A Woman’s Pride: Hemalata Mansingh

By Supriya Prasanta:


Hemalata Mansingh(1919-2004) was born in Bilipada, Jagatsinghpur. She studied at Ravenshaw Girls High School. She was married to Mayadhara Mansingh, a poet and scholar of repute in Odisha. She learnt music from Gokulachandra Srichandan, a famous classical singer.  

Her memoir, Priya Parama (The Intimate Beloved) was published in 2004. As noted by the editor, Sricharan Mohanty, it was written in three phases.  All the sections in it centre on her husband. She narrates in it her relationship with him and aspects of her married life with a frankness which is unusual in personal narratives written by women in Odia.

The excerpt chronicles the difficult and testing times her family passed through in the early forties and fifties. While being an unfailing source of inspiration to her poet-husband, she never forgets to provide a memorable portrait of people and places.


A Woman’s Pride

(Translated from Original Odia by Supriya Prasanta)

Mansingh joined as a lecturer at Ravenshaw College and took a house on rent on the street lying close to the Mangalabag square in Cuttack. The house had a room adjacent to its staircase leading to the first floor. The iron shop owned by Hadia stood in front of the house.  Mansingh sent a peon, Rama, to Rairangpur to bring me and Lalu over to Cuttack.

I packed rice, utensils, broomsticks etc. I also took a bed made of teak wood with me. I  began setting up my home in Cuttack. I had brought a carpet with me. Mansingh had seen floors in every house covered with carpets when he was in the West. He had laid bamboo mattresses in every room in our house. I found it impossible to clean the red dust blown over from the road settling under them.

One day Mansingh felt feverish, and did not go to college. In the noon, he washed my pride away with his tears admitting that he had neglected me in past. At such moments, a man could lay his kingdom at the feet of his woman; a woman’s pride—it amounts to nothing! I was a young woman who had never been touched by any man other than my husband. I was eager to become one with him. I conceived my second child at this consummation. I knew that I was pregnant even without undergoing any tests. I felt terribly sick. One day, Mansingh’s cousin (his uncle’s son), who was studying medicine, came to our house. Both of them discussed my health and thought it was better to terminate the pregnancy. Dr. P C Ray, gynaecologist, diagnosing my low haemoglobin level, advised me to abort the foetus. I kept repeating one thing—‘I might die, but I would never kill my unborn child.’

Mansingh tried to persuade me—‘You’re enduring so much pain. You’ve to only pop a pill, you would not even know, the aborted foetus would pass out of your body through bleeding as it occurs during the period of menstruation.’ I did not pay heed to anyone even though I always ran a temperature. I lost my appetite. Even water tasted bitter to me. My limbs ached from weakness. When the fever did not subside for a long time, the doctor suspected that I might have contracted tuberculosis. A telegram was sent to my father. My parents came from Mayurbhanj to see me. I felt very depressed—how terrible it was that I had gone down with a disease like tuberculosis. No one would marry my sister if this news got about. Lalu was kept away from me. A boy from my parents’ village was hired to look after him.

I consulted many doctors and took medicines. Mansingh consulted Fakir Mohan’s grandson, a homeopath, and I remained under his treatment. Still, my health did not improve; my appetite remained low.

His cousin, who was a doctor, frequently came to visit our house to ask after my health; maybe the seed of suspicion had not been uprooted fully from Mansingh’s mind. On some days, he would playfully tell Rama—‘The lover had come today.’ I never had the idea what Rama made of this statement. I would lose my temper and say—‘Why do you say such a thing?’ Mansingh would say—‘I’m just joking, can’t you see?’

At this time, Mansingh got dismissed from Ravenshaw College for no reason. I did not know how much money he received as his salary, but we were leading a life of luxury. We happily welcomed relatives and friends to our home. Mansingh did not even know why he, the first Ph.D. degree holder in Odisha, became the victim of a conspiracy and got dismissed from the college. I was told that, at his interview, he had demanded a higher salary.

The shopkeepers who had given monthly ration on credit asked to be paid. Mansingh did not have a single rupee with him. I had saved some money and kept it under a stack of clothes. I paid them from my own savings. That day I decided I would never buy anything on credit. The house-rent was twenty-eight rupees. I requested our house-owner and he agreed to take twenty-four rupees instead. I took charge of all the responsibilities of our household.

