By Sreemati Mukherjee
Autobiography has always been a primal artistic response. Self-witnessing, a clarification to oneself and to the world of one’s ontology, is significant for both the minutiae as well as its critical and signal moments. Journal writing, diary writing and letter writing are all forms of autobiography. The earliest example of an autobiography is Augustine’s Confessions (C.E. 397-400) and Rousseau’s autobiography with the same name (Confessions), dates back to 1782. Autobiography, as journals and diaries, has often been a genre that has been most congenial for women to express feelings, experiences, sensibilities, and aspirations. Although Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is not technically an autobiography, it is structured as one and contains a great deal of Bronte’s own experiences of life. Autobiography was also one of the prime modes of a marginal people to claim entry into scripted worlds and achieve signature and self-validation. That is why Frederick Douglass, an ex-slave wrote his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself (1845) and Harriet Jacobs wrote hers as the Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861).1
The autobiographical mould takes its narrative avatar in the Bildungsroman and Kuntsleroman of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries of Europe. Bildungsroman is a story predicated on the adventures/exploits/feelings and sensibilities of a single hero, and his development from very early childhood to a point of maturity. Kuntsletroman is the growth and development of an artist’s life, aesthetic and philosophy. Goethe’s Sorrows of Young Werther (1774, 1779), Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Smollet’s The Adventures of Roderick Random (1748) and Flaubert’s A Sentimental Education (1869), are all examples of the bildungsroman. Another well-known example of a bildungsroman is Der Grune Heinrich or The Green Henry, first published in 1855 and then extensively revised in 1879, written by Swiss writer Gottfried Keller.
Fictional autobiography becomes a staple of narrative production especially in the 19th century England, with works such as Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield, (1849) Oliver Twist (1837-39), Nicholas Nickleby (1838-1839)and Great Expectations (1860-61). The biographical narrative mould could also be seen to persist in Middlemarch (1871-72) and Vanity Fair (1877). A classic example of the Kuntsleroman in the 20th century is Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916). Rabindranath Tagore’s Jiban Smriti (1959) may also be treated as a fine example of the Kuntsleroman.
Not only in fiction, but Wordsworth’s The Prelude or, Growth of a Poet’s Mind: An Autobiographical Poem (1798, revised 1850) is a very powerful expression of the autobiographical mode where through a series of thirteen books, the poet speaks of the earliest beginnings of a poetic self to its point of rich maturity or fruition. The text is a splendid autobiography which expertly explores the many nuances of artistic growth and challenge through the poet’s recognition of the “awful power of the imagination” within him to his calm acceptance of life as containing tribulation and sorrow, but also happiness, serenity and validation through art and imagination.
In postcolonial times, autobiography has acquired rich gendered dimensions. In Africa and the Caribbean, women telling their story in their own voice, becomes as Renee Larrier explains in Francophone Women Writers of Africa and the Caribbean, a case of ‘double auteurite’ (4) or ‘double authority’ which “stems both from autobiography as a genre, and from the immediacy of the culturally and racially specific gendered voice narrating itself” (Sreemati Mukherjee 2016: 12-13). Autobiography becomes a woman’s claim to both her gendered identity, ontology as well as her right to script and the cultural symbolic.
