Some time in the early nineties, I ‘acquired’ a copy of Amar Chitra Katha’s version of Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar. It was actually borrowed from a boy whose name I didn’t know, but whose mother and mine were acquaintances, Tamil women happy to have found each other’s company in distant Bhilai. Soon after, my father was transferred to Bokaro, and in the confusion that followed, I forgot to return the comic. The result was that I read it repeatedly over the years till the cover came off, learning about, among other things, the champions of women’s education and widow remarriage in feudal Bengal in the 19th century. Two names that stayed in my head were those of John Drinkwater Bethune and Michael Madhusudan Dutt.
Last month, I began reading Sunil Gangopadhyay’s Those Days, which can probably be called historical fiction. I was drawn to it as soon as I read the blurb: Vidyasagar, Bethune, Dutt, the Tagores, and several other famous names featured in it. I am now about halfway through the book and it is riveting. Populated with numerous characters from the aristocracy of Bengal to the working classes, it flits back and forth among episodes in their lives. It touches upon British influence on education, religious conversion, casteism, the rise of English over Bengali, and the discontent that led to the 1857 revolt. It also provides a chilling glimpse into the condition of women across different classes in 19th century Bengal.
This was a time when most girls were married off young, before they attained puberty. Then, when they were physically ready to bear children, they were conditioned to think of nothing but motherhood. With several girls being married off to much older men, widowhood followed close on the heels of the wedding, resulting in ostracism and confinement in pooja rooms or Kashi. Widows were not supposed to participate in weddings or other auspicious ceremonies. They were not allowed to play with children of their age and had to wear white. Having been denied an education, they were left at the mercy of their in-laws, and often had to deal with grasping relatives who dispossessed them of any property they may have inherited. Some widows, with little to fall back on, turned to prostitution. This was also the fate of women whose husbands were captured by the British or those who served as maids in the large households, thanks to the prevailing attitudes on the purpose of women.
Women were meant to be looked at, to be enjoyed. Oblique references to “the shastras” were conveniently made, because how many actually knew them to refute them? Women thought and spoke of themselves as weak, powerless creatures, forever dependent on a man’s mercy. A wife accepted her husband’s desire for a mistress as a matter of course. She kept house, bore children, and sometimes helped arrange dalliances. The mistress was powerful as long as she had patrons, but made no attempt to mingle with the noble. The lines were clearly drawn and only men were permitted to straddle both the sides. And then, as now, women were blamed when they were not at fault.
Most of the reformers in the book, so far, are men; but one woman who shows some spirit is Heeremoni. Starting out as a prostitute, she eventually becomes rich enough to give up the profession and turn entertainer. Endowed with a magnificent voice, she becomes the city’s most popular singer and is invited to perform at functions by the wealthiest families. However, she is still an outcaste. Despite her status, she nurtures ambitions of having her son, who displays promise and intelligence, educated. When she attempts to have him admitted to Hindu College, the babus are horrified. How can a courtesan’s son rub shoulders with their scions? How can they take in a child whose father’s name cannot be mentioned? Heeremoni offers to tell the men she confronts who the father is, at the suggestion of her lover. The men, her clients by night, school board by day, are scandalised and leave. The boy is accepted by the British authorities, even as the other students’ parents protest. The noble families go to the extent of setting up a separate school so that they can remain unsullied. The irony is electrifying.
This reminds me of a scene in Basu Chatterjee’s 1977 movie Swami, also set in Bengal, where a character launches into a thumri when a prospective bridegroom asks her to sing. Her choice of song and her unabashed gestures are off-putting to her family; later, when they learn that she has been refused, her brother pulls her up: “Why did you have to sing a thumri? Why couldn’t you have sung a bhajan instead?” How could a girl from a respectable household sing a style popularised by courtesans? Girls were expected to be docile and submissive. Any sign of spirit marked them as “loose” creatures.
The book is now building up to the 1857 rebellion and things will get worse as the British get active — thankfully, we also know that they left. However, it is sickening to think that much of what I have summed up about the condition of women still holds true for many across India (and the world), albeit at a different magnitude. Women are vulnerable in war-zones and in cities going about their everyday life. Rape is routinely used as a weapon, as a tool to assert male dominance; a family’s honour still resides in the virginity of its women. Child marriage is common in certain parts of the country. Women continue to be considered complete only if they have achieved motherhood, and are defined by their relationship to men as daughters or as wives.
That said, more of us are studying and working and taking charge of our lives. This allows me to believe that we aren’t really doomed. I can clearly see the change from my grandmother’s time to mine. In societies like ours, where common sense frequently grapples with patriarchy, change can take centuries to effect. However, if we have come from believing that education led to widowhood, to actually studying abroad and going to work, all in a span of 160 years, I remain hopeful.