Interview with Nita Roy, grandmother of The Periphery co-founder Mallika Roy. Nita tells her story about the power of strength and belief spanning three generations in India.
Click the play button below for an audio clip from the interview session.
See, my father was a very religious man even though he didn’t thrust religion onto us. But he was very religious. So I learned to respect religion. I came to respect our religion because he would take me out on certain festivals, would take us out; he would insist on it even though we grumbled and grouched like all children do now.
He would say, “Oh, this is dusshera. You must come out, we must go to the temple.” Or, “This is Diwali. We must go the temple.” Or, “This is Saraswati Puja.”
Saraswati Puja is a big thing in Bengal because it’s the goddess of learning and Bengalis are very into learning. So we are supposed to take our books, our pens, and pencils to the goddess and keep it under her feet for her to bless it, and then we bring it back, so that we study well and could do well. So it’s a big festival. If you notice, we still, when we touch book or paper with our feet, we touch the book to our eyes – it’s only because of Saraswati who is the goddess of learning.
So he did instill certain things into us: “We may not go to a temple every day or even for years, but there are certain times you have to come with me.” One of the reasons why today I pray in the morning and pray in the evening, only because that was instilled in me that you don’t have to do it from anywhere, but just say a few prayers in the morning and evening. And another thing, because he was such a broad-minded man, he loved the Muslim religion. He had a lot of respect – I wouldn’t say loved – respect for the Muslim religion. We observed Eid - when our Muslim friends called us for Eid festivals, we went there. He loved the Buddhist religion. He was a very knowledgeable man about these religions. Buddhist, Jain. And we visited all these places. Bihar, Nalanda, the Jain temples in Mount Abu. We visited all these temples with him. Not as sightseeing, but for us to see that there are other religions and they are as good as our Hindu religion and you can respect them.
So that’s how religion entered into my life, but as not only Hindu religion. Christian religion he respected the most, I think, because we went into a convent. My brothers went to a Jesuit school run by fathers, and I went — both sisters went — to a convent run by nuns all my life. So he respected that religion a lot too, Christian religion. And I used to, by the way, pray to Virgin Mary and say my Our Father every day and he knew it. And I collected holy pictures, and he respected it. He never once said, “Oh, you are observing another religion; oh, you’re going to chapel.” I went to chapel every day, so — because the school had a chapel, and we were made to go to the chapel — so not once did he say that, “You shouldn’t go to a chapel,” or “They shouldn’t make you go to a chapel.” He was very indulgent towards it and he thought that what we were doing was the right thing, that we were learning to accept all religions and have respect for them. So you know, that’s how religion really entered my life; but not only Hindu religion, all the religions.
Day-to-day, I believe in something. I believe in the Supreme Being. When I pray - to me the picture of everyone comes in. Picture of Virgin Mary comes in — it’s amazing — Virgin Mary; my goddess the Shakti goddess Kali, Kali comes in; picture of Buddha comes in, just comes in. I say, “I’m going to put all these pictures in front of me and pray.” So morning and evening, when I do that, it’s to a Supreme Being, really. Not to one particular religion. It’s to one Supreme Being. It can be pictures of everyone else but it’s one Supreme Being.
To someone who told me they didn’t believe in anything: first of all, I wouldn’t thrust anything down his throat. But if he asked me, I’d say, “Look, I’m not thrusting any religion into you. But I feel that you have to believe in something. You have to believe – you can believe in that tree.”
You know, you have to have some belief in something for you to be motivated towards something. When you don’t know where to turn to, when you’re really at a crossroad, when you don’t know how to solve a certain problem or something that has happened to you, and you just don’t know how to sort it out, you do, automatically, say: “Oh, God!” Why do you say, “Oh, God?” Because you are thinking of somebody, something or somewhere, who could sort it out for you. So why don’t you believe in something that would motivate you to say, “Please, please, whoever, wherever you are, just sort this out for me.”
