Translation as Recognition

Indira Chowdhury

In this essay I shall try to describe what translating the novel Pratham Pratisruti meant for me. The text engrossed me deeply for many years, compelling me to examine many preconceived notions. Finally, it provided me with an understanding of tradition, culture and society in colonial Bengal that went beyond the academic. Therefore, I have deliberately chosen to write about my long engagement with text in personal terms.


One cold winter night, the children were summoned early for dinner. No arguments were allowed. We had to finish eating as soon as possible. I was around twelve at the time and the only one privileged enough to be told the reason for haste, though I didn’t comprehend the implications of it at the time. My great grandmother who was ninety-two had taken ill and since it was uncertain whether she would survive the night, we children had to be fed before death took over the normal course of our lives. The house had taken on a sombre air. Even the youngest and most boisterous of my cousins was subdued. From her room came the indistinct drone of instructions, Hari nam, and gasps. She survived the night. Next morning, before we trudged off to school, we trooped into her room and scolded her roundly: ‘What did you think you were trying to do last night? Don’t you try anything of this sort before you hit a century! We will all lose face if you die even a day before that!’ She did ensure that we didn’t ‘lose face’ for she died at the grand old age of one hundred and one.

My father’s grandmother had stayed with us as long as I can remember. She must have joined her step-son, my grandfather who was a doctor in the Gua mines area and later, in the hospital in Burnpur (West Bengal) from the 1930s onwards. She had no children of her own and brought up her husband’s two young sons as her own. She survived both sons and till she was ninety enjoyed smoking her hookah and talking to us about the life she had left behind. Unlettered though she was, she would offer us vivid descriptions of the Jatras performed at her village –- somewhere on the banks of the river Titas. Sometimes she would sing us songs about the fashionable babus of Koilkata (Calcutta) who strutted about with their hair styled with ‘pomatam’ (pomade) on their hair. The songs amused us no end.

She was nine when she was married. Nine! Did I wonder about it at that time? I didn’t really. Nor did I recognize the difficulties she must have experienced as a child wife. My preconceived notions of childhood did not, at that point, admit of a discomfiting genealogy. I belonged to a generation that took education for granted. Besides, like most fourteen year olds, I was self-assured, unsympathetic and unthinkingly cruel. Lost as I was in a world that accommodated Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, Dickens, and not unsurprisingly, Enid Blyton alongside Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, my great grandmother’s world seemed strange but unexciting. She belonged I was convinced, to an outmoded and uninteresting world, where she was, at most, an amusing character. Her memories could teach me nothing, so I never did delve into them, nor troubled myself much about how she felt about being married at nine and coming to her husband’s village or being dispossessed after the Partition.

By contrast to my great grandmother, my grandmother had attended the Faizunnisa Girl’s School in Comilla, now in Bangladesh. She too narrated amusing stories about her life in Comilla, mainly narratives about her school-going days, which were so different from my own experience of school that they seemed to invoke an alien world. She told us about her difficulties with the school uniform, a saree, which often came off leaving her with no choice but to return home in her chemise, clutching the folded saree in her hands. She stopped going to school when she was married off at eleven, but throughout her life she kept alive her intellectual curiosity that school had stoked only momentarily. She read, no, devoured, whatever she could lay her hands on: magazines, newspapers and my school textbooks. Her addiction to, and absorption in the worlds that books opened up for her, were part of family lore. We all knew about the times she had let the milk boil over because she simply couldn’t put down what she was reading. Or we were told about the time she had lost herself in fictional machinations and neglected her howling first born. Family lore hardly focused on the fact that she was being a typical young girl who had just discovered the world of books. For she was twelve when she had had her first child.


