Amar Jiban as an Autobiography
Malavika Karlekar in her book on the early personal narratives of Bengali women Voices from Within (1991) notes that any personal writing by a woman is a conscious act in which her ‘inner self gets reflected’. At the process, the writer turns to be a different ‘being’, very different from what she is otherwise in her day-to-day life.
Rassundari Devi, due to her great effort, became the first modern autobiographer in Bengali language. Her transformation from an illiterate unknown housewife to a writer of an important genre of literature is thus praiseworthy. Most importantly when she started her autobiography she was already a widow who had attained the age of sixty. The fact that she completed the first part of her autobiography as early as 1868 is a matter of significance because barring a few Indian women in general never had privilege to get a formal education so that they could aspire to become a writer.
Rassundari later added a second part to her autobiography which combinedly came out with a title Amar Jiban in 1897 when she was eighty-eight. The preface to the book was written by Jyotindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother who praised for its “excellence” and recommended that every household in Bengal should have a copy of it.
Dinesh Chandra Sen wrote an introduction to the book Reviewing the life and writing of Rassundari Sen emphasized the significance of the autobiography saying, “an entire chapter of Bengali literature would have remained incomplete” (p.11) had this book not been written. He went to an extent suggesting that Amar Jiban was not merely “the account of Rassundari but a story of all Hindu women of her time.”
Learning how to read and write for Rassundari was virtually an impossible task. Getting married at the age of twelve she had heavy responsibilities of running a large household and taking care of her eleven children. Rassundari writes how it was difficult for her to manage her household duties even if she was busy doing the work beginning from dawn till midnight. Time was not her only problem. It was believed at that time by the women in Bengal and other parts of the country that if women started learning to read and write their husbands would die as a consequence of their violative action. Thus, female education was never encouraged in the antahpur. But Rassundari’s zeal for education was never let down by the prohibitive social system.
Rassundari informs us, how miserable she felt when her thirst for reading Chaitanya Bhagabat arose in her mind. What possible steps she would have taken to fulfill her dream is difficult for us to imagine. She is frank in the book about her stealing of a page from her husband’s Bhagabat and hiding it under the hearth of the kitchen. Whenever she found leisure time she tried to memorize the letters, which she had come across during her childhood days, stealthily.
One can now understand what a great effort went into Rassundari Devi’s becoming literate and to write such an autobiography. Rassundari herself bestows all credit to god. That’s why perhaps, at the beginning of every Composition she invokes her God to help her in her mission. She also openly confesses her doubts and difficulties before God asking for excuses if she went wrong.
It must be mentioned here that by invoking the grace of God Rassundari did not in any way reconcile herself with the abjectness of her life calling it ‘fate’ or god-given. Rather she advocated a kind of social policy throughout her writing making it as an agenda in what Tanika Sarkar, a historian calls succinctly, “the social making.” In other words, by writing her autobiography Rassundari was very much aware of the fact that she was going to reveal some home-truths, such as, women’s education, problems of motherhood, status of widowhood, etc. which are all modem topics relevant for discussion even today.
Rassundari’s main critique was targeted at ‘family’ which is even today known as “a repressive and oppressive institution” especially for women. And Rassundari was justified. The situations of pre-modem Bengali family can be best known from the descriptions of the antahpur tradition. As had been the tradition an upper caste/class family had a pure compartmentalization of dwellings i.e., the inner and the outer rooms. Men who were generally educated and in-charge of dealing with the public were the lords of the houses. On the other hand, women were compelled to live an isolated life in the inner rooms round the clock busying themselves doing what was commonly known as women’s duties. Cooking took most of their time, Rassundari records how three fourths of her day was spent on preparing food only. And, there were hundred and one chores to be attended to. One cannot believe how miserably they spent their lives unless and until one hears the account from one of the victims.
Living together for more than forty five years Rassundari recalls, she never talked to her husband face to face. This was a tradition of her time and she followed it meticulously. In the book she always addressed him as karla and revered him, perhaps, next to her God. This was not unusual because the time Rassundari wrote her life-story men folk commanded more respect both inside and outside the household. The idea that they were the sole bread earners of the house, perhaps, made them to assume extra power in the family. Women were treated as inferior and they became the immediate victims in the family.
Assuming power men also controlled women’s movements. They never allowed their women to cross the boundary gates to go for even socializing – let alone allow them to work outside and be independent economically. Earlier we have already mentioned the compartmental lifestyles of antahpur where women were confined to their inner apartments. Inheriting such tradition Rassundari never got let down. She even never accused anybody in person for such arrangements. She, however, registered protest against the orthodox Hindu tradition which as she believed, was responsible for the low status of women in her time and society. On the other hand, it may seem strange at this stage to quote Rassundari when she had all praises for her husband in unequivocal terms.
The tales of this book are obviously personal. But the way she portrayed her social and domestic life is nothing but a true picture of every woman Dinesh Chandra Sen rightly comments:
“This biography cannot be ignored for being a personal account only. It is an account of a typical Hindu woman. The woman, who simply told us her own tale, delineated the social picture unheeded. Amar Jiban is not only an account of Rassundari but an account of all the Hindu women of that time; there is no other instance, in Bengali literature, of such an exact and truthful picture of women. Now it seems that a chapter of Bengali literature was never revealed unless this was written.”
Thus, Amar Jiban is a true picture of the contemporary society framed within the autobiography of a woman. Her autobiography constitutes itself as an instance of how to write about the self in relation to events and persons, and in relation to the life of the soul, devotion to a deity, and aspiration towards the infinite. She reconnected her past to the present. Thus she represented two generations. So, Dinesh Chandra Sen rightly said:
“We can gloriously disclose to the world an example of Bengali housewife.”