Born in Kashmir in 1922, Sunila was the eldest daughter of a physician of the then British Government Railways. Her grandfather was the resident Engineer and chief adviser for the Maharaja of Kashmir, thus she was born in Srinagar. She had a very posh and privileged upbringing, she and all her three sisters were sent to school, though she only studied till the 6th Standard, it infested her with the bug for learning.
She and her second sister were withdrawn from school, with the sole purpose of marriage. Her mother was an education enthusiast, even though she never went to school herself, but read avidly and encouraged her daughters to do so. Sunila’s mom encouraged her to write a diary and maintain scrapbooks, where she would collect newspaper cuttings, or copy down interesting facts. She also copied poetry and excerpts from the religious books like the ‘Gita’ and the ‘Vedas’. She had a wide spectrum of interest ranging from Science, literature, history, Nature, and travel. Her father had a transferable job, so the sisters had the privilege of travelling through many cities, which was also an eye opener for her. She craved for knowledge. She was more interested in learning than how to cook and clean.
But, those were the times, when girls hardly ever pursued education, and Sunila’s fate was sealed when she was married off at the tender age of 15 to a MBBS student 10 years older to her, Girija Mohan Chatterjee. He was charming, handsome, educated and well read, but somehow came from a family where these qualities were only appreciated in the men and not the women. Sunila faced a lot of ridicule at her in-laws for being an ‘old-maid’ for 15 was quite old to get married back then, she was scorned for wanting to read or even write. Her interest in the books was laughed at and her disability to cook or clean well was looked down upon. She was not a ‘good wife’, she ‘wanted to be a man’ were few such comments that were dispensed upon her.
Soft spoken, polished, educated girl like Sunila was a target for constant mockery at the family which only valued money, entertainment meant food and alcohol for the men, and women were only cooks and machines for bearing children.
Girija Mohan, Sunila’s Husband left for Edinburgh, Scotland to study medicine. He was amongst the first 12 doctors from India who went to Edinburgh University to Study further. And Sunila was left alone in this mayhem of a family. Girija and Sunila loved each other dearly, and her only outlet to the outer world became the letters from her husband. Soon she found out she was pregnant, and went to stay with her parents for a while, which improved her life for a while. Girija came back a changed man, he was learned, polished and proper, qualities she admired in him. He joined Britannia Engineering Works as a Resident Doctor, and Soon Sunila came to stay with him. It was a new life for Sunila. She was happy initially, away from the loud noisy family, living her own life of knowledge learning with her son and her husband. But soon Girija and Sunila found out their mutual incompatibility, He loved the social circle, parties, dining out, enjoying life to the tee; she on the other hand enjoyed her quite life with books and music, her sewing, and her son. Soon they began drifting apart, around this time Girija met another Woman, Hasi, and an affair began which shook Sunila’s whole world.
Sunila quietly drifted back into seclusion when she came to know about the affair. She was loved by so many people in the neighbourhood, that every one supported her, and a protest was launched against Dr. Girija Mohan Chatterjee, But Sunila stepped in calming everybody down and asked her husband to legalise the affair by marrying Hasi. In the 1940-50’s Hindu men didn’t need to separate from his first wife, and could take a second one without a formal divorce.
Girija married Hasi without separating from Sunila, and she was forced to live in the same house as Girija and his new wife. After 3 years or roughly so, she moved out. This was an ‘incredible’ step for a woman in that age. She refused to share her house, her life, her husband with his new wife. She stepped down, leaving him, separating from the Man she loved and respected. Her pride and dignity was immense, she moved to a rented house with her son, and started living her own life. She loved all the kids of the neighbourhood, and everyone came to her for advice and support. All her son’ friends stayed with her and her home became open to all in need of support and love. Her son was growing up, and soon he joined Calcutta medical College.
Her son fondly remembers, “My Ma used to pull out my fat text books, and read them. She didn’t understand much of anything, but would keep small bookmarks on the pages, which she would later ask me to explain.” Her thirst for knowledge was never satiated, even in the dire of situations she never stopped learning. Soon her son graduated, and got a job in Ranigunj Paper mill as a resident doctor. They moved to Ranigunj, and her son remembers “when I finally got a job and started supporting her, she finally stopped praying, threw out all her idols, as if she had found a new strength in me, and she didn’t need God anymore.”
Her life changed even more, she met her dearest friend Kamala (whose story we have already covered in Incredible Women of India) in Ranigunj and together they travelled to many places, an achievement in itself, as women travelling alone just to see places as a tourist not a pilgrim was rare in the late 60’s.
Her son got married, and had a daughter, Sunila’s world revolved around her. The family came back to Kolkata as Girija was seriously ill, and wanted to see his first wife and eldest son. Sunila kept his wish; she came to see him, but still refused to stay with him. Soon Girija Mohan passed away, leaving his private practice to his eldest son.
Sunila’s last few years were filled with her granddaughter, learning even more, She and her son together built their personal library at home of about 650+ books.
When Sunila passed away, her son remembers a flood of people arrived on their doorsteps claiming to know ‘masima’ telling the family how she was loved, and how she gave money secretly to those who needed it. She even had given away her jewellery to the people who had come to her for help or money. And the family was unaware of her charity. This is how she was, silently, quietly she kept on doing good deeds, and she had spread love and joy to others even when her life was lonely.
Sunila was an ever-smiling, kindhearted person, no matter how harsh life was to her, she was never harsh to life. A truly incredible woman, who was born out of her time, she left a legacy behind of kindness, learning and supporting others even when she herself needed love and support the most. We at Incredible Women of India salute the spirit of this lady who wanted to learn, even till her last breath. Her diaries, letters and scrapbooks are preserved by her family as a memoir of a Woman who was able to come out of the shackles of kitchen and household chores, of social stigma and scarcity, and had carved her own life of peace and knowledge.