You are on page 1of 21

Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Paper: Women's Writing in the 19th and 20th Centuries (ii)

Lesson : Rassundari Debi : Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Author: Debarati Sen

College/ Department : Sri Venkateswara College, University


of Delhi

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Rassundari Debi: Introduction

Abala Bose (b.1855), a leading educationist, argued that women should have a deeper
and extended education...because woman like man is first of all a mind, and only in the
second place physical and a body 1

Abala Boses impassioned plea for the cause of female education in the first decade of
the twentieth century brings forth a number of often divergent ideas and the various
contemporary debates vis-a-vis the literacy of women. The last decades of the
nineteenth century saw the daughters of the middle class as the initial beneficiaries of
the new educational wave by being either schooled at home or sent to the newly
inaugurated schools for girls. However, this path-breaking practice should not be seen as
a disinterested attempt at empowering the girls with a zeal for the pursuit of knowledge.
These were always conscious steps to mould the girls into suitable companions for
matrimonial alliances with young men now enlightened by the liberal education of
Britain. However, by the turn of the century there were leading voices like those of Abala
Bose and Kamini Roy (1864-1933), a social worker and poet, who amongst others,
brought to the public forum a new logic of female education where women were seen as
equal to men and where education would be seen as an end in itself. Rassundari Debi,
the first woman to write an autobiography in Bengali, is indeed a very interesting figure
in this intersection of the deliberations about womens education. Amar Jiban, published
in the year 1876, chronicles for us the struggles of an upper class woman from rural
Bengal who overcame unsurpassed trials and tribulations only to tutor herself in her
mother tongue. The extraordinary life of Rassundari enables us to locate the raging
debates of the times in a different paradigm and see how actually those at the receiving
end of the spectrum viewed these socio-political developments which were also infused
with the fervour of nationalism.

1
Bose, Abala. Report of Lecture in Modern Review 1:2, 1907.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Abala Bose Kamini Roy

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abala_Bose# https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kamini

/media/File:Lady_Abala_Bose.png.jpg _Roy#/media/File:Kamini_Roy.jpg

The Life and Works of Rassundari Debi

Rassundari Debi was born in the small village of Potajia in East Bengal in the year 1810.
However, she lost her father very early in her life and developed a deep attachment to
her mother, who raised her along with the extended joint family as was the custom in
those days. Though untutored, Rassundari would sometimes sit with the young boys in
the outer room of her parents house that served as the village school. This was her only
brush with education in her childhood. She was married at the age of twelve, a
relatively late age for a girl of that time, due to the shielding love of her widowed
mother. The marriage took her to the far off village of Ramdia where, fortunately, the
well-to-do landed house that she was married into was a kind one and especially, the
figure of mother-in-law was a benign presence in this new phase of her life. Though
initially spared the horrors of the sasurbari, things took a nasty turn for the young
Rassundari at fourteen when her mother-in-law lost her eye-sight and was left bed-
ridden. Rassundari now fell a prey to the ever-demanding grind of household work. The
family was a large one with visiting relatives and a retinue of servants and now the
miserable Rassundari found herself at the helm of affairs in the domestic realm which
involved cooking and looking into everyone elses comfort. The situation was further
aggravated by the fact that housework demanded her attention even before dawn and
continued till late into the night. To add to this list of unending chores Rassundari also
gave birth to twelve children beginning at the age of eighteen till she turned forty-one.
Confined to the antahpur of the house, physically spending most of the day within the
kitchen, Rassundari carried on with the daily drudgery of her house unaided as the

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

servants were not permitted within the inner premises. Total seclusion and absolute
slavery within the kitchen left Rassundari completely exhausted and only fuelled her with
a forbidden desire. Rassundari was possessed with the desire to read. This was however
a blasphemous wish as it could have dire consequences for the home and was even
potent enough to wrench it apart by taking the life of the master of the house and
pushing the desirous woman into the abyss of widowhood from which there was no
respite. The conflicts within Rassundari can be understood in view of the fact that a mere
mention of the wish would also scathe her with a stigma which the society would neither
forgive nor forget. However, what complicates things for her is the fact that being a
devout Vaishnav she desires to read the Chaitanya Bhagavata. Her religious zeal and a
number of fortuitous circumstances make Rassundari realise her dream, though the risks
that she undertakes again highlight for us the wagers of honour, respect and her very
life that she had to pawn to fulfil her desire.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chaitanya_Mahaprabhu#/media/File:Chaitanya-
Mahabrabhu-at-Jagannath.jpg

Chaitanya Mahaprabhu (18 February 1486 14 June 1534) was a Bengali spiritual teacher.
His devotees considered him to be the incarnation of Lord Krishna.