In the case in many postcolonial novels written by women where the central drama of the text, is the woman’s seizing of the pen and the voice simultaneously. As African writer Aminata Sow Fall conceptualizes it, it is a trajectory which may be described as “du pilon à la machine à écrire” which translates into from the “pestle to the typewriter.”2 Irene Assiba D’Almeida calls it a “prise d’ecriture” or the “seizing of writing.”3 Interfacing of gender, cultural and historical paradigms gives postcolonial histories and cultures their distinctive cast for many years now, a process during which language, gender and history have been recast, often through revisionary models. A powerful case in point is Mariama Ba’s Une Si Longue Lettre (1979) or So Long a Letter (1981), the first novel written by a Senegalese woman where the heroine Ramatoulaye uses the epistolary format, writes a letter to a friend in America. Ramatoulaye forced into a forty-day silence after the death of her husband, a custom called Mirasse, mandated by Islam, tells Aissatou her friend, how Modou her husband of many years marries the beautiful friend of his oldest daughter, after Ramatoulaye has herself borne him twelve children. The novel may be compared to Rabindranath Tagore’s Strir Patra (The Wife’s Letter) where the letter symbolizes both literary genre and portal of entry into the cultural symbolic. The writing of autobiography may take the form of journal writing as in Miriam Warner Vieyra’s Juletane, or can simply be a story of oneself as in Simone Schwarz Bart’s Pluie et Vent sur Telumee Miracle (1974) or Bridge of Beyond (1982).
A certain degree of historical recapitulation is now called for before I locate Rassasundari Devi within a tradition of women’s writing in India/Bengal. In her essay “Subaltern Studies: Deconstructing Historiography” Gayatri Spivak posits that the subaltern as sign brings about a “functional change in sign- systems” (197).4 It is my contention that woman/female as a new sign similarly disrupts the syntax of 19th century (and before) Bengali culture (rural and urban), reversing and realigning conventional notions and expectations of woman’s agency and power. A tradition of women writers was initiated, who began their work from the mid nineteenth century, and paved the way for the emergence of woman as a radical sign within the cultural economy of Bengal and India. The endeavours of these women caused what we call a shift in sensibility, altering previously held notions of the term “feminine,” and led to the dramatic gendering of history and culture.5 At this moment of epic transformation, epistemological categories regarding the sign woman altered irrevocably, and what was previously the weaker sex, now claimed power and agency in its own right.
Certain factors facilitated this transformation of women’s position vis-à-vis society, and the signal contributions of certain male reformers in bringing about these transformational changes, cannot be ignored. In his chapter “The Nation and its Women” in The Nation and its Fragments, Partha Chatterjee posits:
…the “women’s question” was a central issue in the most controversial debates over social reform in early and mid-nineteenth century Bengal—the period of its so-called Renaissance. (116)
Several historians and cultural critics of repute like Ghulam Murshid (Reluctant Debutante, 1983), Geraldine Forbes (Women in Modern India, 1996) and Bharati Ray (Early Feminists of Colonial India, 2002) have written about how exposure to Western ideals of granting women egalitarian status, influenced prominent male thinkers like Raja Rammohun Roy (1772-1833), Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891), Dwarakanath Ganguly (1844-1898), Akshay Kumar Dutta (1820-1886), Peary Chand Mitra (1814-1880) and others, to take active steps in creating a climate of change through writing and urging legislation, which would free women from inhuman social bindings and oppressions. Raja Rammohun Roy wrote his second tract against Sati in 1819, and his efforts coupled with those of the Government led to the Abolition of Sati Act in 1829. Vidyasagar campaigned for widow remarriage (first tract written in 1855) and the Hindu Widow Remarriage Act was passed in 1856.
Western texts that were possibly widely circulated at this time among the Bengali intelligentsia of which Henry Louis Vivian Derozio’s (1809-1831) Young Bengal was definitely a radical part, were Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), Tom Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), James Mill’s History of British India (1818), Richard Carlile’s Every Woman’s Book (1826) and William Thompson’s Appeal of One Half of the Human Race: Women against the Pretensions of the other Half Men (1825). As Murshid informs us, Rammohun was friends with English philosophers Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) and Robert Owen (1771-1858) both of whom advocated a higher social status for women (10-11). In his History of British India, Mill strongly posited that a country, in which its women remained in a state of underdevelopment, and were not treated with dignity and respect, could not really progress, or be considered developed (11).
