Culture

The Unfinished Poem: Memories of a Child Bride

A true story about child marriage, and the roles that mothers can play.

Author’s note

My grandmother Radharani Debi was born 115 years ago today, on November 30, 1903. This is her story. Although I envisioned some of the scenes and reinvented the dialogues, all the facts (and names) included here are accurate, including Radharani’s relationship with her two mothers, Narayani and Sushila.

This story took place in 1916-17, but India still has the highest number of child brides in the world, where girls with little or no education are three times as likely to be married in childhood. To this day, nearly a third of all Indian girls are married before they turn 18, their development arrested, their dreams unfulfilled. Not every child bride is as fortunate or determined as my grandmother was, 100 years ago.

The poem I translated to include here is from Radharani Debi’s first book of poetry, Leela Kamal.

Happy birthday, Dimma.

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He looked just like he did on our wedding night. Tall, dressed in an embroidered white kurta, a garland of jasmine flowing around his neck. Thick hair combed back in waves, shining like silk. I’d been so surprised, I remember, when the veil was lifted for our shubho-drishti – that auspicious first glance – to discover that he was smiling. I hadn’t met him before, but I knew he was 25, just over double my age. And yet there was nothing boringly grown-up about his smile. His eyes were sparkling when he filled the parting of my hair with a vermilion flood of sindoor. Could he be winking at me? No, that would be too brazen, even in these modern times. Even now, in 1916.

I remember the day I first heard about him. Ma had kept me forever in the kitchen, teaching me to make the perfect golaap sandesh with cottage cheese, rose water, shelled pistachios, and a bowl heaped with rose petals. Looking at the dismembered rose buds, I felt a rush of sadness. They were meant to have blossomed into brashly fragrant flowers, weren’t they? As I pushed creamy cheese into the rose-shaped mould, I wished I were outside in our rose garden, whose glory was famous throughout Cooch Behar. It was my favourite place in our compound, just across from the verandah heaped with climbing roses. The sandesh slipped out of the mould, like a mass of quivering flesh. “Concentrate, Ranu!” Ma hissed.

Though I always topped my class in school, especially in literature and mathematics, I wasn’t a good student in the kitchen. And Ma wasn’t a patient teacher. So, as soon as she stepped out to inspect the cauliflowers from our vegetable garden, I ran to our library. Baba had set it up for us, packing it with all the children’s books he could find. He also subscribed to every children’s magazine, so each month a host of publications would arrive which we‘d fight over. But of the thirteen brothers and sisters, other than me it was Shej-Dada – my third eldest brother  – who most loved to read. The two of us edited a handwritten magazine called The Good Path. And that month, The Good Path was late.

“There you are,” said Shej-Da, poring over our unfinished spread. “How’s your poem coming along? The one about the Princess in the World of Darkness?”

“Still working on it!” I took out my notebook. “So, this is where I’m at: A deathly sleep in that dark land/ Had steeped her in an eternal night!”

“My god!” said Shej-Da. “A deathly sleep? Eternal night? Isn’t that too dark for a fairy tale in rhyme?”

“Well, the deathly sleep is a… a… what’s that word? A metaphor, you see. For ignorance, for superstitious customs. As in, a lack of education.”

“Well, you may want to simplify it a bit, na? Eternal night sounds a bit too educated, I think. After all, you’re only twelve!”

“Ranu! How dare you run off like that?” Ma rushed into the library. “You are ruining your life with this obsession with poetry!”

“Let her be, Narayani,” Baba spoke quietly from the library door. “She’s just trying to finish their magazine.” Baba had a habit of popping out of and vanishing into nowhere, like magic. Is that a special trick that all Magistrates have to master, I wondered.

“She thinks she can do anything that a boy can do. She’s going to be running a home, not a court nor a class room!” Ma caught me by my arm. “Ranu, you have to stop this writing nonsense and let me teach you something real and useful, for once!”

“But… But… I still have homework to finish for school tomorrow. I can’t spend any more time in the kitchen today, Ma.”

“Then you’re not spending any more time in your school either!” Ma thundered. “It’s giving you all kinds of wrong ideas. I will not let you shame us with your in-laws by failing in your wifely duties!”

“In-laws? Wifely duties?” Shocked, I turned to Baba. “But I don’t want to get married now! You know I’m going to take the matriculation exam!”

“What’s the point?” said Ma. “You’re not going to write books or give lectures, are you? Stop drowning yourself in poetry – that will be your end, I know it!”

“Narayani, please –“Baba started to say but was cut off by Ma. He was famously articulate in matters of justice, we were told, but he could rarely get in a word with Ma.

