And so, the story of the three great-granddaughters of Jai Krishna Gangooly starts on the day of a wedding, a few hours before the palki ride where fates have already been decided, in the decorated ancestral house of the Gangoolys on the river in Mishtigunj town. The decorations signify a biye-bari, a wedding house. Beggars have already camped in the alleys adjacent to the canopy under which giant copper vats of milk, stirred by professional cooks, have been boiling and thickening for sweetmeats, and where other vats, woks, and cauldrons receive the chunks of giant hilsa fish netted fresh from the river and hold the rice pilao, lamb curry, spiced lentils, and deep-fried and sauce-steeped vegetables, a feast for a thousand invited guests and the small city of self-invited men, women, and children camped outside the gates.
The astrologers have spoken; the horoscopes have been compared. The match between Jai Krishna's youngest daughter and a thirteen-year-old youth, another Kulin Brahmin from an upright and pious family from a nearby village, has been blessed. The prewedding religious rites have been meticulously performed, and the prewedding stree-achar, married women's rituals, boisterously observed. To protect the husband-to-be from poisonous snakebite, married women relatives and Brahmin women neighbors have propitiated Goddess Manasha with prescribed offerings. All of this has been undertaken at a moment in the evolution of Jai Krishna from student of Darwin and Bentham and Comte and practitioner of icy logic, to reader of the Upanishads and believer in Vedic wisdom. He had become a seeker of truth, not a synthesizer of cultures. He found himself starting arguments with pleaders and barristers, those who actually favored morning toast with marmalade, English suits, and leather shoes. Now nearing forty, he was in full flight from his younger self, joining a debate that was to split bhadra lok society between progressives and traditionalists for over a century.
A Dacca barrister, Keshub Mitter, teased him for behaving more like a once-rich Muslim nawab wedded to a fanciful past and visions of lost glory than an educated, middle-class Hindu lawyer. Everyone knew that the Indian past was a rubbish heap of shameful superstition. Keshub Mitter's insult would have been unforgivable if it hadn't been delivered deftly, with a smile and a Bengali lawyer's wit and charm. My dear Gangooly, English is but a stepping-stone to the deeper refinement of German and French. Where does our Bangla language lead you? A big frog in a small, stagnant pond. Let us leave the sweet euphony of Bangla to our poets, and the salvation-enhancement of Sanskrit to our priests. Packet boats delivered Berlin and Paris papers to the Dacca High Court, along with the venerated Times.
The cases Jai Krishna pleaded in court often cast him as the apostle of enlightenment and upholder of law against outmoded custom, or the adjudicator of outrages undefined and unimaginable under British law. The majesty of law was in conflict with Jai Krishna's search for an uncorrupted, un-British, un-Muslim, fully Hindu consciousness. He removed his wife and children from cosmopolitan Dacca and installed them in Mishtigunj. He sought a purer life for himself, English pleader by day, Sanskrit scholar by night. He regretted the lack of a rigorous Brahminical upbringing, the years spent in Calcutta learning the superior ways of arrogant Englishmen and English laws, ingesting English contempt for his background and ridicule for babus like him. He had grown up in a secularized home with frequent Muslim visitors and the occasional wayward Englishman. In consideration of non-Hindu guests, his father had made certain that his mother's brass deities and stone lingams stayed confined in the closed-off worship-room.
On the morning of Tara Lata's wedding, female relatives waited along the riverbank for the arrival of the groom and his all-male wedding party. The groom was Satindranath Lahiri, fifth son of Surendranath Lahiri, of the landowning Lahiri family; in his own right, a healthy youth, whose astrological signs pointed to continued wealth and many sons. Back in Dacca, Jai Krishna had defended the ancient Hindu practices, the caste consciousness, the star charts, the observance of auspicious days, the giving of a dowry, the intact integrity of his community's rituals. His colleague, Keshub Mitter, to be known two decades later as Sir Keshub, and his physician, Dr. Ashim Lal Roy, both prominent members of the most progressive, most Westernized segment of Bengali society, the Brahmo Samaj, had attempted to dissuade him. The two men had cited example after example of astrologically arranged marriages, full of astral promise, turning disastrous. The only worthwhile dowry, they'd proclaimed, is an educated bride. Child-marriage is barbarous. How could horoscopes influence lives, especially obscure lives, in dusty villages like Mishtigunj? Jai Krishna knew these men to be eaters of beef and drinkers of gin.
Excerpted from Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukherjee. Copyright © 2002 by Bharati Mukherjee. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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