Amar Jiban as a Feminist Text
Amar Jiban was written and published in two parts. The first consisted of sixteen rachanas or compositions. 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 Rassundari Devi had chosen.
Written in chaste Bangla, Amar Jiban narrates the life story of a nineteenth century woman’s struggle for literacy. It portrays the changing world of rural Bengal and situates women there.
Rassundari has narrated her life story in two ways. On one hand, she writes that God’s mercy and benevolence towards her has made it possible for her to achieve literacy. On the other hand, she also shows how she has made her own decisions in life by learning to read despite the fear of family disapproval and social ostracism. She praises God’s leela, but also recounts all the hard work and self-determination she has put in to learn reading.
Scholars like Tanika Sarkar and Meenakshi Malhotra have observed that Rassundari Devi creates the persona of a “bhakt” (devotee) for herself, and presents all the small and big events of her life as exemplars of God’s mercy or leela, including her access to the written word. Thus her transgressive act of learning to read becomes an instance of godly intervention, a divine purpose, a consequence of God’s will and mercy.
Rassundari Devi has written Amar Jiban in retrospection. The struggle to learn to read is being described when she has already mastered the art of writing. She describes the past in terms of vivid immediacy of feelings, she ignores dates, time, and other factual details, and focuses on descriptions of her every day household life. And yet sentimentality is not something Rassundari would indulge in while writing. Amar Jiban is written in a dispassionate, objective style.
Rassundari Devi’s life is a series of actions and decisions that are serious departures from the patriarchal social norms of her time and are, therefore, ‘transgressions’ punishable by the society.
Rassundari Devi learned to read and write amidst the popular belief in those days that women who gained? Literacy brought disaster upon their families and were punished by God with widowhood. Not only did she learn to read, but she also decided to record the events and details of her everyday domestic life in a book and got it published. She had the audacity to disclose her life in print. By doing this, she entered the public sphere which was strictly forbidden to upper class Hindu women. A published work no longer remains a private act of writing but enters the public domain where it is open and available for perusal and interrogation by anyone. So there are three major ‘transgressions’ that Rassundari Devi commits according to patriarchy reading, writing and entering the public sphere.
Rassundari also made a notable departure from the common patriarchal belief that female worship can only be expressed in the form of rituals like vrats (fasts), penance, and cooking bhoga (food for god). Rassundari rejected these conventional, ritualistic forms of woman’s devotion that served in maintaining the patriarchal social structures, and established an intellectual relationship with her God by learning to read Chaitanya Bhagavata. She chose to engage in a kind of worship where she is an active participant (like her husband and other men), not a passive devotee.
Many Bengali male authors and poets who came after Rassundari Devi wrote about the greatness of a housewife by positing her as ‘grihalakshmi‘ or the domesticated goddess. Patriarchy has always presented the figure of a grihalakshmi as an ideal woman whose salvation and satisfaction lay in her servitude, and whose happiness lies in the happiness of her husband and children. Rassundari Devi, in her writing, demystifies the figure of the grihalakshmi by presenting her domestic duties as labour which is tiresome, repetitive, unrecognised, and far from emotionally fulfilling. Her assertion that
“I did everything in a spirit of duty” is indicative of her emotional detachment] from the household work. “Instead of viewing labour in an aesthetic and romanticized way as male writers like Tagore tended to do, Rassundari deconstructs the iconic figure of the housewife in Amar Jiban.” (Malhotra, 2016) She also demystifies the nurturing maternal figure by describing her work of feeding and looking after children as physically laborious. In this manner, Rassundari’s life writing contests the male representation of women in literature.
Rassundari Devi’s life writing is a testimony of the odds against education of women of her generation. After describing all the steps she took to gain literacy including the stealing of sheets and palm leaves, she writes:
“Wasn’t it a matter to be regretted, that I had to go through all this humiliation just because I was a woman? Shut up like a thief, even trying to learn was considered an offence. It is such a pleasure to see the women today enjoying so much freedom. These days parents of single girl child take so much care to educate her. But we had to struggle so much just for that.”
In the words of Debarati Sen,
“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.”
Rassundari describes her child marriage and the agony of separation from her mother thus:
“If I am asked to describe my state of mind, I would say it was very much like the sacrificial goat being dragged to the altar, the same hopeless situation, the same agonized screams.” She adds, “People put birds in cages for their own amusement. Well, I was like a caged bird. And I would have to remain in this cage for life. I would never be freed.”
In fact, the metaphor of a bird being caged is quite dominant in Rassundari’s autobiography. She saw herself as a prisoner of marriage from where she wished to break free and transcend her worldly duties as a wife, mother, and daughter-in-law to meet her God.
Rassundari Devi has described her experiences of pregnancy and child birth in a very detailed and frank manner at a time when they were considered taboo topics for women to speak. Writing about her pregnancy and sharing it with the public by publishing is certainly a very feminist thing to do. Moreover,
“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.”
Rassundari Devi, while writing about the hardships she had to face as a child bride and the risks she had to take to gain literacy, rejoices in the fact that the times are changing and some parents have started educating their daughters. Rassundari Devi is definitely an advocate of women’s right to education though she doesn’t mention it explicitly in her autobiography. Rassundari Devi’s life story is an inspiration and a testimony of a woman’s will power to fight all odds in order to gain education and liberation.