Samaresh Majumdar is one of the most prolific Bengali writers and I belive that the beautiful thing about a lot of his stories is that he intricately mentions the places where he grew up in, the tea gardens of North Bengal with the blue mountains in the horizon, the river Teesta, the kooli and the kamin (indigenous labors) and the life of the tea garden officers.
To me, ‘Saatkahon’ is one of Samaresh Majumdar’s finest works because when he wrote the story, feminism, women’s lib, gender equality, all these were rendered completely meaningless by the Indian society. But this story is about the life and struggles of the protagonist Dipaboli, who becomes a victim of forced child marriage and later widowhood, but with sheer willpower and inner strength, she becomes an IAS officer.
The story begins with a young Dipaboli roaming around the locality with play mates. Her father is a tea garden officer so the family lives in a quarter. Dipaboli or Dipa, is much like a tomboy and despite her mother and grandmother’s strictness, she doesn’t want to behave like most girls. She has no interest in cooking or doing household chores, Dipa’s friends are mostly boys her age and they often go on adventures like fishing in Teesta, plucking flowers from trees in the forest etc. Her freedom is abruptly cut off when she gets her menstruation and in the society’s eyes, she ‘grows up and becomes a woman’. A lively, beautiful girl like her is forced to stay home and she can no longer play with boys but her studies are continued because her father wants it. Here the typical gender discrimination of societies such as ours is beautifully depicted. Samaresh carefully chooses each word and describes each event with depth.
When Dipa is barely 12 years old, her parents decide to marry her off to a rich politician’s son who is also a young boy. The child bride, in a shock, leaves her maternal house soon after the marriage ceremony is over. The tragedy doesn’t end here, her husband had a serious disease that his parents hid from Dipa’s family and within a day after the marriage, he dies. Dipa somehow manages to escape the household which never welcomed her in the first place. An exhausted Dipa reaches her house in Jalpaiguri and faints at the doorstep with a high fever. Her family manages to save her but all the trauma in her life turns her into a strong, rebellious woman who sets new goals in her life, to turn over a new leaf by studying hard and reaching the sky’s limit.
It isn’t an easy life for Dipa because she is a widow and a woman who wants to study and work but she keeps trying and pushing the limits. In one of the chapters, Samaresh wrote some poignant words which I think readers won’t ever forget. A rough translation of these words which someone elderly was saying as an advice to Dipa would be “In order to declare a war against patriarchy, first you have to question yourself whether you are fully prepared.” Samaresh describes a time in the story when women rarely had a voice in anything, a revolution in the name of equality was slowly budding but even then most women were not aware of their rights. Dipa could continue her studies because she excelled in her exams and received scholarships but when she wants to pursue higher degrees, even her own parents are not very approving. We see the roles of many characters changing here, Dipa’s once staunch believer of ‘widows should stay at home and pray’ grandmother becomes her friend on her journey to becoming an IAS officer.
The story does not have a typical happy ending, Dipa becomes one of the top ranking Administrative Officers in India but her battle to prove herself worthy in a misogynistic society continues.