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THE GIRL WHO RAN AWAY TO THE FOREST

- The tale of Leela Majumdar’s search for freedom is as vivid on her 105th birthday as her tales for children

The hero of Leela Majumdar’s short-story, “Khentir Maa” is Khenti, Kshantamani. In the fictional forest-lined village of the narrative, somewhere over there (“odike”), women are advised not to get themselves educated since that will result in their widowhood. Khenti defies the unwritten laws of the pastoral by acquiring knowledge, although, to do this, she has to hide behind the doors of the classroom and eavesdrop on the lessons being imparted to the boys. Armed with her native intelligence augmented by learning, she quickly points out the flaws in the existing education system (much to her timorous father’s dismay), dismisses the prevailing fears about the surrounding wilderness as superstition, beats up her cantankerous stepmother and runs away to the forest in search of her real mother. Before entering her forest of Arden, this Rosalind too becomes a boy, wearing her stepbrother’s tattered “genji pantaloon”, and cutting her hair short with an old, rusted pair of scissors. She also takes on her father’s name, not just his surname, enlisting herself as Bipradas Moitra in the rolls of the forest officer looking for young village boys to make a census of the trees.

At the end, however, even the father is left behind as we learn that Kshantamani (not Kshantamani Moitra) has become a registered student of Class IX in the village school, is regularly outshining all the boys, and living with the family of the forest officer, who has turned out to be the uncle of her real mother. So unlike Shakespeare’s Rosalind, Khenti casts off her disguise not to get married to her Orlando. Rather she becomes someone like Woolf’s Orlando, combining in her airy self the best of both genders (she had earlier proved herself an expert in housework).

Even if we take this as a parable of women’s liberation, the rejection of patriarchy is very subtle, being more a refutation of prejudices cherished by men afraid of the unknown — whether the forest or the effects of women’s education. If any strident assertion can be distilled from the story, it is that girls and boys should get equal opportunities of education and employment. Once girls have the power that knowledge brings, they can create their own destiny, which may or may not involve marriage, motherhood and household duties. Of course, “Khentir Maa” is children’s fiction, without the heavy import of, say, a social realistic novel meant for adults. But the author, in her own life, was also living out Khenti’s story, utilizing the education she had received to stand her ground, whether as daughter, wife or writer.

Born in the illustrious Brahmo family of Upendrakishore Ray Chowdhury on February 26, 1908, Leela Majumdar was a brilliant student, standing first in her graduation and post-graduation examinations in English from the University of Calcutta. She taught at a school in Darjeeling, then for a year in Santiniketan at Rabindranath Tagore’s invitation, and finally in Ashutosh College, which she quit to become a writer and, later, the producer of a programme on women for All India Radio. Such an active public life did not prevent her from being a wife and mother whose interest in housework is evident from her cookbook, which is still a bestseller. She begins the short essay, “Pakpranali” (“Recipe”) in the book, Je Jai Boluk (Whatever Anybody Says), with, “These days, I get the medicine for cheering up the mind only in two ways. The first is making recipes and the second, thinking up rather spine-chilling supernatural incidents” (all the translations are mine), and goes on to record in detail the recipes for a tomato sauce, chutney and an achar made of winter vegetables. The writer who cooked up tingling ghost stories could, with equal ease, dish out exciting recipes.

Yet Majumdar was nothing if not a rebel. She defied her father’s wishes to marry a Hindu, gave up her job in Santiniketan when the ambience at the ashram no longer seemed to suit her, and wrote, even if in a semi-serious tone, “I’ve heard with my own ears a mem-friend of theirs saying that in order to fill one’s conjugal life with happiness and peace, one [the wife] should listen silently to whatever the husband says and then act according to her own judgment. The husbands cannot understand what is happening” (Amio Tai, I Too Am That, Number 28).

A defining characteristic of Majumdar’s work is its matter-of-factness. Her ghosts feel hunger and the frogs, which entertain her with their songs on lonely rainy evenings, are trapped by urchins for food. Majumdar writes of intransigent life, and of the circumscribed liberties it offers. The wilful girls in her fiction gain freedom by choosing to give up certain other freedoms. The reformed stepmother in “Khenti”, who has started running a women’s canteen at the end of the story, and so, perhaps, no longer has to depend much on her husband for money, hints at this when she says, “Don’t die lamenting for happiness. Why has god given [us] two hands? With those hands, happiness has to be moulded into being.”