Photo provided by Debotri Dhar.

My grandmother gave me her love of rivers, of deep blues and earthy greens. She taught me to sing, to tell one raga from another, Malkauns and Megh Malhar and the mellow Yaman. She was graceful and beautiful, with a big bindi on her forehead that shone like the sun and the moon. I called her Didi, and we shared other loves too: spicy food, films, letters and distant places. Faced with stretches of poverty, she was beyond resourceful; she knew delicious recipes made from vegetable peels and stalks and rinds, the parts that are usually discarded. For the 10-day festival of the Goddess, when other children had new clothes for each day, she stitched gorgeous dresses from old curtains. No, she did not identify as a feminist. But she challenged many gender norms in the community, such as insisting on lighting her parents’ pyres herself, a cremation last rite/right that traditionally belonged to the men.

My grandparents shared a love that was legendary in our family, a bond unlike any we witnessed in our parents’ generation. They fell in love and married when she was only 18; and for over 50 years, my grandfather, whom I called Dada, would wake up early to make breakfast in bed for his beloved wife. She sang Bangla songs to him, he read love poems to her. They were parted only twice, once briefly before their marriage, when he traveled far for his engineering training, and once after his death, when he had to leave her to travel even further; each time she wrote long letters to him, concluding them with “bhalobashi, bhalobashi” (I love, I love).

Didi nursed some sadness that she could not go to college, due, in part, to early motherhood with three young children — she had her oldest, my mother, at 19 — even though university education in India was practically free. She made up for this by being a voracious reader of Bengali novels and short stories, and encouraging her daughters to attend college. Immensely interested in my graduate work on women’s education as well as postcolonial literature at Oxford, she proudly displayed all the books I authored or edited in her living room. 

When I told her about a course on Women and Well-Being in Literature that I had designed for the Women and Gender Studies curriculum here at the University of Michigan, she chided me for not including Rabindranath Tagore’s empathetic writing about women. (Tagore was the first non-white writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature.) “Bhalobashi, bhalobashi” is, in fact, the first line of one of his lyrical poems. “The course is in English, Didi. What you call the white man’s tongue,” I said softly. “Then find a translation,” she scolded. To my wonderful students’ appreciation, I added to our syllabus an English translation of Streer Patra (The Wife’s Letter), a powerful story by the androgynous Tagore. Yes, Didi supported my passionate advocacy for women’s participation in the public sphere. But she wrote in one of her letters: “Your Dada never disrespected me, he celebrated my work, my unique talents. I hope you are treated with the same respect and understanding in your world.” She always ended with “bhalo thakish.” Be well.

Didi yearned to visit me in America and to see the snow. I tried numerous times to make this happen, but there was opposition from relatives. In time I, too, moved away. On my birthday in January last year, she was bedridden and we both cried. She died on my birthday this year, this month. Some in my community say that the soul — eternal and indestructible, unlike the body — travels after death, and is reborn. Whatever the skeptical scholar’s mind might think, my heart wants to believe that she visited me that night; that her soul, now free, crossed oceans, that it smiled over my bedside, that it delighted in Michigan’s snow. Before sailing away over rooftops and trees, and into the far, far skies to be reunited with her husband, lover and best friend: Didi-Dada together again, just as I remember them.

Debotri Dhar is a lecturer in the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, and can be reached at