Tracts urging the institutionalizing of women’s education thus proliferated. An important text too in this context is Gaur Mohan Vidyalankar’s Stree Siksha Vidhayak (Arguments in Favour of Female Education, 1822). Peary Chand Mitra also wrote on the need for effective female education (Ray, 122). Eventually, the efforts of the Bengali intelligentsia led to the founding of Bethune School in 1849, a government-led venture with Lord William Bentinck as Governor General and under the direction of the British educator, John Drinkwater Bethune (1762-1844), also deeply committed to female education. However, it must also be mentioned in this context that the missionary Anne Cook did a great deal to spread women’s education between 1823 and 1828. Other Western women who worked for the cause of women’s education during the second half of the nineteenth century were Mary Carpenter and Annette Ackroyd. Even in the school of Rassasundari’s parental home in Pabna, there was a white woman as an instructress.
However, in all other respects, Rassasundari Devi, who writes the first autobiography in Bengali among women writers, was far from all the extraordinary shifts, transitions and transformations taking place in the cultural and social determinations of the woman’s condition in Kolkata. She was far from the advantages enjoyed by Kailashbasini Devi, wife of the Brahmo leader Durga Mohan Das who personally educated his wife. Kailashbasini is the author of the first text authored by a woman in the nineteenth century. Her semi- polemical tract Hindu Mahilaganer Heen Abastha (The Degraded State of Hindu Women, 1863) analyses and details the many causes for women’s degradation and servitude. This text could be said to inaugurate an outstanding efflorescence of women’s writing in polemics, travel writing, autobiography and journal articles. A signal text of this period is Krishnabhabini Das’ Englande Banga Mahila (A Bengali Woman in England, 1885), a personalized travelogue where the writer was able to claim her voice with such distinction, that she not only emerged as the narrator of her own life, but also that of the nation. The autonomy of her position as narrator/writer was validated not only by her own voice narrating her experiences, but doing it in her own language. Rassasundari Devi’s Amar Jiban also carries the weight of her existential and humanist self in the claiming of ‘Amar’ as significant and worth narrating. It carries the resonance of the Cartesian subject powered by ‘cogito ergo sum: I think therefore I am’. Of course, she was aware of no such dictum, but in the claiming of the self that ‘amar’ stands for, the weight of cogitation, reflection and organization of experience, that is expressly human, is embodied.
And it is here that the new dramatic script is written as Bengali women transformed themselves into agents by becoming the script writers of their own histories. As Rassasundari, Krishnabhabini and Binodini write, the romance of the word, the romance of learning, self-realization and self-awareness, is enacted. Through reminiscences or through travelogue writing or writing of polemical tracts, women discover and simultaneously master a language with which to articulate both self and experience. I use the word ‘romance’ or ‘romantic’ to describe this historic and dramatic event because the inevitable joy of discovery, the sense of a heightened self and heightened possibilities in the articulating and defining themselves, in discovering and extending the boundaries of their selves, is inevitably a ‘romantic experience’.
In his chapter “Women and the Nation”, Chatterjee posits that for the self-conscious, rationally-oriented, urban educated, and “modern” person of the 19th century,
the autobiography would be obvious material for studying the emergence of modern forms of self-representation. (137)
Chatterjee speaks of how in the 19th century Atmacharit or autobiography was a popular genre among men. Women were considered incapable of the sustained cerebration, the intellectual and organizational rigour that Atmacharit demanded (138). Women’s lesser faculties were considered appropriate to the less demanding standards of smiritikatha or ‘reminiscences’ (139) which were allowed to be meandering, spontaneous and not have to obey any kind of aesthetic, critical or narrative methodology. Smritikatha would partake of the nature of the journal and the diary which have been considered specifically women’s genres or types of literary output for a long time.
