Of all of Leela Majumdar’s creations, I remember the young and foul-tempered crocodile the most. Having found shelter in a large fish tank in Majumdar’s pishima’s house in Amherst Street, it would stand on its hind feet, watch the world outside and make hissing noises. When a heavy downpour caused the tank to overflow, the crocodile managed to swim away and lose itself in the world it had watched for so long. But strangely, when the fearless Balaram, armed with a rope and a canvas bag, found its hiding place and entreated it to return, the freedom-loving crocodile slid back into the bag willingly.
I like to believe that this anecdote is a philosophical exploration of how one finds, but then lets go of, a moment that is truly freeing. One of the rare writers who treated her readers — many of them children — as equals, Majumdar’s stories bring together a fascinating array of characters — humans, ghosts and animals — who are on a quest to be free of painful, but necessary, bonds.
Majumdar’s sensibilities were undoubtedly shaped by a childhood spent in Shillong amidst sombre mountains and happy streams, in a house — High Winds — that glowed not just with tiny lights that could be seen from a distance but also with the love of a bustling, caring family. This world, a realm so vast and free that she once wrote that it could never be fitted into the pages of a book, even kept war and death at bay. Yet young Leela had found the strength to coolly distance herself from this magical world and embrace the possibilities offered by adolescence and the excitement of life in a city.
This inability to belong completely to any one life expresses itself in a restlessness that Majumdar alluded to repeatedly while speaking about her life. Eager to carve out a space that was hers alone, she took up a teaching job in Darjeeling only to leave the mountains behind, once again, when Rabindranath Tagore asked her to join Visva-Bharati. She would leave the university town too, after realizing that something had changed in the ties that bound her to the place she loved. As a gifted and free-spirited woman, her decisions were undoubtedly informed by her rebelliousness against social strictures and pettiness. But her repeated attempts — to seek, find, and then flee the worlds which seem momentarily perfect — mirror the challenge that confronts human explorations into freedom and fetters. Is this because one is never completely free or confined? Majumdar’s nights in a boarding school in Calcutta were spent imagining the fragrance of the pine trees that she had left behind. Later, when she found love — one that offered her both happiness and shelter — she chose to go away.
In Pakdondi, Majumdar writes that the places one loves — spaces that are truly freeing? — are built as much with soil (“mati”) as with fantasy (“mon gora”). Mati also makes us think of roots. The crocodile did know that one can be free and yet remain bound to people or places that are never shed.