Critical Analysis of Amar Jiban by Rassundari Devi
The nineteenth century, considered as the Renaissance period of India witnessed the emergence of new trends and recasting of almost every sphere of life. The first half of the century saw the classic literary works revived by the works of the bygone ages by colonizers to understand and prove the backwardness and uncivilized state of the society. On the basis of these findings, they brought forth the atrocious nature of the Indian civilization and started the mission of civilizing the society to justify their rule in India. Their assumption and description of Indian society was based on their findings of the status and treatment of women in the Indian society. Such establishment of thought, in one way strengthened the grip of colonial rule in India and in the other way paved way for the reformative efforts of women issues. This gradually led women to form a private but a segregated space of their own where they could reign supreme. This private space enabled them to keep their spiritual culture safe and secure.
The nineteenth century was also the period of economic and political upheavals and made a lot of women involved in the public and private spheres of life with a greater effort of introspection and retrospection. The advent of printing press made this period encounter good number of self narratives and prison narratives. The late 19th century saw advent of women writers of personal narratives, including full length structural autobiographies, dairies, personal letters, memoirs etc. The women of this period with a new spark of education produced a large number of autobiographies. The essay on ‘Women and the Nation’ by Partha Chatterjee, explored the causes of sudden production of autobiography especially by women in this period and found that it is because of the male’s assessment of autobiography by women. The male guardians thought writing autobiography didn’t require much literary skill and effort. It is simply a retelling of the impressions of direct personal experiences by the use of memory. Eventually, most of the autobiographies produced in this period were not merely ‘smritikatha’ or ‘memories or stories from memory, but mainly remains to be a clear depiction of their journey of realisation of their self. These autobiographies also became a record of their consequential interaction with others. Finally on deeper analyzation, the women autobiographies of this period can be taken as pugnacious and conflicting under their subtle expressions, providing multiple layers of ideas and meanings to their texts. Education and writing autobiography was a male construct and were imparted to women only to sustain the nationalist women construct. The coastal area of Bengal came fairly in touch of British and English education which paved the way for liberal ideas resulting to the reforms. The ideas about reforms were introduced, debated, discussed and contested. Breaking the clutches of work, burden, social responsibilities in the pretext of liberal and reformist perspective women, very often were motivated to be liberated and thus we find the earliest writers of autobiography. Somehow to carry the insights they led themselves to be educated. This education, though rudimentary in nature brought about awareness and new insights. This was a newly created sphere for women, but there was hardly any genuine space of expression for them. Initially they made quite good efforts to assert themselves but gradually as the period wore on, subtle resistance and constrained expressions became visible in their writings. In good many number of times, when they found a vent to express themselves, their voices and ideas were interpreted in connection to the prevalent notions and in different light. These women not only tried to bring about reforms and liberalities in their country but also tried to revolutionalize their character and identity in their own spaces. They opened their hearts and recorded every details in their memoirs. R.P Sinha in his book The Indian Autobiographies in English very clearly states that:
“The Literary renaissance that began with India’s contact with England made a remarkable contribution as it excited and stimulated the autobiographical impulse in Indians.”
The book chronicles the life of Rassundari Devi by letting us know how she suffered each day being illiterate. As customary to the autobiographical writings, Rassundari Devi began her autobiography with her childhood details. She was born in a rural Zamindar family in the village of Potajia in Pabna (Western Bangladesh) in 1809/1810. Her father was a Zamindar, Padmalochan Roy whom she lost at a very early age. She mentioned her childhood descriptions in two sections, the childhood spent in her maternal house hold and the childhood spent in her marital household. She was brought up by her widow mother who was a guide and emotional support for her and the autobiography portrays ample of references to her mother. Out of all her mother’s teaching, faith in God was one which had a lot of significance in structuring her life as a strong individual. Her mention of childhood and later years remained replete with the glimpse of her mother. The placement of her mother in the autobiography is very strategic as her mother remained to be the only influential character in shaping her as a strong willed woman. She proved to be a true feminist in the mention of her mother. An analysis and deeper reading of the text present Rassundari Devi’s approval in the female agency and aversion to the male authoritative positions. Initial parts of the autobiography expressed her desire for freedom through the agential position of her mother. The introduction to God, by her mother liberated her from her bound state of repressed emotions and desires. She beautifully mentioned that she was proud to be the daughter of her mother and equally scared to be the child of a dead man i.e. her father who died very early. Her recognition of the efforts of a mother and her helpless condition showing her of not being able to be of any use to her mother was evident in the following lines:
“I never knew that a mother has to suffer so much for the sake of her children. People never realize these things unless they go through similar pressures. Now I know perfectly well the tortures a mother has to undergo because of her children. Every human being should know this. Most people do not have any knowledge about the matter. I regret to say that I have not taken good care of my own mother, who was so affectionate. A mother is a very precious thing – it is my misfortune that I did not understand it. She suffered so much for any sake. But I was not of any use to her. She did not derive any benefit from me. She used to cry for me and wanted to have me over. But I am a virtual prisoner here. They never sent me to her because the household work here would suffer. I was allowed to go back to attend some family festival had to return in a couple of days like a slave.”
