It is a quality that slips away as one tries to write about it. Leela Majumdar had it; in a different world, Nancy Mitford had it too. It has to do with the way they wrote about Important Men — men who founded, and became, institutions. As a way of being, it was inseparable, as one would expect, from their relationship with their fathers, both of whom had more than a touch of bigotry in them. In Nancy’s father, British blue-blooded bigotry; in Leela’s, Bengali Brahmo bigotry. Leela’s father virulently disapproved of her marrying a man who did not belong to their high-minded community. From when she was twenty-five until the end of his life, they did not speak to each other. When he died, she felt no immediate sense of loss, and she wrote about this blankness of heart with total candour in her autobiography.
Yet, she also wrote that she could not imagine being someone else’s daughter: she would rather have an absent father, than a series of surrogate ones. She had got from their early years together two imperishable gifts: the pleasure of stories, and the enchantment of the forest. But what she could never manage to write off was not so much the damage of his wrath, as his utter inability to imagine himself into somebody else’s mind or feelings — the failures of sympathy or empathy, and ultimately of imagination, which led to the worst, and most lastingly toxic, instances of intolerance born out of incomprehension in their lives.
The firmness with which Leela retained her independent-mindedness without ever upsetting the normalcy of her domestic and public lives is a key to understanding the peculiar conventionality of her personal style. The clear-eyed and unrelenting distance from her father helped her create those magically true stories about leaving home, or about returning home to go away again and again. What kept this hard-bought achievement from turning bitter was humour. Her capacity for laughter and lightness — her crisply colloquial fluency and homeliness of tongue, its onomatopoeic vitality — never lost its sharpness, its edge of clarity. Her vocation was not to take herself too seriously, in spite of her sense of the fragility of mirth or the brittleness of life. This also meant not taking too seriously those who took themselves too seriously.
When one of Rabindranath Tagore’s formidable acolytes came to her childhood home, dimmed the drawing-room lights, took out two volumes of Tagore’s poetry and proceeded to read out reverentially from them in the light of specially lit candles, she felt no shame to admit that she had not understood a word. Her mother gave her one of those volumes, and when Leela needed a clean piece of paper for wrapping up a bit of pickle, she calmly tore out a page from the book. As an adult, she continued to feel alienated from the worshipfulness towards the poet that prevailed in Santiniketan. Tagore’s writings for children never quite worked for her because she believed there ought to be no place for gurugiri (her word for sanctimoniousness), however subtle, in literature for children. In a similar way, she felt put off by the holy spectacle of Aurobindo Ghosh and the Mother in Pondicherry, and wrote a brilliant and hilarious cameo of the exquisite — and thus eminently caricaturable — refinement of Tagore’s niece, Indiradebi Choudhurani, and her literary husband.
For Leela, the only thing worth standing up for at all times was the capacity to give and take delight — inextricable, in her scheme of things, from the courage to see things as they are. But, once one has seen things as they are, there was no point getting too self-important or lugubrious about it. Best to simply get on with things — for there were those delicious little luchis that grandmother was frying for high-tea.