The Saga of Savitri Brata

I was on the usual everyday call with my Mom. But something was different today. The awkwardness in our conversation was just too obvious. Both of us were consciously staying away from ‘that topic’.

“It’s high time to do away with all this!”, I would have repeated umpteen number of times, persuading her to stop participating in Savitri Brata. Each time she had the same response, “I’ve been doing this right from the time I got married, can’t stop now.” This would be followed by give-away pretentions of blaming my grandmother (her mother-in-law) for initiating her into practicing the same. Nothing is ever enforced in our family, so we both knew how lame her accusations were. The feminist in me would sometimes struggle to understand her sentiments.

Savitri Brata is a religious event consisting of Puja rituals where women pray for the well-being and long lives of their husbands. I have been witnessing this annual tradition right from my childhood till the time I left home, a good decade-and-a-half ago. Prevalent in the East Indian states of Bihar, Bengal, Assam, and Orissa, this festival is celebrated mostly by the Bengalis, Maithilis, and Odiyas. It’s essentially a counterpart of the North Indian festival of Karva Chauth minus the fanfare and extravagance of dressing up as brides, adorning mehndi, and seeing your husbands through sieves against the backdrop of the Moon. Savitri Brata is relatively a quieter affair of getting together and participating in Puja rituals with the accompaniment of some harmless chatter and heartfelt laughter.

Usually Savitri Brata happens around the end of May or early June, the dates depend on the lunar calendar. This year it’s happening now. My mother used to actively participate in the annual festival and has been doing so for the last 40+ years. With my father’s demise, the very purpose of this festival doesn’t exist for her anymore. I can’t even imagine how hard it must be for her!

The description of the rituals I provide in this post is based on how I have seen the festival celebrated in my home and in the neighbourhood. Hence, this is an account of the manner in which this festival is observed by the Bengalis living in Assam, Meghalaya and other states of North East India. The rituals and traditions in other states could be different, I have no idea.

Savitri Brata is spread over three days. Women wear new clothes and partially fast, living on a diet of fruits for the whole of the first two days and half of the third day. Preparations begin 2-3 days in advance. The sacred grass Durva (Bermuda grass) is collected from the garden, cleaned, and sorted. They are bundled into neat packs of 108 along with flowers. During the Puja, each woman dedicates a bundle to their respective husbands.

Long ago, when my grandparents were around, the puja was done exclusively by a priest at our home and was attended not only by women in the family, but those in the neighbourhood too. As the years passed by, the elaborateness of the puja coupled with reduced manpower made it challenging for my Mom and Aunts to continue conducting the puja at home. Now, the puja is conducted at a centralized location where everyone assembles (except for the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021).

Many a times, we have urged Mom and Aunts to quit the puja. My Dad and Uncles also persuaded to the best of their abilities. They disliked the additional task of making the necessary arrangements and ensuring that everything was in place. Moreover, carrying the psychological guilt of not doing something similar for their wives didn’t make them feel any better. But the women, in a world of their own, were relentless. In fact, they would enjoy those three days of merry making in the form of prayers, get-togethers, laughter, incessant chatter, new clothes, and not to mention the special attention. Logic, blackmail, humble cajoles, we tried it all. Finally, we just gave up!

However, like many other traditions and rituals, Savitri Brata will soon be gone without a trace. I don’t know a single woman of my generation who observes this festival. In just a few years, it will become a forgotten thing of the past.

Many may condemn this as a regressive affair reflecting our inherent patriarchal mindsets. Probably they are right, but over the years a new realization has dawned upon me. I see nothing wrong in following rituals or traditions, especially when they do no harm to others. Rather, they bring forth few moments of joy and happiness. If offering a prayer for your husband/partner puts a smile on your face, there cannot be anything wrong with that. It’s all about individual choices.

Legend of Savitri Brata

(Source: Wikipedia)

The brata was named after Savitri, the beautiful daughter of King Aswapati of Madra Desa. She selected Satyavan, a prince in exile who was living in the forest with his blind father Dyumatsen, as her life partner. She left the palace and lived with her husband and in-laws in the forest. As a devoted wife and daughter-in-law, she went to great lengths to take care of them. One day while cutting wood in the jungle, Satyavan's head reeled and he fell down from a tree. Yamraj, the God of Death, appeared to take away Satyavan's soul. Deeply hurt, Savitri pleaded to Yamraj not to be separated from her husband. If anything, he would have to take her along too. Yamraj, moved by the devotion of Savitri, returned the life of her husband. Soon Satyavan regained his lost kingdom too. 

