Book Review: Rassundari Dasi - Amar Jiban (My Life) - A Comprehensive Study by Sutanuka Ghosh Roy

Rassundari Dasi- Amar Jiban (My Life)- A Comprehensive Study
Author- Sutanuka Ghosh Roy
Books Way, Kolkata-700039

Reviewed by Gopal Lahiri, Poet and Critic, Kolkata, India


Amar Jiban- Inside the Mind

Amar Jiban- is the first autobiography written by an Indian woman and also the first written by a Bengali self-taught woman Rassundari Dasi. It tells us the status of women in nineteenth century Indian society which has a strong patriarchal influence. The author writes of her own life in her own words. She was fifty-nine when she completed the first version of the book in 1868. She had added a second part and a new version came out in 1897 when she was eighty-eight years old.

Dinesh Chandra Sen wrote about the book Amar Jiban, ‘This presentation is particularly valuable because in Hindu society housewives are no longer in the same position which they used to occupy. If Russundari or someone else like hear had not articulated her experiences at this late stage in her life there would have been no way of knowing this. We have yet to read a clearer and more vivid account of a woman’s gradual development in an atmosphere full of nervousness, apprehensions and superstitions of a village society.’

Sutanuka Ghosh Roy in her engaging book titled ‘Rassundari Dasi- Amar Jiban (My Life)- A Comprehensive Study’ demonstrates the intersection of womanhood and societal hindrance in nineteenth-century colonial India, mentioning Rassundari Dasi’s deconstruction of life by raising questions against patriarchal norms and the ideas of belonging and inequality.

The book frames with marriage, child birth and honour in a society, but Sutanuka frequently deviates to flesh out the earlier lives of these caged women, or to give context and background to the situation Rassundari herself in. In this way the book is much more than simply an account of an ordinary woman, strange though that is. The readers will feel the struggle and despair and the sweat and tears that flower in the narrative. What is laudable is that the book is detailed and comprehensive in its research.

There are eleven chapters in the book which deals with Rassundari’s concept of Bharatbarsha and her various phases of life, her ‘Dayamadhav’, the plight of women in the nineteenth century, women’s education, writings of new women, the salient features of her autobiography, the meaning of the title and nuances of the narrative technique.

In her Introduction, Sutanuka Ghosh Roy has mentioned, ‘Rassundari’s Amar Jiban chronicled her mundane life by detailing her years of struggle as a nervous child, as a child bride, a mother of eleven children, a wife, and a widow and ended with a woman who taught herself to read and write.’

‘People used to insist that women were meant for domestic chores. Newly-wedded girl as had to be especially hard-working and quiet. They had to work behind a long veil and then they would get to be known as good wives.?’ (Amar Jiban)

It is to be reiterated that the very act of writing an autobiography to record her experiences and narrate her subjectivity shows Rassunadari Dasi planting the seeds of feminism that resonates in the subtleties of women power dynamics. She wants to know about her provenance and meaningful answers are hard to come by. One possible explanation of her courage in traditional society is her re-examination of womanhood and social interaction when she is deprived of a calming space following her mother’s death.

She also demonstrates the power of women forging ahead in spite of many limitations, building families choose, occasionally moving in the same direction as family they have been denied and want to touch each other’s hands across space. Her autobiography should be told, listened to and remembered.

Sutanuka’s observations are engaging and insightful. She delves deeper more meaningfully into life of Rassundari Dasi. She points to the discomforting chasm between popular lifestyle writing and the basic struggle to live – the ubiquitous inanity of one and the sheer desperation of the other. Amar Jiban is an autobiography of about rising above mundane domestic regulatory norms, about coming out of the long veil: all things that are connected with grit and grain of life. Her eloquent and articulate narrative gives the book another meaning, one that hints at the vagaries that can seal any woman’s fate.

The autobiography reflects the unevenness in women’s life grappling with secrets, shame and timidness, the dismay all around in the male dominated society and is worthy of our intense gaze. It examines the complex web of family against the backdrop of history.

Rassundari thrusts her life at her readers and succeeds in making them believe that her autobiography is about her life- ‘Amar Jiban’ and not about her writing. Thus, the nineteenth-century autobiography of a self-taught woman is a fine example of an ethnic model for Indian feminism.

It’s impossible not to cheer the awareness and cognizance revealed and to be stirred by the writer’s critical analysis. Here the analyst reconstructs a life with supple scholarship and just the right kind of proportion, applying the right amount of pressure on those formative experiences of childhood, grief, anxiety and humiliation, never losing sight of the fact that Rassundari Dasi’s main objective is to educate herself and that’s what life is about.

Jyotirindranath Tagore in his Preface wrote,’ Another point to note about the author’s life is her earnest desire to educate herself. Such opportunity however was beyond her reach. It was considered improper for women to learn reading and writing those days. But she taught herself, taking great pains, and overcoming many obstacles. Her motivation was a thirst for spiritual knowledge.’

In a way, Rassundari Dasi has transmuted all of her life into literary experience, of the purest kind. She has understood how to exist through the written voice and spiritual mind while the captive mind seems to produce in her more agitation than desire. The mental and physical unravelling of the imprisoned women is evoked in chilling detail.

‘Women were largely silenced and did not voice their opinion even in front of the family members. There were some unwritten rules of the antahpur, women were not supposed to speak their husbands during the daytime. Print allowed them to address their husbands publicly.’

Amar Jiban resides on the questions of women asking who we are and where we belong- of what divides us and what unites us in this patriarchal society which is no less captivating and determines what happens next. Those are the signifiers the readers can comprehend at the end in this evocative study.

There is a fair amount of joy in reading the comprehensive study resplendent with critical analysis and relevant examples, where literature intersects society and history. This book is strikingly conscientious, compelling, engaging and beautifully written and at times reading the book, feels like having a mirror turned on the readers.

What is all the more remarkable is that this scholarly effort will surely open the window to a wider world and indeed can make a difference in our life. It casts a spell and the light it emits exposes the confined life of women in nineteenth century Bengal. Skill and poise matter for an analyst and Sutanuka has shown admirable expertise in writing the narrative and pass the endurance test with great success. She has scanned the biography and highlights the stamina and thoroughness of the author, a kind of density of detail- the subject seems to live again.

As they say, if you sound rattled, so will the person for whom you are interpreting. Sutanuka has delivered a critical study that moves purposefully between inner and outer worlds of Rassundari Dasi.

The cover page is impressive. A scholarly book which fascinates, delights and stimulates with interesting facts, is a must read for everyone

Gopal Lahiri

Gopal Lahiri is a Kolkata- based bilingual poet, critic, editor, writer and translator with 20 books published mostly in English and a few in Bengali, including three joint books. His poetry is also published across various anthologies as well as in eminent journals of India and abroad. He has been invited in various poetry festivals including World Congress of Poets recently held in India.

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