Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Memoir in Motion: From Russia to Switzerland to India ...

Chandana 'Mamlu' Dey, a Founding Member of our UNESCO/UNITWIN Network, hopes to trace her grandmother’s journey from Russia in the Revolution, to Europe in the 1930s, to Calcutta in the War Years and Shantiniketan during Tagore’s lifetime. As she writes, this is a Memoir of an extraordinary individual and also the story of the turbulent times she lived through. Chandana continues: 

I've started work on a Memoir of my grandmother, Ketaki Sarkar (nee Jonas); Kotya Jonas met Nitai Sarkar in Geneva before the Second World War. She was a daughter of a Russian émigré, he a struggling medical student. They met at a student dance, fell in love, and got married. My grandfather practiced medicine in a rural clinic in the Canton de Valais-Switzerland, in what has now become a tourist spot. After my mother was born, he was keen to return to India , and my grandmother was prepared to leave her own family behind in Europe, and accompany him to a strange country and make it her home. She did this so successfully that no one would ever comment on her ‘un-Indianness’. She was completely at home in all cultures, all countries. She spoke Bengali fluently but never forgot her French or Russian. She managed to enter the most ‘aristocratic’ circles in Kolkata and later in Shantiniketan, but she was a working woman all her life and the household ran because she did so many jobs — effortlessly side by side.  I still come across students of ‘Mme De-Sarkar’ who taught students French at the Alliance Française in Kolkata.   

Three generations: Chandana at right with her mother and grandmother
Writing this Memoir really makes me think of how much more open societies were in the past.  I grew up in the 1970s knowing that the United States was made of struggling immigrants- where there was ‘place for all’. Migrants and immigrants have strived hard in unfamiliar surroundings, faced hardships and made successes of their lives. Would my grandmother have been able to fulfill her trajectory today? Surely, the more we close our borders, we close ourselves, and this makes us lead ‘small’ lives? 

~ Chandana 'Mamlu' Dey