Tapati Sen: She Fought for Her Independence and Dignity as a Young Widow
Tragedy struck Tapati Sen’s life when she was widowed at a very young age, with two little children and limited economic means. If that isn’t harsh enough, the ruthless treatment meted out to widows in India, as evident even now, made her all the more vulnerable. But today, at age 86, Tapati Sen can boast of actually having seen the entire world. She has traveled widely and has visited almost every continent on the face of the earth.
Her life is that lesson we each seek, not just as women but as individuals — that no matter what our society, our cultures, and our norms dictate, ultimately it is up to each of us, individually, how we envision our lives. The courage is in being able to abide by our vision and our self, in face of social rejection and immense resistance.
Tapati Sen is remarkable for her courage, her spirit of independence, her belief in her self and her open exploration and embrace of life. She defied cultural and social boundaries, gender stereotypes, and communal thinking, and has chosen to live her life on her own terms.
Tapati Sen was born in Calcutta while India was still under British rule. As a teenager, during WWII, she remembers going out with her father into the city, the day after the Japanese had bombed the city in 1942, to examine the damage done. Other than that bit of excitement she says it was an uneventful childhood, happily spent among friends and a large joint family. By the age of twenty she had completed college, and her family arranged her marriage to a Calcutta based businessman. They had a son and a daughter, and then within six years of the marriage tragedy struck with the untimely death of her husband.
On Her Own
At 26-years Tapati was a young widow, with two little children. Her father-in-law took care of them for a couple of years, but then he too passed on. Like most women, even today in India, Tapati received no inheritance from her father, and had no other financial support after her father-in-law died. Tapati’s brothers who had received their father’s inheritance, invited her and her children to move in with one of them, an offer she chose to decline. Even though she had no inheritance or financial resources to fall back on, she wanted her independence and dignity, and decided to live alone and raise her children. Even today, it is an extremely courageous decision for any single woman to make, specially in India where single women have to ordinarily deal with a social and cultural environment that is extremely hostile towards them. But life for widows in India has even historically been particularly brutal. (See our post The City of Widows). Even today, single women specially if they are young and divorced/widowed, rarely live alone in India. This is the group of women who are most prone to social predation. In villages, young widows or women abandoned by their husbands are often viewed as “free game by the men of the village, for sexual and other kinds of exploitation. In urban areas they are subject to extreme harassment and obscenity by men, such that daily existence can becomes traumatic for many.
Therefore Tapati was extraordinarily brave to make such a decision almost 50 years ago! After deciding that she was going to continue to live on her own, Tapati Sen made another momentous decision. Even though her father-in-law had left her some minimal provisions, she decided that she needed to take on a job. She wanted to be sure that she could support her family on her own, and give her children the best in life. She began to teach math and physics at a small missionary girls’ school, where they were in need of a science teacher.
Tapati believes that it was the best decision she made, for it not only provided economic security, “but it changed my world and my perspective on life. The nuns at school were wonderfully supportive. They always made sure that if we were going for a school trip, my children were allowed to come with me. And as I in turn, helped other girls, I felt even more empowered. It was a missionary school so they would also take in students from poorer backgrounds. I am very proud of my girls. They have gone on to become engineers, and teachers and architects. Many of them still keep in touch with me.” On the walls of her house, Tapati has numerous paintings of the Madonna and Child. ” No I am not a Christian”, she explains,”I am a Hindu, but these serve as happy reminders of the school where I taught for 40 years”.
How difficult has it been for her to live as a single woman and raise two children in India? “Well, I don’t have to tell you – you know things are very difficult for women here. People think, if you are young or widowed then you must be weak and vulnerable. They try to cheat you – the shopkeepers, the electrician and plumber etc. But you just have to be strong and let it be known you won’t take it. It’s now, with age that I feel irritated sometimes. I don’t know why. But then I just brush them off.” And where does she get this incredible spirit of independence? Did her family encourage her? She laughs, “No, I was raised quite traditionally. It was a joint family you know. Even if I went to visit a friend two houses down the lane, someone had to escort me. It was how girls were raised in my time.”
Even though she had to manage on her own, Tapati ensured that her children got the best education and completed right up to the university level. Then both her children, once they were adults, settled abroad. Her daughter was very tentative at first. Her husband-to-be lived in the U.S., and she did not want to leave her mother alone in India. “My daughter is brilliant! She had done her doctorate and what I really wanted was for her to have a spouse who would be of her mental caliber – someone she could have a meeting of minds with. He is also a wonderful person. And so I was adamant that she stop worrying about me and get married.”
Why did she decide to continue living by herself in India, when her son and daughter wanted her to come stay with them? She grins, and explains, “The way I see it, they have their life and I have mine. They do things their way. And I do things my way. I love their visits – they visit a lot since they worry about me all the time, and try to make sure I am comfortable in every way.” It must get harder as she gets older, so then does she regret living alone so far away from them? Without batting an eyelid she responds, “Not even once.” “Besides, the best part of all this has been that I have been able to see the world!”
Around the World
For the last forty odd years whenever Tapati traveled to see her son or daughter, she would always make a couple of stopovers at countries that she hadn’t visited. Consequently, she has now traveled to every continent on the face of the earth, “except the Arctic and Antarctic” she jokes.
She probably is the most traveled person in her entire family. More so, in the fiercely independent style so characteristic of her, she always traveled alone, and even though her English is shaky and she didn’t know the languages of the places she visited, she says “people always find a way to communicate.” She is replete with anecdotes about her travel. Her all time favorite place was Mexico city where “the people were so warm and friendly”. Then she remembers an incident in Germany, when she was in her seventies. She needed to take the tube, and she had her suitcase in one hand, and there was a long, steep flight of stairs. She was wondering how she was going to manage that, when a teenage boy came running, and without uttering a word, took her suitcase from her hand, ran up the stairs and left it for her on the top.
Her most harrowing experience was being jailed in Brunei 3-4 years ago. She had traveled to Malaysia, and her agent had told her she didn’t need a visa for Brunei. But it was not so. “They yelled at me, confiscated my passport and locked me up. I was terrified. I had no idea what they would do with me. But the next day they just deported me. My relatives joke that I am a foreign jail-bird,” she finishes with a grin.
Tapati Sen is also very proud of her “international family.” Her grand-children who were born and raised in North America, married Americans of other ethnicities – Caucasian and Chinese.
Does she have any regrets? She pauses and then softly says, “Not exactly a regret. But I had a desire. I wish I had been sent to an English medium school like my brothers were. I think I could have done more with that.”