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Exploring Bengali Women's History

by Anirvan Chatterjee, January 1997

I never really understood the psychology of arranged marriage; I suppose I still don't. I find it a bit puzzling how my mother, and other Bengali women like her, could so casually accept the idea of being sent into the houses of men they'd never met, living in a country 8,000 miles away, having their whole future lives' paths determined for them in a single act outside their control. The thought of being in my mother's shoes scares me; I picture myself as a much-bedecked lamb being led almost forcibly to the "slaughter" of the marriage ceremony. My mother would try to explain her motivations (and those of other Bengali women like her) to me; the psychology of arranged marriage would naturally appear puzzling in my American context, she would tell me. I would need to understand the way processes of culture and socialization operated on her and those like her, to begin to comprehend the psychology of Indian arranged marriage. Everything around her--the example of her immediate and extended family, examples projected in mass media, the attitudes of friends and acquaintances--worked to uphold traditional gender roles, and the idea that women would find their fulfillment only as devoted wives and mothers, living strictly within the dictates of social expectations. She would explain that she genuinely wanted to get married within weeks of getting her master's degree, without any regard to issues of career or independence, and that she didn't regret her action, even though she may have been operating under a very different social and cultural context when she did it. I tried to understand her reasoning, but I could do so only in the most abstract sense, at best, devoid as I was of knowledge of the context she grew up in, of the attitudes and ideas that shaped her and others like her.

I recently read two volumes on the history and sociology of Bengali Hindu women to help myself better understand just where my mother and other India-born Bengali women like her that I know were coming from. The first, Voices From Within: Early Personal Narratives of Bengali Women by Malavika Karlekar, traces the broad patterns of such women's lives in Bengal from about 1850 to 1915. The latter, Bengali Women by Manisha Roy, deals with the socialization of upper and upper middle class urban Bengali Hindu women in the period from about 1950 through 1970. I have had previous experience with the academic field of women's studies at college, but my experience in the subject was strictly from an American and Western European context. This was my first encounter with wholly non-Western women's studies texts, and I found the experience valuable.

Malavika Karlekar's Voices From Within takes on the changing roles of middle and upper class Bengali Hindu women in society in the latter half of the 19th and very early 20th centuries. Karlekar draws heavily upon personal narrative as a vehicle for her exploration, a common practice in "bottom-up" American feminist and New history; in fact, her text is very similar in style to Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States, perhaps one of the best known American works making use of the technique. Karlekar begins her exploration by taking on the traditional culture of the antahpur (women's inner domestic quarters--a space allowing for some degree of female empowerment, but primarily a place for female ghettoization) as only the tip of the iceberg of "backwards" social practices like child marriage and polygamy, still not at all uncommon at the time. It is here that the value of the narrative of the participants really comes into play, by turning the victims of these social practices into real human beings, genuinely impacted by their conditions. Late in her life, Sharadasundari (Brahmo reformer Keshub Chunder Sen's mother), recalled her experience as a child bride:

"I was very frightened before going to my in-laws' home. I used to think that I would be put into jail or even hung. Thinking of all this, I cried for a month before the wedding. Finally, when my father took me into my in-laws' home, I felt as though I had been thrown into the ocean....For a long time, I felt that our Hindu customs were the best, but now I feel that if one was married when one was older, then one would not have to go through all this pain."
Karlekar conducts a broad survey of the often-uncomfortable emotional spaces revealed in the personal narratives of women involved in traditional social practices. She then turns from the relatively static conditions of the past, to the influence of increasing Europeanization of Bengali customs brought out by the strong British presence in Calcutta. She tracks the matrix of reform movements attempting to improve the lives of women, and the collective social construction of the "new Bengali woman," formed by the intersection of "reform" Hinduism (in particular as espoused by the Brahmo movement) and European culture. Involved in the transition from the older cultural patterns to the newer, lay changes in literature, religion, education, clothing, and gender roles at large. Rather than portray these changes as a single monolithic shift, Karlekar spends time exploring the rifts between different groups involved in the process. The differences among various Brahmo Samaj (a theistic Hindu reform movement) education reformers is dealt with in great detail, for example, with much made of the conflict of styles illustrated by Keshub Chunder Sen and Dwarakanath Ganguly. The former saw women's education as a necessary mean to the end of providing sufficiently "qualified" wives for the modern young men of Bengal. He particularly discouraged teaching young women about science or mathematics so as not to "unnecessarily tax the brain and distract from a girl's primary goal of happy, uncomplicated domesticity." On the other side of the issue was the Brahmo progressive fringe, including Dwarakanath Ganguly--certainly one of the most fascinating early modern Bengali reformers and feminists. Ganguly was the publisher of the Abalabandhab ("Friend of the Weak"), an important reform journal, and also an ardent advocate of the improvement of the lot of women in society. In 1873, he became the patron of the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya, a progressive girls' boarding school in Calcutta. Several years later, at the age of thirty-nine, he married twenty-one year old Kadambini, a graduate of the Hindu Mahila Vidyalaya and one of the first two female graduates of Calcutta University. Their marriage was much derided within the Brahmo community (largely because of the age difference), but it turned out to be a successful match. Kadambini completed a medical degree in 1886, and took on a practice, managing her household all the while. Both husband and wife also got involved in the Congress Party. Of course, Bengali society could not stand the presence of a successful, intelligent, woman, and there were accusations against Kadambini, a mother of five, of being a whore. This did not faze the couple, and in 1893, Dwarakanath was comfortable with seeing his wife travel to Edinburgh unaccompanied, for further medical studies. The example of Dwarakanath and Kadambini Ganguly (not dissimilar to that of similarly progressive husband and wife antebellum American feminists/abolitionists Henry Blackwell and Lucy Stone) is a welcome glimpse at a sometimes unreported side of Bengali culture, and an inspiration to those who sympathize with progressive social reform movements in Bengal and elsewhere. By bringing to light these narratives and biographies, Malavika Karlekar manages to paint a thoughtful and well-rounded picture of the various dimensions involved in the construction of the new modern upper class Bengali woman of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and to draw out the issues and motivations in her life. Furthermore, she sets the stage for a proper understanding of the social context that later generations of middle/upper-class urban Hindu Bengali women would grow up in.