I did not know what came over Mansingh. He wrote to my father—‘Please come and take Hema with you. I would go mad if she stayed with me.’ Father arrived at our house. It was decided that I would go with him. Father did not ask me any questions. It was time to go to the railway station; I and Lalu were ready to go with him. Suddenly, this thought came to my mind—‘I would go and live in my parents’ house in luxury. Who would, then, look after this unstable man? He would certainly leave home and wander hopelessly all over the places.’ I decided against going with Father and told him so. ‘Let Hema stay here,’— My father said to Mansingh, and left. He gave me some money without anyone’s knowledge.

We shifted to a house in Tantisahi in Rausapatan. The monthly rent was six rupees. Two statues of lions stood at either side of its entrance. It was an old-fashioned house and had no windows. Even in day-time, it was dark inside the house. Because of the swamp that lay nearby, mosquitoes flew all over the place and did not spare us even during the day.

Our relatives hardly ever came to visit us when we lived in this house. Once Udaynath Behura (distantly related to my father) had come and stayed with us for a few days. Everybody in our village called him, ‘Thakur-bapa’. He used to spend all his time in worshiping deities. He was very old, still he had not lost any of his teeth. He was fair-complexioned; his hair was white like jute. When we rose in the morning, we would hear the sounds of his wooden slippers on the floor. He would be coming back from river Mahanadi after taking a dip in it. He did not take fish or meat, but he could eat and digest amounts of food which no young man could consume. Thakur-bapa told us many stories from scriptures.

From here, we again shifted to another house in Malasahi for which we paid twelve rupees per month. This house overlooked the Cuttack Medical College. We preferred this house as I could avail myself of proper medical care in the event of an emergency. It was a newly-built house, and was named ‘Surakothi’. A few quarters in the neighbourhood were occupied by some educated Bengali families. I made friends with the Bengali women. The doctors’ words often made me panic, but they would assure me—‘You’re enduring so much pain, you would give birth to a daughter this time. Don’t worry, sister. You would not even know when you would get well. You would have such a smooth delivery that no one would guess that you were in labour.’ They would give me curries to eat. They would invite me to play Holi with them, and to help them prepare sweets. The men would send word through their wives to me—‘Tell the gentleman to give private tuition; even fortune as large as sands on the riverbed gets depleted if one sits idly at home doing nothing.’

I never uttered a word regarding money matters to Mansingh. If I had asked him to make a living as a private tutor, he would have felt deeply humiliated and committed suicide. During this period, I had snatched away lumps of opium from his hands on several occasions; I have lost count of the number of times I have saved his life, the number of times he attempted suicide by hanging himself from the ceiling with a towel or a length of cloth.

The Bengalis held Mansingh in high esteem. They chose him to preside over the ‘Prabasi Bengali Sammilani’. At this time, I liked a saying that I came across written on the wall of our neighbour’s house—

Even though the world floats away in tears

I would go on doing my duty.

Again,

One who has the power to punish, he also forgives.

These words reverberated in my mind.  My suffering had reached its peak. Mansingh was the editor of Aarati magazine. He published a poem titled, Tiraskarini (The Despiser) in this:

She hurts me with biting words,

and injures my pride,

And shows me

I have nothing left

To be proud of.

*                                              *                                              *

During this time, a young man called Brajamohan came to stay with us to help me with household chores. He must have been six feet in height. His salary was fixed at two rupees a month.  He was not wicked like our earlier servants. He took great care while buying provisions for our house. Everybody liked him for his honesty. We always treated him politely. Though he was barber by caste, we ate what he cooked. When I stayed at Kanika cottage after my delivery, he refused to go there taking rice for me—he was scared of losing his caste! In hospitals, generally, no one bothered about caste discriminations, but he thought he would become impure!

As long as I was in Cuttack, he stayed with me. Every day, after I had had my meal, he would give me a paan stuffed with gundi and coriander seeds, and got me addicted to this habit. Afterwards, when Mansingh was appointed the editor of the daily, The Swaraj, in Bhubaneswar, I sent him there to take care of Mansingh. He would visit me now and then, and take some money from me.

The words of my neighbours turned out to be true. I did not know when I recovered from fever. I had a smooth delivery. When my second son was born, even the neighbours could not know that his mother was undergoing labour pain. He has now become the foreign secretary of India!

Mansingh could not go to join Khalsa College, nor did he ever regret it. He was happy that he could be with me when I was in labour. Mansingh had no money to offer to the doctor. He only gave him some of his books.

(Priya Parama, pp. 44-48)


Supriya Prasanta is an editor and translator from Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She works as an academic editor for Cambridge University Press India.

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