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An Identityless Identity

“Going to my native…….,” is a phrase that I often hear in my office. The word “native” is commonly used in Bangalore, which simply refers to one’s home. Sometimes, it is used in the context of one’s ancestral home, usually a village or a town, that maybe located in the same state or another state. The popularity of the word “native” in Bangalore is natural, given that half the city’s population constitute people who have migrated here for jobs from other places of India.

In my understanding, the place you’re born and brought up in is home to you, you may or may not be a native inhabitant of that place. Hence, Shillong is home to me. But I often find myself in a dilemma when asked questions like, “Where is your native?”; “When are you visiting your native?”. Shillong is my home but is it my native? No, I don’t think so. I am not an indigenous tribe of Meghalaya. I am a Bengali. So, is Kolkata my home? Or maybe some other place in West Bengal? No, certainly not! So where do I belong?

Often times, my Kannadiga, Malayalee, and friends from other parts of South India are unable to comprehend the fact that I am Bengali, yet West Bengal is not my home. I have had to get into elaborate explanations to drive home the correlation of being a Bengali whose home is Shillong and not Kolkata. I once told a Kannadiga friend, “If you were born and raised in Bihar, would you call yourself a Bihari or would you be still be a Kannadiga?” He remained confused. While we are all Indians and such discussions may seem petty, we cannot ignore the wide diversity of our country.

Today I bring to you Shatavisha’s story in connection with my earlier post on my hometown. The experiences she’s had throws a glimpse into the identity struggle of the Sylheti Bengali. Some of the things Shatavisha experienced is exactly what I have experienced. Hence, this is my story too.

Shatavisha’s story was originally published in an online magazine, Ishan Kotha. The editors of the magazine have been kind enough to let me use the story in my blog.

Read on…

Shatavisha Chakravorty’s Story

“Where are you from?” asked my mentor. The year was 2013 and the question was asked to an eighteen-year-old me.

“Shillong”, I answered.

“Ceylon?”

“No Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. A state in the North-Eastern part of India”,  I tried to explain.

“Ah, I see. But your admission slip says that your mother tongue is Bengali.”

“It is, Sir”

“But, if you are a Bengali are you really from Shillong?”

I didn’t know what to say to this. For as long as I remember, Shillong was the only place I would associate with the word ‘home’. It felt like it is here that I belonged; and yet deep down the teenager, I knew that the place did not consider me it’s own.

To be honest, the first realization of this happened somewhere in my early teens. My parents were looking to get a place of residence. We have always lived in a rented place. As the housing search began (as an 8-year-old I got comprehend only bits and pieces of whatever was going on), everything seemed to center around Kolkata.

“Ma, why are you looking for a place in Kolkata? Why not here?”, I asked.

“Because we cannot buy houses here. Meghalaya is a sixth schedule state, my dear. Only tribals can buy land in most parts of the state. Yes, there are some European Wards like Jail Road or Oakland. But property prices there are just too high.  And moreover, if we take a flat in Kolkata, we will be more easily accessible to you when you grow up and work.”

Things the 8-year-old me comprehended out of this conversation .

Shillong is not my home as I had thought it to be. It is not providing my parents with a conducive environment to set up a place of permanent residence despite having spent almost all their career here.

I had to go out of Shillong to make my career.

Fast forward to a couple of years from the day of this conversation, I became active in various co-curricular activities. I would ace the debates, science seminars, essay writing competitions, and others at the school level. This would make me qualify for the district level events. And that’s when the divide started to show up. I would not go past the district level events. Even if I did manage to make it to the state level, never would I be selected for national-level events.

I started to lose hope, believing that something was lacking in me. That’s when elders (parents, teachers, and others) reached out to me and pointed it out that this has nothing to do with my talent and the people qualifying are all tribal residents of the state. The state does not consider us, the non-tribal Bengali as its residents and hence the step-motherly treatment .

Once it was pointed out to me, I started noticing the pattern. It was everywhere. Meghalaya did not consider me its daughter. I had no option but to accept this. This made me firmer in my resolve to study out-of-state and with that, a few years later, I found myself in the conversation we started this article with .

Today, its been 7 years since that conversation. Let’s talk about 2017. Some 4 years since that conversation, I find myself with an engineering degree and two job offers. I join my present organization as a bubbly 22-year-old girl. And that’s when I have my first encounter with non-North East Bengalis.

At first, it was a matter of great excitement for them to have spotted a fellow Bengali. Having been brought up in a cosmopolitan setup, the last name of my friends did not mean much to me. But to them finding a ‘Chakravorty’, ‘Bhattacharya’, ‘Ghosh’ or ‘Sen’ in a land that’s 1000 km away from their home meant finding gold.

Again, the same set of questions. “If you are a Bengali, how are you ‘really’ from Shillong?’. By now I had grown used to this question and knew how to dodge it. But what followed in the next few months is something I was not ready for.