Though now able to read, the opportunity to learn to write comes years after when her
son expresses his annoyance about her not answering his letters and insists that she
must respond to him. The attitude of the son brings in a fresh perspective as the son
sees his demand as being an innocently legitimate one. The changing social perception
with regard to female education becomes evident here and when we find Rassundari
scribbling on a page while caring for her convalescent husband in Calcutta we realise
that she has indeed scripted a new page in history. It is only appropriate that Tanika
Sarkar in Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban, A Modern Autobiography calls
Rassundari a jitakshara, one who has conquered the alphabet. However, for Rassundari

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

this was not only a war to literacy but involved taking on many more intimidating social
practices.

Rassundari Debi learnt to write years after beginning to read in the 1860s, on the
insistence of her son that she never replied to his letters. The struggle that she had to go
through to be literate seems to have remained a secret, even decades later, within the
family circle.

Sahaj Path

Image ILLL

Sahaj Path was a Bengali primer written by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941).

Amar Jiban was written and published in two parts. The first consisted of sixteen
rachanas or compositions published in the year 1868. Incidentally this was the year in
which her husband passed away. The second part came out in the year 1906, consisting
of fifteen rachanas or compositions. Every composition is preceded by a devotional poem
dedicated to her Dayamadhav, the Vaishnav godhead whom she had chosen for her

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

intense devotion and every such poem sets the theme for that particular piece. The
compositions in the first part are longer and more autobiographical in nature while those
in the second part reveal the spiritual contour of Rassundaris personality.

Supriya Chaudhuri and Sajni Mukherji note that other than the spiritual personal
narratives of the Bhakti Movement like those of the Marathi religious poet, Janabai and
the Kannada poet, Mahadevi Akka, Rassundaris Amar Jiban is the first autobiography in
the modern Indian literary landscape. However, what remains for us as readers to
explore is the intriguing reason behind the interesting choice of the genre and the way in
which the notion of the self has been constructed through the pages of this
autobiography which not only marks the advent of a self-taught rural woman in the
canvas of Bengali literature but vicariously, through her, scores the presence of women
writers in territories hitherto unexplored even by the well-established male bastion.

Amar Jiban: The Socio-Historical Context

Rassundari Debi made more than literary history when she inaugurated the genre of the
autobiography in the Bengali language. Bengali literature had to wait as long as two
decades for the next autobiography written by Debendranath Tagore (1817-1905), to be
published in 1898. Tagore was a learned scholar and a co-founder of the Brahmo Samaj
who was also the father of Rabindranath Tagore. However, even a cursory look at the
literary repertoire of the late nineteenth century informs us that a number of women in
India were penning down their own personal narratives through a range of genres, such
as the full-length structured autobiographies, personal letters, diaries, memoirs etc. This
particular moment in history is of great significance as we witness an intersection of a
number of waves such as ideas of womens emancipation and strishiksha (womens
education), debates over the measures for the upliftment of widows and various other
threads of social reform, all within the larger context of the spirit of Indian nationalism.
The voices of women now heard for the first time through their own narratives, however,
should not be simplistically reduced as examples of the success of these zealously
undertaken endeavours. These voices often reveal, with great trepidation, the conflicts
and fissures in the very ideology of these emancipatory programmes.

The Brahmo Samaj founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath Tagore
in 1828 and the Bengal Renaissance which characterised nineteenth century Bengal by
heralding the dawn of the modern age brought with them a slew of new social reforms.
These measures left a deep impact on the fabric of a society already churned by new
ideas and notions introduced under the colonial regime and fired with the aspiration of a
nationalist revival. Prominent intellectuals like Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Iswarchandra
Vidyasagar were at the fore of these initiatives.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ram_Mohan_Roy#/media/File:Raja_Ram_Mohan_Roy.jpg

Raja Ram Mohan Roy (1772-1833) was a great social reformer, accredited for the
abolishment of the practice of sati and an ardent advocate of womens education who
was severely critical of the practice of child marriage.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ishwar_Chandra_Vidyasagar#/media/File:Ishwar_Chandra
_Vidyasagar.jpg

Iswarchandra Vidyasagar (1820-1891) was another prominent figure in the Bengal


Renaissance who was an educator and a social reformer. He also wrote scathing tracts
on the problems of social practices such as child marriage.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

The Bengal Renaissance was a social reform movement in nineteenth century which
ushered the dawn of the modern age in Bengal. Though spearheaded by Raja Ram
Mohan Roy, the movement is remarkable for the wide sweep of its impact on the Bengali
society and the way in which it involved all the major thinkers and intellectuals of the
time. Religion, science, social practices such as the sati and the caste system and most
importantly a cautious engagement with the baffling experience of colonialism, came
under the broad purview of this movement.