Those who have read Wordsworth’s Prelude or “Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” (1798) or Marcel Proust’s A la recherché du temps perdu (1913-1927) or Remembrance of Things Past (1922-1931) will know of the powerful and invaluable agency of memory. Rassasundari’s text located within its very specific historical, social and gendered contexts, is also deeply predicated on memory as an invaluable reconstructive agent. In her essay “A Book of Her Own, a Life of Her Own”, Tanika Sarkar informs us that Rassasundari was born in 1809 at Patoja in Pabna of East Bengal and was married to Sitanath Ray of Faridpur at age twelve. She became a widow at 59 and it was in the same year, 1868, that this text was completed and then revised by the author when she was 88-year-old (33-34).6 Sarkar further posits that Krishna of the Bhagavata Purana was a powerful presence in Vaishnava lives in Bengal (39) and there is no doubt that Rassasundari is from a Vaishnava family and also married into a Vaishnava family. The texts that are present in her in-laws family are mostly Vaishnava texts, namely Chaitanya Bhagavata, Chaitanya Charitamrita, Atharoparbat, Prembhakti Chandrika and Valmiki Puran.
We find that the trajectory of her narrative is linear. She starts ‘in medias res’, provides no elaborate family genealogy nor does she try to locate herself within an elaborate literary tradition. This is no case of “Tradition and the Individual Talent”.7 However, she includes a ‘Mangalacharan’ in the tradition of spiritual texts, where she entreats ‘Parameshwar’ or God, to guide her through every moment of her enterprise. This is very close in spirit to the epic invocation that students of Western Literature would be familiar with where the poet seeks the blessing of the Muse or God in his epic/poetic enterprise.
She also very intelligently inscribes her name in the text by addressing ‘Parameshwar’ at the beginning of the first chapter, ‘tobu tobo kirtan korite saadh mone/ Rassasundari ke daya koro nijo gune’ (‘I wish to sing your praises Lord/ Please empower Rassasundari with your grace’). This is an act of the self, wishing to proclaim itself and assert itself, instead of choosing anonymity as an option as was the custom in many poems of the Middle Ages in Europe.
She starts from childhood and includes certain vital and pivotal moments that have remained etched in her memory. Many such moments give the narrative an endearing quality, predicated on the sheer innocence and sweetness, dependence and fantasy craving phases of childhood. It starts with her going on a ‘Gangasnan’ or ‘bath in the Ganges’ when she is eight years old. It was a venture of pure make-believe. Her mother, a widow in a large zamindari family, exemplifies the highest and most nurturing love of a parent, as she sympathizes with her daughter’s childish craving. She gets a bundle ready in which she packs mangoes and a rice-based snack. Rassasundari, who was extremely defenceless and vulnerable, gets beaten up by her friend because she could not wash the friend’s hands properly in the game of make-believe, where her friend pretended to be her daughter (19).
It was from this predicament of often being left out of play with the other girls of the village, of often crying, that her uncle decided to put her into a class which was only meant for the young boys of the house. He put a black skirt on her and literally carried her out from the inner chambers of andarmahal of the house, to the open area where the boys of the house took their lessons from a European woman. One remembers in this context the highly dramatic charge of Bimala making this transition from the inner to outer chambers or quarters, to meet her husband’s friend, Sandip.
This transition from the inner world or andarmahal (zenana) to the outer world was a revolutionary and dramatic moment. At this point in her life, Rassasundari was not given to praying to ‘Parameshwar’ for the gratification of academic goals, aspirations or desires. Later on in her life she fervently prays for being granted the ability to read, and then write and so on. However, this golden opportunity for learning that suddenly came her way in childhood was really a turning point, although she did not see it that way then. This was her moment of initiation into script and learning (19). Her description of this process is also historically significant. She describes how a woman who was a foreigner imparted lessons to the boys of the household (20). The boys would write all the thirty-four letters of the Bengali alphabet on the earth. Then they took a nodi or writing and would recite each letter out loud (20). Like the nodi, she later describes how the Kodi was used instead of money for financial transactions (37).
