“As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.”
In 1876—nearly fifty years before Virginia Woolf penned the books that were to establish her as an iconic feminist writer—the first autobiography to be written by an Indian woman was published in Bengali. Titled simply as Amar Jiban (My Life)* the book, written by 88 year old Rassundari Devi, provided a glimpse into the cloistered world of women in late nineteenth century Bengal. It was also a remarkable story of a woman’s determination to redefine herself, no matter how difficult the circumstances.
Rassundari was born in 1810 in a village in East Bengal to a well to do family. However, given the norms of those times, she was denied a proper schooling. She would sometimes study alongside her brothers in an outer room of the family home which served as the village school and picked up a rudimentary knowledge of the Bengali alphabets. Married at the age of 12, she was sent off to her husband’s family. In her book Rassundari Devi recounts how she had to take over the running of the entire household at the tender age of 14 after her mother-in- law passed away. Though her husband’s family was affluent and had many servants, the mistress of the house was expected to do all the housework, including cooking for the extended family, its dependents, looking after the needs of her husband and her own children. Rassundari herself had 11 children between the ages of 18 and 41. She describes the exhausting routine of her daily life where there were so many people to attend to and domestic chores to be done that at times she would go without food for two days.
She was constantly overcome by feelings of “fear”. Even as a child she was scared of other children, of being laughed at, of having to live away from her mother, of being ‘talked about’, of not being able to cope with the stresses of daily living. The only way she could assuage some of her fears was by following her mother’s instructions: whenever you are afraid, pray to the Almighty and He will protect you. It was this sheer faith in her mother’s words and her overwhelming trust in God that eventually helped Rassundari to reach into a wellspring of courage that she never knew she had. She writes in Amar Jiban: “I was so immersed in the sea of housework that I was not conscious of what I was going through day and night. After some time the desire to read properly grew strong in me. I was angry with myself for wanting to read books. Girls did not read. How could I?”
Her desire to read the holy teachings of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu compelled Rassundari to tear a sheet from her husband’s copy of Chaitanya Bhagvata. But the letters made no sense to her. So she stole one of the palm leaves on which her eldest son practised his handwriting. She would then compare the two and rely on her memory of the alphabets that she had learnt during her childhood. Finally after years of this furtive self-education she taught herself to read the Chaitanya Bhagavata. But it would be another two decades before she would learn to write. As she recounts, “One needs a lot of things if one is to write: paper, pen, ink, ink pot, and so on. You have to set everything before you. And I was a woman…I was not supposed to read or write.”
By then she was 41 years old and her grown up son fulfilled her wish by getting her the writing tools. Despite her son’s ‘support’, no one actually taught her to write. She had to do it after she had completed all her chores and attended to everyone’s demands, by unobtrusively pursuing her obsession. But it wasn’t till she reached the grand old age of 88 that her autobiography (which included her original devotional compositions) saw the light of day.
Through her extraordinary triumph, Rassundari unwittingly struck the first blow for the feminist cause in Bengal. As Supriya Chaudhuri writes in his paper titled “Intimate Histories: Writing and Self- Making in Nineteenth Century Bengal”: “Rassundari…constructs a selfhood in the world through reading and writing, not as part of a reformist project but as an act of personal self-discovery. As her record shows, she takes enormous risks in this moral and imaginative leap into literacy….For her writing is not so much symbolic as instrumental. It is a space which has entered and taken possession of; a space of extension, beyond the domestic privation in which her life is spent.”
A century later does Rassundari’s extraordinary journey of self-discovery and selfhood hold any lessons for the modern writer? As a woman and a writer, reading Rassundari’s autobiography brought home to me just how privileged I am to be born at a time when I don’t have to make the kind of sacrifices that she had to. If anything Rassundari’s fascinating journey from an illiterate girl to a published author is still hugely inspiring to every woman who is reengineering her circumstances. By discovering her strengths and overcoming the constraints of her life situation, Rassundari moved beyond those, not through fiery rhetoric but by redefining herself.
Rassundari’s stoic sojourn of self-discovery not only echoes Virginia Woolf’s quote but reminds each of us that ultimately it is all about finding the courage to walk the path that only we can. No matterhow rocky the road or overwhelming the challenges.
*Amar Jiban (My Life) by Rassundari Devi. The complete and unabridged translation of the Bengali text with original introductions by Jyotirindranath Tagore and Dinesh Chandra Sen; translated by Enakshi Chatterjee; A Writers Workshop Saffronbird Book.
Adite Banerjie is a Delhi-based writer. Her third novel, a romantic thriller titled No Safe Zone (publisher: Harlequin) releases in June 2016. To find out more about her work, please visit http://www.aditebanerjie.com