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The Girls Ate Last:
An Autobiographical Tale by Supriya Singh

Book Review by GEETANJALI SINGH CHANDA

 

 

 



THE GIRLS ATE LAST, by Supriya Singh, Angsana Publications, Australia, 2013. Paperback, pp 204, $13.08. ISBN-19: 0987569201; ISBN-13: 978-0-9875692-0-2

 

 

Mother-daughter stories are complex narratives of silences, elisions and of love.

Supriya Singh’s The Girls Ate Last is one such story by a daughter who always knew she would one day write her mother’s story.

Supriya started recording her mother, Sardarni Inder Kaur, on tape about 10 years before her death. And yet, she comes to know the many facets of her mother only after she begins to write. The story is a tribute, but, she writes also because “the story is worth telling, for my mother was an ordinary woman who achieved extraordinary things.”

These extraordinary things were achieved in a life span from 1911 to 1996 mainly lived in Rawalpindi, Amritsar, Delhi and Dharamshala.

Inder Kaur grew up in a Sikh household during the extraordinary time of the Partition of Punjab and India in 1947. Unlike other stories of loss and victimhood, especially of the women of the time, Inder Kaur seized the opportunity of the loosening of family ties to get an education and forge a career. This mother’s bid for independence is traced against the backdrop of the subcontinent’s struggle for independence from British occupation.

Both stories tell of immense loss but also of an assertion of independence – national and individual. The daughter, Supriya Singh attempts, in her own words, “… to document one woman’s struggle during the 20th century for independence, meaning and self worth.”

The title of the book The Girls Ate Last is, though, misleading. Irritating because it evokes stereotypes of the ill treatment of girl children whereas this story is one of triumph.

This one particular girl was clever and bold enough to even pilfer from her stepmother to buy more food for herself. Each phase of her life is a testimony to her courage and her will to survive and to make something of herself. Forced to quit school after Grade 8, she is undaunted and steadily manages step by step to seize every tiny opportunity to accumulate many degrees both undergraduate and graduate.

While pursuing her own education she also begins to teach, first at school, and then at college level. Eventually she is invited to be the principal of various colleges. This phase of her life is one of intense academic and administrative activity but also of the joys of being a pioneering figure – a woman principal who successfully heads various educational institutions.

Education and religion are key aspects of her life.

Her daughter Supriya though discovers the religious element of her mother’s personality only in retrospect. She notes: “My mother’s life of the spirit was something personal and private.”

Inder Kaur and her husband took amrit and ultimately, in the last phase of her life, she even begins to wear a dastaar.

Her daughter remembers, “I went berserk seeing my mother in ‘fundamentalist’ garb.”

In 1929 Inder Kaur met a religious savant Mal Singh. He becomes a surrogate father and she even refers to him as “Bapuji.”

Bapuji’s family and his jatha become her spiritual family. Supriya’s older sisters remember “the religious part of Mummy, the part that belonged to Bapuji and his family, did not belong to her children.”

Although both her parents are devotees of Bapuji and his nephew Professor Thakur Singh, she is the one blamed for bringing in an unbecoming religious zeal. Inder Kaur also finds a “soul mate” in Thakur Singh.

Her daughter notes “there was a certainty about his love and friendship which my mother never had any reason to doubt.” It is a platonic and deep friendship but one that however, created a rift between the two families and especially between his wife and Inder Kaur.

Although mother-daughter stories are deeply intertwined, each sibling remembers things differently. Her sisters Lata and Ranjan are 10 and 15 years older than Supriya and they remember the times in Rawalpindi where theirs was a ‘normal’ happy family with very close family ties.

However, as the youngest sibling, Supriya remembers more vividly her parents’ unhappy marriage, their eventual separation when her father moves out to live in his clinic. She had a difficult adolescence marked by memories of her mother working herself to the bone trying to make ends meet and provide a home for them both. There is definitely a fortress mentality that is also a shared bond between Supriya and her mother.

It is a visit to a psychiatrist that compels her to re-evaluate her father’s story. Her father, Sardar Pargat Singh, a brilliant young doctor had psychiatric problems which were brushed under the carpet. “They were not a talking family” and so initially marriage rather than treatment was seen as the cure.

This secretiveness about mental health is reminiscent of Sathnam Singh Sanghera’s If You Don’t Know Me by Now (Also titled as The Boy with the Top Knot). The secrecy is probably linked to some notion of shame but for this young woman who was married to a manic husband at the age of 18, it was yet another hurdle to overcome.

He had to be institutionalized from where he escaped and also tried to hang himself but it was never openly discussed. It marked both mother and daughter but in very different ways and this is where the narration fails.

The psychiatrist suggests that maybe some of the blame for Supriya’s hostile relationship to her father is the mother’s fault. When she probes deeper her uncle warns her off the “unpleasantness” it will evoke and she immediately makes her father into a ‘case study.’

