Renu Gourisaria is a retired schoolteacher who lives in Kolkata. She fell ill a few years ago and became sharply aware of her mortality. So, she decided to write down whatever she remembered of her life – for her daughter and son. The result is Zakaria Street Se Mayfair Road Tak, which covers the life of the writer and her family and is told in Hindi in a delightfully chatty style.

Gourisaria begins her story from the time of her great grandfather, Naurangrai Khaitan, who began the eastward journey of the family from Rajasthan. Naurangrai had seven sons and three daughters, and the seven sons with their families lived together in a large mansion on Zakaria Street.

As the families expanded, some moved to south Calcutta (as it was known then). Renu’s grandfather Laxminarayan, his wife, Kamladevi, and their four sons with their families moved to 96, Southern Avenue. A widowed daughter also came to live there with her son. This is where Renu grew up. It was a classic Indian multi-generational joint family teeming with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins.

An avid fan of Hindi films, Renu quotes a popular film song “bachpan ke din bhee kya din the, udte phirte titli banke” to describe her idyllic childhood. Her mother and aunts, the daughters-in-law, took turns to manage the larder, while the Brahmin cook, Ramchandra Maharaj, ruled the roost in the kitchen. Meals used to be served in plates made of silver.

Renu, her sister, and all the girl cousins went to Ballygunge Shiksha Sadan. School was great and she and her cousin, Lata, became the first two girls from their family to finish Class X and take the Board exams. She says that in school they had book learning and much else. It was like a second home and prepared them for life.

Life at home was always interesting and fun with different kinds of activities – papads and pickles were made at home, there was sewing and singing, preparations for and celebrations of different festivals, picnics and cricket matches and of course, travel. The book has detailed accounts of Renu’s journeys at different stages of her life.

There are beautiful memories of travelling to Ranchi, where her maternal grandparents lived, during the school summer holidays. Renu is widely travelled in India and abroad. She has travelled with family, with groups of students and with friends.

She writes of a trip to Kerala with her daughter and trips to Kashmir. Kashmir, in fact, has a special place in her heart and very early in the book, she reflects on the violence in the area and bemoans the lack of political will to end the misery of the people there.

How the battle was fought

Renu was married at sixteen and began her married life in Gola in Uttar Pradesh. She was enjoying her new life with her husband and his family and also preparing for her Intermediate examinations. Sadly, her husband died of complications from appendicitis barely eighteen months into their marriage, when Renu was four months pregnant.

Renu writes candidly and in detail about the rapid changes in her life in the next few years including remarriage, separation from her daughter, the birth of her son and also her attempts at dying by suicide. Supported by her mother and brother, Pramod, she began rebuilding her life.

The support she received from her mother, brother and sister-in-law is certainly remarkable and casts a different light on the Marwari community, who are often characterised as orthodox and rigid. As Renu brought up her son, Arjun, she also began finding her feet.

The girl who had been married at sixteen soon after finishing school, did her undergraduate studies, trained as a teacher and also finished her postgraduate degree. She then joined her alma mater as a teacher.

Renu writes with feeling about her bonds with different women in her life – her mother, her sister, who died some time ago and whom she misses acutely, her cousins, her childhood friend, Neerja Rateria, an opthtalmologist, her schoolfriends, her colleagues and the friends she made when she joined a literary society where women met to discuss literature, including their own writings. There are vivid accounts of how these women have shared their lives and supported each other through good times and bad.

This book is an important addition to the treasure house of memoirs of Indian women. Renu’s story is a testimony to the struggles that women in India face even if they grow up eating off silverware. It is the story of a dutiful daughter, wife and mother resolutely working to establish her autonomy – during the lunch break at college, she would come home to breastfeed her baby daughter and then rush back in time for the next class.

Writing a memoir isn’t easy – what do you include and what do you leave out? Much as I enjoyed reading the book, I felt that some bits could have been left out – there are far too many details about Renu’s large, extended family and her relationship with almost each and everyone.

All of us are aware that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but covers have their stories to tell. Bishwanath Dasgupta’s beautifully detailed illustration of a bustling marketplace in Kolkata is peopled entirely by men. Kolkata is central to Renu’s book, but it is not a city of men. It is a Kolkata experienced by women (and men) both within the home and outside.

Zakaria Street Se Mayfair Road Tak, Renu Gourisaria, Sambhavna Prakashan.