Bengali Woman Authors in Translation – A comparative study of 3 female authors’ work from 3 different eras:

Puja Roy

A translated text is the bearer of culture, stories, narratives and ‘voices’ of the dominant and the marginalized. It takes from the native and brings it to the world at large. Thus what is represented in a translated literature has a global impact and determines what is received and how it is received.

Though one of the earliest woman writings in Bengali can be traced to as early as 1876, when Ras Sundari Devi, wrote the first autobiography ever written by a Bengali woman author - Amar Jibon. In 1885, Swarnakumari Devi, Tagore’s elder sister edited the literary journal ‘Bharati’, followed by several other woman authors who regularly wrote in magazines, wrote poetries and autobiographies. However, not much of these writings have been translated.

Many of the early women writers belonged to the liberal and Brahmo families like Bamasundari Devi, Saratkumari Chaudhurani, Prasannamoyee Devi, Hemantakumari Chouduri etc. There were housewives from conservative homes like Girindramohini Dasi and Krishmohini Dasi and Muslim women like Begum Rokeya Sekhawat Hossain and the lesser known Khairunnisa Khatun, who wrote what they saw, heard and felt as women and critically debated social issues like removal of superstitious practices, man-woman relationship, communal amity, etc.

In the book ‘Shaping The Discourse: Writings from Bengali Periodicals (1865-1947)’, a translation of letters and essays on subjects that remain contemporaneous to this day, one is struck by how well-read and informed these early graduates and post-graduates were.

Let me talk about three such woman authors in translation, who maintained a non-conformist attitude throughout their writing career and by taking up socially relevant issues, created ripples in the largely static middle class conscience, thereby altering the course of women writing in the years to come.



Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Fiction writing by Muslim women in English remained somewhat of a rarity during the early half of the twentieth century. Interestingly, the forerunner was a Bengali woman, Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, who wrote her first story in English called ‘Sultana's Dream’ in 1908. In Sultana’s Dream, Hossain argues against a system (seclusion of women) that oppresses women and gives power and hierarchy to men. An extremely strong stance taken through literature by a Muslim woman back in the day!
I would like to discuss two of her translated works - Avarodhbasini and Padmarag. Avarodhbasini, translated as “Inside Seclusion or The Secluded Ones,” was published in a periodical magazine called the ‘Monthly Mohammadi’ in 1929 and later published in 1931 in Calcutta. In her translation, scholar Roushan Jahan summarizes the importance of Avarodhbasini in the following words, “Avarodhbasini, the only book documenting purdah practices to be written in Bengali by a Bengali Muslim woman, is a source book of immense value. It is unique as it offers an insider view of purdah as it was practiced in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Bengal.”

There are accounts of seclusion written by foreign men and women. But Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s Avarodhbasini was a critical account written by a purdah nashin [observing] Muslim woman herself, therefore, it deserves to be better known and widely circulated. While Avarodhbasini addressed the issue of seclusion and purdah in a collection of eyewitness accounts, Padmarag, published in 1924, was a work of fiction and a feminist utopia that addressed the issue of seclusion and purdah through storytelling.

In Padmarag, ‘Tarini Bhavan’ is a nunnery or ashram like asylum comprised of a school and a workshop or training institute where all destitute women get training on various vocational skills such as bookbinding, sewing, spinning, sweet-making, typing, nursing and even teaching so that they can use their skills to earn a living for themselves.

When Rokeya Hossain was operating her own school, she specifically designed it as a place where women could become self-reliant and this similarity or inspiration can be tied back to her writing about ‘Tarini Bhavan’ in Padmarag.
Padmarag is fiction and Avarodhbasini is nonfiction, yet both texts address seclusion, purdah, women’s rights and the treatment of women.

In the fictional work of Padmarag, an excerpt on Dina Tarini mirrors Hossain’s aspirations for women’s education. Translator Raushan Jahan wrote, “going against the wishes of her brothers-in-law, the older and the younger, and those of other relatives, Dina Tarini set up a home for widows. She named it Tarini Bhavan. The character of Dina Tarini is a direct reflection of Rokeya Hossain and her battles against members in her community. Encouraged by the novel’s success, Hossain established a school and formed a society called the ‘Society for the Upliftment of Downtrodden Women’.