The suggestion of examining her mother’s role or her own discovery is evaded. Instead, she says, “The story is painful and unresolved. There is no fairytale ending of reconciliation and forgiveness. My story still remains one of hurt and anger and complaint …”

Another area of silence, also linked to notions of shame in the Punjabi community -- as in every other society in the world -- is that of sexual abuse. All the sisters seem to have suffered some kind of sexual abuse but did not have the vocabulary to describe it. Their inchoate feelings of shame are not explored. The events are noted factually but there seems to be a concerted effort to move on.

At the time though when the youngest daughter does talk about it, it was not taken seriously.

Supriya Singh does a wonderful job of narrating her mother’s story but when she tries to tie it into her own story we realize the difficulties of autobiographical writing.

The sections about her own marriages, living in Malaysia and then Australia read like plot outlines rather than fully explored narratives.


[The reviewer, Dr. Geetanjali Singh Chanda, is Senior Lecturer in the Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies Program at Yale University. Her earlier work, “Sikh Masculinity, Religion and Diaspora in Shauna Singh Baldwin’s 'The English Lesson and Other Stories' ", was published in the journal, “Men and Masculinities”, in February 2009. She is the author of "Indian Women in the House of Fiction", published By Zubaan.]

The book can be purchased online by CLICKING here.

 

October 7, 2013

Conversation about this article

1: Inni Kaur (Fairfield, Connecticut, USA), October 07, 2013, 5:56 PM.

Thoroughly enjoyed reading this book at many levels! The reviewer is right -- this is a story of triumph. What amazed me was the casual mention of Bhai Vir Singh and Bhai Randhir Singh. It spoke volumes. These two giants graced not more than a line or two in this book, yet one knew the deep respect that the father had for these two individuals. And there is so much more!

2: Gurinder Singh (Stockton, California, U.S.A.), October 07, 2013, 9:50 PM.

I knew Bibi Inder kaur ji well as my wife had the privilege to look after her as she spent her final days at our home in Amritsar. She was a deeply religious lady, committed to Sikhi. She helped many needy gursikh girls to attain education. Bhai Mal Singh was a very close associate of Bhai Randhir Singh and Bibi ji had life-long association with him. Professor Thakar Singh was also a saintly person and was uncle of present South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley Randhawa. During her last days Bibi ji was living at Dharamsala and she had a desire that she should breathe her last in Amritsar. Fate brought her to Amritsar a few days before her death. That is how God helps his devotees in fulfilling their genuine wishes.

3: Dr. Manoranjna Sivasankar (New York, USA), October 08, 2013, 10:32 AM.

Dr. Geetanjali Singh, you have given an apt synopsis of my sister's book. I am Ranjan, the middle sister, nearly eleven years older. You have brought out the salient events covered. Rightly, you have also pointed out that memory can be elusive and there is much more to be said. Inni, yes our relationship with Bhai Sahib and the Jatha was seemingly natural and deep. As a child, I was scared of him and some of their activities. Lata and I used to sit on either side of Aaiji at her turn at kirtan. She may have lacked musicality but she could recite gurbani which moved one and all. I usually sat next to Bhai Sahib. At least once, I remember him blessing me during my childish rendition and asserting "Beti, raj karengi.' I owe him for a life that has been generally eventful and satisfying. Gurinder ji, you and Inder, named after Aaiji by her mother, gave much love and solace at the final days of our mother's life. Your home and that of Jathedar Ram Singh and Bhain Balwant Kaur were precious to her. We were told that she wished to go in the lap of Guru Ram Das and that she also wanted that the Jatha handle the funeral rites and bhog. She got her wish and it was glorious. What a life! What a death! I remember saying, 'Shukkar hai' at the time of her death as she would have faced much suffering if she had lingered. I said over and over again that all her worship and paatths had now come in handy. She gave Lata and me the strength to accept the bhana. That too is a blessing. Lata passed away two years ago. She and I were lucky to be with her at her last breath. Lata sat at her head then and recited Japji Sahib. Supriya was on the way. Mother had told Supriya earlier not to rush over to see her face when the time comes, that it was meaningless. She urged that she should make it to the bhog. Supriya did and all the three of us were together then. Supriya has done well to bring our loving and devoted mother alive again and her memory is further refreshed. Shukkar hai!

4: Bani Singh (Bangalore, India), September 15, 2014, 10:00 AM.

Dr. Geetanjali Singh, Inder Kaur was my grandmother. Much as I loved her, and still do, I think she was a very complex person and I like to remember her as such and not flatten her into a two dimensional 'saintly' entity. My grandfather was more difficult to understand. I appreciated many of his qualities after he was no more. His honesty, for instance, and his deep loyalty to his wife. In addition to the siblings, I think you could add the next generation. I was about 32 when my grandmother died and I too remember many things differently. I think she was a bold woman who compromised on little when she had set her sights on something, whether it was spirituality or other facets of her life. However she framed her arguments so well that I think she was a diplomat par excellence. She listened to everyone and then did exactly what she wanted but somehow with a air of vulnerability. I think she was a strong and bold person wrapped in a veil of feminine grace. She was an enigmatic woman.

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