Her Stories: 20th Century Bengali Women Writers— A Book Review

Pradipta Chatterji

Her Stories: 20th Century Bengali Women writers , by Various; Translated from the original Bengali by Sanjukta Dasgupta; Srishti, New Delhi; 2002; Pp 195; ISBN: 81-87075 -66-X

Dr. Sanjukta Dasgupta’s anthology named Her Stories is the translation of eight Bengali short stories by Bengali women writers born in the twentieth century. Dr. Dasgupta, a renowned educator, author, translator, and the recipient of several related awards, undertook this task feeling the need to represent women’s struggle in the patriarchal societies of colonial and postcolonial era.

The translations allow the reader to realize the evolution of the values and cultural norms of Bengali society throughout the last hundred years, and help develop some awareness of the social inequities and economic disparities. The younger generation of today’s globalized society may gain insight regarding past injustice and social inequity. Such awareness may identify and solve similar problems that the future holds.

The theme of the book is definitely not limited to any specific society, time period or gender. Exploitation of the powerless by the powerful is a theme that transcends time, culture, and gender, although women are more often observed to be more vulnerable.

The book-cover is unique. It acquaints the reader to the basic objective of the book. Of course readers with diverse socio-cultural backgrounds will interpret the cover picture in different ways.

The book is aptly titled. The collection is really Her Stories indeed! Before the reader enters each story…the original author speaks to us through her individual interview.

Dr. Dasgupta has added a valuable preface explaining the theme, context, and objectives in connecting the selected stories. This would be helpful to readers from different cultural backgrounds. The book includes a brief summary of the interview of each indvidual author, (immediate family in case of the late author Ashapurna Devi), facilitating understanding of the cultural context and objectives of the original authors. However, more concise presentations of these interviews might increase the book’s long term values to future readers with varied backgrounds. Conversations at these interviews at times did not flow spontaneously due to the presentation of pre-set questions. Overall the conversation with each original author introduces the reader with the backgrounds of the stories well.

Dr. Dasgupta accomplished the difficult task of translating different types of Bengali writing as the time period extended over 50 years—and the word usages, sentence structure and colloquial language had changed with progression of time. Lacking formal English education, Ashapurna’s Bengali is not interspersed with English loan words but the translation has succeeded in keeping the original flavor of the story through use of some of the Bengali words, and combining them when appropriate with English words. 'Rice and daal', 'sari anchal', 'dokta case', 'paan stained lips' etc. can be cited as examples. Exact meanings of such words may be lost on foreign readers although such usage enhances the flavor and authenticity of the narrative. In addition, the unique story-telling styles of the different authors are well maintained by the translator. The underlying theme of each story is about the trials and tribulations as well as the resistance and resilience of women in the face of the established patriarchal ideologies of their respective societies. Economic disadvantages of some women might create additional hardships. Interestingly, most of the authors in their interviews indicated that they were not biased towards the female gender but took their pen to represent the position of the oppressed.

Bengali society has evolved through many changes since this translation was first published in the year of 2002. Globalization and remarkable improvement in information-technology have resulted in much social progress, but economic, political and social stigmas still exist.

Public awareness of inequity increased all over the world and women’s issues are more publicized and addressed now. Subsequent women writers in Bengali like Taslima Nasrin, Tilottama Majumdar, and Sangeeta Bandopadhyay have been significantly vocal and demanding regarding women’s issues of equity and freedom in relation to their male counterparts. Fortunately several subsequent female Bengali authors are following their path and the dated patriarchal society is facing constant confrontation through today’s Bengali literature.

Each translated story is unique in its setting, characters, and events, but their underlying general theme reflects how certain behavioral expectations from women were deeply set in the norms and cultures of certain societies during certain times. Such expectations or demands were institutionalized in those societies and were enforced by its members. The main characters of this collection are women who suffered and struggled, externally and internally, trying to gain some basic safety and independence in their lives. Each woman reacted to her situations differently. Some of them accepted their dependent roles in exchange for material comforts. Others resorted to drastic and even disturbing choices.

All these women showed resilience at some point at least for a little time as they demonstrated their ability to maintain dignity and composure through difficult and hostile surroundings. The reader is requested to focus on the resiliency of these characters and their dreams for better future and not to allow the tragic endings of some stories to overcast these positive aspects. Sometimes abuse, neglect, and systematic exploitation rendered these women powerless and left with no self-preserving choices.

Born in 1909, Ashapurna Devi was possibly the first female author to write about the abuses against the middle class women. Her typical women characters are outspoken, strong willed and brave enough to confront the adversary. In that sense the main character Sumita of the selected story Opium (Afing in Bengali), is atypical. Sumita is a highly accomplished modern young woman with idealistic and moral values who was baffled by the treatment she received at her in-law's house after getting married to her husband of choice. She found herself in an alien and unsupportive environment, where her accomplishments, intellectualism, and idealism only earned her disgrace and mockery by the family members, including her husband. Sumita remained silent and outwardly docile while she felt tormented inside, and tried to resist her insults through aloofness. The reader becomes impatient at the silence and docility of Sumita and hopes for an ending in which Sumita would assert herself. Finally, Sumita’s father had the courage and self-respect to stand up against the family of his daughter’s husband and take Sumita back to his house, ignoring threats by the in-laws that they would not allow Sumita to return. However, the story ends differently, and the reader does not get the long expected mental relief of seeing Sumita stand up to the people who insulted her. On the contrary, when she was in her father’s house Sumita started to miss her life with her husband, and wrote a letter to him begging him to take her back. Sumita appeared to have become addicted to the attributes of her married life; material comforts, marital sex, the status of a married woman, and to being the wife of Sudhi, even when their marriage stood on uneven grounds. In her father’s house, Sumita felt as miserable as an opium addict feels without opium, for her miserable state of mind could be compared with the withdrawal symptoms of an addict. Sumita’s complete surrender of self-respect and dignity saddens the reader at the same time.