While Voices From Within traces the modernization of gender roles for Bengali women, Manisha Roy's Bengali Women picks up the story in the middle of the twentieth century, to explore the mishmash of European and traditional Hindu influences involved in their lives during the period from about 1950 to 1970. Roy's approach is similar to Karlekar's; she draws heavily upon personal experience in her work, but in the form of biographical interviews, rather than in the reading of autobiographical literature. Manisha Roy also takes more of an external anthropological approach to her work, focusing more on recording and understanding patterns of behavior than upon analyzing and tracing the historical roots of the situation (although she does indeed include some relevant historical prefatory material). She documents in great depth the expectations and realities involved with each of the dozens of relationships in a Bengali woman's life (with father, mother, new husband, husband after birth of first child, father-in-law, elder and younger brothers-in-law, etc.) She proceeds in a chronological manner, presenting the story of a composite Bengali woman, formed out of the experiences of her fifty interview subjects, with excerpts from the interviews liberally sprinkled throughout. I can see in some of these stories images of my mother or older female relatives, and begin to better appreciate the kind of issues of social context my mother tried to explain to me. One recent high school graduate with thoughts of marriage on her mind says:

"I went shopping with my young aunt and cousins more frequently. They accepted me naturally, as if I were one of them....I enjoyed being with them and listening to their feminine talk. I wished I were married and had enough money and independence to buy my own saris and jewelry. Thought of marriage brought a sweet tinge of pleasure, as if everything would be changed for the better....There was no question in my mind that it would be nice to be married. That's what I wanted at that time very strongly."
While my mother did not marry until after she completed her master's degree, this example and others like it from the mouths of those of similar socioeconomic backgrounds really help flesh out my understanding of the experiences and motivations of her and other older India-born female relatives. Manisha Roy's description of the sort of media diet that educated young Bengali women typically received was also very interesting in terms of the broad range it encompassed, although the Western fare strikes me as being tremendously detached from their experiences (but what do I know? my mother actually turned out to be a student of English Literature). Excerpts of what Roy found to be typical readings included classical/epic Indian literature (e.g. the Ramayana and Mahabharata, Kalidasa) and Bengali renaissance literature (e.g. Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chatterjee), as well as a broad range of Western literature, ranging from the Greek myths and Shakespeare to Jane Austen and Hemingway. This early freedom of reading, however, was often contradicted by strong restrictions in other areas, in terms of career and personal choices (it might also be said that this trend is still with many immigrant Bengali families, a generation after the events described). Progressing through Bengali Women, another area that attracted my attention was the discussion of the position of many Bengali men as "mama's boys," strongly drawn to and controlled by their mothers--a phenomenon frequently continuing into marriage, and leading to the very traditional Bengali rivalry between daughters- and mothers-in-law. One Bengali bride complains:
"Sometimes, after dinner, my husband would go to his mother's room and spend a couple of hours there just lying next to her putting his arms around her and chatting. Sometimes he even fell asleep there and would come to bed very late almost half-asleep. I could only weep and blame my fate to be married to a son so close to his mother."
Bengali Women is a thoroughly engaging and accessible title. The use of interviews with Roy's subjects helps illustrate her points and makes the title read almost like a novel. The author goes out of her way to explain clearly, and the text is generously endowed with several pages of detailed endnotes. While the title's focus is very joint-family-centric, I expect that this accurately reflects the prevalence of the institution from 1950-1970, the period being dealt with; although the focus is placed somewhere in between my mother and grandmothers' times, I can see elements and reflections of the issues discussed in both of their lives. While the text predates the breakdown of the joint family, women's entry into the world of work, the growing prevalence of divorce, and other changes in urban middle/upper-class Hindu Bengali life of the last quarter century, it does a good job of portraying the initial conditions from where these deviations sprung.

My reading of Malavika Karlekar's Voices from Within and Manisha Roy's Bengali Women were first spurred on by my interest in the lives of my mother and other India-born Bengali women. I went into my reading with firmly Western feminist glasses, seeking out only injustice and oppression in the subjects' lives, but came out with something other than a simple monolithic indictment of Bengali society's treatment of its women; while there was plenty of sexism to be found in the worlds that the two authors describe, they both do a good job of venturing into their subjects' minds, exploring their emotional lives, and creating portrayals of fairly well-rounded human beings. I still can't say that I really understand where my mother and other female relatives are "coming from," but I feel as if I have a better grasp of the topic after reading these titles; as such, I would not only unequivocally recommend both of these titles to other second generation Bengalis, but also to those who have actually grown up immersed in Bengali culture, as I expect these titles would likely offer new, broader, perspectives on Bengali gender issues than one might know solely from personal experience.


Voices From Within by Malavika Karlekar, Oxford University Press

Bengali Women by Manisha Roy, University of Chicago Press

© 1997-2000 Anirvan Chatterjee
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