In the very significant part of the autobiography that dealt with the mother daughter relationship, Rassundari Devi not only presented her entrapped condition but also brought to light the criticism of many social orders. The poignant description of her sufferings at the failure to visit her ailing mother helped her to bring to light the discrimination meted out to a girl and covertly refered to the self centeredness and mean mindedness of the patriarchs. Lamenting on her state she writes:
“About fifteen people accompanied me on the boat along with two senior men and two maid servants. I was allowed to visit my people only under certain conditions. I was allowed to go only on special occasions not otherwise When my mother lay on her deathbed she wanted to very badly see me. I have caused her sorrow, hateful sinner I am. I tried my utmost, but could not go. It is my misfortune. It is a matter of no ordinary regret. Alas, my God, why did you let me born as a human being?”
Tanika Sarkar, in Hindu Wife, Hindu Nation: Community, Religion and Cultural Nationalism expounds the mentality of the patriarchs in not allowing the brides to go to their natal home and writes
“The local patriarchy retained deep suspicion about the girl’s natal home and also about her incomplete emotional integration with her new family. Visits to the paternal home were a rare pleasure, dependent upon the whim of the new authorities. They were mostly withheld: the bride soon became the source of the hardest domestic labour within the new household and her absence was intolerable. The wife who spends a large slice of her time with her own parents, is a woman who deprives her new masters of valuable labour time.”
Rassundari Devi spoke of her socialization in her maternal as well as marital house in a very subtle way. Maintaining all cautions to carry on her pious image, which was socially very desirable for women of that period, she clarifies how girls were socialized only to be efficient home makers and to lead a life of self sacrifice. In her childhood, nobody bothered whether she learned the alphabet in school or not, on the contrary she was the apple of everyone’s eyes as soon as they came to know about her culinary skills and efficiency in managing the household chores. Being devoid of any formal education, Rassundari Devi just tried to have some access to learning when her younger brothers received education from a missionary woman. They received education by a woman from missionary, which was like a formal school providing education to the boys, Rassundari Devi, being very eager to learn, would listen to the boys repeating the letters of the alphabet and try to learn. But very soon the school was burnt down and left her devoid of education. The letters learned at the early childhood had a great impact in her mind and she could recognize the letters of alphabet and read with difficulty but her heart’s desire was to read fearlessly.
In the progression of life, she got married to a man named Nilamani Roy from a well to do landed household from Rajbari, Faridpur. With marriage came the separation from home and mother at a very tender age. Her shifting to the village called Ramdia had several references in her autobiography. She talked about the people of Ramdia who were very caring and kind but her detachment from own place took a toll on her and left her crying for many days. Her only solace at that time was her memories of childhood and her belief in God. She received ample love and affection from all the unknown people of the marital house but the desire to read and write kept thumping in her heart from time to time. She was extraordinarily skillful in craft works; her skills of clay toy making became a troublesome matter for everyone in the family and after a terrible incident she realized that she had to stop it. This gathered her great praise from everybody. It was evident that Rassundari Devi very subtly tried to hint how the skills and desires of women were considered insignificant and dutiful attitude was applauded. She was quite polite but criticizing when she found the women folk following the male counterparts blindly. Her bent of mind became evident when she repeated the derogatory comments of the people she overheard about women ruling and subordinating men. In her consent towards women’s education and rule, she showed her aversion as well as fear against societal notions. She remarked by pointing out the people’s comments thus:
“I was only fourteen then. Around this time, the idea that I should learn how to read books entered my mind. But unfortunately girls were not supposed to read those days, ?What is the world coming to?? they used to say ? To think that women will be doing the work of men! Never heard of it before. In this new ace even this has come to be true! These days women are becoming famous and men seem good for nothing. Such strange things never happened before. There is even a woman ruler on the throne. Who knows that other changes are in store for us! The way things are going, a decent man will very soon lose his caste. Pretty soon the womenfolk will get together and study books? When I overheard these conversations I used to feel really scared. I have never dared to tell anyone about my desires – but now I became afraid they might come to know what was on my mind. I dared not look at a page with written letters on it, in case they attributed it to my desire for learning. But I prayed constantly to God. I said? Please, God, help me learn, so that I can read religious books.”