The main character of the next story, Mahasweta Devi’s “Chinta,” focuses on a different group of people. Mahasweta Devi is famous for her work on the oppression of socially and economically disadvantaged class, and in that sense, this is one of her typical stories. The translation keeps the original title unchanged.

Chinta was a young woman from an economically disadvantaged and rural background who worked as domestic help in the city. In her youth, Chinta had fallen in love and trusted someone who had promised to marry her. She had left her village with him but later he deserted Chinta and their two children without marrying her. The head members of her village robbed her of her legal property and her legitimate son to punish her for her acts. Chinta and her illegitimate daughters mostly received unkind and cruel treatment, and their vulnerable situation was taken advantage of by almost everyone around them.

This story changes gears and ends very differently from what the reader expects. Chinta regained her own property in her village and her legal son by making a monetary contribution to the leading members of her village by performing a penance. She had to obtain the money by resorting to drastic means, as she had to resort to the horrible choice of selling her daughters.

“Surrogate” is a translation of Nabanita Deb Sen’s story “Porobrit.” Here the reader finds that modern trends had crept into Bengali middle-class families. The main character Sarama is a teacher. Sarama had yearned for a child for years and finally after fifteen years, when she was at the pinnacle of joy with the confirmation of her pregnancy, she learned about her husband’s extramarital affair. Sarama decided to abort the child, disgusted by her husband’s cheating and insincerity, and out of her grave disappointment and frustration.

Although in a very negative way, Sarama’s resistance against power and agency show the ground-breaking act of modernism in Bengali stories of that time.

The “Quintuplets” is a translation of Bani Bose’s “Panchojonyo.” The story is about the reunion of five childhood friends after many years and how they found strength and support from each other to survive their individual tragedies. All five friends have encountered numerous unexpected problems in their middle ages, and had decided to overcome the shackle and be resilient.

Bani Bose’s pen has the unique ability to create a smooth transition from grave negativities of life to an invigorating positive ending which enthralls the reader. The five friends were revived when they thought about ending their lives, with the auspicious sound of the conch in association with full moon and their expectation of arrival of the goddess Lakhsmee at the onset of Lakhsmee Puja.

The next story, “From the Heart of Darkness,” is a translation of “Andhokarer Utsho Theke” by Jaya Mitra. The story is set up in rural India where the main character is named Shantobala. Her married life consisted of severe torture and abuse by her husband, and her only meaning for existence was her dream of giving her two young daughters an education as she hoped for a better future for them. However the quiet and tranquil Shanto completely lost it and committed hideous violence when she got the news of her daughters being married off at a young age.

The disturbing ending of the story of Shanto shows us the dreadful consequences of exerting power and abuse over the weak and the drastic measures an average person can take when he or she is robbed of all basic rights and choices. The end results are horrifying for the society.

The next translation, “Good Woman, Bad Woman,” is from Suchitra Bhattacharya’s story “Bhalo Meye Kharap Meye.” This presents the hypocrisy of the Bengali middle class preserving one’s social prestige and status--so called affluent good woman trapped in the bondage of wealth and prestige, who cannot dare to show courage to stand for the truth.

Ria was a woman of questionable character and from poor socio-economic background. She was able to stand up for the truth, stand up for her own cause in public. Urmi could never do that, for she was the Bhalo Meye or good girl from a higher segment of society who had a lot to lose by seeking the truth, also she is overpowered by narcotic daze of affluence. The highly debated issue of marital rape is the focus of this story.

The next story, “Face,” is a translation of Minakshi Sen’s “Mukh.” It focuses upon dehumanization due to repression by the state. The main character is a young woman who longed for a human face in society after being left in isolation. She dreaded the solitary loneliness, and craved human touch, seeking love, kindness, affection, and the comfort from familiar faces.

There is a description of severe police cruelty and torture towards jailed young men and women, which reminds one of the Naxal movements in West Bengal in the seventies.

The last story Drowned Man, translated from Anita Agnihotri’s story 'Doba Manush' is set upon the background of a nonviolent protest in central India led by a notable woman leader, against the unfair and oppressive actions of big industries and rich farmers. Newspaper reporter Saumya arriving from Kolkata to showcase this event was horrified to discover the philanthropic humanitarian patriarch’s neglect and abusive treatment to his wife, but did not react. This political patriarch would risk everything including his love and marriage for his political ambition. The wife Nazim, who was earlier turned into Amrita for marrying the political idealist, tolerated the inhuman treatments for everyone’s sake but finally she saw through her husband’s plans. She expressed her resiliency in trying to deflate his political ambitions and left to secure a safer life for herself. Here reporter Saumya alongside with Amrita’s husband are called the drowned men for lack of his courage and conviction to disclose truth and reality.

Dr. Dasgupta’s anthology undoubtedly should be considered a valuable addition to the field of literary translation and women’s studies. She has mentioned that most of the selected stories in the book prioritize the well-being rather than the ill-being of women--possibly indicating her hope for a much improved society for future generations. More such translations will help to spread the thoughts of Bengali women writers to the modern world.



Published October, 2015

Reviewed by Pradipta Chatterji. Pradipta Chatterji received a BA in Philosophy honours from the Presidency College, Kolkata. Subsequently, she... (more) 

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