Rassundari Devi’s two sections of Amar Jiban (1868 and 1897) is prominent as one of the early autobiographies. Being the first full length autobiography written in Bengali by a woman, it was welcomed and received with extreme praise and appreciation just after its publication. Unprivileged to acquire education which barred Indian women to establish themselves as writers made this autobiography more significant as the first part of her autobiography. She further added the second part at the age of 88 which combined came to be known as – Amar Jiban in 1897. The autobiography came into existence after Rassundari Devi was widowed at the age of fifty nine.
The first compilation and publication of the autobiography, Amar Jiban was in 1868 and the final version got published in 1897. It was in two parts where the first part comprises fifteen rachanas or compositions with a devotional poem dedicated to Dayamadhav, the vaishnav deity. She added the second part of her autobiography at the age of 88 and got it published in 1906.
Rassundari Devi’s Amar Jiban chronicled her life by detailing her years of struggle as a survivor, as a child bride, a mother, a wife, a widow and ended with a learner. She had also been a true contributor to the genre of autobiography and made the section of women autobiography take another leap of recognition. The great effort, ardent desire to acquire education made her the first modem autobiographer in Bengali language. The transformed self from an illiterate unrecognized house wife to an autobiographer was praiseworthy. The preface was added by the famous literary figure of the nineteenth century, Jyotirindranath Tagore. Tanika Sarkar in her book Words to Win, The Making of Amar Jiban: A Modem Autobiography quotes him glorifying Rassundari Devi as
“Her Domestic skill match her piety and her love for God…. It was her religious quest that inspired her to educate herself…. It was not to read plays and novels but to read Chaitanya Bhagabat that she was so keen on learning… It is extremely unusual to come across such an elevated exalted religious life.”
Dinesh Chandra Sen wrote an introduction to the book Reviewing the life and writing of Rassundari Devi, Sen asserts the value of the autobiography saying, “an entire chapter of Bengali Literature would have remained incomplete” (Sen 11) Jyotirindranath Tagore’s forward to the second edition of Amar Jiban is in all praise of the book. He recommends that every household should own a copy of it. According to him the book is a very powerful chronicle which would serve as inspiration to women of various ages. He states
“I started reading -Amar Jiban’ with an excitement. I had decided that I would mark important and interesting sentences with a pencil. While reading I realised that the whole book had been marked with a pencil. Her life story startles us. Her writings are so simple, honest and powerful that it is impossible to put down the book without completing it.”
Summary of Amar Jiban by Rassundari Devi
Amar Jiban, or My Life talks of Rassundari’s life on a whole: instances from childhood, the advent of her marriage, married life and the like. On a deeper plane, it portrays the dissatisfaction, fear and even frustration she felt at being forced to follow a certain path- being a woman, that is. Her marriage, her household chores, her everyday life all form the narrative, which at once gives us a window into the life of a feudal house wife in 19th century reformist Bengal but also delves into the issues of inequality, oppression and lack of opportunity for women. The book creates a picture of the changing world the status and role of women and Rassundari’s own views on the changing times.
Taking into consideration the society she was born in, lived in and was part of her very desire for learning to read and write was an act that challenged the norms. In fact, she writes about how public controversy on the issue of female education made her tremble with fear.
She was fourteen when her wish to learn how to read and write first developed. As she was already a married woman, she performed all the requisite duties of a traditional Bengali housewife.
However, society at the time was vehemently opposed to female education and hence her previously mentioned fear took shape.
And yet learn she did all on her own. As a child in her mother’s home, she had the habit of observing from a distance when boys studied Bengali and Persian letters. Not allowed to handle even a quill or a palm leaf, she had memorized these symbols by sight. After all these years, she tried to remember those signs and learnt to write by trying them on a blackened kitchen wall. She tried and so this timid, extremely busy and fearful housewife managed to learn to read and write.