Rassasundari is excessively given to tears, which brings an initial monotony to the text and diminishes her personality to a certain extent. However, the tears are justified when at age twelve she is married off to a man many years older to her, and journeys out on a boat to go to her in-laws’ house and does not see any familiar faces. She passes the entire time crying. Much as it is Rassasundari’s individual situation, such an instance is symptomatic of the times, when women were called upon to make extreme adjustments to keep the social fabric going in ways that had been determined by society’s law-givers, mostly men. Her in-laws however tried to keep her happy by encouraging the girls of the neighbourhood to come and play with her. Rassasundari writes that she did not really join them but watched them play and as she had no work she made objects from mud like dolls, gods and goddesses, tigers, foxes, dogs, human beings, cows and birds (37). This is proof of her artistic abilities and once a mud snake made by her caused a great deal of confusion in the house (37).
Her mother-in-law used to do all the cooking, including cooking for the twenty-five odd domestic help, but when she was stricken by typhoid (sannipatik), Rassasundari had to take on the reins of the household. She expresses trepidation, but calls upon Parameshwar:
Oh, you who are the Lord of the weak…I cannot do all this work…if it gets done then it will be because of You. Do as you Will.
Praying thus, I started the massive work of the house and it eventually got to be so easy that I was alone able to cook twice a day. (38)
She ascribes her good health to Parameshwar and writes, “with the help of Parameshwar I had no disease in my body. If I had been disease-ridden who would have raised my children? … Dear Lord when I think about how much grace you have bestowed on this dependent child of yours, I am stupefied and weak with gratitude” (44).
This is how she reflects upon the general condition of women:
In those days women did not study. When all the work related to cooking was done and there was a time of brief leisure one had to stand in front of the Master of the house (Karta) in a suppliant, modest manner. As though women had no work other than just housework. People in those days thought like that. In those days women’s lives were so conditioned that the wife had to veil her face completely, go about all her tasks and not speak to anyone. It is only then that she was deemed a good wife. In those days you did not have soft cloth like nowadays. One had to wear thick saris. Thus attired, with my face heavily veiled, I went about all my tasks. I did not talk to anyone…I submitted to all the conditions. (38)
The turning point of her life comes when she is twenty-five. The dramatic moment in the romance of the self and the word is when Rassasundari day-dreams about reading the Chaitanya Bhagavat. Although narrated in a childlike, naïve manner, one gets a sense of the desire to read as almost primary eros in Rassasundari, operating powerfully, insistently and incalculably:
Tokhon oi samsara samudre kaaje magna thakate amar dibaratra ki prakar abasthai goto hoyecche, taha ami kichumatra janite pari nai. Anantar amar moner bashana prabal hoilo je, ami ekanta lekhapoda shikhiya punthi podbo. Tokhon ami mone mone moner upor raag korite lagilam. Ki jwala hoilo, kono meye lekhapoda shikhe na,ami kemonkore lekha poda shikhibo, eki dai upasthit hoilo. …tokhon amader desher sakal aachar byabohaar-y mondo chhilo na, kintu ei bishoi ti bhari mondo chhilo. Sakalei meyechheleke bidya-ay banchita kore rakhiachhilen. Tokhonkar meyechhele gulo nitanta hotobhaga, prakrito poshu r modhhye gonona korite hoibek. (47)
I used to be immersed in housework to such an extent that I did not know how I passed my days or nights. However, I couldn’t stay my desire of wanting to learn and read books. I was so annoyed with my mind. No woman learns how to read, how was I going to learn, what a hindrance all this was! It was not as though everything in our country was bad at that point. But this was something very bad. Society had kept women deprived of learning. Women were a wretched class, almost like animals. (47) (translation mine).
Ek dibash ami nidrabashe swapna dekhitechhi,–ami jeno Chaitanya Bhagavat pustakhhani khuliya path koritechhi. Ami ei swapna dekhiya jagiya uthilam. Takan amar shorirmon ekkale anandrarashe poripurna holo (47).
