My maternal grandmother Menoka was married in Calcutta in 1925. Her descendants around the globe have prints of the one existing wedding photo. In it her husband, my grandfather Jyotirmoy, sits on a mahogany chair with caned seating. Her hands clasped together in front, Menoka stands beside him. Her thin right arm, bare to the elbow, except for numerous bangles, hangs close to his left shoulder. My grandfather appears to be looking at the photographer. Peering into her face, I find it hard to discern where Menoka casts her eyes. However, I see my long-lost mother’s face in hers. I search for mine; it is there, and it is not.

Neither bride nor groom smiles; that would have been unseemly for our family at that time. In a marriage arranged by their parents, my grandparents had met only on the previous day, at the ceremony itself. 

They are in the courtyard of a relative’s home. A dog lies on its side on an ornate rug stretched across the stone floor. I imagine that the photo session began early to take advantage of the morning cool. I also imagine that as the sun slowly approached its zenith, my grandmother was warm under her heavy wedding sari and jewelry. From my own experience, in wearing thick ornate saris, I know that sweat probably wove like a rivulet down her body. The vermillion dye, applied to Menoka’s feet the day before, must have bled. It traced fine lines down her soles, and the sweat trickled onto her toes and ankles, carrying the red with it. 


My younger sister turned to me from the driver’s seat, “How did she do it?” echoing the very question in my head. We were returning from the lawyer’s office where we had been to settle our mother’s affairs. She had died a few weeks earlier — quickly, unexpectedly. With the lawyer’s guidance, we learned that our mother had been frugal, protecting and growing her assets. Her jewelry had little notes attached to each piece designated for a particular child or grandchild.  Earlier, after she had been wheeled off to the hospital’s morgue — unbelievably — we went back to her now-silent home and were struck by the tidiness there. Everything was in its place; even the kitchen garbage had been bagged, tied, and neatly tucked into a can in the garage corner, awaiting trash-pickup day.

However, the question, my sister’s and mine, concerned less her neat organization and more the state of her mind, the strength of her will while she lived.

Like her own mother, my mother had had her marriage arranged. She was twenty-four, on the young side according to my view, but a ripe age in the Calcutta of 1957. Her parents, Menoka and Jyotirmoy, understood this was their daughter’s fate: it was written that she would be married, including when and to whom. At their wedding, my mother took her fated husband’s hand and went around the ceremonial fire seven times. Thus they were bound in marriage, and Agni, the god of fire, served as a witness. It is said that only by retracing their steps, going around the fire in the reverse direction, could a husband and wife break their union. (I have not heard of anybody actually circling back around Agni.)

Not too long after their wedding, my parents emigrated to the U.S. It was there, a couple of oceans and continents away from family and friends, and alone with her husband, that my mother truly realized that he was not just unloving but also unkind. She also understood it was her fate that she had to endure; this was what she had been taught. 

Her love and energies were expended on raising her daughters, my sisters and me. Throughout our childhood, following her example, we endured our father’s abuse. In my mother’s view, this would be our lives until we became adults and were free to have different ones. In the U.S. that was possible. Ultimately, we did become independent women and settled into our own households. 

Then my father’s violence towards my mother abruptly escalated. After a few false starts, my mother finally left him. Slowly — for the first time ever — she inhabited a life of her own, not as a daughter, not as a wife, and had a handful of years of independence before she passed away.

Now, years after her death, I still search for my mother. I grieve that I did not know her, thinking, as many do, that she would be around for a very long time. I try to understand “how she did it,” and seek the sources of her strength and integrity to endure and, frankly, her will to survive and to strive well into her mature years. 


Menoka’s, my grandmother’s, wedding sari now rests folded and wrapped in muslin cloth in my house in Boston. As far as I know, nobody but my grandmother ever wore it. Though it is likely that Menoka lent it to my mother before she was married to wear on special occasions. The brown-maroon silk is without hole or snag in its heavy six yards. A multitude of roses adorns the sari. They are sewn in untarnished gold thread, the petals, leaves, and stems still bright. It is as if the embroidery had been wrought days, not nearly a century, ago. At least once during its trajectory from my grandmother’s mahogany armoire to my mother’s closet to my drawer, it must have been professionally cleaned with the metal polished to an original sheen.

