An Unfinished Song
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An Unfinished Song

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Item Code: NAR990
Author: Swarnakumri Devi Ghosal and C. Vijayasree
Publisher: Oxford University Press, New Delhi
Language: English
Edition: 2008
ISBN: 9780195696356
Pages: 136
Other Details: 9.50 X 6.50 inch
Weight 360 gm
About the Book

Woman-centric writings in English as well as in Indian languages are now a significant area of reading and research.

This edited volume presents Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal’s own translation of her work, originally published in Bengali in 1898 under the title Kahake. The novel is primarily a love story with all the makings of a romance: love, separation, longing, misunderstanding, coincidences, mistaken identity, delightful unexpected discovery, re-union, and fulfillment. But importantly, An Unfinished Song addresses several issues related to the man-woman relationship, marriage, the construction of female identity, the impact of the West, the East-West encounter, and nationalism.

Including a perceptive and analytically rich introduction by C. Vijayasree, a biographical note on the author, explanatory notes, glossary, and bibliography, this edition will appeal to students and teachers of Indian writing in translation. Part of the Classic Reissue Series, OUP India’s initiative to popularize these classics, the book will also appeal to those interested in Bengali life and literature of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as well as general readers.

About the Author

Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal (1856-1932) was one of the significant contributors to Bengali literature and cultural life. She authored twenty-five books in Bengali and several — short stories. She was the editor of the literary magazine Bharati.

C. Vijayasree is Professor, Department of English, Osmania University, Hyderabad.

Chandani Lokugé is the Director of the Centre for Postcolonial Writing at Monash University, Australia.


Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal’s An Unfinished Song is a work of considerable historical significance that represents several interesting and important trends in Indian women’s writing in the nineteenth century. It is one of the earliest fictional texts in India written by a woman to have been translated into English; translated not once, but twice in quick succession, in the same year—1913. Swarnakumari Debi’s own translation received much attention in the press and ran into a second edition within a year. Besides these curious facts of its production and reception, what makes this text particularly fascinating to a twenty-first century reader is its involvement in and critical engagement with the many conflicting ideologies that shaped the late nineteenth-century Indian social and cultural climate. Swarnakumari’s novel was obviously written ina domain marked by the two dominant discourses of the time— imperialist and nationalist—both of which were unmistakably patriarchal in their intent and purport. As a woman writing during the colonial period, Swarnakumari was obviously operating under several restraints. Her work, which may be seen as the early beginnings of feminism in India, reveals that there were no neutral spaces from which the problems and conflicts of Hindu women in nineteenth century could be articulated. Like her counterparts, Swarnakumari had to contend with the discursive practices of colonial discourses on women in India as well as the nationalist canonical male writers’ appropriation of these practices. Even while apparently conforming to the dominant discourses of the time, she interrogates them subtly and critically, thus creating an agency for herself and charting the emerging locations of feminism in nineteenth-century India. It is this process on which the present introduction primarily focuses.

As part of my attempt to situate the text in its socio-historical context, a brief reference to author’s own location in terms of family, class, and caste is in order. Swarnakumari was born in the Tagore family, daughter of Debendranath Tagore and Sarada Debi. Her father acquired the title of ‘Maharshr’ or the great saint by his life of asceticism and meditation. One of the founders of the Brahmo Samaj, he wrote several treatises and tracts on the tenets of Brahmoism. Her mother was a devout and orthodox Hindu who spent her life in purdah. Swarnakumari’s upbringing too was traditional and she grew up in the zenana along with her sisters. Referring to the life in the antahpur of the Tagore home at Jorasanko, Swarnakumari recalls how when her mother wanted to take a bath in the holy waters of the Ganges, the palanquin bearers were obliged to immerse the whole of her palanquin while she remained sitting inside.? Women of the Tagore family, like the other women of Bengali bhadralok families, were not allowed to ride carriages or wear shoes. But in matters of education, the Tagore girls enjoyed much better facilities and environment. Their father arranged for their education at home and in addition, he himself gave them lessons in science on an almost regular basis. Swarnakumari inherited from her father a commitment to reform and progress, and from her mother a strong faith in religion and reverence for tradition. These two strands remained intertwined all through her life and work.

Growing up in the Tagore household, Swarnakumari absorbed the rich culture of the family enlivened by stimulating intellectual and literary debates and discussions. Besides music and painting, writing and editing were commonplace activities in the Tagore home. Furthermore, the Tagore family was among the cultural leaders of the influential educated middle class of Bengal, later termed by historians as bhadralok, and produced several stalwarts who contributed significantly to the emergence of modern Bengali literature and culture. Among Debendranath’s sons, Dwijendranath was a philosopher and poet; Satyendranath was a much renowned critic, poet, and song-writer besides being a harbinger of the reform movement in Bengal; Jyotindranath was a dramatist and translator, and Rabindranath is universally acclaimed for his contribution not only to literature and education but also to music, art, philosophy, and political thought of the time. Growing up among these accomplished men must have been both an enabling and inhibiting experience for Swarnakumari. She did not have the advantages of her brothers—education, travel, or exposure to the world outside, and whatever education she received was only in the zenana school. She was married at an early age of eleven and was mother at fourteen. She was hardly nineteen when she was raising four children and it is no mean achievement that she retained her literary proclivity amidst her familial duties and responsibilities. Having said this, it should also be added that she did have the privileges of the women of an affluent family, such as servants, comfort, and leisure.

Swarnakumari was not inhibited or dwarfed by the success of the male achievers of her family. Instead she drew inspiration from them. She made full use of the early education provided at home where she received training in English and Sanskrit besides some knowledge of religious books. She gratefully acknowledges her father’s role in the shaping of her interests: ‘It was my father, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore, who had prepared me for my life’s career by giving me an education unusual for Hindu girls of those days. Yet another major influence in her life was her husband Janakinath Ghosal who fully supported her education and literary ambitions. She is exuberant in her expression of gratitude to her husband: ‘... but for the help and encouragement given to me by my beloved husband, I do not think that it would have been possible for me to endure so far. It was he who moulded and shaped me in the fashion the outside world knows today, and under his loving guidance I passed through the stormy waves of literary life as easily and pleasantly as a good swimmer through a rough sea.’ One important fact that emerges from all this is that she lived all through her life under the tutelage of elder male members of the family—be it father, brother, or husband. As could be expected, her self-image was necessarily conditioned by the ethics, values, and expectations of the patriarchal structure in which she lived. Swarnakumari’s work, however, is an interesting instance of how a woman could contest the dominant ideology from within and forge an identity of her own.


This is a story of life among the Reformed Party of Bengal, the members of which have to some extent adopted western customs. It shows the change that touch with Europe had brought upon the people of India, but in their inner nature the Hindus are still quite different from western races. The ideals and traits of character that it has taken thousands of years to form are not affected by a mere external change. This story, it is true, touches on one side of Indian life only, for in a small book it is difficult to depict many of the numerous phases of our Society; still I trust it will give the western reader some insight into the Hindu nature.

**Contents and Sample Pages**

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