One day I dreamt that I was reading the Chaitanya Bhagavat. I woke up upon seeing this dream. My entire being was flooded with joy. (translation mine).
This is where the epic enterprise begins. One of the central critical insights on which this essay rests is to read Rassasundari Devi’s Amar Jiban as a text celebrating an epic enterprise. To accomplish reading and writing in an environment entirely hostile to women’s education, was nothing short of epic achievement and requiring epic valour. That it is a woman who performs this extraordinary and heroic act, makes it resonate so powerfully over time. She becomes strategic in the way an epic hero would be. Of course, a great deal is performed through prayer. She importunes the Lord to show her which text of all the texts in the house was the Chaitanya Bhagavata. One must also note the power of dream to set actions in motion. This too, is a feature of the epic.
Oi Chaitanya Bhagavata pustakhhani amake chiniya dao. Oi Chaitanya Bhagavata pustakhhani amake ditei hobe, tumi naa dile aar kahake bolibo. (48)
Dear Lord, please make me recognize the Chaitanya Bhagavata. You have to somehow give me the Chaitanya Bhagavata. Who else can I ask, but you? (translation mine).
The miraculous and richly coincidental are part of the fabric of experience of the protagonist of our text. Somehow, in a richly coincidental manner her husband calls out the name of the book and leaves it on the kitchen table. The epic heroine, having embarked on her epic labour, steals a page of that book. She hides it under a heap of chalk in the kitchen. Then she takes the next step of her epic venture. She steals a page of her elder son’s writing which he practiced on palm leaves (taal pata).
The next step of this mighty labour was holding both leaves in her hand while cooking and trying to match the letters she had silently learnt as a child of eight:
Ami shei pustaker patati o oi taaler patati loiya moner akkhrer shonge milaiya milaiya dekhitaam. Ami ei prokaar koriya sakal diboshe mone mone poditam. Ami anek dibosh-e, anek porishrom-e, anek jatne ebam anek koshto koriya oi Chaitanya Bhagavat pustakkkhani gongaiya podite shikhilam. (50)
I took a page of that book [Chaitanya Bhagavat] and a page of the palm-leaf writing and used to compare them with the letters etched in my mind. This is how I silently studied every day in my mind. After many days, after a great deal of effort, after a great deal of care and after a great deal of pain I learnt to read the text in a laboured manner. (translation mine).
The repetition of ‘a great deal’ should give the reader an understanding of how Herculean that task was. In the same manner, Rassasundari also learns how to write. She importuned Parameshwar with this entreaty:
Tumi amake likhite shikhao. (67)
Please teach me how to write. (translation mine)
As she speaks of her epic struggle she also brings in an excoriating critique of society that condemned women’s education:
Aha ki akkheper bishoi. Meyecchele bole ki eto durdasha?chorer moton bondi hoye thaki, tai boleeya ki bidya shikkha teo dosh? … ekhonkkar meyechhelgulo je nishkantak swadheenotai acche, taha dekhiyao mon santushta hoi…ami je jotkinchit shikhiyachhi, shey kebol sampurna Parameshwar-er onugroho matro (50)
Oh, it is such a reason to lament! Just because one is a woman should one have to be in such a state of abjection? We lead lives of imprisonment like thieves, yet, is even the pursuit of education such a culpable matter? … It is gratifying see that women nowadays have so much more freedom…Whatever little I learnt was because of Parameshwar. (translation mine)
The text is geared through certain verbal complexes that work like the oral leitmotifs in epic, adding a powerful recursion and repetition in the text. One is a constant reference to her body and her sense of wonder and amazement at it:
Parameshwar amar shoreer-e jekhhane je prokaar proyojoneeya bostu lagibe taha somudai saranjam diya amar shorir tarani sajaiya diyachhen. Aha ki aschrarya! (70)
Parameshwar had loaded the ship that was my body with all the gifts it required. What a wonder! (translation mine)
This close physical intimacy with the Lord is almost erotic. Another powerful verbal complex is her frequent reference to her ‘ananda’ or ‘happiness’. A characteristic moment of happiness is when at age forty she becomes a mother-in-law:
amar bodo chhele Bipiner bibaha diya putrabodhu ghore anaa hoilo. anandaroshe shorir dhaldhal hoilo (58)
When my eldest son Bipin got married, a daughter-in-law arrived. My body burst with happiness. (translation mine).
