(I reviewed this book in 2003)
THE FIRST PROMISE.
by Ashapurna Debi.
Translated from the Bengali ‘Pratham Pratisruti’ by Indira Chowdhury.
P 541. 2004.
I’M A BENGALI with little Bengali except the spoken word, like many others of my pan-Indian generation. We were nurtured by urban India, with a smattering of Hindi, Tamil, Marathi, Gujarati and a table Bengali confined to everyday conversation. We have learnt to exist on the periphery of the great Indian translation debates. We have mined the literary lodes of Tagore, Mahashweta Devi, Bankimchandra and Saratchandra through English translations, and mulled deeply over qualities evoked by the original.
It is within this framework that I came to Ashapurna Debi. Every Bengali reader I encountered so far lauded her gender-perceptive writing, her exploration of a milieu beyond kitchen chronicles, her colloquial idiom that unrolls vistas of social and cultural revolution beyond the colonial overview and Vidyasagar’s social reform.
To my enchantment, I found her child heroine Satyabati totally contemporary. As she grows, she evolves into a woman sure of her mind, unafraid to voice her stance, steadfast in her beliefs. Satyabati’s story is too well known to bear retelling, in this first part of a trilogy ~ including ‘Subarnalata’ (1966) and ‘Bakul Katha’ (1973) ~ that has thrilled generations of Bengali women, whose stories resonated through her pages.
‘Pratham Pratistruti’ (1964) is Ashapurna Debi’s most acclaimed work, which won her the Rabindra Puraskar in 1966 and the Bharatiya Jnanpith award in 1977. What distinguishes it from the writer’s 181 novels, 38 short story anthologies and 52 children’s books? Perhaps the fact that it is couched as the granddaughter Bakul’s tribute to her remarkable grandmother, Satyabati. Perhaps the unusual unveiling of a seething, often mute, domestic space that matches the public sphere in its intensity and latent radicalism.
When the last page is turned, it is easy to understand why Ashapurna Debi was the most popular and prolific Bengali writer of the 20th century. I asked myself: isn’t that a stunning achievement for a girl who never went to school, but taught herself to read and write (much like Satyabati)? Through 48 chapters, through the interactions of over 50 characters, the epic couches the eight-year-old child bride’s journeys within and without.
In this compelling parable of empowerment, mapping four generations of social change, Satyabati is torn between admiration for her father Ramkali’s medical prowess and dismay at his patriarchal orthodoxy. She questions religious and social rites that offend her intelligence, defies Ramkali to travel to her husband Nabakumar’s home, denies her strident mother-in-law victory in their familial struggle ~ and finally moves from village to city, from a joint family to an intimate nuclear space, to eventually recognizing the merits of the questioning mind.
En route, a microcosm of Didima’s generation unfolds through Satyabati and Ramkali’s rebellions against tradition. We get to know a generation of women impacted by child marriage, child widows, widow remarriage, co-wives, caste hierarchies, traditional/ western medicinal debates, sexual politics, even the subtleties of rural decline. We understand why Satyabati veers city-wards ~ towards medical efficiency, towards quality education, towards independence.
The city, in Ashapurna Debi’s eyes, offers a route map to women’s emancipation. It is in Calcutta that Satyabati dares to teach at a school for women without her husband’s permission. And insists that her sons should attend school instead of the ostentatious festivities of the affluent. And educates an ostracized woman’s daughter. And turns down Ramkali’s gift of property. Each an act of individualism and subversion.
Most deeply, Satyavati nurses dreams for her daughter, Subarnalata. When her weak-kneed husband brings this dream crashing to the ground, what can she do? Satyavati turns her back on the known life ~ and sets out to further debate life with her father in Varanasi. A decision as radical within its social context as that of Ibsen’s Nora.
Whether viewed within the context of women’s studies or as pure literature, Indira Chowdhury’s insight-packed introduction and easy-access translation ~ done between 1996 and 2000 ~ are a gift to celebrate. For she returns Ashapurna Debi to the mainstream of Indian literature, beyond Bengali linguistic boundaries. Vaulting over formulaic confines, the historian-translator releases the writer into the master-narrative of Indian feminism with incisive grace, personally “both revisiting the past and rediscovering it.”
In the author’s preface, we find the words, “This book is about an unknown woman who was among those who carved out the etchings of a promise from within those ignored interior spaces of Bengal.” Satyabati is a woman we can never forget, once we have chanced upon her. Like her creator, her immortality can only be reinforced by this sensitive rendition.
Now, I can barely wait till someone as committed as Chowdhury makes the whole trilogy accessible to alienated Bengalis like me, still steeped in cultural questioning.
(The Hindu Literary Review 2003)