Such social programmes were however not peculiar to Bengal only and similar
ones had surfaced in other parts of the country as well. Institutions like the Prathana
Samaj in Bombay, which spearheaded a number of religious and social reforms was
founded by Aatmaram Pandurang in 1867. Social reformers like Justice Mahadev Govind
Ranade (1842-1901), a prominent social reformer and scholar and Jyotirao Govindrao
Phule (1827-1890), a social reformer who worked tirelessly for the cause of womens
education, the upliftment of the condition of widows and untouchability had also
introduced similar ideas in Maharashtra. The latter had actually transformed the lofty
ideals into reality by setting up the first girls school in the country in the year 1848.

What complicated matters for these social reformers and their liberating plans
for the women of the country was that most of these social practices were endemic in
the indigenous texture of the communities and any of these reforms met with great
resistance not only at the grass-roots level, but ironically also from the educated upper-
castes. Further these same practices were furnished by the colonial regime as a
justification for continuing their benign administration over the conquered territory as a
civilising mission. It is interesting to note that the iconography drawn on in popular
discourse to represent the subjugated nation was always that of the repressed Mother
Goddess. It is this point of convergence which unravels for us the inhibitions and
anxieties of the social reformers vis-a-vis the womens question. However, it must be
mentioned that the reforms suggested were not mere clones of Western ideology and
were most often considerate rational concerns which tried to strike a balance with the
scriptural demands as well. Many of these were also successfully legislated like the sati
was abolished in 1828, widow remarriage legalised in1856 and the Age of Consent Bill
1891 prohibited inter-course with wives below the age of twelve years.

Having said that, it was also a reality that very identity of women was conjoined
with that of the house that they belonged to and they were strictly confined to the
anthapur / andar mahal of the house. This seclusion was advocated on the grounds that
the women embodied the honour of the household. In addition, the patriarchal order
was also unambiguous in its plans to channelize the benefits of any of these uplifting

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

measures for women, towards its own advantage. Thus, according to them, educating
women could ensure they became the help-meet of the young men now trained under
the rational British pedagogy. Moreover, it would also augur well for the future
generations, who could reap the benefits of an educated mother, and consequently,
contribute to the larger cause of the nation as such. Thus, a woman could never be
thought of as an individual but always as an appendage to her husband. Her highest
aspiration could only be to have a husband blessed with a long life and to be the mother
of sons. Education or any of the other liberating measures could never be pursued for
their own sake.

It would be pertinent here to refer to Partha Chatterjees argument in his seminal


work The Nation and its Fragments where he asserts that women played a crucial role in
the inception of nationalistic ideas through their inclusion in the spiritual paradigm. This
appropriation of the feminine enabled the early nationalists to forge a hypothetical non-
Western idea of the nation. The early theorising on the spiritual dimension of the nation
was crucial to its later transition into a concrete political movement. Chatterjee builds on
his argument further in The Nationalist Resolution of the Womens Question where he
demonstrates that when faced with the dichotomy of traditionalism and the progressive
modernization of women, the nationalists conveniently bifurcated gender roles into
those of the ghar/home/inner and bahir/outer. The selective protection extended to
women from the threats of imperial modernization and the evocation of women as the
goddesses of the spiritual realm further helped in denying them the benefits of western
liberal ideas. Thus, every effort concerning the womens question was a consciously
truncated one which conformed to the traditional mores of society and reiterated age-
old gender inequities.

This perhaps would help us to understand the contemporary reactions to the publication
of Rassundaris autobiography. Jyotirindranath Tagore (1849-1925), a popular Bengali
dramatist and the elder brother of Rabindranath Tagore, who had a great influence on
the latter, wrote the introduction to Amar Jiban. Tagore posits Rassundari as an ideal
and exhorts all housewives to read the book. Tagores praise for Rassundari is anchored
in the fact that she undertook this great enterprise to be self-educated in total secrecy
not to read novels or plays but rather the religious text of the Chaitanya Bhagavata.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Jyotirindranath Tagore

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jyotirindranath_Tagore#/media/File:Jyotirindranath
Tagore.jpg

Dineshchandra Sen (1866-1939), a Bengali writer of repute and an educationist, who


wrote the additional preface to the autobiography, talks of the text as a page from the
now lost golden age and, while commending Rassudari as the devout custodian of values
and virtues, also warns the newly educated women to remain within the bounds as
epitomized by her. He draws an essentialist conclusion by calling her story that of all the
Hindu women of her time. In the hands of both the reviewers Rassundari thus typifies
the image of the dutiful and self-sacrificing wife and mother who utilises her education
best by channelizing it into the cause of the home and the hearth. The agonizing details
of the journey to this enlightenment are reduced by both Tagore and Sen as a testimony
to the ordeal that Rassundari undergoes to come out triumphant as the ideal housewife.