Another powerful complex is her frequent comparison of herself to an imprisoned bird. When her mother dies and she cannot be with her mother in her last hours, she feels like a bird that is imprisoned. Her description of her abject state is one of the most eloquent in the book:
Matake Parameshwar er protineedhi boleeleo bola hoi. Emon je durlabh bostu Ma, ei Ma er sheba korite pari nai…ami jodi putra santan hoitam, aar Ma r asanna kaaler sambad paitam, tobe ami jekhane thaktam, pakhir moto udiya jaitam. Ki koriobo, am pinjar boddho pakhi. (45)
A mother is supposed to be a representative of God. Alas, I could not be of service to this rare being, my mother… If I had been a male child, upon hearing of her impending death, I could have flown to her side like a bird. Alas however, I am an imprisoned bird. (translation mine)
The mother-daughter continuum is a precious one and in her ‘reminiscences’ Rassasundari speaks of her mother with great love and tenderness. It was her mother who instilled in her deep faith in ‘Parameshwar’ or God, and the need to depend on Him at all times (21-22). Rassasundari’s excessive fear or extreme tendency to always cry, as for instance, the night a fire broke out in a neighbour’s house, was gently countered by her mother who counselled her to always call upon ‘Parameshwar’. Throughout her life Rassasundari uses this mantra to deal with many critical situations of her life. Despite the fact that Rassasundari had lost seven of her twelve children, the power of her mantra, given to her as a child, allowed her to overcome the sorrow of losing her children and still retain her ‘ananda’ or ‘happiness’.
As much as the ideal and romantic prevail in the epistemological and existential of the text, realism is also strongly counterpointed. It lies in Rassasundari’s frank acceptance and celebration of her body and in her open-eyed observation of the inequities that characterized women’s lives of the times. Amar Jiban is a text where individual will and Divine Will seem to coalesce, causing the individual Romantic celebration of life. However, the paradoxical nature of Godhood is also implied when the widow Rassasundari states that God is enigmatic and one never knows how He will deal (71).
In his book Hajaar Bochhorer Bangla Samskriti (Bengali Culture Over a Thousand Years), Gulam Murshid mentions names such as Nabinkali Devi, Birajmohini Dasi, Girindra Mohini Dasi, Faizunessa Khatun, and Swarnakurmari Devi as being worthy contemporaries of Rassasundari in defining the epoch of the 1860s and 1870s. However, it is her name that he uses for his signal work of feminist literary historiography of a hundred years of women’s creativity in Bengal by entitling it Rassasundari theke Rokeya (From Rassasundari to Rokeya, 1993.)
As Tanika Sarkar observes in her essay,
She [Rassasundari] had neither renounced her mundane life nor aspired for extraordinary powers and competencies. Her closeness to God could only be proved through her own writing. It was at once a miracle in the scope of its achievement as well as a record of God’s intervention in her life. Yet, it was a miracle that only she had witnessed and her self-written life alone could testify to it. Unlike all other modes of recording divine intervention in human lives. (37)
- A smaller and more limited essay entitled “Rassasundari Devi’s Amar Jiban: Romancing the Self and the Word was published in Hindol, Ed. Nandan Dasgupta, Special Issue: Bengali Women. Year 10. No 3. October 2018. New Delhi. ISSN 0976-0989. 76-84.
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Sreemati Mukherjee, Professor, Department of Performing Arts, Presidency University, Kolkata.
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