The social, cultural and literary landscape of women’s writing in Bengal has seen a mojor transformation over the last one hundred years. Both style and content reveal the extent to which their worlds have changed, subtly
and dramatically, even as the writing itself itsself becomes simultaneously, creative and political.
An astonishing variety of thesmes is present in this anthology as it grapples with, among other things, same-sex love, business enterpreneurship, love outside marriage, and the death of parents. Daughter, wife, sister, mother—the woman who has lived through the past century appears here in her many avatars. We see her making moral choices in the midst of wartime deprivation, and gripping her sister’s hand even as international border politics deny their relationship. She tries to come to terms with the changes in her environment, as her children accuse her of being incapable of moving with the times—even Ma Durga, it seems, is not exempt.
With occasional forays into the ghost story and the fable, this collection maps the bold contours of a broad but uneven terrain, with all the surprises and excitement this promises.
Radha Charkravarly teacher’s literature at Gargi College, University of Delhi. She is the author of Feminism and Contemorary Woman Writers: Rethinking Subjectivity. Her books in translation include Bankimchandra’s Kapalkundala ; Tagore’s Chokher Bali; Farewell Song: Shesher Kabita; Gora; Boyhood Days and The Land of Cards: Stories , Poem& plays for Children; Mahasweta Devi’s IN the Name of the Mother: Four Stories , and the anthologpy crossing: Stories from Bangladesh and India. She has edited Boymaps: Stories by South Asian Woman, and is currently co-editing. The Essential Tagore for Visva Bharati and Harvard.
I am grateful to all the authors who allowed me to translate their work for this book, and to the publishers who gave permission for reprints. I thank the editorial team at Women Unlimited for their painstaking work on the manuscript, and Neelima Rao for the cover design. Most of all, Iappreciate the support and encouragement of my family and friends, for without them this book would not have been possible.
Women’s relationship with history and literature has never been simple or straightforward. For the women of Bengal, writing is simultaneously creative and political, a literary venture that is also a quest for voice, identity and self-expression. The present collection explores the ways in which Bengali women, over the last hundred years 1900-2000 , have negotiated their search for freedom through their experiments with the short story, a literary form ideally suited for this blend of the aesthetic and the political. Bengali women’s fiction is not monolithic; rather, it is heterogeneous, fragmented and marked by difference along varied social axes, for differences of class, caste and community offer women uneven access to the literary field. The stories in this volume map this disparate history, a narrative with many disjunctions.
The history of the Bengali short may be traced back to oral sources such as legends and folk tales, as well as written sources like the Ramayana and Mahabharat and narrative poem such as the Mangalkavyas. From the eighteenth century onwards, the encounter with colonial culture gave rise to new genres like the novel and the novella. Other indigenous narrative forms prevalent at the time included the churnak (anecdote), akhyan (fable) and naksh(portrait). Although it drew upon all these modes, the short story evolved into a genre in its own right; unlike the novel, it was not a form imported from the “West” , even though it was open to European influences. As traditional storytellers, women found this form congenial, for it provided a bridge between the oral and the written word, as well as between private and public realms.
The earliest Bengali short stories were published in the 1870s. The pioneers were Bankimachandra Chatterji’s brothers, Purnachandra and Sanjeevchandra, who published “Madhumati” (1873) and “Damini”(1874) respectively. Rabindranath Tagore’s first short story “Bhikarini” was written in 1877; between 1873 and 1890 the short story flourished in the many influential periodicals of the time, which both promoted and determined the trajectory of this form.
This period also saw women’s entry into the literary domain. In the earlier decades of the nineteenth century, literacy had been denied to upper caste Hindu women, while Muslim women read the Arabic Koran without really understanding it. The reform movement of the second half of the nineteenth century initiated a process of changes, drawing attention to the need for women’s education. More women now found access to education some in schools, but other at home, under the mentorship of liberal father and husband. Many conservatives, though, continued to regard women’s emancipation as an act of transgression, a violation of “pire” tradition under colonial influence.
The 1860s marked the emergence of the “lekhika” or the woman writer. Serveral factors enabled this historic development. The social reformer, Vidyasagar, had promoted vernacular education at the primary leverl, making it possible for women to read and write in the language that they spoke, instead of struggling to learn the classical languages. The rise of print media and the growth of a new middle class readership encouraged women to entry literary culture as readers, but also as writers. The reform movements initiated by Raja Rammohun Ray and other also generated depates about gender issues such as widow remarriage, child marriage, polygamy and sati. This prompted women to question their traditional roles and to demand greater freedom. Periodicals as the Bamabodhini Patrika(1863-1922) provided a forum for them to articulte these questions.
Although several women emerged as essayists and pamphleteers, the pioneer of the short story was Swarnakumari Devi, who not only wrote her own stories, but also edited the periodical, Bharati, in which several other women writers the modern Bengali short story were Indira Devi, Anurupa Devi, Nirupama Devi, Sita Deviand Shanta Devi. Short stories by women in the late nineteenth centry remained heavily influenced by Bankimachandra Chatterjee and Rabindrananth Tagore, and tended to reflect the relatively constricted lives of the women of those times. Domesticity, romantic love, motherhood and family relationship dominated the plots. There was also often a strong vein of sentimentality in them, but writers like hiranmanyi Devi and Sarla Devi used satirical elements to express their discomfort with conservative social norms.
It was in the twentieth century that stories written by women acquired sufficient maturity and diversity to merit consideration as a distinctive category. The transition from the nineteenth to to the twentieth century witnessed several paradigm shifts. The rise of the Bengali middle class, the disintegration of the joint family, and changing perceptions of women’s role within marriage impacted upon the lives and aspirations of women at the turn of the century. Caught in the clash between foreign and indigenous cultures, tradition and modernity, Bengali women struggled to redefine their identity and their place in society.
In their quest for freedom, women widened the scope of their demands. In addition to education, they claimed the right to travel, to participate in politics and to consider income-generating possibilities. The depabtes about gender issues now expanded to include the question of women’s emancipation was not directed solely at enhancing family and domestic life, it was also concerned with promoting greater self-esteem and self-reliance for women themselves. Women’s search for empowerment became more nuanced, and their presence within nationalist discourse often proved disruptive ot its assumptions
The early years of the twentieth century witnessed a flowering of women’s fiction that reflected these changing trends. The languages of the short story evolved from the formal “sadhu bhasha” to a more colloquial “chalti bhasha” of everyday speech, a move that women found congenial. The publication of Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain in 1905 marked a turning-point in the history of women’s writing in Bengal. This brilliant radical feminist text shook the literary establishment and ushered in a new era a Bengali women’s porse.
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