• Words of her own

    Maroona Murmu

    January 29, 2020

    Written by Maroona Murmu Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal situates the experiences and articulations of emergent women writers in nineteenth-century Bengal through an exploration of works authored by them. Based on a spectrum of genres — such as autobiographies, novels, and travelogues — this book examines the sociocultural incentives that enabled the dawn of middle-class Hindu and Brahmo women authors at that time. Murmu explores the intersections of class, caste, gender, language, and religion in these works by offering rich insights into the complex world of subjectivities of women in colonial Bengal.​ In attempting to do so, this book opens up the possibility of reconfiguring mainstream history by questioning the scholarly conceptualisation of patriarchy being omnipotent enough to shape the intricacies of gender relations, resulting in the flattening of self-fashioning by women writers.​

    The following are excerpts from the chapters "Personal Narratives" and "Travel Writings" of the book.

    Image courtesy OUP

    Kailashbashini Debi

    Janaika Grihabodhur Diary

    Kailashbashini Debi’s Janaika Grihabodhur Diary was first serialized in the Bengali monthly Basumati in 1953. It has been reprinted in the second volume of Atmakatha (1982).1 A time span of 27 years (1846–73) is encapsulated in about thirty printed pages. Though a selective recording of events, it gives a fairly vivid idea of phases and tensions in her extraordinary and event-filled life. The changing circumstances in her life are indicative of the uncertainties, constraints, and paradoxes that plagued nineteenth-century Bengal. Her narrative is a combination of awkward language and the sophistication of an informed mind betraying a remarkable awareness of the public world. Her unpolished prose and the colloquialism of her dialect hardly manifest literary erudition but this artless writing gives the feel of an authentic, feminine self. The numerous erratic spellings, naiveté of language, and grammatical mistakes are compensated for by her richness of thought.

    Belonging to a family which was active in the sociopolitical transition that took place in nineteenth-century Bengal, her personal reminiscences elucidate how contemporary historical circumstances, social institutions, and cultural agendas conditioned her thoughts, feelings, and the life she lived. Personal conflicts with her husband on religious and social issues reflect in microcosm the social drama which was being enacted in the larger sociocultural macrocosm. She relates the mechanics by which nineteenth-century society was changing and its effect on the age, as well as on individuals who fill the pages of her diary.

    Generally, the circularity of time in women’s life with con-tinually repetitive diurnal activities does not leave much space for variation. However, the drudgery of a woman’s life — from bed to kitchen to bed, from dawn to midnight to dawn — and celebration of the everyday too could inspire the first modern autobiography in Bengali, Rassundari Dasi’s Amar Jiban (My Life). Since Kishorichand took her along with him to the places where he was posted, Kailashbashini’s life was blessed with novel and diverse occurrences. This perhaps impelled her to recreate her own life on the pages of the diary.

    Though Kailashbashini actively engages at times in the linear timeline of human history, at others she prefers patterning her time by dovetailing personal events with either seasonal time or cyclical time of Hindu cosmology.2 Her past experiences are not remembered sequentially in a linear chronology in keeping with the fragmented and interrupted life that she lived. Such a recording of the past in a self-imposed pattern produces a dismembered text and gives rise to a complex temporality. It deviates from the clock time that is concomitant with modernity. Indifference to exact chronological sequencing of events also endowed an eternal quality to episodes in her life, everything ‘deriving their existence from the will of Lord’, as in the case of Rassundari.3 The habitual dependence on God makes Kailashbashini dedicate the text to Him. On occasions, Kailashbashini measures her time with specificity in terms of days, months, and years according to the Bengali lunar calendar. However, her recollection of the birth of her grandchildren within the narrative is interspersed with conflicting dates.

    Even as Kailashbashini maintained the strictures of purdah at home, her unusual life bestowed upon her the luck to travel to districts, sub-divisions, and the mofussils of Bengal which gave her insights into different ways of life. She provides a precise description of places she travelled through and resided at. Her chosen scheme of self-projection in her diary is much like a travelogue, scripting her own journey of self-discovery through places she visited. She begins her diary on June 1846 when Kishorichand was the Deputy Magistrate of Rampur. 4 Interestingly, she refers to places in names that were used by the local populace, disregarding the names used by the British for their new administrative divisions. She refers to Rajshahi5 as Rampur and Barrackpore as Chanok. The vibrant description of her sojourn with Kishorichand to Kalna, Plassey, Berhampore, Murshidabad, is blended with the melancholy at the demise of her son.

    Passages show Kailashbashini’s sensitivity to the aesthetic dimensions of everyday life, and her appreciation of the rural landscape. When Kishorichand decides to visit Galimpur by the side of the river Boral in Natore, Kailashbashini accompanies him. His company rid her of her fear of storm, rain, or thunder as she delineates the pleasure of picturesque nature: ‘[T]he marvels of the river.’6 While Kishorichand left for work, she, along with the maid servants and her daughter, took pleasure in viewing the reflection of the luminous full moon on the river. On her visit to Kashi with her mother-in-law in the winter, she enjoys the beauty of the bounteous fields savouring the mellowed rays of the sun. She reiterates her incapability to express in words the natural beauty of Bengal which she was fortunate to behold in all its variety.7 Kailashbashini’s celebration of the natural world is very different from Saradasundari’s spiritual journey as a dejected widow. Kailashbashini’s is an exploration of a woman desirous of extra-religious freedom and one who experienced pleasure in travelling. Her aesthetic engagement with the natural world came at a time when she was imbued with the joy of conjugal fulfi lment. Contrarily, Saradasundari took to travelling when the pain of sepa-ration from her departed husband and the betrayal by her marital family tormented her.