Gradually she became engrossed in her daily chores, at the age of fourteen, she took the responsibility of the whole house with her mother in law falling sick and bedridden. With the childbirth things became worse and kept her life surrounded by domestic duties. She became mother at the age of eighteen and bore twelve children out of which, seven and died early. Her life moved on with all the ups and downs but she had that sole desire to achieve something which was forbidden for the womenfolk of the time.
Gaining literacy was a tremendous impossible task for women of that period. Her life had abundance of household work to be done where she had heavy responsibilities of running a large family of elders with eleven children of her own. The duties of a large joint family kept her engrossed in work from dawn to midnight. Time was also a great matter and hindrance in her willingness to learn or educate herself. Moreover, it was a general belief that women, if learned to read and write, their husbands will have to suffer the consequences of their deed with death. Studies for woman was considered to be abysmal and violative action. Education was a far away thing, even being born as a woman in India was like indignity as she confessed in her autobiography that it was a matter of utter humiliation to suffer just because of being born as woman. Rassundari further clarified her statement by showcasing the condition of women as they were shut up and kept devoid of expression like a thief. When expression was considered to be audacity, then it is obvious that learning was taken as an immoral act. Reading and writing was assumed to be an offence. Though she was aware that times had changed and women were allowed for attaining education. She pointed out in her autobiography which she wrote in her late eighties that by that time women were fortunate enough that their parents were eager to send their daughters for education. Her attainment of education was a herculean task which she attributes to God, by whose favour she could achieve her heart’s desire.
Rassunadri had been a social critic, she raised genuine questions on the prevalent customs but tried to be subtle and soft in her approach. She criticised the custom of child marriage but superficially reading it appears to be an innocent description of child marriage and its consequences. It lamented the state of girl separated from her mother by the institution of marriage entrapping her for a lifetime in a caged household by snatching all her freedom. The period when Rassundari Devi wrote, was a period of women writing with reticence but Rassundari Devi’s autobiography was exceptional in this regard as the entire narrative was a reflective journey of the self. The relationship of Rassundari Devi with her husband, children and other members of the family got only mechanical and perfunctory mention in the narrative. The time when women were completely restricted to the household duties and not allowed to have a self-opinion, she not only brought forth her relentless efforts to learn to write and read against the prevalent social norms but also discussed many intimate matters like the physical and mental changes after puberty, experiences of childbirth etc. These details were expressed, but very dignifiedly with a strategic silence which allowed the readers to frame their opinion and understand the sad plight of a woman in the hands of male dominated society. This was the same silence that had helped her in preventing the distortion of her pious image and brought a great appeal towards the autobiography. She adopted the same calculative and strategic way in her narration of the most intimate relation of her life i.e. with her husband. He had been showcased as man of great potential and dignity but there had been ample places where she had hinted about his behavior as the cause of her misery. Out of few oblique references the noteworthy was when she mentioned that it was the supreme duty of the wife to care and look after every aspect of her husband’s well being. She mentions:
Actually the man who was my master happened to be a likable person. But it is difficult to ignore or reject accepted customs and practices. That is why I had to undergo all that misery
In another incident, by giving the same reference she adds:
“I used to get up before the children woke up in order to do all the work around the house. I even started cooking before they were up. After feeding the children I finished whatever else was left to be done. Then I had to make my offerings to the family deity and get ready to prepare the meals for the rest of the family. I had to cook quite a lot about twelve seers of rice for each meal. The master of the house had to eat his meal if rice just after he had bathed in the morning. He would not eat anything else. So I had to cook specially for him first.”
Rassundari Devi had to make her autobiography acceptable in the nationalists’ dominated public sphere of the nineteenth century. For this she maintained a pious housewifely image in detailing everything. In all her expressions she maintained to overshadow the caustic effects from her criticism of the indigenous customs that could hamper her image yet very strategically she put forth her thoughts and left the readers to judge and discuss. It should be noted that this was an autobiography by a woman in her seventies who lived her life but there were tinges of dissatisfaction here and there. She had been a penchant critique of the customs of the society framed by the patriarchs.
