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Like any other nation in the world, India has its own set of problems. One of the major problems being the caste system and the way it has differentiated between people for centuries. Injustice is so ingrained in our society that it has become normalized.
My ancestor Sasipada Banerjee is considered as one of the pioneers in evolving effective ideas to solve these problems. Sasipada (1840 - 1924) belonged to the high Kulin caste of the Brahmins but he gave up his inheritance, his sacred thread to join the Brahmo Samaj — a religious and social reform movement which was begun by Raja Ram Mohan Roy. Sasipada came under the influence of this movement and was more inclined to social service because of the condition of the country. He chose education as his first step. He started schools for girls and night schools for the labouring class. These night schools laid the foundation to the Working Men's Movement, the first of its kind in India. Sasipada tackled the situation of the "untouchables" in a very practical manner. To set an example, he would visit the houses of people deemed from the "lowest caste" and shared meals with them; he also invited most of them to enjoy meals at his house. He started a recreation club for workers to cure them of alcohol addiction. Even today the Sasipada Institute in Baranagar houses an important library with a century-old tradition. I personally feel that the contributions made by Sasipada were extremely important especially in making progress towards a more balanced and impartial community where everybody would feel welcomed. I am glad that my ancestors worked to solve these issues, however, we still have a very long way to go.
Banalata Devi, the daughter of Sasipada and Rajkumari Devi, lived a short life of twenty years. She had an astonishing linguistic flair and knew English, Bengali and Sanskrit equally well. Banalata organized an institution called Sumati Samiti for the upliftment of women. Through this institution, she invited numerous ordinary women to write about their aspirations and the struggle they faced on a daily basis because of suppression and patriarchy; she endeavored to educate and empower these women. She founded the first Bengali magazine for women entitled, Antahpur. Her institution also encouraged parents to send their daughters to school. She married Sasibhushan Vidyalankar, the editor of Jivanikosh. Along with him, Banalata continued to work for oppressed women and women's rights. I feel extremely proud to know that my ancestors had a big role in shaping a more inclusive and open-minded society. I am inspired by her work and understand the need to stand up against the injustice.
The issue of social inequality and injustice remain as one of the biggest problems plaguing Indian society to date. The caste system gave rise to a social hierarchy that still controls much of day to day activities, especially in rural India. I am encouraged by my own ancestors to do the same.
My great-great-uncle Prafulla Chandra Mukherji (1884-1982) was a witness to the cruel arrogance of the British in power which made him a rebel for life. He joined the Swadeshi movement in Calcutta under the leadership of Surendranath Banerjee during the Partition of Bengal while Prafulla was still studying at the Calcutta University. Due to their protests and rebellion, they were prevented from finishing their college education and finally on the encouragement from well-wishers including Rabindranath Tagore and Justice Sarada Mitra, they left the country and went to the United States in 1906. In the US they were compelled to work in factories so as to finance their education. He and a few others who migrated to the US with him, published a quarterly bulletin, "Free Hindustan" which carried articles on the social, economic and political condition of India. He worked for the rights of Indians and Asians in the US and was on the Executive committee of the War Resisters League. He had been a peace activist and was in Times Square in New York City every Saturday in silent protest against the US role in the Vietnam War for about 10 years. He was also in Washington DC with the Civil Rights Demonstration led by Martin Luther King Jr. When I read about the Civil Rights Movement in my regular history lessons, I had no idea that one of my ancestors was a part of these peaceful protests. I was spellbound by the fact that my ancestor had not only contributed to the community in India but also to the United States!
Learning and exploring my ancestry has been an extraordinary experience. After better understanding my lineage, a lot has been discovered; where certain traits, predominantly visible in my current family members, come from, why certain things are the way they are and so much more. Understanding my family's history has given me a different outlook on different aspects of life and I feel proud to know how my ancestors had contributed to the welfare of society. I have been able to understand different problems in today's world from a different perspective altogether. From scientists to social workers to aristocrats to migrants; my ancestry covers it all! We should take inspiration from them and carry forward their legacy.
Before I end this blog, I'd like to mention that my thamma (grandmother) has helped me a lot throughout this journey of discovering my ancestry. Born in Solapur, Maharashtra in 1944, she has been a true migrant herself. From Maharashtra to Delhi to Bengal, even to Sudan for a short while! Having travelled all over the world, she has acquired immense knowledge and understanding of society. She worked in the Tagore Archives and Library for over 3 decades and has helped hundreds of people whether it's for Tagore studies or otherwise. She has written and edited several books on him and his work. She is the kindest and the most generous person I have ever been fortunate to meet.
This is the third blog post of a series of 3.
These blog posts will cover topics such as my ancestry, benefits and problems of migration among others.
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Banalata Devi - My grandmother, Supriya Roy