    Despite its spontaneous self-expression, there remain gaps, silences, and absences in the diary. Kailashbashini does not mention that Kishorichand was a propagator of female education and had opened a girls’ school in Rampur,8 Natore and Kashipur. She also leaves unmentioned the social work that Kishorichand had undertaken: making of a hospital in Natore, digging of ponds in Natore, and construction of a road between Rampur and Dighapotia via Natore.9

    Her diary omits the foundation of Samajonnati Vidhayini Suhrid Samiti (Society of Friends for the Promotion of Social Improvement) at Kashipur on December 1854. This sabha was active in promoting remarriage of widows and education of women, in prohibiting polygamy and child marriage, and in protecting the rights of the peasants against expropriation by the zamindars.10


    Prasannamayee Debi

    Aryavarta: Janaika Banga-Mahilar Bhraman Brittanta

    Prasannamayee Debi’s Aryavarta: Janaika Banga-Mahilar Bhraman Brittanta (Aryavarta: The Travelogue of a Certain Bengali Woman, 1888) consists of 28 chapters spread over 145 pages and is priced at 8 annas. It was printed from Adi Brahmo Samaj by Kalidas Chakravarti. Prasannamayee Debi was born into a zamindar family of Haripur in Pabna district of Eastern Bengal. Conforming to the retrograde tradition in the Barendra Brahmin household, she was married at the age of 10 to a kulin, Krishnakumar Bagchi, of Gunaigachha in Pabna district. He turned insane after two years of their marriage and passed away in 1872. After her return to her natal home, perhaps out of remorse, her father Durgadas Chowdhury imparted an unconventional education to her along with her brother, Justice Asutosh Chowdhury.

    Her text bears signs of studied courteousness, conventions of literary propriety, and normative feminine modesty taught to her by her father and English missionary women. Blessed with an enviable pedagogical training in Bengali, Sanskrit, and English literature, Prasannamayee became a prolific author producing nine books in verse and prose forms.11 Her first book of verse, Adho Adho Bhasini (The Inarticulate Girl, 1870), was published when she was not even a teenager. References to the following English and Bengali texts mani-fest in her scholarship: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s To the Skylark, William Wordsworth’s To the Cuckoo, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, Bholanauth Chunder’s The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, as well as Valmiki Ramayana, Vaishnava Padavalis, Bankimchandra Chattopadhyay’s Rajani, Ananda Math (The Abbey of Bliss), Debi Chaudhurani, and Hemchandra Bandyopadhyay’s Chatak Pakshi (Jacobin Cuckoo). The attempt to construct Bengali/Indian self in the way Hindu nationalists did, however, does not undermine her distinctive creative self. She modifies the hegemonic discourses by emphasizing on issues differently, expressing veiled grievances and exploring the realm of the imaginative.

    Asserting Gender-Inflicted Authorial Distinctiveness

    Prasannamayee is introduced on the frontispiece of Aryavarta as the author of poetical pieces Banalata (1880) and Niharika (1884). Though her name remains unmentioned, perhaps as an anticipatory defence to disarm male misgiving about projection of public identity by a woman, an autonomous authorial self does emerge through the text. The advertisement of the book begins with a dilemma as to whether the readers would like the travelogue written by a woman, perhaps as a mere feminine convention. This is followed by a confident claim to visual/textual authenticity for she writes only about things that her eyes had seen and thoughts that had crossed her mind. She begins with the premise that Bengali women never had the same access to the road as men. Since travel by women went against general sociocultural prohibitions, women travelled mostly as pilgrims and ignored the aesthetic pleasure offered to tender hearts by sylvan beauty and the magnificent human creations. Prasannamayee herself travelled to northern India for recuperation of health. Moreover, women remain silent about the unexpected challenges that they had to negotiate with. Thus, apart from the material content, the very method of composition of her narrative was distinctive. Therein lay the literary merit of her book, she claims.

    Even at the cost of being dismissed as intellectually inferior, she feels that a woman is a reliable authority in giving voice to subjective feelings and concerns, for she is endowed with ‘excess of emotionality’. Thus, women develop their gender-specific voices, particular ways of seeing, and styles of articulation and self-expression.12 To her under-standing, the divergent foci in male and female authored travelogues are due to ‘the knowledge one bears’ and ‘the power of the conspicu-ously perceptive feminine gaze’.13 Weaving enthusiastic responses to novel sensations with informative factual details, she says that being ‘a woman of inferior knowledge’ she could not express entirely all that she wanted to. Turning her apparent disadvantage to privilege, she declares that this precisely would be of interest to readers who wanted to know how Aryavarta appeared to the Bengali woman.14 It is true that there were constraints in production and of reception of texts by women, but travel to exotic places by them in the nineteenth century was so rare that emphasis on gender-based differences could have made her book more marketable.

