Bharati Mukherjee

One of the early tip-offs to me about the enormous changes that were going on with being in a Bangalore house, home, where the young woman from a nearby village, who had been hired to baby sit newborn twins, suddenly said after two weeks of work: ‘I’m sorry, this is too much work, I’m going to try applying for call center jobs. The pay is better.’

In traditional Hindu families like ours, men provided and women were provided for. My father was a patriarch and I a pliant daughter. The neighborhood I’d grown up in was homogeneously Hindu, Bengali-speaking, and middle-class. I didn’t expect myself to ever disobey or disappoint my father by setting my own goals and taking charge of my future.

In Hindu societies, especially overprotected patriarchal families like mine, daughters are not at all desirable. They are trouble. And a mother who, as mine did, has three daughters, no sons, is supposed to go and hang herself, kill herself, because it is such an unlucky kind of motherhood to have.

I had a 2-week courtship with a fellow student in the fiction workshop in Iowa and a 5-minute wedding in a lawyer’s office above the coffee shop where we’d been having lunch that day. And so I sent a cable to my father saying, ‘By the time you get this, Daddy, I’ll already be Mrs. Blaise!’

I had never walked on the street alone when I was growing up in Calcutta, up to age 20. I had never handled money. You know, there was always a couple of bodyguards behind me, who took care if I wanted… I needed pencils for school, I needed a notebook, they were the ones who were taking out the money. I was constantly guarded.

Bengalis love to celebrate their language, their culture, their politics, their fierce attachment to a city that has been famously dying for more than a century. They resent with equal ferocity the reflex stereotyping that labels any civic dysfunction anywhere in the world ‘another Calcutta.’

The picture of Mother Teresa that I remember from my childhood is of a short, sari-wearing woman scurrying down a red gravel path between manicured lawns. She would have in tow one or two slower-footed, sari-clad young Indian nuns. We thought her a freak. Probably wed picked up on unvoiced opinions of our Loreto nuns.