It started with making fun of my Bangla. Everything from the use of an English word in a Bangla sentence to being completely unaware of the technical terminologies in my mother tongue came under the scanner. I was a subject of ridicule among the ‘Bengali group’.

In the initial days, I would be upset about it. Befriending other people at work (a cosmopolitan group consisting of people from all over the country) made me realize that nothing was wrong with me. Yes, I did not fit in the ‘Bengali group’, but that does not hamper my confidence.

Yes, I am a Bangal. My place of birth is Shillong. My father’s was Silchar. My mother’s is Imphal. This is a fact. All three of our passports say the same. If my maternal or paternal grandfathers were to be alive, theirs would say ‘Part of undivided India’. So would that of my great grandfathers’. This is my lineage. And , I am proud of it.

If the fact that visiting one’s ancestral village every Dol, Nababarsha, or Bijoya is what it takes to give him or her an identity, then I do not need such an identity. My identity is that of an Indian. An Indian Bengali.

My place of birth is Shillong and the place has given me 18 years of beautiful childhood memories. These , I will cherish for a lifetime. My place of residence is Bangalore today. It can be Kolkata, Delhi, Chicago, or New York tomorrow. For me, home is where I live, where my family lives. So is Shillong was my home yesterday but is not so tomorrow, I have no regrets. I have my priorities sorted and more than 2/3 rd of my life in front of me (hopefully!) to carve a name for myself on the foundation of Indian Bengali – an identity passed on to me by my parents and ancestors.

The lockdown which unlocked the shadows

The apartment I live in shares one of its boundary wall with a well-known school. As a result, my balcony opens to the school field. With the ongoing pandemic and schools being indefinitely shut the field is being renovated. Children in India and in many parts of the world are attending classes from home – one of the many positive outcomes of technology, even though it doesn’t replicate the experience of being physically present in class.

This reminded me of my school days when we had a similar experience in my hometown, Shillong. We could not attend classes for one whole year. Those were days before the mobile phones and the Internet had happened. Perhaps, television and landline telephones were the only technology we were exposed to. I remember collecting assignments from school, completing them at home, and then submitting for evaluation.

With this thought, today I share Shonali’s story, which outlines why schools didn’t happen for one whole year. This post is part of the series of personal stories I am bringing to you in context of the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, the community that has been been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam more than seven decades ago. (Read my previous post for context.) As mentioned before, my aim is to raise awareness about this marginalized community. Over the years, atrocities spread beyond the Bengali to all non-tribal, in general. However, the fact remains that it is the Sylheti Bengali, who remains homeless and stateless. I do not intend to paint a loathly picture of my hometown Shillong and its people. Shillong is too dear to me, it’s my home, the place where I was born and raised. But, these are my stories. Stories that need to be told.

Shonali writes, “We left to find safety and security never to look back to those dark times which haunts us in our memories and nightmares. In many, including me who grew up in the perpetual fear of being persecuted on racial grounds, those dark times have left a permanent imprint on us as PTSD and we live with it.”

Read on…

ShowerScape

woman wearing brown shirt inside room Photo by Felipe Cespedes on Pexels.com

A microbe. And that’s what it took to bring the human species down to a lockdown. We have been thrown into the COVID-19 pandemic, something this generation had never experienced in this magnitude before. Normal life as we knew it is suspended indefinitely. The whole of humanity is in this together without any exceptions of caste, creed, religion, colour, race, political orientation, sexual orientation- one and all in a way which we witness only in movies. The image of a gigantic UFO towering over the earth fills my vision. I only wish the world came together not under such dire circumstances but in a manner which was more pleasant. We were not prepared to handle this crisis and it’s almost like taking one day at a time but also having to plan and prepare for the next several weeks. Tesco yesterday breathed panic. It…

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Once upon a time…

My previous post was on my hometown, Shillong, described in the context of Hindu Sylheti Bengalis – the community that has been left homeless since the partition of the state of Assam, more than seven decades ago. It’s a tragedy that most of my fellow countrymen don’t know about. I had mentioned that I would share few stories written by other bloggers. These are my stories. Stories that I would have told. My aim is just to raise awareness about this marginalized community through these posts.

Today I share Sharmistha’s story. Her story reminded me of my maternal grandmother’s family. They lived in Shillong for generations. My grandmother and her siblings were born and brought up in Shillong. Every single person from that family has now moved out of Shillong. The last member left just 2 years ago. Same is the story of an aunt (father’s younger brother’s wife) and several other relatives and friends.

Sharmistha writes, “Not in his wildest dreams did Baba think he would one day have to leave his home and hearth and become a refugee in his own land. There was no other place we could call ‘home’ and it wouldn’t be wrong to say that we felt dispossessed, displaced, homeless and uprooted. No matter how many words I use to describe our plight, nothing can truly express how traumatized we were.”