Reading Amar Jiban as Autobiography

The stifling of the feminist consciousness in the text and turning a blind eye to
Rassundaris constant efforts to forge her own identity may now be seen as grounded in
the ideological mooring of the times yet Rassundaris acumen in coming out unscathed
after having committed a sacrilegious act deserves further investigation. Not only is she
spoken of as being a bhadramahila (middle class woman; bhadra also has connotations
of civility) but is even held up as an example of what would materialize if the reformist
projects were to see the light of the day. But what is astounding is the fact that
Rassundari was far away from the din of all these projects in urban Calcutta and her
narrative is only an attempt at self-discovery for her. Amar Jiban is completely
uninfluenced by the reformist jargon and is the result of a momentous moral leap into
the dialectics of representation, whether personal or textual. The choice of the genre of
the autobiography hence becomes even more crucial as while she seems to be reticent

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

about history, the latter seems to have made all attempts to appropriate her. The
immediate history that she talks about through the prism of her mature gaze is only so
far as to locate her persona through certain co-ordinates. However, emphasis should
also be given to the other major trope that she uses for herself throughout the narrative
which is that of a devout bhakt. This introduces the sub-text of the confessional into
the text which deserves to explored in detail as her religiosity was much eulogized by
the society.

It would be pertinent to mention here that the first autobiography to be ever written was
called Confessions by St.Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D.- 430 A.D.), an early Christian
theologian and philosopher whose writings influenced medieval European worldview.
Significantly, the title of the work points out how the genre, from the very inception, has
been inclined to define itself as a point where attempts at the discovery of the self also
converge with a religious quest. Literary archives provide further facts to substantiate
this claim. An early extant female autobiography, also the first in the English language,
by a Christian mystic of the late 14th early 15th century, Margery Kempe (1373- 1438)
called The Book of Margery Kempe, also confronts similar concerns. Echoing similar
sentiments is the autobiography of Bahinabai (1628-1700), a 17th century female
Marathi saint from the Varkari sect and a disciple of Tukaram, called Atmamanivedana.
Both Kempe and Bahinabai also talk about the compromise between domesticity and the
fervent zeal of spirituality. Amar Jiban is also firmly encased within a religious fold. At
the very outset, Rassundari invokes Saraswati to give her the talent to narrate her tale
and further makes every rachana precede by a devotional poem. The life of this ordinary
housewife in a conservative family changes forever when she is engulfed by intense
desire to read a particular Vaishnav text. However, what complicates matter for us
further is whether Rassundaris tone of confession is to be taken as her contemporaries
understand it or, going against the grain, is there much more than what meets our eyes?

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Ganesha in the lap of Parvati

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kalighat_painting#/media/File:Kalighat_Ganesha_in_the_l
ap_of_Parvati.jpg

Kalighat painting or Kalighat Pat originated in the 19th century Bengal, in the vicinity

of Kalighat Kali Temple, Kalighat, Kolkata, India. From the depiction of Hindu gods, god,

and other mythological characters, the Kalighat paintings developed to reflect a variety
of themes.

Amar Jiban: A Voice of Protest?

Rassundaris childhood was an unusual one when she flowered under the protective gaze
of her mother. However, quite shy and apprehensive in nature and interestingly, as an
amulet her mother taught her to invoke the family deity Dayamadhav, at any moment of
anxiety. It is indeed noteworthy to find that even as a child her sense of identity appears
very strong as to be introduced as her fathers daughter would leave her distraught.
Having lost her father very early in life, with no memory of his, she seems not to have
let go off the umbilical cord and remained deeply attached to her mother. In the Third
Composition Rassundari describes how she was indeed in for a rude shock when one day
she realised that she was being married off. The initial ambivalence in her emotions is
made explicit in her own words I was cheered up by the ornaments...Then I began
trembling all over with fear... (192) 2. The forced separation from her mother that

2
Tharu, Susie and K.Lalita, eds. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present.
2 vols. Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1991. All quotations in the lesson pertaining to
the text are from this edition.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

followed again makes her self-aware of the pitiable plight of young girls and she laments
that ...it is indeed a sad thing to leave ones parents...and live under other
people(193). She appropriately captures the ...state of (her) mind...like a sacrificial
goat being dragged to the altar (193). Rassundari hauntingly captures the hopeless
(ness)(193) of the situation and the only thing that sustains her are the reassuring
words of her mother who had promised her of the omniscient Gods constant
companionship with her.

