant drifts, unmoored and isolated, away from kinship ties and shared community. I find it hard to imagine the disorienting psychological ramifications of such a spatial shift, battling cultural shock and internal crises. 


There is no clear consensus on the world’s urban population. In 2018, the European Commission estimated that 85% of the world’s population lives in urban areas, whereas the U.N. figures claimed it to be 55%. Without a clear definition of what entails an urban region, it is difficult to agree on an estimated urban population. But beyond these statistics and numbers, when I look at my family history, the lived reality of this rural-to-urban migration belies the dreary bathos of data.


There’s a story that I remember listening to, while growing up, from my mother about her father. On one occasion, as a young boy, he had gone to see a jatra pala (popular folk-theatre in Bengal). When he returned home, everyone asked him to retell the story that was staged but he could not recount anything! He was busy looking at a few men in the audience. These upper-class men were sitting in chairs and were wearing—something that he had never seen before—a tie. My grandfather would remember those men all his life. For him, this became his lifelong ambition: to sit in a chair and wear a tie. With time, this son of a Kaviraj (an Indian Ayurvedic doctor), would achieve this dream, and more. 


Yet, my mother never forgave her father for denying her the right to achieve her own dreams, and cut off all ties with him. Estrangement probably runs in the family. A few months before my mother’s death in 2021, she and I had stopped talking. All the bitterness borne out of her broken dreams had poisoned her mind and turned into an illness that I could never cope with. The last thing she left for me were six missed calls. I never got to call her back. 


These days, I try to mourn my mother as a woman and not as a mother. Having never met my maternal grandmother, I mourn her only in remembrance. 

Superna’s college ID 

Courtesy of Author’s family.

According to an article published in The Hindu in 2015, “The most common reason for migration in India is marriage.” In the story of Malti and Superna, whose journeys across the country were propelled by a patrilocal society, one question remains: how much freedom did their mobility entail? In our culture, a girl is raised in her home and taught to never call it her own. She is to be wed and sent away to be a part of a family she can never truly belong to, pushing the political to become personal.


I wonder if the constant moving, shifting, and growing up in transit, made my mother uneasy with the idea of staying in one place for too long. Throughout my childhood, we shifted from one rented house to another, never able to make homes out of them. Once, moving from the ground floor to the first floor of the same house! While we moved around a lot, the household was gathered into boxes or tied together in large sheets and carried to the next location. It is an inherited behavioural trait, I repeat, living out of a suitcase, moving from one city to another—a plurilocal existence.   


My mother and her mother’s migration meant that now I am too Bengali for non-Bengalis and too non-Bengali for Bengalis. Different dialects and accents unconsciously seep through the way I speak my Bangla, my Hindi and my English, making a mockery of grammar and diction. The fractured upbringing that separated me from my Bengalese linguistic heritage comes in the form of a slow erosion, a product of the social fabric and geographical displacement. 


As I write in the coloniser’s language, which is never used between the members of my family, I realise that I have been separated from my mother tongue in the same way that my mother was detached from hers. Yet, this language has given me a glimpse of what autonomy can look like for a woman: to write one’s narrative as one’s own. Malti and Superna’s journeys have shaped mine. But it did not define me. I am now older than my grandmother ever was, and more educated than my mother ever had the opportunity of. The women in my generation, who have had the opportunity to not follow the disempowering blueprint of women’s lives before us, face both the thrill and fear of the unknown. It is a path of constant negotiation with the past and the future.    


They say that you are created in the body of your maternal grandmother. I was once an egg in my mother’s womb while she was inside my grandmother’s womb. I never got my mother’s perfect arched eyebrows or my grandmother’s grey eyes; I inherited a fractured identity instead and a disillusionment with the patriarchal institution of marriage that reduces a woman to become a side character in the story of her own life.  


History is fair game for writers. And when a woman writes, she writes against a history that has been ideologically dominated by masculinity. Sometimes, this rewriting can start with just one’s family history. This is only one version of the story of two women intrinsically connected to my life. And, migration was only a fragment of their lives, just like I am only a mouthpiece for their stories. 


In the end, all the people in the photos here are no longer alive. They cannot speak for themselves. Yet, their memories remain, waiting to vanish along the tides of time—a predicament, best described by James Joyce in The Dead:


One by one, they were all becoming shades. Better pass boldly into that other world, in the full glory of some passion, than fade and wither dismally with age.


Also read: Looking for Mother Lodge 

About the author

Sudeshna Rana is a writer, editor, poet and researcher interested in culture, gender and ecology. She is a 2022 South Asia Speaks fellow, and is currently working on her first book based on her hometown, Dhanbad. 


She is on Instagram: @the_blackcottoncandy