“Stop your tantrum, Ranu!” Ma’s eyes were flashing. We were all scared of those eyes. “We have found you an excellent groom, and it will be your great fortune to marry him.”

“I don’t want to get married to anyone!” I cried.

“What will the world say if I raise a girl who cares nothing about making a home?” Ma started to weep now. “Who will be blamed for your wayward conduct? ME!” Her sobs became louder. This tactic always worked with Baba.

“All girls have to get married, Ranu,” Baba said softly. “Just like your older sisters did. As you know, they are very happy.”

Radharani Debi

“Have you heard?” Naw-Dada popped his head in, jovial as always, oblivious to the drama around us. “Dulari is going to have a baby next month!” Dulari was our favourite elephant. And Naw-Dada was by far Ma’s favourite child. I quickly grabbed his hand and rushed out of the library before Ma could protest.

The Good Path came out without my poem. Ma didn’t let me go to school the next morning, nor wander through the woods on Dulari’s back, like I loved to do with our mahout Bahadur every afternoon. She summoned me to the kitchen instead, but I went to the one room on our grand property that Ma never set foot upon. Where I was safe from her rage. It was the room in the back where Pishima lived.

Pishima, my father’s cousin, wore a thick white cloth without a blouse, and was always barefoot. Her hair was cropped shorter than a boy’s. She didn’t eat with us, and never entered our rooms. Pishima had a lovely smile and though she spoke little, she sang beautifully. I stayed in her room all day, refusing to eat. I knew that would upset Baba, and sure enough, he came to see me in the late afternoon. Pishima stepped out.

“Please eat a little, Ranu,” Baba said. He looked tired, and older than usual.

“No, I’d rather starve!” I wailed. “I never want to get married!”

“It’s all fixed now, even the wedding date. It’s a great family. They are my friends, and I know you’ll be very happy. Do you think I would want anything bad to happen to you, Ranu?”

“But I’m the one getting married! Why doesn’t it matter what I want?”

“Because you’re still a child,” said Baba gently. “You’re not old enough to know what is best for you.”

“Then how can I be old enough to get married? To be sent off to live with a total stranger?”

“Well, you will come back home after the wedding. “Baba cleared his throat. “You will stay with us for a few months until… until you become old enough to be a wife.”

Radharani Debi

“And how would anyone suddenly know that I’ve become ‘old enough’? It doesn’t make sense!”

Baba looked embarrassed and disappeared – predictably. Pishima stepped back in.

“Your wedding is something to celebrate, my dear,” she said, wiping the tears off my face.

Celebrate?” My wailing increased.

“Stop it, Ranu,” Shej-Da stood outside Pishima’s door. Baba had obviously sent him along, hoping that he would find a way to bring me around. “Won’t you stop acting like someone died?”

I could tell that even Shej-Da, who pampered me the most, was impatient now. “Look what I brought for you. Now that you’re getting married, I thought you could graduate to a grown-up magazine!” Shej-Da waved a booklet at me. Curious, I took a step toward the door.

Was that the newest issue of Bharati? I rushed into the courtyard for a better look. Shej-Da opened it to a poem by Satyendranath Datta. I grabbed the magazine from him, instantly distracted.

“Satyendranath Datta!” I cried. “My favourite poet!”

“I know!” smiled Shej-Da. “You’re in luck. For that’s your husband’s name!”

“What?” Dumbfounded, I dropped the magazine. “I’m marrying the great poet?”

“No, silly girl.” Shej-Da broke into peals of laughter. “But your groom has the same name!”

I sat down in the courtyard and devoured Satyendranath Datta’s poem, “Song of a Palanquin.” It was glorious, as all his poems were, full of lilting rhythms and sparkling images of all the everyday scenes crossed by a palanquin, the ornate litter carrying a bride to her wedding.

The poem was surely an auspicious sign, wasn’t it? Enchanted by its cadence, I felt the tension of the day melt away slowly. I didn’t notice that Pishima was silently feeding me from a thaali as I read the poem over and over. Not for nothing was Satyen Datta called the Wizard of Rhymes!

Suddenly my future husband didn’t seem like a stranger. “Maybe it’s all going to be fine,” I said to my twelve-year-old self. After all, if my husband shared his name with my beloved poet, how bad could he possibly be?

Radharani Debi

And he wasn’t. No, not bad at all.  We spent just a few days together after the wedding, surrounded by giggling cousins and fussing aunts. Although he and I were left for not a moment together alone, amazingly we even managed to speak about poetry. It was on our wedding night, as our families kept us awake with romantic songs and mischievous poems, as expected, in our flower-decked bashorghar. I suddenly remembered the poem I hadn’t finished.