The worlds that my great grandmother and my grandmother lived in were not identical. But they were similar. By contrast, my world was radically different. Indeed, the world that I thought was mine was different from the world of my mother too. I went to convent school where my mother tongue, Bangla was forbidden and with it, all the practices of that linguistic world. I spoke Bangla at home and English at school and with my friends. I grew up like many others of my generation, in a world I believed to be cosmopolitan, speaking English most of the time. It was also a world that rarely chanced upon the world of the home where my grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles all spoke Bangla. Perhaps that’s why reading Pratham Pratisruti for the first time as an undergraduate student was a strange experience. The novel spoke of a world that seemed familiar but unrecognizable. As arrogant and generally supercilious students of the English Honours class we misrecognized Ashapurna’s use of proverbs, colloquialisms, idioms and maxims in dialogue as failures of style, we argued against the text’s repetitiveness, and its huge cast of characters, missing the point entirely. What made matters worse was the fact that our teachers in our Bengali class dismissed the text as echoing the nineteenth century social reform movement too closely. But the impact of the text remained with me. What was Ashapurna Debi trying to do? Why did she insist on telling us about the traditional milieu within which women craved for education? Why was Ramkali’s story given so much prominence? And when we moved from the text to the social world, why, I wondered did an enlightened man like Ramkali give his daughter away at age eight? It would take me a decade and a half to find those answers.

Meanwhile, Eng Lit kept us busy; opening up a world where we were free to pursue new sports: shadow-boxing with notions of textuality, diving into the depths of Hardy’s novels to fathom out the notions of a tragic hero, or engaging in hunts for metaphors, allusions and symbols in Shakespeare, Eliot and Joyce. All these exercises, we were told, were designed to provide a deeper understanding of the world. In the end, I suppose, we did learn how to describe the world of the English literary text. We became skilled in recounting the characteristics of the Renaissance, or elaborating the relationship between Milton and the Puritan politics of his time and repeating the reasons why in 1910, Virginia Woolf felt that ‘human nature had changed’. Most of us never stopped to ask, whose world were all these exercises offering us furtive glimpses into? The excitement of discovering this new and unfamiliar world made it seem like mine, even when it wasn’t. Even when I argued for the universality of human emotions, emotions alone could not provide the link to that world I believed to be mine because so many things I read about were materially absent from my world. But we were told that the material world mattered little to literary studies, for surely we could imagine the ‘host of golden daffodils’ or what Yarrow might have looked like. It didn’t matter, we were told, that Wordsworth unlike us had grown up seeing the flowers, and had first heard about the river on his tour of Scotland in 1803. Later, when Eng Lit Studies transformed itself into Postcolonial Studies by inventing ‘liberating’ critical tools with which to read the literature of the colonizer, it still failed to provide a framework with which to understand the complex world embodied in texts written in Indian languages.


My training in Eng Lit did not prepare me for the questions that Pratham Pratisruti raised both at the level of text and at the level of the social world. Contrary to what we had learnt about the novel form, here was one which had a structure that accommodated more than one main protagonist and a host of other characters equally important to its milieu.

When I finally returned to the novel, it was not through the route of Eng Lit at all. I returned to it only after I had immersed myself in the world of nineteenth century Bengal while doing a PhD in history. When I started re-reading the novel, the framework through which we understand the colonial past seemed inadequate. I realized that some of the richness of the world that Ashapurna had brought alive in the novel would be lost if I attempted to understand this world through Marxist notions of feudalism or through postcolonial notions of hybridity, or even through the feminist category of gender. In fact, these labels were not able to capture the dynamics of Satyabati’s world. Let me illustrate through a textual example, what lay at the root of my problem.

In the novel, Ramkali’s nephew, Rashu is made to marry a second time, causing a great deal of heartbreak and anxiety to his first wife, Sharada. When, Patli, Rashu’s second wife finally comes to live at her in-laws, she finds her husband completely under his first wife’s control. Ashapurna captures one moment of the interaction between the two wives with a poignancy that defies easy categorization.
Sharada called out to her every now and then, ‘Notun-bou, come and eat. Notun-bou, which slice of fish do you prefer? Notun-bou, do you like mashed-up mango pickle?...Almost as if Sharada had not a clue as to why Notun-bou – the new wife – was called that! As if she was in charge of looking after a relative who was visiting!
At one point, Patli asks Sharada why she looks after her every need. After all, she reasons:
‘I am your enemy, why don’t you get rid of me? You’d be relieved, I would too.’
Sharada made a sad attempt at banter, ‘I might be relieved, but why would you be?’
‘I wouldn’t have to live like a burden – as one to whom everyone has to be kind. It would be such a relief.’

