Ashapurna Devi and Feminist Consciousness in Bengal
Ashapurna Devi was born on January 8 in 1909. One of the most popular writers in Bengali, she wrote more than 170 books. Gyanpeeth Paperbacks presenting her books writes, "The writer's world of Ashapurna Devi, is not her own personal world. Rather, it is an extension of home-worlds of all of us. Touched by her pen, all roles, all characters, come alive in front of us - sometimes as a young daughter, sometimes as an adolescent girl and sometimes as a new bride; sometimes as a woman, as a loving mother in whose womb a new world is beginning, sometimes as an aunt and an ageing housewife or as a grandmother or as an old helpless woman watching the changes in the society from a prison cell."
Ashapurna grew up in Calcutta, where her father was an artist and her mother a literature-loving housewife. Married at a young age, in a traditional family, Ashapurna could not finish her school education but at home she could read different Bengali magazines and books. She wrote her first stories during 1930's, for adolescents. Her first adult story was in 1937, The Husband's Lover, in which she touched the changing and contradictory expectations of men from women - as traditional, obedient wives and at the same time, as stimulating, glamorous lovers to show-off to others.
Ashapurna Devi is known for her strong female characters. Sometimes some critics have downplayed the importance of her writing, calling her the "kitchen writer". Personally, I fell in love with her, long back in 1968, when I had read the first book of her famous trilogy, Pratham Pratishuti, followed by Swarnlata and Bukul Katha. This Indian National Sahitya Accademy award winning trilogy covered the life-stories of three generations of women, over the changing rural and urban milieu in Bengal over twentieth century. In three books, once again Ashapurna touches on the contradictory expectations from women in contemporary Bengali society - at times oppressed and traditional follower of husband's wishes, at times the apparently modern, good looking, well dressed companion. At the same time, she explores the inner desires and aspirations of her women characters, unfettered by expectations of the men and families.
Ranjeet Saha writing in the introduction to her translated short story collection, Kirchiyan (Bhartiya Gyanpeeth Publications, III ed., 1993) writes, "About Ashapurna's women characters, it is said that they are neither uncommon nor 'a special creation of God'. Then who are they? Are they human copies of the writer herself? No, not that. In a simple and individualistic way, they are the brides, daughters or mothers of our own surroundings. They are not closed behind veils or prisoners in harems or deeper recesses of homes. But, the writer strives to make them break the walls made by men and liberate themselves. Their voices are filled with positive and believable resistance, even while maintaining the dignity of their different roles. Sometimes, they do not come forward, and they fight with themselves. Their fights are not personal .. they don't fight only with husband..brother...lover but with the cruel world of men."
Swarnlata, the second book of the trilogy is the book that I love most out of all her work. It is the story of Swarnlata, a young girl child married off by her grandmother. Swarnlata finds herself in the closed world of a large family where her mother-in-law dictates all the rules. Swarnlata dreams of a terrace, from where she can look at the world outside. People laugh at her desire, a terrace for looking outside, would be madness, they say! Women must stay inside the house and not to go out on terraces to look outside. She must hide to read in the darkness of a room without any window. Years later, she tells her grown up son Bhanu that she would like to see her childhood school, that she had to leave because of her marriage. Bhanu says, "You can go there with father, I can't go out with a woman like that. People have a reason to call you mad, having such nonsensical desires like that...".
Dreaming of education and open skies for herself and her daughters, Swarnlata must fight all her life, first with her husband and his family, then with her own sons and also with her own daughters, who can't understand, why their mother is not happy to follow the existing social norms like all other women. They can't understand her desire to fight against the British for independence of India. In the end, Swarn dies in her own house; a person ignored and misunderstood by everyone, a woman incapable of accepting the restrictions of her social role. The story has been written as a flashback, through Swarn's youngest daughter reading her mother's diary and through her understanding, gives the idea of continuing struggle of generations of women.
The writer is a freelance contributor.