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Historical significance of the first Bengali novel written by a woman

  • Published at 10:28 am August 17th, 2021

Book review

In the middle of the pandemic in 2020, Ushasi Ray and Solanki Roy were engaged in playing the role of Kadambini Basu on Zee Bangla and Star Jalsha respectively, two of West Bengal’s prominent Bangla TV channels that started broadcasting two different drama serials. Bengali women, even the intellectual types who avoid daily soaps regarding them as “trash”, were eagerly following the bio-serials that dramatised the history of the first female doctor in India from a time in the nineteenth century when domesticity was still part of women’s ideal image. The “first” in anything always has its magic spell, though some of the Bengali female elites felt a jolt of shock over the very male and commercial stereotype in which Kadambini’s romantic moments with her husband Dwarkanath Ganguly were being constructed. 

Perhaps the publication of Manottama: Narrative of a Sorrowful Wife in 2021 will produce a similarly mixed reaction among such audiences: they will be partly happy to learn that the “first ever” novel by a Bengali woman written around the time Kadambini became a doctor, has been translated into English and is to get a culturally diverse readership; however, part of their enthusiasm will be spoiled by its presentation of the perfect woman as a self-effacing subject. Nonetheless, its publication has historical relevance, and Somdatta Mandal must be acknowledged for introducing the first Bengali female novelist to Anglophone readers through her meticulous translation. 

Manottoma: Dukkhini Sati Charit, written by an unknown woman who called herself “Hindukula-Kamini”, was first published in 1868. The translator has rightly pointed out that the author’s main intention was “to preach and impart the lesson that whatever might happen, a woman’s place is in her husband’s home.” Rosinka Chaudhuri in her Foreword adds, “In Manottama, we see both strands exist simultaneously and conflictedly in a narrative that both privileges education for women as well as shows us how that education, in fact, could result in the production of an ideal wife, mother and homemaker.” What a paradox! In addition to the existence of real women like Kadambini, women in the 1860s were being shown in the most “unusual of circumstances, untied down by domesticity” even in fictional narratives by men, as Chaudhury mentions; whereas a ‘woman’ writer was still trying to justify women’s education in the domestic benefits of an unruly man. It is a novella written in the style of a story-within-the-story in which two males exchange how an educated girl called Manottama persevered in her husband’s house without showing the slightest resistance towards the thousand injustices she had to endure just because she was educated. On the other hand, the text informs that as an uneducated philanderer, Manottama’s husband Nilabrata had hitherto experienced bleak marital prospects as no father of an eligible girl would choose him as a groom. As a work of fiction, Manottama has historical significance, but it does not espouse the cause of women’s progress. It rather reminds us of women’s duties mentioned in the teachings of the Manava-Dharmasastra:  “She must never want to separate herself from her father, husband, or sons; for by separating herself from them, a woman brings disgrace on both families.”

“The first Bengali novel penned by a woman” is such a curious case here: the husband’s squandering habits cannot be stopped by the educated wife; she rather substitutes the servant who leaves because the master cannot pay him; and she sighs all day long brooding over how her husband would spend the rest of his life in penury.  That was not the end to it; she was beaten up by her husband while trying to hammer some sense into him, and eventually the man married again. Manottama endures the presence of a co-wife, rears the co-wife’s children, and finally resorts in the outhouse while the uneducated co-wife becomes the authority. How would a Bengali reader accept this after having known of Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain’s writings? Can one justify the husband’s action as the waywardness of male children, as the remarks of Manottama’s old father in the story go? Who would in the 21st century adore such a narrative unless she is an avid scholar interested in literary history? Somdatta Mandal is declaredly so; her recent translation of Nirmalkumari’s memoir and letters to her by Tagore as Kobi’& ‘Rani’: Memoirs & Correspondences of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis & Rabindranath Tagore (2020) has been received warmly by readers. 

On the one hand, Manottama refers to mythic characters like Sita, Savitri, Damayanti, Chinta and Draupadi to justify the imposition of religious dictates on women; on the other, the text engages in intricate debates over caste and rituals that were supposedly the staple of the “male” world. In terms of the range of representation, such contrasting features being penned by a submissive female subject lead to speculations about possible androgynous authorship. This possibility might have led to the query for clues within the text to decide the gender identity of the author, part of which was undertaken by Adrish Biswas, who managed to retrieve the Bangla text from the archives of the British Library in London in 2010 and publish a new edition of the Bangla text with his introduction in 2011. However, the unknown author perhaps had a sequel in mind, for the text mentions, “End of the first section”, in conclusion. Thematically, too, the story remains somewhat incomplete, being devoid of the poetic justice usually expected from a moralistic tale like this. 

As translator, Mandal’s skill lies in her transformation of a nuanced Bangla text into English without compromising on its culture-specific elements. To this effect, her three-layered Introduction enlightens readers across cultures. 

Sabiha Huq is Professor of English, Khulna University.

Manottama: Narrative of a Sorrowful Wife 

Written by Somdatta Mandal

Published by Shambhabi the Third Eye Imprint

Kolkata & New Delhi, 2021 

ISBN: 978-81-948077-8-0 (Paperback)


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