Read on….

Shillong: Reflections and remembrances

A book that I like to read time and again, specially in these troubled times, is Rahul Pandita’s “Our moon has blood clots”.Browsing through this memoir of emotional turmoil in strife torn Kashmir took me to disturbed times in my hometown,Shillong.

The year was 1979 ; it was the month of November. Although I cannot recall the exact date, I do remember that something happened on that day which changed our lives forever.For the first time in our lives we heard words like “outsider”, “non-tribal”, “curfew” – words which made the air heavy with hatred , animosity , confusion and uncertainty.

Schools had shut down, final exams were cancelled (We were in class 8 then ) and only ICSE examinees reached school amid heavy security . Curfew was imposed in the city and there was tension all around. The desecration of an idol of Goddess Kali in the Laitumkhrah locality…

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The Place I Belong to, Yet I Don’t

Shillong is my home. No other place, I can ever call home. Though I live in Bangalore now and have been here for the past 10 years, after having spent a couple of years in Kolkata and Hyderabad. Bangalore can be my second home and for two reasons at that – first, this is the longest I have stayed at any place outside Shillong; second, this place has given me a job and I have invested in buying a house here. My heart however beats only for Shillong – the place of my birth and the place where I grew up. My parents still live there.

But every so often, in different ways, I am told that Shillong is not my home. The reason being I am a non-tribal. More importantly, I am a Bengali – a Sylheti Bengali. Why? Because certain thoughtless leaders had decided my fate by signing some papers, years before I was born. They had conveniently divided the country into two nations, which later became three (India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh). Everyone knows about the great partition of India that had happened through the two provinces of Bengal and Punjab. Hardly anybody knows about the third province, which was also affected by partition. The province of Assam. In this case the wrath of partition fell upon the Hindu Sylheti Bengalis. A lot has been talked about the sufferings of the people from Punjab. Not many are aware of the sufferings of the Bengalis from Sylhet.

Who are Sylheti Bengalis: The Sylheti people are a Sylheti-speaking Bengali sub-group which originated from the Sylhet region of the Indian subcontinent. Current population is divided between the Sylhet Division of Bangladesh, three districts of the Barak Valley and in the Hojai district of Assam in India. There are sizeable populations in the Indian states of Meghalaya, Tripura in North Tripura district and Manipur. (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The merciless act of drawing a line across the map of East India affected the sub-community of Sylheti Bengali like no other. That the line was drawn by cheating the community at large, based on what suited the vested interests at that time, is a different piece of history altogether. While the country jubilantly celebrated its independence from 200 years of British Rule, this small community had lost everything. Hindu Sylheti Bengalis, belonging to Sylhet district of Bangladesh, were displaced from their homes and became refugees in their own country. Not only did they lose their assets like property, homes, and other material wealth, they had lost their identity. Their sufferings had just begun. Many of them had moved to the state of Meghalaya (part of Assam at that time), as that was logistically the easiest. Moreover, in many cases, friends and relatives were already living there. Meghalaya became a separate state in 1972. Just a few years later, trouble started with the indigenous tribes wanting the non-tribal Bengalis out of their state. The Bengalis suffered atrocities and alienation in many overt and covert ways.

The community, docile and meek by nature, silently accepted all the atrocities and humiliations hurled upon them. They never protested about being made to feel like encroachers in their own country. Instead, they chose to focus on the upbringing of their children, provide them with good education, and equip them with all they could for a better and brighter future. Fighting the stigma of being refugees and facing hardships with their limited resources, they were putting back pieces of their lives together as they tried to settle down. Starting life from scratch, some managed to buy land and built their own homes before the Land Act was passed (according to The Meghalaya Transfer of Land Act, 1971, only tribals are allowed to buy land in Meghalaya).

Their choice of selecting meekness to aggression did not quite work in their favour and the ghosts of partition continued to haunt them. Over a period, in the hope of finding peace and to protect themselves, many left to other parts of the country. Those that had to leave their own houses and property lament that they lost everything for a second time just in two generations. Many preferred to stay on, still facing alienation and humiliation, as that is home to them.

It’s been a little over seven decades now. The ghost of partition still rears its ugly head every now and then. The Hindu Sylheti Bengali remains displaced forever. They are Indians that are strangers in their own country and have no place to call their own. The community continues to struggle in their 3rd and 4th generations down the line.

Recently, I came across a couple of blog posts that are individual stories of this marginalized community of people. I will share a couple of them in the hope that some of you will care to read even though you might not completely relate. They’re written by other bloggers, but they are my stories – stories that I would have told.

Click the links below to read the stories: