A Brief Introduction to Rashsundari Dasis Amar Jiban (My Life)
Sujaan Mukherjee Jadavpur University, Department of English PG II
It has fallen on my part to introduce Rashsundari Dasis two-part autobiography, Amar Jiban. [The first part was written in 1868, when she was 59 years of age, and the second part in 1897, when she was 88. Amar Jiban happens to be not just the first autobiography by a woman but also probably the first autobiography to be written in the Bengali language.] Tanika Sarkar gives us an elaborate account of the social context: the idea of the nation, of the religious background, of womens writing of the period, and of the home and the lack of the world. I will not go into these in detail, but try to discuss the general points. I came into this Bharatbarsha and I have spent such a long time here is a line which recurs frequently especially in the latter half of her autobiography. However, as Sarkar observes, it is a land that is curiously empty. The extent of her imagination seems to be restricted to the pilgrimage sites. There is practically nothing else of Bharatbarsha that features in her work. Her life centres around two villages: Potajia, where she is born, and Ramdia, where she spends her married life. She sees her marriage as a betrayal on the part of her mother. On the whole, as Sarkar argues, the objects and characters in her world are strangely empty. Except for her mother, they enter the narrative only in so far as they come in contact with her life. It is true that she is removed from the epicentres of political activity, but the lack of the world is truly startling. The peasants revolts that are going on at the time find mention only in kartas legal dealings with a Sahib, and she is understandably proud of the fact that karta gets the better of them. What she reads is almost exclusively devotional: beginning with her faith in Dayamadhav, culminating in her reading of texts like Valmiki Purana and Chaitanya Bhagvat. There was also a palpable influence of Bhakti on her life. Around the 1880s, Bhulua Baba and others like him would pass through these villages singing songs upholding womens equality and against untouchability. Other than these, the Vaishnavite movement had also taken to printing
much earlier in about 1818-19, publishing from the Battala presses cheap copies of their texts for urban and rural markets. The first point I wish to raise is regarding her notion of shame. Shame, associated with the idea of public opinion, is the primary affect which governs her life. Even when she is not at fault, she is distinctly uncomfortable with letting the world know of her problems: say for instance when her childhood friends allegedly beat her up, or later in life when she is often unable to eat properly.that I had gone without food for two days, I kept it to myself. It would have been most shameful to refer to my eating in public.
She feels guilt too when she fails to attend to her dying mother.My name is Mother. I had a name when I was in my fathers house. That name has disappeared long back. Now I am the mother of Bepin Behari Sarkar, Dwarka Nath Sarkar, Kishori Lal Sarkar, Pratap Chandra Sarkar and Shyamasundary. Now I am everybodys mother.
She is also not entirely comfortable with the idea of being a mother, which she relates to a loss of identity, and she complains of this frequently. A later chapter title is translated Theatre of Life, which suggests the performative aspect of life that she is deeply uncomfortable with. What I find interesting is that she writes the first part of her autobiography a year after her husbands death. Here is how she moves on.They always want to tell you that you have been widowed. Anyway, this body and mind, this life of mine have gone through such changes
It is as if she is freed from a public responsibility, which enables her to write of herself in so deeply personal a manner. Sarkar makes the point when she speaks of a double gesture in the act of writing: of expressing her fear of shame, and at the same time preserving it in the public domain for generations to come in the form of a printed book. My second point is regarding the issue of literacy. As we all know campaigns for womens education had begun with Raja Rammohan and others in the early decades of the nineteenth century. This is a problematic area of course, as much of these efforts were directed towards fashioning a more civilized India, rather than being truly for womens upliftment. Rashsundaris attempts are truly astonishing and her account makes one wonder where from she acquires the language that she uses. She is
a strong advocate of womens literacy. Interestingly, while she is afraid of letting karta know about her literacy, her sisters-in-law (of whom she is initially suspicious, again because of patriarchal expectations that these exclusively feminine bondings cannot be) find it most impressive. She is encouraged by her sons: Dwarakanath, who sends her a printed edition of the Valmiki Purana from Calcutta, and Kishorilal, who wants her to learn writing. The city becomes, then, a marker of modernity.
References: Tanika Sarkar. Words to Win The Making of Amar Jiban: A Modern Autobiography. New Delhi : Kali for Women, 1999. (All translations used are by Tanika Sarkar.)