    Later in the text, we find particular mention of a Sheesh Mahal constructed by Raja Man Singh for his sister, near the Sikandra Fort in Agra. This has no mention in history books or Bholanauth Chunder’s The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India (1869),15 which she had read. While recognizing the importance of Chunder’s book, she states categorically that she differs with Chunder not only in the description of places but also the pronunciation of their names. Perhaps as a strategy to enhance her authority and to allow fluidity of authorship, she solicits the aid of her readers as active accomplices asking them to judge for themselves. She then feigns gender-inflicted condescension and plays down the merit of her own claim to authenticity. She adds, ‘I personally believe that Bholanauth Chunder is correct.’ She apologizes for her inadequacies only to defend herself ardently against them exploiting her feminine identity and gender-specific aspect of her travelling experience. She writes that due to situational differences and facilities available to Chunder as a male writer, which were unavailable to her, there are probable errors in her book.16

    Interestingly, she ends the advertisement with an aura of secrecy and evasiveness. She mentions that due to situational constrains, she is incapable of making public the name of the person without whose inspiration the book would not have been written. She adds that even if outward recognition remains a distant dream, her heartfelt gratitude shall be treasured through times to come. Having entered the public realm of print culture as a writing subject and portraying her observations as the textual object, she was careful not to breach the fundamental norms of feminine propriety beyond this.

    Nurturing such a cautious gender-normative stance of hesitancy, she begins writing the book by harping again on the almost impos-sibility of a Bengali woman to venture into the outer world beyond the antahpur. She ironically thanks her physical infirmity that gave her an opportunity to bring to reality her childhood dream of witnessing the important sites of the Motherland.

    1. Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur Diary’, in Atmakatha (My Story), eds N.C. Jana, Manu Jana, and Kamalkumar Sanyal, Calcutta, vol. 2, 1982.
    2. Th ere is a distinction between teleological time of public/linear his-tory with its westernized sense of history, with destiny and progress as its goal, and feminine circular time or monumental time of cycles, gesta-tions, and the eternal recurrence of a biological rhythm. In the realm of the household, time moves in circles with female/maternal subjectivity engaged in cooking, cleaning, birthing, and sleeping. Nothing new is really created for there is only reproduction and recreation (see Julia Kristeva, ‘Women’s Time’, trans A. Jardine and H. Blake, Signs, vol. 7, no. 1, Autumn 1981, pp. 13–35).
    3. Rochona Majumdar, ‘Writing the Self: Rassundari Dasi’s Amar Jiban ’, The Calcutta Historical Journal, vol. 19–20, 1997–98, p. 20.
    4. Kailashbashini mentions that she was 17 or 18 years old and Kishorichand was 24 or 25 when they were in Natore (1850). So it can be presumed that in 1846 she must have been 13 or 14 (Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur’, p. 10).
    5. Rajshahi was formerly known as Rampur Boalia. In 1825 the East India Company shifted the administrative headquarters of the district of Rajshahi from Natore to then Rampur Boalia, mainly for the ease of com-munication with Calcutta. Rajshahi municipality of present Bangladesh was established in 1876.
    6. Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur’, p. 9.
    7. Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur’, p. 14.
    8. In his speech Kishorichand mentioned ‘the dificulties’in ‘introduction of female education in this district’ (see Ghosh, Karmabeer Kishorichand, p. 73).
    9. Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur’, pp. 77–85.
    10. Kailashbashini Debi, ‘Janaika Grihabodhur’, pp. 100–10.
    11. Prasannamayee Debi, Purba Katha (Tales of Yore), Calcutta, 1982, pp. 100–1.
    12. Korte, English Travel Writing, p. 108.
    13. Prasannamayee Debi, Aryavarta: Janaika BangaMahilar Bhraman Brittanta (Aryavarta: The Travelogue of a Certain Bengali Woman), Calcutta, 1888, p. iii.
    14. Prasannamayee Debi, Aryavarta, p. iv.
    15. J. Talboys Wheeler writes about Bholanauth Chunder thus: ‘The Travels of the Baboo in India … [is] the genuine bonafide work of a Hindoo wanderer, who has made his way from Calcutta to the Upper Provinces, and looked upon every scene with Hindoo eyes. … The Baboo, however, had made the history of India his favourite study, and soon became imbued with a strong desire to visit the localities which were famous in the national traditions’ (Bholanauth Chunder, ‘Introduction’ to The Travels of a Hindoo to Various Parts of Bengal and Upper India, London, 1869).
    16. Prasannamayee Debi, Aryavarta, pp. 554–5.

    Maroona Murmu teaches in the Department of History at Jadavpur University, Kolkata.

    These are excerpts from Words of Her Own: Women Authors in Nineteenth-Century Bengal, written by Maroona Murmu and published by Oxford University Press. Republished here with permission from the publisher. 

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