Patli then begs of Sharada to send her home, because she doesn’t want a fight over their husband.
‘I don’t want anything, Didi!’ the new bride said passionately.
Sharada laughed, ‘Nothing? Not even your husband?’
Sharada answered, ‘But d’you know something? The ways of the world are such that you get everything when you don’t really want it. When you crave something it just slips away! Goodness! Look these fritters have almost lost their crispness, have them quickly. You’ll feel better.’

How can we understand Sharada’s retort which is simultaneously philosophical and bantering? Seeing it merely as an echo of her social conditioning somehow does not seem good enough. Ashapurna seems to be signaling at a change in Sharada’s mental world. Later in the novel, Sharada will slowly start giving up control over her husband, although she would still retain her jurisdiction over the running of the house. It is through such telling encounters that Ashapurna attempts to capture the complexities of the inner, domestic space.

I suppose what lay at the root of my problem was a reluctance to engage with what I had been taught to identify as a retrograde social order. So completely was I convinced about my generation’s break with tradition that I did not stop to examine the ways in which the traditional world lived on around me. Perhaps, I wasn’t even prepared to see it as part of my world.


The traditional world of this novel is not fixed and frozen. It is, in fact, one that is in the process of change. When the novel opens, the delightful eight-year old heroine Satyabati is already married as was customary, but she has taught herself to write. As she argues with her male cousin about the false superstitions about women touching the palm leaf:
‘I’d like to know what happens if a woman touches this leaf. So many women read and write in Calcutta!’
Her cousin, Neru responds: ‘Who has told you that? Don’t you know they’ll all go blind if they did?’
‘How absurd! You don’t know a thing. As if they instantly become blind when they read! Nonsense!...I’m telling you Neru, nothing like that happens. Learning is a good thing. It can never be a sin to learn.’

Women’s education occupied a large part of both colonial and social reform agendas in nineteenth century India. Women brought to education an enthusiasm and attentiveness that was unparalleled. In the novel, Satyabati’s ability to write a few words is viewed as a transgression by her mother, Bhubaneswari, who reports it to her father. Her father, Ramkali, questions her closely:
‘What is the use of girls learning? They won’t become rent-collectors or cashiers, will they?’ Ramkali questioned her with an amused laugh.
Once more Satya’s vehemence returned….
‘Why should they become cashiers? They will learn to read the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Puranas. Then they’d not have to keep waiting for the Kathak to come around.’

To his wife’s utter amazement, instead of disciplining Satya for her transgression, Ramkali promises to teach her every afternoon.
‘She’ll learn!’ Bhubaneswari could hardly hold back her words.
‘Yes, she will read and write….I’ll give her a real ink pot and quill too.’
Just two syllables escaped Satya’s lips. And Bhubaneswari’s eyes rained tears.

Within two generations of its introduction, women’s education had become so successful among the middle classes in Bengal that stories about the earlier struggle for education were forgotten, or at best, identified with a remote past. Since education was perceived as ushering in modernity, whether or not it brought about a complete break with the past, was left unexamined. This novel captured that magical moment in late nineteenth century India, when women were ‘permitted’ to openly read and write. It brought into focus a moment when the efforts of the autodidact found enlightened male support. But learning to read and write did not dislodge women from their traditional world. The novel also described the ways in which many early women learners remained rooted in tradition, a fact that has remained a source of discomfort to Marxist and feminist theories. Postcolonial critiques of modernity, on the other hand, have been too busy describing the incompleteness and the failures of postcolonial India, to take seriously the resources that the traditional world might have held out to its inhabitants. These interpretative frameworks, in fact, serve as obstacles to fully understanding the world that Ashapurna tried to portray, and I shall return to this later.