Child marriage and the deep scar that it left on its young victims had probably never had
a better spokesperson than Rassundari. She exposes the shallow motives behind this evil
practice which were the fear of female sexuality and the anxiety to control it. The
apprehensions regarding this were so strong that even before the adolescent girls had
become aware of the sexual urge elaborate strategies were already in place to secure it
within the bounds of legitimate conjugal relationships.

In the Fourth Composition Rassundari continues with her lament on this forcible
separation and can find no way to come to terms with it. The company of strange people
in unfamiliar surroundings as she is being taken to her in-laws house makes her
repeatedly her use the images of the caged bird, the fish caught in the net (194). This
is an incisive critique of the domestic space which enforced seclusion on the women of
the household. What further dampens her spirits is the fact that she knew this new
reality to be now irrevocable. When suddenly everyone talks of having reached home
her spirits are revived but the solace is like a mirage which leaves her parched ...like a
raging forest fire (194) - it is the house of her in-laws. Rassundari is now in perpetual
exile.

With the Fifth Composition we are introduced to her life in the new household where she
fulfils all the obligations as a housewife. However, Rassundaris assertion that I did
everything in a spirit of duty (194) is certainly indicative of the emotional detachment
that she had to her new found calling. It was an exhaustive enterprise which left no time
for her and though she repeatedly vouches for the kindness of the family that she
wedded to, a deep sense of isolation seems to haunt her. Rassundari prepares the
ground for us by generally talking about public opinion vis-a-vis strishiksha and gently
makes us, the readers, privy to the desires (195) that trouble her incessantly. The
nervousness with which she brings up the issues is understandable in view of the social
prejudices with regard to the idea and herein begins Rassundaris confessional tone. The
guilt that she feels is very genuinely portrayed as are her attempts to nip these
yearnings in the bud. Yet it is religion again that comes to her rescue as the insatiable
yearning is now directed towards reading a religious text. Soon the routine humdrum of

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

everyday life takes over the narrative yet the longing to read never really disappears. It
remains as a latent presence and time and again comes up as a refrain whether as a
direct admission of her longing or the fear, guilt and shame that she felt in even
harbouring such ideas in her mind. Life becomes more challenging for her when she
gives birth to twelve children and the demands of the situation are so grave that she
frequently has to go through without meals or rest. Rassundari seems to have humbly
accepted the situation as she confidently claims, Blessed is my life, my birth. I am
grateful for everything (198). However, when denied permission to visit her ailing
mother, Rassundaris calm tone breaks into a virtual revolt and a scathing critique of the
bhadralok family life as she does not shy to call herself a virtual prisoner here (198).
Later on being forced to come back after a couple of days she again likens herself to a
slave (199). The helplessness which she felt at this occasion makes her question, Why
was I ever born a woman? Shame on my life! (199). Rassundari burnt under the
irrationality of the situation and the complete subjugation under which she was left
crushed. The strong bond with her mother is further emphasized when in an unhesitant
statement she claims that she even prays to God because her mother had ...asked
(her) to do so (198). Her sorrow completely engulfs her and she is left mourning But I
am helpless. I am a caged bird (199).

The Sixth Composition again begins by reminding us of the rigorous hardship under
which she spent every day of her life. Yet the gnawing desire to read has not left
Rassundari and invariably resurfaces back. She repeatedly uses the word fear to
describe her own feelings and directly confesses her anxieties which tortured her as she
admits that I was angry with myself for wanting to read... (199). In a consolatory tone
she also highlights the impracticality of the idea. However, her incessant pleas to God do
not go unanswered as one day she dreams of reading the Chaitanya Bhagavata. The
illusionary success leaves her with a heady feeling of having ...perform(ed) this
impossible feat at least in a dream (200). However, the dream further emboldens her to
continue praying for the same and coincidentally one day her husband leaves the same
book in the kitchen. Now Rassundari records for us the painful and clandestine efforts
that she had to use to master the alphabets. She tears a page from the book and keeps
it on a bamboo platform meant for the wood to light the kitchen fire. The kitchen which
until now had been the site of her imprisonment, miraculously gets transformed into a
sanctuary for her dangerous desires. Painstakingly, Rassundari proceeds with her self-
undertaken mission and interestingly uses great subversive strategies to make it a
success. The veil of the sari now helps her hide the sheet while she pursues the letters
written on it. This great act of transgression is astonishingly achieved through the very
tools of patriarchal persecution. Acutely conscious of the humiliation (201) and shut
up like a thief (201) Rassundari is helpless but left to deliberate upon her pathetic

