I am not looking for a swain, but for a pen and paper

Indian Female Writers through History

Chandrima is a Physics student at ANU, undertaking research in nuclear reaction dynamics. In her column she creates first-person narratives to recount true and inspiring stories of Indian women – from the early medieval ages to modernity – who secured their position in society and combated all odds to shape the future.

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“Am I supposed to talk to neighbours?” – No.

“Am I supposed to laugh out loud?” – No.

“Am I supposed to run?” – No.

“Am I supposed to cry?” – Yes, but silently.

These are the only things I learned in my childhood days from my parents. I was born in Pubna district, Bangladesh, in 1809.

In this year, Mary Kies was the first woman to be issued a US patent. Sophia Brahe, the female Danish astronomer, had already made some wonderful observations that made up the basis of modern planetary orbit predictions. Catherine de Parthenay, a French Mathematician, was considered to be the most intelligent woman of the era. Scientists and philosophers from Maria Agnesi, to Genevieve Charlotte, Maria Angela, and Margaretha Kirch had left a huge impact on social life and inspired other women to come forward.

And I, Rassundari Dasi, born a female baby, was an immediate point of depression to my family.

No one blew a conch, no one cared for me, and the only ray of hope for them was that the newborn girl with beautiful eyes and a bright complexion would be well-fitted for marriage.

I grew timid and frightened, so my mother taught me to pray to God.

Our house also contained a primary school, where I had to sit close to the memsahib (teacher). I would cover my entire body and my face with a scarf, so no one could see me. I sat in a room full of boys, starting to learn Bengali and Parsi. This was the happiest time for me. I was able to imagine some thrilling stories which gave immense pleasure to my boring, uneventful life.

At the age of twelve, I came to know that I would be wedded to a landlord. I was delighted to receive gifts and ornaments from others, without thinking that I had to leave my mother, or that I needed to go to a distant village to spend the rest of my life with people I had never met before.

In my new home, the reality settled in. I would wake up early, cooking for every member and guest. All day I would tidy up the house, while looking after my husband and his parents. The work ended in the late night, when my husband returned from work and I, becoming so tired, often forgot to take my dinner. I was not supposed to talk to my husband. He was a shadowy figure who left no impression on me. I was even shamed for standing in front of his horse.

I had always wished to read ‘Chaityna Bhagabat’ (a religious book), but the elderly would show a great deal of displeasure to see a single piece of paper in a woman’s hand. How unfortunate it was! Having such a strong desire to read, even I was angry with myself at times. But I always tried to remember the letters I learned in Pathshala.

In the meantime, I gave birth to ten children. One day I stole a palm leaf, on which my son used to practice handwriting, and another page from ‘Chaityna Bhagabat’, which my husband left on the table. I hid them in the kitchen and began to read at night when nobody was around. I pursued my studies secretly until every book available was finished.

I could not write until a few years later, when my sons went to Kolkata for higher studies. They wanted to send me letters, and expected letters in return. I could not miss this opportunity. Finally, an idea came to my mind. I sat under my bed, where no one could watch me, and began to record everything I could remember about my daily life.

In our society, it was believed that a woman could not read or write because she lacked the intellectual capacity. Sometimes, I felt that my identity was restricted to being someone’s daughter, sister, wife or mother. I tried to knock all of these ideas. I decided to publish my writings as a form of book in two parts, describing the plight of women in those days, and pointing out the measure of injustice to them. This was the first autobiography in India written by an unknown, self-taught woman, living out far from the din and hustle of Kolkata.

To my utter despair, no one remembered me in the history of literature!