Menoka was nine when her mother died from uterine cancer. In the wedding photo, the jewelry that envelops her head, neck, earlobes, and arms is her mother’s, supplemented by pieces bestowed upon her by doting uncles and aunts and by her new in-laws. Over the generations, this jewelry has been reworked into rings, earrings, bracelets, and necklaces for her daughters, daughters-in-law, granddaughters, and even granddaughters-in-law. On the occasion of my own wedding, decades ago, Menoka had plucked a small pink ruby from within the depths of her armoire and asked my aunt to have it fashioned into a ring to house the stone. By this time my grandmother was a tiny creature of withered skin and jutting bones. From her reclining position on her bed, she watched as the aunt presented the ring to me. It did not occur to me to ask where the gem had come from, what it meant to her; I was also too young to be curious as to what she saw in her mind’s eye as I received her gift.

I wonder whom I will pass on my mother’s and grandmother’s things to. They serve as reminders of all that they experienced – family, loss, end of war, famine, plentitude, British India, the Independence Movement, Partition, refugees, the departure of her daughter – my mother – for America. 

A few months after the wedding photo was taken, Jyotirmoy would leave for the University of Edinburgh for advanced studies in physics and mathematics. He would take with him a small folding frame holding a portrait of his new bride, most likely taken on the same day of the other wedding photo. Upon his return from his studies and travels abroad, this photo, in the same frame, would be displayed behind glass doors in a cabinet in Menoka and Jyotirmoy’s bedroom; it would remain there for sixty years.

I envision that the photographer concludes the session, packing up camera and equipment; his assistants roll up the studio carpet. Relatives watching from the periphery stroll into the house to take shelter from the sun’s glare. Jyotirmoy and Menoka remain in the courtyard. She is alone with her husband, in the open, stark day. She knows it is not for her to speak. She knows that he assumes that nothing can be said. He is tall with the handsome face of a prince, she thinks. She wonders if it occurs to him that while waiting for his return from Edinburgh, she too would like a portrait — of him. 

At last, Jyotirmoy rises from the chair and walks ahead of my grandmother toward the house. She follows behind, maintaining an appropriate distance. She is fourteen — he is nearly thirty. The soles of his shoes hit the stone, while her footsteps lightly mark in red their path to her new life and the lives of those who will follow. 


I know that in the decades that lay ahead, there were love and respect between my grandparents. The other day, my cousin, calling from Calcutta, read to me a journal entry that Jyotirmoy had written while in Edinburgh (and Menoka was in Calcutta): “It is our anniversary. I spent a shilling to have a rose sent to her. Perhaps it was childish of me.” I also know that Menoka’s life as a wife was not without difficulty and sadness. Another cousin once related a memory handed down to her, in which the new bride Menoka was in the kitchen, weeping while cutting vegetables, a task set by her mother-in-law. 

Years later I witnessed my grandmother commanding her cooks in the same kitchen. She wrote poetry, copies of which still circulate among her grandchildren. I wonder if she considered publishing them or was encouraged to do so. By the time she was widowed, in her mid-50s, she was the revered, beloved matriarch of an extended, joint family. 

Once again, I examine the face of young Menoka. Her gaze is steady, as she sees both the photographer and the journey before her. In a world where she has little choice in matters, she is accepting her fate, as she has been taught. Yet she doesn’t succumb; she holds her head up, her chin parallel to the ground. Her manner, I now realize, strongly resembles my mother’s poise that I observed when my father inflicted injustice upon injustice on her personhood. She only cried and shouted when he came after us, the daughters. Whether twenty-four or fourteen, my mother and grandmother knew to carry themselves with self-esteem and dignity despite and within the confines of that which had been deemed as their “fates.” That’s how my mother “did it,” to answer the question that wracked my sister and me after her passing. 



Image: photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash, licensed under CC 2.0.

Krishna Lewis
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