“What’s the matter?” asked the other Satyen Datta, now my husband. “Anything wrong?”

“No, nothing at all,” I answered like the no-trouble girl Ma had strived to bring me up as.

“Then why are you frowning and chewing your lip while your Naw-Dada is reciting such a funny poem?”

How stupid and cranky I must look to him! I decided to come clean.

“Well, I was writing this poem, you see, which I didn’t have a chance to finish. And maybe now I never will.”

“Of course you will,” he smiled. “You write poems? That’s wonderful.”

“Do you like poetry?” I asked shyly.

“I do, and I think it’s more important than ever to have poetry in the world,” he murmured. “Especially now that a war has broken out… “

“A war?” I asked, worried. “Who is at war?”

“The world is. But let’s not discuss it tonight,” he smiled, leaning forward. “We’ll have a lifetime together for war! Will you show me your poem when it’s finished?”

When he smiled at me like that, even though I hardly knew him and he was much older, something like a tidal wave washed over my heart. Like it did when I listened to my favourite songs by Rabindranath Tagore. Or, early in the morning, when I watched Dulari wash her newborn in our lake. It was the same rush I felt just before the first monsoon, when I could smell the promise of rain and wet earth in the mountain air.

As planned, my husband went back to his engineering job in Rampur after ten days of festivities, when I shared a room with my younger sister Sudha, my constant escort. There was only one time when I ran into him on my own. One morning, when I was heading to the terrace to dry my hair after my bath, he was on his way down. “So much hair!” He smiled as he hurried past. It was the only time he saw me with my hip-length curls untied.

Even in those few days, when we were never alone, his smiling eyes had become strangely familiar. I had got used to the warm sandalwood smell that followed him everywhere, and I loved the way his hair sprung softly back from his forehead. “One day I’m going to touch that hair,” I shocked myself by thinking. “And it will feel like silk.”

I didn’t talk about him with anyone, not even Sudha. I had learnt that would be immodest. When our elder sister Sarasi would come home to visit, she’d often shut the door to her room, and I could hear her sobbing. Worried, I’d asked Sudha why Naw-Didi was crying in secret. “Don’t stress, Ranga-Didi!” Sudha had laughed. “She’s missing her husband, that’s all. Everyone knows it’s unseemly to cry for one’s husband in public.” So I decided to miss mine quietly. Modestly. But I kept working on my poem.

Early one morning, a messenger came from Kolkata. He had to take me to my husband, he said, because he was unwell. Baba and Ma sent me out of the room to talk to each other. Curious, I moved closer to the door so I could catch bits of their conversation. I heard the words “Asiatic Flu,” but I had no idea what that was.

Radharani Debi

“We should send one of our boys with her,” I heard Baba say. “Are you mad?” cried Ma. “Do you want my sons to get sick too? And what if they get saddled with her for life, like you did with your cousin?”

Nothing was making sense. But I packed my bags, including of course my notebook with our poem. I couldn’t wait to show it to my Satyen Datta, who loved poetry just like I did. In Kolkata, my mother-in-law Sushila Debi joined me and we traveled together to Rampur. She was very reserved, but her smile, though sad, reminded me of his. A woman of few words, the daughter of a doctor, my widowed mother-in-law was a famous nurse and midwife.

When I saw him, he was sleeping on a bed strewn with flowers, looking just as handsome as that flowery night our families had kept us awake through banter. My heart started pounding loudly – as loudly as the tin drums back home that warned villagers that a killer tiger was on the prowl. Praying that no one else could hear my heart’s racket, I brought out my notebook and took a step toward him. But my mother-in-law gently drew me back, her body shaking with quiet sobs.

“We are too late, Ma,” she said to me in a broken voice. Confused, I looked at his kind and peaceful face decorated with sandalwood paste, just like it had been for our wedding. Suddenly, I understood. I could feel a cold hand grab my noisy heart and crush it into silence. I wanted to yell my poem out to him, but I knew that would be insane. I wanted to rush and touch his hair, but I knew that would look immodest. I wanted to burst into tears, but I knew it was unseemly for brides to cry for grooms. So I just stood there, shoving my sobs back into my throat. I stood quietly, and very still. I could hear someone whispering – “Look at her! What a heart of stone. Not a single tear for her dead husband!”

“Leave her alone, for god’s sake,” My mother-in-law pulled me away. “She is only thirteen!” She cared less than my mother, it seemed, about what the world would think about a woman’s conduct. I found out later that as soon as she returned to Kolkata from Rampur, rather than take to her bed to mourn, as expected, she had rushed out to deliver a baby in a difficult birthing. “I’ve lost my son already,” she had said, “but I can save this mother and child.”