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

situation because of being a woman. Though she tenaciously holds on to her ambition,
even here she has to make compromises as she lets go of any desire to be able to write.
Rassundari accepts the gift of being able to read as nothing less than a divine
intervention and has only God to thank for this unimaginable achievement. She humbly
submits herself to the situation by claiming that then ...the idea of writing did not cross
my mind (202).

Interestingly, when decades later Rassundari confides about her education to her three
widowed sisters-in-law they greet her with elation and two of them even start taking
lessons from her. Rassundari now has an enthralled audience who would listen to her
reciting the religious texts.

Rassundari Debis lament on the poor conditions in which daughters were brought up
during her childhood, especially with regards to public attitude towards female literacy,
highlights the success of the various social movements in the country towards the cause
of women at the turn of the twentieth century.

What strikes the readers throughout the narrative is the constant invocation of
the divinity that Rassundari makes. At every unsettling moment it is God that she rushes
to for support and comfort. Further, the blasphemous desires that she secretly harbours
are also in a way sanctified by her constant confessions to God and the miraculous way
in which it is actually realized. Remarkable is also the strategy that Rassundari forges for
herself to sustain herself in the demanding situation of the new house that she finds
herself in. When left without food for days on end she consoles herself by saying that
This was an act of God and it made me laugh (198). Humour becomes a very
important tool in combating the brutalities of everyday life and even feigned amusement
serves to strengthen her spirit. However, we also notice certain ambiguities within the
text as though she repeatedly records the pejorative attitude of common folk towards
womens education, suddenly in the Sixth Composition in a tone of nostalgia she
provides an apology for the situation by saying that ...it is difficult to ignore or reject
accepted customs and practices. That is why I had to undergo all that misery (202).
This sudden apology for the persecutors from the victims own mouth does unsettle the
case that Rassundari has been staunchly building up for herself. Rassundaris apparent
voluntary internalization of these ideas makes it easy for critics to club her with the
virtuous Hindu wife.

However, the arc of the feminist consciousness in Rassundari is certainly marked with
certain unparalleled highs. She recalls with great wonder how her body flowered and
bore fruits through divine intervention; which could be also a veiled reference to her
satisfied sex life. In a very candid and detailed manner she describes her experiences of

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

pregnancy and childbirth, foregrounding the distinction between the rigours that the
female body has to suffer and the much acclaimed stauts of motherhood which the
society glorifies. She is also honest in admitting that her identity being limited to being
the mother of her children is certainly not palatable to her. Rassundari is very conscious
and articulate about a womans identity being inextricably bound with the father, the
husband and subsequently the son. Another remarkable feature in the autobiography is
the near silence about her husband who manages to have only sketchy incidental
references about himself in the text. In the Sixth Composition, Rassundari talks about
him as actually the man who was my master happened to be a likeable person (202).
However, even with such vague references Rassundari attempts something
unprecedented as she describes his physical details at the end of the first part of the
book as almost an afterthought. Such an intimate portrayal through the female gaze is
also an instance of much courage and candour. On his death when Rassundari, now a
widow, is faced with social ostracism she boldly confesses her bewilderment at such a
treatment as she has fulfilled all the obligations of the society until then. She finds the
stigma of widowhood completely baseless and would rather celebrate the success of her
marital life.

Narrative Technique in Amar Jiban

Written in chaste Bangla, Rassundaris unconvoluted style marks the advent of a new
mode of writing, often identified as the modern formal one. Within the bastion of the
restrictive norms and rituals enjoined by the traditional Hindu family Rassundaris style
of writing spans from a humble submissive tone, to one of religious fervour, to scathing
sarcasm and, at times, a wry chronicling of the disconcerting reality around her through
innocuous statements. The very act of writing and also the choice of the subject matter
can be seen as an emancipatory attempt by a middle-aged unlettered woman. Not a
cautionary tale by a reformist, Amar Jiban turns the gaze on the writers own and factual
reality surrounding her. Against the socially idealised role of the ideal Bengali woman
who is devout and self-sacrificing, Rassundaris apparent submission only exposes for
the readers her bitter resentment of the burden of domesticity- the forced seclusion, the
pains of labour. Even later, when faced with the rituals and attitude towards widowhood,
Rassundari is quick to condemn such practices.