The novel is set in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century India and maps the many ways in which social transformation was attempted. Ashapurna’s masterly narrative tells the story of the limits of such transformations, at times pointing out the failures of the nineteenth century social reform by positioning Satya at the very heart of the despair and the hope that accompanied the social reform movement. Through Shankari’s story Ashapurna underscores the failure of the widow remarriage project. Through Puti’s death she brings us closer to the brutalities and violence of child marriage that recent critical literature on the social reform movement has focused on.

The Age of Consent debate that raged in Bengal from 1890-1892 was sparked off by the tragic death of Phulmoni Dasi, the child-wife of the twenty nine year old Hari Maiti. The ten year old girl had bled to death on account of forcible intercourse. In the novel the death of the ten year old Puti resonates with the death of her historical counterpart, Phulmoni. Satya who appeals to the colonial law for justice is reminded by Bhabatosh-master of the limits of colonial justice and reform.

The process of translating the novel made me acutely aware of its historical rootedness. But what came truly as an unexpected discovery was the fact that Ashapurna had not let history become a mere backdrop to her story, she had recognized the way in which the sedimented layers of history control and structure the lay of the land. Her characters therefore lived in a world infused with the beliefs, attitudes and values of their times. I could not evaluate this world as one that is ruled by ‘debased’ customs and still be appreciative of the text that Ashapurna created. I had to go a step further and ask myself if my own presumptions were getting in the way of understanding the functioning of this world.

In Pratham Pratisruti, Ashapurna places before her readers the diverse beliefs and practices that make up tradition, she points out what is corrupt in this world, as well as ways of being ethical within it. Therefore, she places before us the problems of the child widow Shankari who tries to find an escape route from oppressive tradition by eloping with her lover. Simultaneously, she tells us of the dilemma of Ramkali, the head of the household, who must reveal the news of her ‘social death’ to his guests before they sit down for their meal because that’s what right conduct would demand. Ashapurna emphasizes that a person without Ramkali’s strength of character or sincerity, might have found it easier to wait and announce the news after the feast. That would have temporarily saved face and also proved economically viable as revealing the news before the meal carried the risk of ostracism by the village community, who could have refused to touch the food. In deciding to reveal the problem to the village community, Ramkali shows his respect for the community and its beliefs and practices and in turn, keeps intact his own sense of pride.

The second example is a significant part of Satya’s rebellion, but it also captures the changes that were surging through nineteenth-century Bengal. When Nabakumar falls seriously ill for a fortnight Ashapurna describes the deluge of home remedies that the village women try out on him with no success. Satya quietly bribes the Barber’s wife to take the news to her father, Ramkali. At that point, Ramkali’s guru, Vidyaratna had just passed away and the rules of ritual pollution do not permit him to touch medications or books. Therefore, Ramkali sends his nephew Rashu with medications. Satya sends back the medicines out of a sense of hurt that her father, the ‘doctor’, had not rushed there himself. She then undertakes the unbelievable task of summoning a European doctor from Calcutta, by asking Bhabhatosh master and raising the money required by requesting her husband’s friend, Nitai to sell her gold necklace. As the Sahib Doctor examines Nabakumar, Satya watches him from behind a window –- she is curious, filled with wonder and also overawed. In her mind she asks forgiveness of her father, whom she had hurt by returning the medicines, she prays to her dead mother for strength. As Ashapurna puts it:
Satya didn’t seem to value Kali, Durga or Shiva, she prayed fervently again and again to the living gods she knew. So that the Sahib’s medicine worked like a miracle.

In the novel, this moment marks a significant transition in Satya’s character; it also captures a transition point in the history of medical practice in colonial India -– a move from traditional medical practices to western medicine. But Ashapurna also invests that moment with something else that hints at the nature of Satya’s resilience. To understand this moment merely as a consequence of Satya’s resistance and rebellion or to comprehend it as a break with the past and a rupture with tradition would be distinctly inadequate. Satya survives at her in-laws and through this crisis and other emergencies because she is able to utilize the resources that are available to her. Satya’s traditional world is not without its own resources and she has learnt, better than others perhaps, how to exist within it.