Brring a few translation here and there, information about Rokeya Hossain’s life is scarce. Rokeya Jiboni (the life of Rokeya, 1937), Rokeya Rachanabali (1973), and Rokeya Parichiiti (1965) are the only works available about her life. According to Roushan Jahan, who also translated ‘Sultana’s Dream’, students and researchers have neglected Rokeya Hossain. In a short amount of time, Rokeya published extensively, yet there is a lot more that remains untranslated and hence unknown in the West.
Begum Rokeya died on December 9, 1932, and up until 11 pm on December 8, 1932, she was working on an unfinished article titled, "Narir Odhikar" (‘Women's Rights’).

Just like much of her work, very little is actually known about this powerful writer-activist’s social contribution and like her ‘Sultana’s Dream’, today, fleeting memory remains of this legend.



Ashapurna Devi

Ashapurna Debi (1909-95) for the longest time, has been one of the most widely read Bengali authors, both in Bengali and in translation around the world. In her long illustrious career spanning 70 years, her greatest accomplishment has been her ability to remain honest to her roots, her fearless spirit and courage in asking pertinent questions to the society through her work and subsequently drawing attention towards a lot of social injustices, that have been ingrained in our system since time immemorial. She represented the voice of an entire culture and captured its nuances and inherent traditions with startling precision and formidable insight.

It’s surprising how, through her writings, she could comprehend and sufficiently express the inner layers of so many complexities and conflicts of the outer world while remaining confined in the interiors of her own household.

Even though her writings reflected the voices of woman and their predicaments it never showed aggression towards men, rather her writings truly bring out the flavour of her days, people and society which takes the reader through a refreshing journey in time and culture.

The First Promise (Prothom Protistruti), was originally published in Bengali in 1964 and ever since its first publication it has received wide readership and has been one of the most popular and path-breaking novels of its time, it has received continual critical acclaim: The Rabindra Puraskar (the Tagore Prize) in 1966 and the Bharitiya Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award, in 1977. The first of a trilogy that includes Subarnalata (1966) and Bakul katha (Bakul’s story, 1973), Pratham Pratistruti attempts to commemorate the struggles and efforts of women of the domestic world so neglected by history.

Through her novel The First Promise, Ashapurna tells the story of the struggles and efforts of women in nineteenth-century, colonial Bengal in a deceptively easy and conversational style. Indira Chowdhury’s confident translation, with its conscious choice of Indian English equivalents over British and American colloquialisms, carries across the language divide the flavour of Ashapurna’s unique idiomatic style.

The novel begins with a reflective proclamation about the need to ‘repay one’s debts to one’s grandmothers’. Satyabati’s story is narrated through the notebook of Bakul, her granddaughter. But the novel is not just the story of a single individual, it captures the story of social and cultural change across four generations. Planned on an epic scale, the story has 48 chapters and more than 50 characters.

This was the time middle class Bengalis were migrating for better opportunities from small towns and villages to the big city of Calcutta. In subtle ways, Ashapurna draws out the contrast between village and the city through the nature of women’s drudgery that each location demands. A village woman shifting to Calcutta meant she was moving away from her familiar surrounding into a foreign land, where decisions had to be taken about drinking, clothing and rearing a child. In fact, when Nabakumar asks Satyabati what will become of a woman’s caste if she goes to Calcutta, Satyabati takes a strong stand by saying, “if your father can keep his caste, if he still has the right to touch the holy stone, I too shall not lose caste if I go to Calcutta.”

Saytabati, further in her argument to answer her husband’s apprehensions of caste violation, counters him by bringing up an example of a similar violation – her father-in-law’s sexual relationship with a woman of a lower caste.

Satyabati also wished to educate her sons and took every opportunity to learn English from Bhabatosh-master, shocking her husband and his friend, Nitai.

Ashapurna Devi’s strong characterization of Satyabati gave middle class Bengalis much hope and strength as far as woman emancipation was concerned. Satyabati enthusiastically embraces education as a means to widen her world. She also stands up against real life issues plaguing the society by protesting against the violent murder of Bhabini’s 10-year-old sister Puti by Puti’s husband and mother-in-law. The fact that Puti was murdered for refusing sex to her husband, was inspired by a real life incident that occurred in 1889, when child bride Phulmoni had died due to forcible intercourse by her 29-year-old husband Hari Maiti.

Satyabati’s letter to the police appealing for justice for Puti fetches a congratulatory response from the British police. But not to be satisfied by mere words, Satyabati rages on about the inadequate social reform measures. Satyabati says, “Just tell me why have you opened your courts of justice? In our country, we used to kill our woman by burning them on their husband’s funeral pyre. You stopped that practice and saved us from that sin. But that’s nothing! There are heaps of sins that have collected over centuries. If you can rid us of those only then would I say you deserve to be law makers. Why have you taken on the guise of ruler in another’s land? Why can’t you just huddle into your ships and leave?