The zeal and thirst for education finally turned into quest for identity for Rassundari Devi as she realized very soon that if women had to be identified or recognized in the society, they needed to be equipped with literacy. She rejected the social inhibitions and crossed the limits set for women and stepped ahead towards education. Moreover her faith in God and determination never allowed her to surrender to the prohibitive social system. She credited God for bestowing her with the ability and courage to continue and pursue her passion which was evident in her invocation to God at the beginning of every composition. When faced with problems and indisciveness, she went to her seclusion and this religious seclusion boosted her with patience and courage to deal with the inflictions dawned upon her by society or by her community. Critics have even regarded this religious seclusion as a freedom by itself and assertion of her individual identity. Malavika Karlekar is quite apt in assessing her religious collaboration as:
“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. She turned to religion, as a source of comfort from a life of dependence and subordination. The satisfaction she achieved through personalized devotion and the worship of Lord Krishna appeared to compensate in part for a life of drudgery and inequality. Religion gave Rassundari a sense of self worth, an identity. The right to seek her God was not one which could be questioned or curtailed by temporal authorities.”
Her thirst for education grew stronger with her eagerness to read Chaitanya Bhagabat’. She wrote that she had taken innumerable small and big steps to satiate the thirst which even led her to the extent of stealing a page from her husband’s =Bhagbat’, which she hid in the hearth of the kitchen stealthily. She tried to memorize the letters she had got acquainted with in the childhood. It is quite unimaginable to assess what possible steps and courage she might have possessed to get success in learning to read and write her autobiography. In fact the entire process of learning to read revolves around her urge to read the scriptures which were in one way prohibited for women of that period. God had always been her constant companion in the path of productivity in her life where she not only invokes God to help her in her mission but also openly confesses everything that she had done in her life. She also seeks God’s assistance in dealing with every doubt and difficulty in her life. She even seeks for forgiveness and asks God to excuse her whenever she went wrong. Her pact with God did not make her come in compromisation with the adversities of her life which was being devoid of education. She credits God for every noteworthy or menial event of her life as God’s mercy or lela. She even goes to the extent that her transgressive act of reading is God’s intervention and God’s will which has happened as a divine purpose. Anees Jung in her book Breaking The Silence (1997), beautifully describes that Indian women find a sanctuary in the puja room where they gain courage and strength to be able to endure and face the challenges of everyday life.
Her description of the self and courage to fight all the adversities of life is derived from God which remains to be an element of piousness of her image and her autobiography. God plays an important role in her life. She attributes God’s blessings as her sole saviour and pathfinder in her life. She declares that her introduction to God quite early in life by her mother has led her life in the designated path of duty. It is God who helped her bear the trauma of early marriage, separation of her mother, following the rituals and difficult household duties etc. God also serves to be an inspiration in her life who helped her in her urge to study as well as prompted her to read and write. This same mention of God is also used by her as a justification of her wish of studying which was considered a taboo during that period. Her mention of God in the narration becomes universal invocation for courage and determination. She mentions beautifully that her every wish has been fulfilled by God who somehow made every end meet to help His devotee. To present an instance, she mentions:
Our home contained many books. Perhaps the Chaitanya Bhagavata is one of them, I thought to myself. But what did it matter to me, after all? An illiterate woman like me wouldn’t even recognize the book. So I prayed God again, saying: You are the friend of the poor; allow me to recognize the book. You must let me have that book. You are the only one whom I can approach. That was how I prayed to God silently. How strange are the ways of Gold and the effects of his kindness! He heard my prayers and set out to grant me my wish. My eldest son was eight. I was working in the kitchen one day when my husband came in and said to him? Bipin, I am leaving my Chaitanya Bhagvata here. Please bring it over when I ask you to.? Saying that he put the book down and went back to the outer house. I listened from Kitchen. No words express the delight I felt when I heard his words. I was filled with happiness and rushed to the spot to find the book there. Pleased with myself, I said to God, You have granted my wish,’ and I picked the book up.”