And it happens! It’s happened with me. Because when I pray to that Shakti Kali, it’s not Kali who probably is doing it. She may be doing it, I’d like to believe that, because I believe in her; but it’s not - what does Shakti mean? Shakti means strength. You’re praying to strength. To strengthen you. Somebody else to strengthen you. Somebody with strength to strengthen you. That’s Shakti. And that’s why you pray to Shakti, “Shakti, give me shakti. Give me strength, give me strength.”
I would say that to somebody who came to me and said, “Look, I don’t believe in religion. I don’t want to pray to Christ or Buddha or to Mohammed or to Krishna. So what would you say to that, ‘I’m an atheist?’”
I’d say, “No, you’re not an atheist. An atheist is a person who doesn’t have motivation to have faith in anything.” I genuinely feel that a person who’s an atheist, it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God, I just feel that he doesn’t believe in anything! Believe in some strength!
It can be anyone, your own father can become like that, someone who can give you strength; your mother can become like that. Your sister can. You know, anyone who will give you the strength. That’s the belief. That belief you must have and that belief is your religion. That belief becomes your religion.
For people who are not touched by anything, they have developed a hard core in themselves — and they’ve developed it, it’s not that it’s been there, they’ve developed that hard core — because they are some of the people who’ve gone through circumstances themselves, and that’s why they’ve become like that. The core is not soft anymore. And, what happens to soften it? It only happens to soften when something really major happens to you. Death of a loved one; major crisis, financial crisis in your life; major disability crisis; illness; it’s only when a major crisis happens in your life that that hard core suddenly starts melting a little here and there, in little spaces that - it’s a big, like a big ball. Little spaces; it starts making holes in it.
Then you start thinking that, “Why did this happen to me? It need not have happened to me. It hasn’t happened to so-and-so, it hasn’t happened to so-and-so, why is it happening to me only? Am I going wrong somewhere? Have I done something? Am I — do I need to change my life? Do I need to change my attitude towards people?” Some people need to be hit hard to break that core. And it is through breaking that core that they do change their lives. And I’ve seen a lot of lives changing after a certain crisis has happened in their lives.
So for these people, yes, it’s a sad way of learning. It’s an extremely sad way of learning. It’s only when circumstances and sorrow hits you that people think that, “I need to do something else. I need to get strength from someone, something, or somewhere.” It is.
Certainly, the strength that I’m talking about, I certainly got the strength or developed the strength only because of what I went through. There were so many circumstances in my life that led me to believe in this strength. But basically, yes, it was passed on by my father and my husband because the kind of life I led with them, it was a very — not only was it sheltered — but it was a very good life with a lot of values. Nothing really untoward happened in my family except the loss of my mother. It was a happy family and nobody ever fought, nobody ever had disagreements in the family; my father was the kindest of men. He never even scolded us; leave alone raise his hand, he couldn’t even scold us. His maximum scolding was, “You stupid girl,” or “You stupid boy,” nothing else.
And as a result, because of the happy circumstances, I think automatically some kind of strength was — confidence — was in us to deal with certain things. And we dealt with it. At the age of 17 when your father dies and you haven’t even finished school – you go into a boarding, you meet up with so many other people and so many other disagreeable people, you learn how to handle it.
So I think the strength that has been passed on to me was actually by him initially, and then my husband, who really taught me to be strong. I still remember that I didn’t know how to write a check. He would say, “You’re going to live alone, because I’m going to be in a non-family area, you better start learning. This is how you do it.”
When I married him, we were very young. He was a captain in the Army. We didn’t have a car, we had one of these, what do you call them, scooters. And he said, “You’ll have to learn how to drive a scooter.”
I said, “No, no, not on your life! I’m not, I…” I couldn’t even sit on a scooter; I used to catch hold of him like this. “I’m not used to a scooter!”
He said, “Well, you have to, because I’m a captain in the Army. I can’t afford a car as yet. And you will have to learn it. Suppose I’m not here. How are you going to the market to do your shopping? How are you going to get about?” He taught me how to ride a scooter.
You know, things like that that I never did in my life. When we bought our car — first car — he said, “Now you’re going to learn how to drive the car.”
I said, “Oh, I know how to drive a car — you’re going to drive it for me!”