Noteworthy is the fact that most of the personal narratives by women writers, including
Rassundari, have been published after widowhood - a condition of relative independence.

Conclusion

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Malavika Karlekar notes that any act of writing about oneself is a conscious act as it
represents the subjects desire to express-and thus record- feelings and emotions, as
well as events...it helps in the formation of a distinct identity and of a sense of the
self... 3 Rassundaris quest for identity is apparently inextricably entwined with her faith.
Her personal relationship with God, her closeness to Him whom she addresses as the
Supreme Father also interestingly pitches Amar Jiban on this premise of communion
with a benign masculine divinity whose love is infinite and emancipatory. Divine empathy
would give her the much needed courage and patience and also a sense of self-worth to
endure the insufferable. It would also provide succour from the life of dependence.
Rassundaris desire for personal evolution and self-representation through writing is
further highlighted in the Eighth Composition when she speaks of her narrative in terms
of an autobiographical pact with God as the sole witness for its veracity. However,
Rassundaris invoking God should not be seen as a naive reconcilement with the pathetic
reality around her but is rather seen by critics like Tanika Sarkar as what she calls social
making. Sarkar reiterates the modernity in Rassundari by claiming that she was very
conscious about exposing the bitter truths regarding the much glorified domestic realm
and especially, the entity of the family to her readers, thus, in turn educating them
about how society actually impinges on the unsuspecting lives. Sarkar hails Rassunadri
as nothing less than a modern heroine.

However, Sarkar again curiously locates Amar Jiban with the confluence of bhakti
4
tradition and the modern liberal democratic forces highlighting both as liberating
forces where the former shapes Rassundaris ideology of faith and the later as one
extending a conducive platform due to the reforms in nineteenth century Hinduism.
Sarkar posits that the autobiography shows a fruition of lateral forces in history working
together. But for others like Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha Rassundaris autobiography
stands as a testimony to the triumph of the innate sense of feminism in her where
though unconsciously, thwarting the tall claims of the reformist propaganda, there is a
voice which seeks to be heard only with the desire to seek a conspicuous identity.

Amar Jiban thus remains a concrete evidence of the incessant struggles of women not
only to leave an impression in the literary world but even to lay a claim over their own
lives. The title of the autobiography, My Life, further captures this poignant dichotomy as

3
Karlekar, Malavika. Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali
Women. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.p.15-16.

4
Sarkar, Tanika. Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban, A Modern
Autobiography. New Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999.p. 265-66.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

both real and written lives of women lay beyond their assertion. Yet, at the end, the text
reiterates that persistent efforts by the subjugated lot can sometimes assiduously
undermine the very tools of violence and come out of this forced anonymity.

GLOSSARY

Anthapur / Andar Mahal: The inner realm of the house. This was the domestic, as
opposed to the public part of the house, to which the women would remain confined.

Bhakt: Devout disciple.

Bhadralok: Literally the gentlemen, the cultured Bengali society. The term was coined
under the colonial regime and characterised nineteenth century Bengal.

Bhadramahila: A respectable cultured woman.

Dayamadhav: A compassionate (daya-mercy) avatar of the Vaishnav cult.

Rachana: Composition or narrative.

Saraswati: Goddess of learning and wisdom.

Sasurbari: The house of the in-laws.

Strishiksha: Womens education.

Vaishnav: Follower of Vishnu, the Preserver, in the Hindu trinity.

NOTES

Abala Bose: (1864-1951) A prominent social worker with keen interest in the field of
womens education and the condition of widows. She had also set up the Nari Shiksha
Samita in 1915 to work in the above mentioned fields.

Bhakti Movement: A new phenomenon in medieval Hinduism which advocated a personal


relationship with divinity. Though it began as a regional trend, it soon assumed a
national character and the between the 15th to the 17th century reached its peak.
Arguably it also ushered in a number of social reforms within Hinduism though the idea
is now a much contested one.

Brahmo Samaj: A monotheistic sect which advocated social reforms in nineteenth-


century Bengal. The Samaj was founded by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Debendranath
Tagore in 1828.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Chaitanya Bhagavata: A 16th century hagiography of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu in Bengali.


The treatise also elucidates the theological position of Chaitanya within the larger
context of the Vaishnava doctrine.