Pratham Pratisruti depicts what was once a familiar world -– the experience of its heroine was representative of the experience of millions of young women growing up in colonial Bengal. My grandmother and my mother’s generation had no difficulty in relating to that world. Yet, when I first read the novel I found myself entering a world so different that I had trouble calling it my own. Why did that happen? In this last section, I shall attempt a tentative answer.

I lived with the text for four years. At that point, I taught Eng Lit at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. I would teach Postcolonial, Postmodern and Feminist theory all day and return to the text in the evenings. I soon discovered a disjuncture between what I taught as Feminist or Postcolonial theory and the world of Pratham Pratisruti. There seemed to be a wide gap between the experiential world of nineteenth century Bengali women and the conceptual world of postcolonial and feminist criticism. ‘Hybridity’ and ‘nationalist discourse’ did not capture the deep dynamics of the text, invoking ‘gendered realities’ did not tell us much about Satyabati’s world. Similarly, at the semantic level the word ‘religion' did not capture the meaning of ‘dharma’. The gap between the cultural and conceptual worlds of Bangla and English seemed an impossible one at times. Most of all I stumbled against the numerous proverbs and poems that speckled the text. I found myself plowing through dictionaries of proverbs to make sense of them. In the end, it seemed far easier to ask my mother who knew all the proverbs along with a host of stories.

Satyabati’s experience was something my mother could connect with easily, having grown up in parts of rural Bengal and old Calcutta as a child. That was barely eighty years ago. The changes that had swept across our lives in that interim period made even my mother’s growing up years seem very remote. Furthermore, the theorizations through which we were taught to filter our understanding of the past, presented a grimy picture: the past was ‘tainted by tradition’ until the winds of progress swept it clean. If traditional practices lived on -– they were theorized as part of an unfinished and imperfect modernity. This mode of interpreting the past did not enable us to build relationships with those who touched our lives and were part of that past. Nor did these theories allow us to address a more important question: what was tradition? If tradition were a version of religion, how did traditional practices survive in the absence of religious diktat? To find the answer was a struggle that had to go beyond the exhausted theoretical and terminological debates.

Tradition in Satyabati’s world is not identified with religious ceremonies; rather, it can be understood as a way of going about the world. Satyabati’s protest therefore is not against all of tradition (for she learns from tradition, as does her father), but against certain practices that are brutal. This understanding changed my perception about not just the past but my own world as well. I began to recognize that my world was not only deficient in resources to understanding the world my grandmother inhabited, it had also failed to take cognizance of its own deficiency. The ‘cosmopolitan’, English-speaking world I was so much at ease in had provided me with a list of labels and categories about tradition and modernity. But these labels had in fact obstructed a real understanding of my grandmother’s world. It was only when I understood the foundations of my own disconnection from my grandmother’s life that I began to recognize Satya’s life as reflecting my grandmother’s experience. My grandmother’s world was no longer the world of strange stories and practices that I could just amuse myself with. I no longer pitied her and my great grandmother for missing out on being ‘modern’. Their world could not have been an entirely debased and corrupt one, where women were just ‘victims’ or survivors. That world had also offered its resources to its inhabitants and using those resources were part of the life skills of women of my grandmother’s generation.

I began this piece by recollecting the lives of my great grandmother and grandmother, both were married off as children. The process of translating Pratham Pratisruti brought alive their worlds and made their experience accessible to me. Like Bakul, the putative writer of Pratham Pratisruti, who overcomes her scornful laughter and learns to look on the eight-year-old and already-married Satyabati with compassion and admiration, I too learnt through the process of translation to feel for and relate to my grandmother’s world.

The novel enabled me to recognize that history was not merely what one found in official archival records; history lived in memories too, embedded in the mental worlds of our grandparents and parents. That’s why too I called this piece ‘Translation as Recognition’; because the process of translation enabled me to identify the text for what it was: a retelling of our past that reveals the configuration of tradition itself.

© 2007 by Indira Chowdhury

Published March, 2007

Indira Chowdhury, formerly Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata, now works as Consultant Archivist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai. A PhD in History from ... (more)

Illustrations by Preeti Mathur. Preeti is based in New Jersey.

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