I was exhausted when I arrived back at my father’s house. I wanted to run to see my family, but Pishima met the carriage and took me into her room. “You will stay with me here from now on,” she said, eyes brimming with tears. She bathed me, carefully washing my long hair, scrubbing the last red bits of sindoor off my part. Pishima changed me into a plain white thaan without a border, just like hers, and sent all my clothes back to Ma, even my favourite velvet sandals. I was so tired I didn’t even notice that I was not offered any dinner.

The next morning, Pishima led me into the courtyard. Ma was waiting for me, along with the family barber. Without a single word, Ma took off all my jewelry – my bangles, my earrings, my nose-pin, my anklets, my necklace. Before I could understand what was happening, Ma sat me down, and the barber twisted my hair into a long rope.

“Bou-Didi,” whispered Pishima. “Do we need to do this? She is just a child!”

“She is a widow,” said Ma. “And we are an honourable family. Our reputation must be safe.” My hair fell to my feet in a coil, like a dead snake. Was it really so dangerous? “So much hair,” I could still hear the smile in his voice.

For the first time in my life, I walked barefoot, in my thaan, to see Dulari. Bahadur apologetically told me that he had instructions not to take me on my afternoon rides any longer. When I came back to our room, all my books were gone. Panicking, I rushed to find Ma.

Radharani Debi

Ma was throwing my books into the kitchen fire one by one. My notebook was next in line. “What is this drivel you write?” she bellowed. “And all this poetry you read? These books have brought nothing but bad luck to our family. How will we find a suitable groom for Sudha?”

“Please give my notebook back, Ma!” I tried to take it from her, but she wouldn’t let go.

“You brought this misfortune onto all of us by your unnatural ways. I never learnt to read or write, did I?” In our struggle we tore the notebook apart. The pages flew around us in a rain of truncated sentences.

“You refused to learn to be a proper bride. At least learn to be a proper widow!”

“That’s enough, Narayani!” Baba appeared in the kitchen and gathered up the shreds of my notebook. I’d never heard Baba yell at Ma before. “Ranu, please tell me what books you wish to read. I will buy them for you.”

“No, you won’t!” cried Ma. “Not out of my household budget!”

“She has a healthy pension from her husband,” Baba said quietly, eyes frozen with distress. Ma took a deep breath.

“All right, then! From now on, all her expenses will come out of that pension.” She walked off, fuming.

My expenses were minimal. All I ate for that first month was boiled rice and raw bananas, eaten once a day from a wooden dish. When this initial mourning period was over, my diet became daal-rice and boiled vegetables. No fish, meat or eggs, of course, and not even the more nutritious lentils like masoor. Nor any vegetables or herbs that lent taste to food, like onion, ginger of garlic. On the Ekadasi days of fasting without water, Pishima was sent in to oversee my bath, to make sure I didn’t cheat by drinking drops of water. “Why do I have to do all this?” I asked. “So that in your next life, you don’t suffer as much as you did in this one,” Pishima replied, not very convincingly.

Thank god for my husband’s pension. It paid not only for my food, my thaan, my soap, my toothpaste, and my pitcher of water, but also my books, my pencils, my pens, ink and paper. Baba took me with him on a work trip to Delhi once, despite Ma’s vehement protests. She finally agreed because the entire cost of the trip was covered by my husband’s pension.

The day after I got back from that trip, I woke up to find my sheet wet with blood. Frightened, I ran out to find Pishima. She hugged me tight, showing me how to make pads out of old cloth, and changed me into a fresh thaan. “It’s all right, Ranu,” she said, her voice trembling. “You’ve become a woman now, that’s all.” What did that mean, becoming a woman? Was I finally “old enough” to be a wife? To be a mother?

A sudden flood of pain gushed up my throat, choking me. I couldn’t breathe. I found myself running out into the rose garden. I had no idea that I was howling like a child, until I felt Shej-Da’s gentle hand on my shoulder. I looked up to see a small gathering in the rosy verandah. Sudha was in a pink jamdani sari, wearing my pearl and ruby jewelry set, hair pinned up with gold combs, looking gorgeous. Our best silver tea set was laid out in the verandah. A richly dressed family I didn’t know had come to visit. Everyone was staring at me in shock.

Radharani Debi with Antara Dev Sen and Nandana Dev Sen. This photo was shot when Nandana was 13, the same age as Radharani when she was widowed.

I was sent back to my in-laws home in Kolkata, the next morning. I’m not sure what made Ma decide that was the right thing to do. Was it because now that I was old enough to be a wife, per custom I’d become my husband’s problem – although I had no husband? Because I was an inauspicious presence in our home while my parents were trying to find a groom for Sudha? Or was it because she had got used to the absence of my depressing shadow while I was traveling with Baba, and preferred not to be hounded by it again? I would never know.