Kamini Roy: (1864-1933) A leading feminist Brahmo social worker and poet. She was
the first woman to graduate with honours in Sanskrit from Bethune College in British
India. Roy was also a part of the Bangiya Nari Samaj which in 1921 demanded voting
rights for the Indian women.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Angol, Padma. The Emergence of Feminism in India 1850-1920. London: Ashgate


Publishing, 2006.

Borthwick, Meredith. The Changing Role of Women in Bengal, 1849-1959.


Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Brodzki, Bella and Celeste Schenck, eds. Life/Lines: Theorizing Womens


Autobiography. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Burton, Antoinette. Dwelling in the Archive: Women Writing House, Home and
History in Late Colonial India. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Chakraborty, Mridula Nath, ed. Being Bengali: At Home and in the World. London
and New York: Routledge, 2014.

Chatterjee, Partha. The Nation and its Fragments: Colonial and Post-Colonial
Histories. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1993.

---.The Nationalist Resolution of the Womens Question. Occasional Paper No.


94. Calcutta: Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, 1987.

Chaudhuri, Supriya and Sajni Mukherji, eds. Literature and Gender: Essays for
Jasodhara Bagchi. Delhi: Orient Longman, 2003.

Datta, Amaresh. Encyclopaedia of Indian Literature: A-Devo. vol. 1. New Delhi:


Sahitya Akademi, 1987.

Debi, Rassundari. Amar Jiban. Atmakatha. 1 vol. Eds. Nareshchandra Jana, et


al. Calcutta: Ananya Prakashan, 1981.

---. Amar Jiban. Trans. Enakshi Chatterjee. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to
the Present. 2 vols. Eds. Susie Tharu and K.Lalita. Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

Everett, J.M. Women and Social Change in India. New Delhi: Heritage Publishers,
1979.

Heimsath C. H. Indian Nationalism and Hindu Social Reform. Princeton: Princeton


University Press, 1964.

Kapadia, K.M. Marriage and Family in India. London: Oxford University Press,
1958.

Karlekar, Malavika. Voices from Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali


Women. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1991.

---. Kadimbini and the Bhadralok: Early Debates over Womens Education in
Bengal. Economic and Political Weekly 21, 17 (1986).

Krishnamurthy, J. Women in Colonial India: Essays on Survival, Work and the


State. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Kopf, David. The Brahmo Samaj and the Shaping of the Modern Mind. Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1979.

Murshid, Ghulam. Reluctant Debutante: Response of Bengali Women to


Modernisation, 1849-1985. Rajshahi: Rajshahi University Press, 1982.

Nanda, B.R. ed. Indian Women: From Purdah to Modernity. Delhi: Vikas, 1962.

Prasad, Amar Nath and S. John Peter Joseph, eds. Indian Writing in English:
Critical Ruminations. 2 vols. New Delhi: Sarup & Sons, 2006.

Sangari, Kumkum and Sudesh Vaid, eds. Recasting Women: Essays in Colonial
History. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1990.

Sarkar, Jadunath. History of Bengal. 2 vols. Calcutta: B. R. Publishing


Corporation, 1985.

Sarkar, Tanika. A Book of Her Own. A Life of Her Own: Autobiography of a


Nineteenth-century Woman. History Workshop Journal, 36. 1993.

---. Words to Win: The Making of Amar Jiban, a Modern Autobiography. New
Delhi: Kali for Women, 1999.

---. Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism.
London: Hurst and Co., 2011.

Sarkar, Sumit. A Critique of Colonial India. Calcutta: Papyrus, 1985.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi


Rassundari Debi: Excerpts from Amar Jiban

--- and Tanika Sarkar, eds. Women and Social Reform in Modern India: A Reader.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008.

Sen, Dinesh Chandra. Vanga Sahitya Parichaya or Selections from the Bengali
Literature: From the Earliest Times to the Middle of the Nineteenth Century. Calcutta:
University of Calcutta, 1914.

Singh, Chandra Nisha. Radical Feminism and Womens Writing: Only So Far and
No Further. New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers & Distributors, 2007.

Tattvabhushan, Sitanath. Social Reform in Bengal: A Side Sketch. Calcutta:


Papyrus, 1982.

Tharu, Susie and K.Lalita, eds. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present.
2 vols. Dehli: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Vidyasagar, Iswarchandra. Balyabibaher Dosh (The Evils of Child Marriage) in


Rachanabali. Samayikpatre Banglar Samajchitra. 4 vols. Ed. Benoy Ghosh. Calcutta:
Pathabhavan, 1962-66.

Institute of Lifelong learning, University of Delhi