Despite the unlawfulness around her, Ashapurna’s Satyabati is hopeful that times will change. And it is with this hope that she begins educating her daughter Subarna with great enthusiasm.



Nabaneeta Dev Sen

The 3rd author in translation that I wish to discuss is one of the most prominent Bengali litterateurs of our times with more than 80 books to her name. A student of Presidency, Jadavpur, Indiana, Harvard, Cambridge, and Berkeley Universities and an outstanding academic – Nabanita Dev Sen. I would like to explore two of her works ‘Surrogate’ a short story and ‘Defying Winter’ a novella and the woman characters she has created in them.
Surrogate by Nabanita Dev Sen was indeed a path breaking story. Translated by Sanjukta Dasgupta, Shoroma is a typical middle class woman shuffling between the demands of a school job and the responsibilities of a married woman in a joint family. The one dream in her life was to have a child. Shoroma, a teacher 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. So, instead of a sense of celebration she was assailed by doubts. “Whose dream child was now growing in Shoroma’s womb?”. Shoroma decided to abort the child, disgusted by her husband’s cheating and insincerity, and out of her grave disappointment and frustration. Through this short story Dev Sen at once puts the central woman character at the deciding helm of motherhood. It was her wish to birth a child and its she who kills it. A starkly cold decision that in no way conforms to the societal narrative of a middle class woman from a joint family.

The second work that I would like to discuss is a short novella Dev Sen wrote in 1988 – Shit Shahoshik Hemantalok, translated in English as ‘Defying Winter’ by Tutun Mukherjee. This book is about women - middleclass, urban, Bengali women from a wide variety of socio-cultural backgrounds, living together in an old-age shelter. It’s interesting how Dev Sen in the summer of 1988, while teaching young students at the University of British Columbia was approached by a new Bengali magazine that focused on hot stuff – mainly films, fashion, sex and scandal, to write a short novel for their special annual issue. At first, she thought of turning it down but on second thoughts, she decided to take it up and write a story about people who have no place in such magazines. The novella came out as a book later in 1990.
In the book, there is no narrator, the characters speak for themselves and the story is revealed through them. In the original Bengali text, Dev Sen uses varying language patterns to bring out the nature, personality, background, class and social status of each character. For example, the literary and emotive Bengali diction of Aparajita, a creative writer with a poetic sensibility, is starkly different from the coarse, vulgar, amoral and sexually explicit yet racy style of the intriguing Nistarini, who comes from the dubious neighbourhood of Rambagan – a red light area. But totally different from her language is her daughter-in-law’s speech, generously sprinkled with English as she comes from a different background and upbringing. So wide is the gap between them that they seem to have come from different planets.

According to translator Tutun Mukherjee, “Nabanita Dev Sen is among the few writers attempting to give voice to the marginalized sector of the society by initiating a discussion of the grossly neglected subject – ‘women and age’ in India. In the original Bengali text, Dev Sen combines several linguistic styles - the elevated literary prose, the colloquial Bengali, the newly fashionable benglish or Bengali-English - the hybrid used by young people who are more at home with English and so on.

The novella opens with Aparajita’s story, where, at the close of her life, she decides to leave her home in a desperate effort to buy peace from her insensitive and selfish daughter in law- Jaya. Aparajita means ‘the unvanquished’. Much like her name, undeterred by age, loneliness or terminal illness, Aparajita battles for dignity and self-respect. Each character makes apparent the variety of circumstances and experiences the Indian woman must face in search of peace and privacy in her life.


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In 2014, Meytal Radzinski, an Israeli scientist noticed the conspicuous gender disparity prevalent in translated literature and collated (and continues to track) data that captures significantly lower numbers of books by women writers that are translated into English versus those by their male counterparts. The data also showed the disproportionately low media coverage and award recognition that women’s writing in translation receives. At a time when only 30% of new translated literature is by women, to promote books by women in translation, and to encourage publishers to translate important women writers from around the world who are currently only available in their regional languages is imperative.

Amongst the lesser number of translated works, women writer’s books have been consistently undervalued, as if theirs is a world that doesn’t exist. But the reality is, women read and women write!

As a gesture of support towards translation of female writers’ work, few literary networks like The English Pen has awarded record number of women authors and translators in its annual translation awards. This is indeed a move in the right direction and more literary awards should be sponsored for encouraging women authors.

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