He said, “No, I’m not going to drive it for you. You will drive it yourself.” He taught me how to drive a car.
So all these were actually passed on, the strength was passed on, by them to me, which I didn’t realize. I said, “Okay, fine,” until it suddenly hit me when they were not there any longer for me.
I feel very proud that I had nothing when my husband died. I really had nothing. I was with my in-laws; he was a young man of 32 who left only a certain amount of money in his bank, that is, his insurance policies. That’s all. There was nothing to our names. And I had nothing, so I knew I had to work. I couldn’t live with my in-laws. I didn’t want to live with my in-laws. I had two little children.
I said, “I’m going to live alone. I’ve got two children. And I’m not going to live with my in-laws to be brought up by them.”
So I left my house and went into a little hutment given by the army. And I lived there with them. And those were days of my dire need when I needed something, but the strength of wanting to live on my own – I got a job in a school where both the children could come with me to school, because the boys’ school was next door to the girls’ school. So we literally walked to school because it was just opposite the army hutment. Loretto and St. Mary’s.
So I could only do it because of the initial — inherent or initial — strength that was actually all the upbringing that was given to me by my father, and my husband too. I would not have been able to do it if they hadn’t taught me to live alone, to sort my life out alone, which I did a lot. After my father’s death, I was living alone, all over the place. After Bhaskar’s death, I was again bereft; I was left on my own.
So all this did help me to strengthen me and say, “I’ve got to do it. I cannot go back to my in-laws and say, ‘I have nowhere to live, I have come back to you all.’ I have to do it on my own.”
And slowly, gradually, from a low-paid job, I got a higher-paid job. And I still remember people saying — from a school job, which doesn’t pay very much, I suddenly got a very glamorous job in the Airlines — and everybody said, “Nita, you’re going to join the Airlines? You don’t know what happens.” In that generation, the Airlines were a different kind of thing. “You know what happens in the Airlines. You lead one of these glamorous lives and people are going to make passes at you.”
And I said, “No, I can handle it.”
And I did.
But it gave me better money. It gave me better confidence. That was one part. And after that, I got a better-paid job in a bigger environment where I developed more confidence — more confidence to run my life. And that was the time I started building my house. And that house also would never have got built if I had said, “I don’t have the energy to build because I can’t build.”
Again, it’s the upbringing. My brother said, “You remember what Daddy used to say?” My brother was there, when I said, “No, I’m not going to build. Leave that be.” So he said, “No, you will build. You remember what Daddy used to say? That there would be a time when I’m not going to be there and you have to look after yourselves.”
In fact, it’s very funny, when my father died in my arms and I felt — I will never forget it — I remember his saying that, you know, “I haven’t….” He was only 54 when he died. He said, “You all are so young, I haven’t been able to do very much for you all.”
So I said, “Daddy, don’t say that, please don’t, you’ve done so —”
And this is what he said: “I want you to remember one thing. That at least I’ve left you with certain values. Please abide by it and please look after yourselves.”
And that’s how he died, in my — nobody was there; my brothers had gone to get the doctor when he had the heart attack. And I was there alone with him. And for a 17-year-old girl to have — face death for the first time, and your own father, and in your arms, because I was holding — and I said, “Daddy, nothing’s going to happen, nothing. You’ll be all right. Nothing’s…” — because I had never seen a thing like this before — “You’ll be all right.”
He just died, after saying this. So what I’m saying is, I remember that. I really remember that. I said, “I’ve got to be strong.”
And I was strong. And then same thing happened with Bhaskar. I heard my mother-in-law saying, when he died, when everybody was sitting around and the older generation was conversing, and I was in my room – I don’t know what shock had hit me – after crying and crying, I was in a dazed position. And the children were with my in-laws. And I remember her distinctly saying in the other room, and I heard it, “She’s a helpless woman, she always has been. She’s been totally dependent on my son. What is she going to do? She’ll probably go out and get married again. And when she gets married” — all this to the older women — “when she gets married, if she thinks we’re going to give the children to her, she’s mistaken. The children will be with us.”