The autobiography becomes a true chronicle of every woman’s journey towards their wishes and fulfillment of desires by fighting all odds in life. She beautifully reveals grave issues related to woman’s life where she gradually turns into a full time labourer bearing the responsibility of every other soul around her. The revealed truths of a house wife managing the entire household, the issues of a child bride, complexities of motherhood, condition and status of widowhood are all very familiar modern topics of discussion even in the present day. Though all the issues of her life somehow revolved around her willingness to acquire education by which she could bring out the grave realities of the then women’s life. In broader sense she provokes the issues of gender equality as rightly observed by Tanika Sarkar:
“She (Rassundari Devi) refers to her life as entirely of God’s designing, but she does, nonetheless, have a clear sense of social making of it. On certain issues, she speaks in a declamatory voice, where she describes the painful consequences of social regulations. She, clearly, is addressing a modern readership here which is already debating these matters: on women’s education about the restrictions of old times, about the relentless pressure of domestic labour, the problems of motherhood. In fact, while on the last point she says that this is something that everybody should know about her grossly overworked daily routine, she says that though these are uncomfortable matters to mention, it is necessary to briefly describe a day or two of her life. She therefore, is acutely conscious that she is educating her readers about gender issues, and she adopts an appropriate tone”.
The urge for education in Rassundari Devi was such that every sight of paper brought the same uncontrollable desire. She started cursing herself for having the desire to learn to read as it was an evil desire for women of cultured households didn’t read. It was made to an issue if women were spotted in any way with papers in their hands. Women were meant to look after the household and children as these were menial jobs whereas studying was respectable job and was to be done only by the male counterparts. Initially the desire was only to learn to read so that she could read the religious scriptures which was forbidden for women. She aspired to be literate to be able to read religious texts and recite hymns. She constantly struggled to learn to read as she tore pages from her husband’s books and her children’s books, hid them in the kitchen and carefully learned to match the words to make an identification with the alphabet. She made herself capable of leaming at the age of twenty six with relentless toil but her process of writing was a much faraway thing. It was only possible when her son expressed his annoyance about her not replying the letters. The entire process of her learning may seem alien thing to the present readers but she recalls the tough but very desirable period of her life by saying that she got very impatient to listen to the recitation of Ramayana. As women had no freedom those days, she couldn’t take any decision on her own to go beyond the rules to fulfill her desire of doing something on her own. She was fearful of getting caught and punished. She even had to keep her pious image intact and she never wanted to bring any disgrace to the family. She felt like a caged bird whose wings were cut. Her desire to read started with her eagerness to read ‘Chetan Bhagat’. Thus, Rassundari Devi’s education started with the study of religious texts.
The book presents the radical attitude of a Hindu upper caste pious women where the protests against the patriarchal rule and set norms for women is not articulated in a very open and refusive way. She can be seen as a woman out of few who laid the foundation for a movement for women’s liberation and change in India. She remarks on the treatment of woman as:
Women were not supposed to get an education in those days, they had to stand by demurely near the master of the house after all their housework was over, as though they had no other work except household tasks. That was how people used to think in those days. A special rule for the daughter in law was to work with sari pulled down over the face and not talk to anyone. These were considered as a signs of a good daughter in law.
Rassundari Devi showed traits of a social rebel. She wanted women to be educated, literate and self reliant. She had modern thoughts for women as she Wished women to enjoy freedom and equality like men. This enlightment of thought could be a result of the change in tradition, India was witnessing due to the British rule. The modern liberal and democratic forces influenced people like Rasundari Devi to give vent to her liberated thoughts in her best possible way through the text.
My only effort was to please people through the work I did in the house. My only regret was that I was not able to read and write because I was a girl. Women of today are so lucky. Many parents educate their daughters I think this is a good practice.
She further adds:
“After some time the desire to learn how to read properly grew very strong in me. I was angry with myself for wanting to read books. Girls did not read. How could I? what a peculiar situation I had placed myself in. What was I to do? This was one of the bad aspects of the old system. The other aspects were not so bad. People used to deprive women of learning. How unfortunate those women were, they said. They were no better than animals. But it is no use blaming others. Our fate is our own. In fact, older women used to show a great deal of displeasure if they saw a piece of paper in the hands of a woman. So that ruled out my chances of getting any education. But somehow I could not accept this.”
All through the history women’s expressions and voices have been muted. Many women have admitted to their fate and accepted the dominance without showing any signs of rebellion. Many other section of women have taken refuge in the silent service of the familial duties, Education has lead Rassundari Devi discuss the issues that are popularly known as the basis of feminism. She, through her narration presents the picture of thousands of women’s pathetic life of confinement and subjugation. Her own suffering under the patriarchal dominance and constant urge for self emancipation finally made her to be vocal about the system that does not allow women to seek their basic rights. This self expression possessed by her is entirely credited to her educational attainment.