Rebel without a pause
Reviewed by Rumina Sethi

The Scattered Leaves of My Life: An Indian Nationalist Remembers
by Saraladebi Chaudhurani. Trans. and ed. Sikanta Banerjee.
Women Unlimited, New Delhi and Stree, Kolkota. Pages 195. Rs 500

The Scattered Leaves of My Life: An Indian Nationalist RemembersIn the "muscular nationalism" of the Indian freedom struggle, there was usually no place for ordinary mortals; as for women, only those who qualified as extraordinary could be part of the otherwise male-centric accounts of history. One name that stands apart is that of Saraladebi Chaudhurani. Saraladebi’s lineage was impeccable: she was the daughter of Swarnakumaridebi, sister of Rabindranath Tagore. Unlike other women of her time, she became a revolutionary and is remembered today as the fierce freedom fighter from Bengal who broke many stereotypes at a time when women’s liberation was unheard of.

For a start, she travelled in pursuit of a job to distant Mysore, alone and unescorted; later she started a school for militant nationalists in Bengal, made many fiery speeches and edited a weekly newspaper, Hindustan.

Scattered Leaves is a translation of Saraladebi’s autobiography, Jibaner Jharapata. Sikanta Banerjee, the translator, endeavours to expose the cultural preoccupation of the 19th century Bengali bhadralok with martial masculinity, a trait utterly lacking in the effete and fragile-looking Bengali men of that time, but witnessed amply in the histories of the Marathas, the Sikhs and the Rajputs, not to speak of the Eton-educated British colonisers whose "manliness" had brought the Indians to their knees. It becomes Saraladebi’s determined effort "not only to erode physical weakness but also cowardice haunting the Bengali mind" in order "to remove this fear of white skin from (their) psyche."

She began by celebrating the valour of a local Bengali kshatriya prince, Udayaditya, using a sword to mark his symbolic presence. Birashtami, another auspicious day during Durga Puja, was turned into an initiation ritual where mothers tied rakhis on the wrists of their sons, urging them to protect their motherland. Saraladebi thereby accomplished two aims: she reiterated the mother-centric nationalism already put into place by Bankimchandra Chatterjee through Vande Mataram; and forged connections between herself and the martial goddess Durga. The former made women the mothers of the nation who had to be protected while the latter image virtually shamed men as they drew adverse comparisons between themselves and militant women. Once when the Maharaja of Baroda visited Saraladebi, he could not help comparing the portrait of his hostess with that of the goddess Kali, another figure of feminised strength: "Which Kali should I look at, this one or that one?"

Saraladebi Chaudhurani
Saraladebi Chaudhurani

Saraladebi’s accounts, in Banerjee’s words, "had interesting implications for feminism and women’s lived experiences." She puts forward the question: Was Saraladebi a feminist? Not in so far as Saraladebi subscribed to the view of women as chaste which lay well within the Bengali stereotype of the 19th century woman. But yes, when that woman was personified as the avenging Kali or Durga even as both goddesses symbolise only a temporary transformation of an otherwise submissive womanhood. While Saraladebi was provocative in advocating women’s equality with men in adult franchise, education and inheritance, she was besieged with the anxiety of overstepping the prescribed limits of womanly behaviour. She would not be seen as inordinately westernised. And so she writes: "Women can turn their homes into heaven or hell, because they are the presiding deities in their home."

Yet there remains a desire for freedom, an independence which she once realised by taking up a job in Mysore but which had to be abandoned when a young man broke into her room. She, then, introspects: "I no longer desired to have a job, but I still wanted independence. Only my dream of personal independence expanded into a desire for national freedom." One can only reason that here was a spirited woman checked by social norms, who could occupy public space only by joining the national struggle. On a personal level too, she forswore marriage, perhaps because of the freedom that she so desired, yet had to surrender finally because her family left her without an alternative. Or did she marry a widower because it was socially unacceptable to be single?

Sikanta Banerjee’s translation is done intelligently and may be placed beside Tanika Sarkar’s translated autobiography of an earlier 19th Bengali woman, Rassundari Debi, whose Amar Jiban is an account of the subversions against a dominant patriarchal order. A careful reading of these accounts uncovers the transgressions, the desire for freedom and the inability to escape even though the lives of such women are celebrated as examples of 19th century feminism.