You know, and I woke up and I said, “What am I doing? I’m indulging in my sorrow like this in this room, closing the room, and I can hear everything that’s going on in the other room, and I’m giving up. I cannot give up.”
I got up the next day — I couldn’t get up that day — I got up the next day and I went to her, because she liked me helping her, in the kitchen and all that. I said, “Ma, can I help you?”
She said, “No, no! You go and rest, you don’t have to help.”
I said, “No, I’d like to help.”
Got up, started being normal with them. I used to bathe Rahul and Robin, they were still six and two, so I used to bathe them – so she immediately said, “No, you don’t have to bathe them! I’ll bathe them.”
So I said, “No, Ma, I always have bathed them. I’ll bathe them.”
I took the children away from her and I started leading a normal life. And then, as I said, God is there, something is there! The nuns, who had taught me, they were in Delhi. They were running Loretto Convent Delhi there. They saw it in the papers that Bhaskar Roy had died because he was a war hero, and how he had died — an accident. They rang me up.
They said, “Nita, we heard about your husband. There’s a place for you with us. Please come and join Loretto Delhi; work.” They said, “You must start working. Please come and work.”
I said, “Oh, Mother, I would love to.” That’s when I said, “I’ll work.”
With that salary, I asked the army — this was all strength from somewhere! — I asked the army to give me a hutment close to the school. There were all these army hutments close to these two schools. I said, “Please give me an army hutment.” And the army immediately gave it to me because of Bhaskar’s name. So that was my first home.
Where did that strength come from? There must have been something. I’ve known of other — there were lots of widows at that time, after the ’65 operations. They never could — a lot of them couldn’t do anything. They lived with their in-laws. Miserable! Miserable because they said, “Oh, where are we going to go? We can’t do anything else.”
And it was a hard life for me. It was really a hard life for me.
And now the two boys know about it because I talked about it and they know it. And I think in their own hearts they do have a regard for me for running my life the way I did.
And I feel that because they have seen me going through this, I think they, in their subconscious mind, they have also developed a certain amount of strength to regard hardship and success in the same manner that they should. That hardship — you can take, adjust to hardships and you can adjust to success without letting it go to your head. Remain as humble as possible even if you have success in your lives, and go through hardships in a proper way.
Because they’ve seen that hardship in my life. And they’ve seen hardships in their lives. Because let me tell you, there were a lot of things I couldn’t give them. Lot of things. I still remember Rahul — this is a famous story about Rahul — when we were living without very much, but we had our own home — I had built that house, downstairs, east of Khailash, I had built it — and I still remember all his rich Doon School friends used to come and have lunch. And my house was open whether I had anything or not. There was always food. All these boys were there. And the boys were sitting in the room, and I couldn’t afford a television. And television was the vogue those days. Everybody had TV except for Rahul and Robin’s mother. And I didn’t have it, I couldn’t afford it!
So I still remember the boys coming and saying, “Aray yar, Rahul” — I was sitting in the drawing room, reading a book, and they were in the bedroom — “Rahul, you don’t have a TV, yar.” You know, the way they talk.
So I heard this little voice saying — and I felt awful for him — “No, yar, actually, I don’t like watching TV.” [Laughs] That was the saddest part! When he said, “I don’t like watching TV.”
When they went away, I asked Rahul, I said, “Rahul, I’m thinking of getting a TV.”
So he said, “No, Mum, you don’t have to get it! No, Mum, you don’t have to get it!”
I said, “No, no, I will be able to get it. I will be able.”
Then his eyes shone. He said, “Really? We’ll have a TV?!”
So you know, these are the things. But I think, because they knew, they’ve gone through it. They’ve enjoyed, they’ve taken it in their stride, the hardships and whatever success they have today. So I think I certainly have imparted a certain amount of strength.
So this strength I think they probably inherently — they have, subconsciously or inherently, they have acquired from me, and I have acquired it, again, subconsciously or inherently, from my husband and father. Because Father must have gone through a lot of sorrow and hardship without having a wife and looking after four children, moving from place to place, running a home, doing everything on his own as a bachelor. I think this is the kind of strength that I got from my parents, my father — parents, family — and hopefully my sons have got it too.