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Tapati Sen: She Fought for Her Independence and Dignity as a Young Widow

June 30, 2010

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.

Tragedy

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.

The Decision

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”.

Surviving

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.”

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. July 5, 2010 4:46 pm

    Maa Jindabad.

  2. July 7, 2010 2:29 pm

    Great,
    Loved this post.
    Mrs Sen, you are like my mom-courageous and cheerful.
    God bless you and your guts

  3. July 16, 2010 8:36 am

    Ms Sen….You are great……I salute you,,,,,,,,,,,,,,,

  4. Anagha Sarpotdar permalink
    July 18, 2010 7:21 am

    Truly inspiring life account…….full of courage and hope!

  5. smriansu permalink
    July 21, 2010 12:47 am

    May your tribe increase !!!!

  6. Soma Basu Das permalink
    October 11, 2011 7:07 pm

    Tapatidi is an all time favourite teacher for me. All three sisters and many of my cousins have taken the Physics class with Tapatidi at United Missionary Girls High School. I am delighted to read her story

    • October 16, 2011 5:27 pm

      Thank you for your messages about Mrs. Tapati Sen! We are so happy to hear from so many of her students. Recently we got in touch with her, and it incredible how much her drive for learning and change is. She is in her mid-eighties now, but she is learning how to use the internet and surf the net! So she will be very happy to see these comments from her student.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    October 12, 2011 5:54 pm

    She was our most respected teacher. My Salute & regards to her.

  8. Anonymous permalink
    October 15, 2011 5:02 pm

    Tapatidi, We are proud of you. Give us courage silently as you did all the time.

    Soma Chakraborty

  9. Anonymous permalink
    October 16, 2011 5:55 pm

    We love you Tapati di 🙂
    My inspiration for the last 25 years and would be all my life.
    Suchismita Dasgupta

  10. October 17, 2011 2:15 am

    Tapatidi was one of my favourite teachers.We love u mam.Stay well.

  11. Anonymous permalink
    October 17, 2011 5:23 am

    Tapati di…love you,and missing u.My last class teacher in school.class-X-B!

    Arpita Chattopadhyay

  12. Anonymous permalink
    October 17, 2011 5:26 am

    Tapati di..my last class teacher in school..class X-B.love you and missing you.
    Arpita Chattopadhyay

  13. Arpita Chattopadhyay permalink
    October 17, 2011 5:30 am

    Tapati di..my last class teacher in school.class X-B.love you,miss you….Tk Cr.

  14. basari permalink
    October 18, 2011 5:04 pm

    mam,apnake atodin pore dekhe vishon valo lagche. ami ’90s er batch. saturday or sunday bhor bela apnar goriahut er flat e maths korte jetam. amader samay first fate hai. tate amra volunteer chilam. apni amader foreign coin dekhiechilen,gift korechilen.

  15. basari permalink
    October 18, 2011 5:08 pm

    mam,apnake atodin pore dekhe vishon valo lagche. ami ’90s er batch. saturday or sunday bhor bela apnar goriahut er flat e maths korte jetam. amader samay first fate hai. tate amra volunteer chilam. apni amader foreign coin dekhiechilen,gift korechilen

  16. Sumana Chakrabarti permalink
    November 3, 2011 6:06 am

    The other day I was telling my son about you when I was looking after his Physics schoolwork. I was telling him how fortunate I was to get a teacher who was like my own mom both loving and firm . Salute to you Didi.i believe any body who came to know you or fortunate of being a student of yours will always miss you . Love u a lot . Take care.

  17. Rima Dhar Chowdhury permalink
    October 10, 2013 11:23 am

    DearTapati di, Glad to see you after so long. You were my all time favourite teacher. Still I remember you and find me fortunate to get you as my physics teacher. Can’t forget the inspiring words for the students and foreign coins you gave me as the reward for securing highest marks in class tests…. Thanks the people who brought your biography in light…always wish you be happy and healthy. Lots of love and regards, from Rima Dhar Chowdhury

  18. sahitha permalink
    December 10, 2013 7:25 pm

    Wow! I want to know how she mustered the courage to live her own life despite being invited to stay with her brothers. I still think India is hostile to single women and I have lots of fears whether I will be able to support myself and not need the abusive birth family. I know I should move out but have overwhelming fears sometimes “What if I cannot cope?” “What if I fall back on my face again?” etc. I sure could do with some of her courage.

  19. November 7, 2015 3:16 pm

    Reblogged this on iheariseeilearn and commented:
    [-]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.”[-]

  20. susmita das permalink
    October 19, 2016 11:17 pm

    Tapatidi was our class teacher in x b .my fevorite I admire her most.so good to see u after so many years.miss u n love u mam.

  21. Anasua Bhowmik permalink
    October 20, 2016 7:51 am

    Tapati Sen was my teacher and a huge inspiration in my life.

  22. Madhumita permalink
    October 20, 2016 6:51 pm

    She was my mathematics and physics teacher. What I am today, the attitude I carry towards life influenced a lot by her. I feel very proud to be a student of her. My heart full respect and pranum to her . Thanks for being my idol in my student hood.

  23. October 25, 2016 4:34 pm

    Very inspiring and motivating for all women.Sasradha pronam for your courage and determination.

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