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Throughout the book Rassundari talks of the happenings in her life from the most significant to the most commonplace. Interestingly, many of these instances reflect a deep unrest with respect to the status she had being a woman and further, a sincere desire to someday see womankind with more freedom than she was allowed. An analysis of these thoughts of hers makes it quite pellucid just why her desire to study amounted to such passion and why she pursued it against all odds.
One such example comes in the form of her objections towards being called her father’s daughter. Rassundari’s father passed away while she was very young and hence she grew up believing herself to be her mother’s daughter. However, it was her father’s name that was used to refer to her in accordance to common usage of the time. She has written about how this saddened her and was a cause of great anxiety. Clearly, she had a fierce sense of her own identity and desired to protect it. Such references were commonplace – they were the norm, in fact. And yet she found herself unable to accept these unsaid rules and this caused her great discomfort. In this scenario, it is this discomfort, perhaps, that could be seen as what differentiated her from most Bengali women
Another instance where we see her struggle between the throes of common practice and her own thinking is the time of her being borne away in a palanquin after marriage. Knowing that she must now leave what has been her home and go to an entirely unknown place, she is terrified and weeps uncontrollably. It is the imagery she forms of herself being like the sacrificial goat however, which is interesting. In her usual understated tone, she seems to have commented upon the helplessness of the woman when it came to marital affairs. Wed to an unknown person, snatched away from home and now forced to live with and serve complete strangers, it is not her pain but her expression that makes her unique.
One must understand, however, that Rassundari Devi was not agonized by every single malpractice. She was a product of her environment and also possessed an agreeable disposition in general. For example, she held her new family and the people there in high regard. She comments that she must admit that the people there were very good. They are fond of her. Whenever she was physically ill they were so concerned that she forgot all her discomfort. Even the neighbors and servants were kind. It was as though sod had asked them to be particularly nice her.
Here we see the same person who saw herself as a ‘caged bird when it came to marriage, did at the same time respect her new family and held them with affection.
In fact, this pattern repeats itself throughout the book: despite feeling caged and subdued she did not resent the people around her. She used that energy to learn to read and write. This remarkable quality of hers is perhaps what allowed her to continue on the difficult path she had chosen for herself.
Returning to instances where her free-thinking and rebellious streak found representation, we look at the time she became a widow. Her husband died in February 1869 and keeping with the prevalent humiliating customs of that age, her head was shaved. This experience was “more painful than death” for Rassundari. Again, remarkably, her personal agony inclined her towards acknowledging the pitiable situation of wives in general.
She laments upon her misfortune of being a woman: unable to tend to her beloved mother while she was dying. Being very close to her mother, she deeply resented the fact that she wasn’t allowed to go and care for her when she lay dying merely because the housework would have suffered. Such scenes were quite common in that era in fact.
Also, we see that Rassundari again chose her writing as a refuge from the harsh reality. It was her escape, her method of fighting for herself as is evident by the aforementioned incident. Recounting details of events which occurred several decades earlier, Rassundari’s memoirs are alive with the tensions and anguish she had to silently bear. They also speak of a single-minded determination to overcome the situation
One sees through countless references throughout the book that she had an unshakeable trust in the Almighty and this belief was a source of infinite strength a source she counted upon quite often. All her pains were bearable as God willed them to be, and it is God’s name that gave her the strength to persevere and continue despite the difficulties she faced. In fact it can be recalled that it was her desire to read religious books that was the primary reason for her learning to read. It was her firm belief that god wanted her to learn to read and write, and hence all common usage and oppression ceased to hold her back.
Conclusively, Amar Jiban gives the reader an insight into the life of a housewife in the house of a prosperous East Bengali Zamindar. It chronicles the saddening realities of a girl child in the 19th century. It talks of pain, subordination and oppression. It reflects angst, loss and a cry for help.
It also, however, talks of resilience. Of the perseverance of a woman determined to live her own life despite being held back by custom and usage. Amar Jiban speaks in lucid prose of a woman that taught herself to read and write beneath the veil of her saree. It talks of the woman who wrote the first published autobiography, a woman who practised letters on a kitchen wall.
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