My mother-in-law was waiting for me in the drawing room in Kolkata. When she saw me in my white thaan, barefoot, hair shorn like a boy, she cried out loud and ran out of the room. “Such a lovely young girl!” I could hear her cry to my sister-in-law, who had got married to my husband’s younger brother the same day as me. “How could they?”

She returned with a new blue dhakai sari, a white blouse with a lace collar, and leather sandals. When I told her I’d promised Ma I wouldn’t wear coloured clothing, she wrapped one of her own white silk saris around me, with a black zari border. She fastened a gold chain around my neck and slipped on little pearl earrings. As she settled me down for a late lunch, I told her that Ma had also made me vow I wouldn’t touch any non-vegetarian food, as that would bring shame on our family. Without a word, my mother-in-law took away the fish and replaced it with cottage-cheese curry with peas and ginger. How did she know I’d been craving chhanar dalna?

“Your father told us you love going to school,” she said, as she fanned flies away from my silver thaali.

“Yes, but I promised Ma I wouldn’t take up studies again,” I murmured. “I can’t break a promise.”

“No, you mustn’t,” she sighed. “But tell me, what did you love studying most?”

“Poetry,” I said shyly. “I’m also good at arithmetic.”

“How lucky for me!” She smiled. “I need a lot of help with calculations.”

She took me to the room I would have lived in with my husband. It was sunny and beautiful, with a lion-footed wardrobe, a three-mirrored dressing table, and a green velvet love-seat. But it didn’t have a desk.

My mother-in-law sat me down with her the next day as she went over the household accounts. The morning whizzed by as I tallied up the kitchen expenses for the past week, chatting to her about my afternoon outings with Dulari. Before she went for her bath, she handed me the keys to the money chest. “Can you be in charge of this from now on?” She smiled. “That would be a big help.”

As we sat down to lunch together with my sister-in-law, who was a little younger than me, Ma said, “Our horse carriage could take you girls for an afternoon ride, if you’d like that?” Of course we said yes. The breeze caressed my face as we trotted past the Ganga. I caught a whiff of roses.

“I got new bed clothes for you,” my mother-in-law entered my room that night as I was getting ready for bed. “Do you like crochet?” As she picked up my pillow to change its cover, my tattered notebook slipped out from below. She picked it up, surprised.

From the left: Framed photo of Radharani as a young widow; Nandana Dev Sen; Nabaneeta Dev Sen; Antara Dev Sen; Radharani Debi.

“Please don’t throw that away!” I cried. “It’s nothing – just some poems I scribbled, that’s all.” She handed the notebook back without opening it.

The next morning, Ma put me in charge of teaching all the kids in our big joint family. As they gathered around me, I told them about my brothers and sisters, our elephant stable and rose garden. And about The Good Path. I even read out my unfinished poem to them, which I had changed a little.

Forever asleep in a dark, dark land,

Trapped she was in an endless night!

Awakened now by love’s golden wand

How strong she sits, on her throne of light…

They loved the poem, and were full of questions. “Who awakened the princess? Where was the golden wand hidden? How can a throne be made of light?” Looking at them gather around me, I caught myself thinking, “I won’t have children of my own, but there are so many in my life already!”

When I came back from my afternoon ride, Ma wasn’t there for tea. She had rushed out to take care of an elderly lady with cholera. I discovered a stunning roll-top desk in my room, instead of the love seat at the window. On it, sat a new scarlet notebook, with a note.

“Welcome home, Radharani. Don’t ever apologize for your poetry. Blessings, Ma.”

The notebook was bound in vermilion. Just like sindoor.

I picked it up and hugged it softly. It smelled like sandalwood.

When I opened it, it felt like silk.

I settled into my chair and started to write.

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Contrary to her mother Narayani’s expectations, Radharani published many books of poems, gave many lectures and received many awards. After 14 happy years as an adored daughter-in-law and a budding poet, she left Sushila Debi’s home to marry another poetNarendra Dev. Radharani never forgave herself for leaving the home of her first mother in-law, but Sushila Debi did. She offered to deliver Radharani’s first child. 
My mother Nabaneeta Dev Sen, now a  beloved writer, was born to Radharani and Narendra in 1938. 
Copyright © 2018 by Nandana Dev Sen

Nandana Dev Sen is a writer, actor and child-rights activist. She writes books for children, and works closely with RAHI, Operation Smile and UNICEF to fight against child abuse. She tweets as @nandanadevsen and is on Facebook.

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