First Lady of Revolution

Saraladebi Chaudhurani’s autobiography shows an extraordinary female leader in action,one who could have towered the nationalist movement had she not withdrawn from the scene

Written by Bharati Ray | Published: June 2, 2012 2:10 am

Book: The Scattered Leaves of My Life: An Indian Nationalist Remembers

Author: Saraladebi Chaudhurani

Translated,edited by Sikata Banerjee

Publisher: Women Unlimited/Stree

Pages: 195

Price: Rs 500

When I was working on Bamabodhini Patrika (1863-1922),the earliest major journal for women in India,and copying by hand articles relating to my theme (education) from available numbers,Ranajit Guha,the founder of the Subaltern School of Studies,advised me,“Do not leave out anything. Do not try to omit or edit. Who are you to choose? This is a record for posterity and must remain intact,even with [non-standard spelling and phrases,whether you approve of them or not.” I had listened to his advice. Sikata Banerjee has chosen,edited and deleted from Sarala Devi Chaudhurani’s autobiography,Jibaner Jharapata,as she pleases.

To be fair to her,she is honest about it: “I have edited freely,deleting portions of the text that offered what I considered only unnecessary details.” The editing has made the book easier to read. But whether such extensive deleting,paraphrasing and leaving out what one person considers “unnecessary” is fair to the original author or to readers,present and future,is another question. However,the translation is well done,the introduction competent and the footnotes helpful. The production values of this book justify the reputation of Women Unlimited and Stree.

There is a prior translation of this autobiography,The Many Worlds of Sarala Devi: A Diary (Social Science Press,New Delhi,2010) by Sukhendu Ray — who,incidentally,is my husband,a fact that prevents me from comparing the two translations. Ray also left out one portion of the book – extensive quotations from Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Sri Krishna Charit,and a striking poem,Ahitagni (one who is dedicated to fire,i.e.,Sarala herself),which is worth memorising,but alas,very difficult to translate.

Sarala (1872-1945) was born,like her world-renowned uncle Rabindranath Tagore,(to quote the poet’s words about himself) at the confluence of “the currents of three movements”: “the religious”,“introduced” by Rammohan Roy; “the literary”,“pioneered” by Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and the “national”,the freedom movement that had started in Bengal. The Tagore family participated in all three and they shaped the genius of Rabindranath as well as the brilliance of his niece Sarala,daughter of his sister Swarnakumari. Sarala was a religious person,became one of the foremost litterateurs of her time and dedicated her life to the nationalist cause.

Like her life,Sarala’s autobiography is remarkable,in terms of her mastery over the language and style of her writing as well as the ideas and thoughts it contains. Banerjee looks at her against the backdrop of the masculinity debate,popular in women’s studies today. “Saraladebi’s interpretation of nationalism was clearly built on a muscular,martial,and aggressively poised male body (p. xxvi).” I have no quarrel with this position. Sarala repeatedly talked of masculinity and Bengali men’s frailty and tried to inspire them towards courage and physical fitness,much in the style of Vivekananda,who immensely admired her,as his effusive letters to her testify. However,that marked a short phase of about five years in her life. Otherwise,she invoked courage and prowess in women and repeatedly urged them to remember that they were but parts of Durga,the warrior goddess.

Banerjee is right in mentioning that often Sarala glorified the domestic role of women. Her essays in Bharati show appreciation of women lighting lamps for the family deity. I argue that Sarala — like her famous uncle — was drawn by contradictory pulls,a deep regard for India’s heritage (including some customs) as well as acknowledgment of the modernity of the West. She was at once a champion of individual and social rights and a fascinated observer of the Himalayas and ashrams therein,as her autobiography reveals.

Interestingly,Sarala made her debut in public life through music at the inauguration of the Congress session in 1901. Jharapata is full of stories of how her music mesmerised her audience. She claims that Tagore set only the first two lines of Vande Mataram to music,while the rest was set by her. She also says that she picked up new melodies wherever she went for her uncle,who had the gift of adapting and modifying them,writing lyrics and creating new songs.

Sarala’s invocation of “male muscularity” had a political aim — to prepare the stage for an armed revolution against the British. Her akhra was for all practical purposes a secret society — members were asked not to talk about it. And she was the patron of Anushilan Samity,an important biplabi (revolutionary) organisation of Dhaka. She was,I argue,India’s first female political leader,and India’s first biplabi woman. Had she not been withdrawn from the scene,the swadeshi movement,or maybe the biplabi movement that followed it,would have seen a towering female leader in action. Was it right for Swarnakumari to marry her gifted daughter to an elderly widower and pack her off to Punjab,thus putting an end to a career full of promise?

Her autobiography does not mention it,but we know from the journalist and writer Jogesh Chandra Bagal that even in Punjab she,with her mastery over English,Urdu and Hindi,continued working for the nationalist movement and co-edited with her husband the nationalist Urdu weekly Hindusthan. When it was proscribed,she turned it into an English paper overnight and took over its supervision. When Gandhi became her house guest after the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre,a warm relationship developed between them. Sarala the biplabi became a Gandhian. But after a time,Gandhi suddenly distanced himself. The effect on Sarala is not recorded.

While in Lahore,Sarala organised the Bharat Stree Mahamandal,the first all-India women’s organisation. She was no longer talking of the frail males of Bengal but the need for politically active women and women social activists to work together for the advancement of women. The feminist in her had emerged. You are “the mistress of the home” as well as “of society” — this was her message to the women of India.

Sarala’s autobiography ends with her marriage; silence is a most articulate commentary. One recalls that Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain,the most brilliant woman in colonial Bengal,about whom I wrote in my book Early Feminists of Colonial India: Sarala Devi Chaudhurani and Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (OUP,2002),also married to a widower,hardly mentions her husband. It would be interesting to know how these two exceptional women negotiated their marital life and role,with husbands apparently not as intellectual as themselves,and maintained their self-identity.

Bharati Ray,former Rajya Sabha MP and pro-vice chancellor of Calcutta University,is founder of the university’s Women’s Studies Research Centre and vice-president of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations

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