Debi Chaudhurani3 min read . Updated: 18 Nov 2011, 11:19 PM IST
She left her home in Calcutta (now Kolkata) at the age of 23, armed with a bachelor’s in arts, and the offer of a teaching job in Mysore—an ordinary start to a story today, but decidedly exceptional in 1895. “Home" was the Jorasanko Thakurbari (literally, house of the Thakurs), and she was Saraladebi, cherished heiress of the Tagore household, daughter of Swarnakumari, one of Bengal’s best-known 19th-century writers, and niece to Rabindranath.
Saraladebi Chaudhurani’s antecedents alone would make her position an interesting one. Born into one of the region’s first families, she was at the centre of the flowering of culture, art and philosophy which attended the 19th-century Bengal Renaissance. She also went on to become one of the earliest Indian woman nationalists, spending decades of her married life in Punjab, and together with her husband, political activist Rambhuja Dutta Chaudhury, editing the weekly newspaper Hindustan.
Sikata Banerjee’s English translation of Saraladebi Chaudhurani’s memoirs, with a wide-ranging introduction to her life and politics, offers us one of the most fascinating glimpses yet into the ferment of gender and nationalist politics in Bengal. The splendidly imperious, intelligent voice of the autobiography also gives us a true sense of the first woman to sing the Vande Mataram at a gathering of the Indian National Congress.
Sarala was born in 1872 in the Tagore house at Jorasanko, her mother’s home. Her father was a distant presence, having declined to live with his wife’s family as all Tagore spouses, male and female, did. Both parents are distant figures in The Scattered Leaves of My Life: Her busy, talented mother is a remote role model, and the aunts, cousins and ayahs who fill the early pages of the book are key figures of warmth and affection.
Saraladebi zigzags from her school career at the prestigious Bethune School in Calcutta to the development of her politics, from the family’s cultural life to digressions into the state of Indian manhood—the last not as surprising as we might expect from a feminist perspective. Like her mother, and the Brahmo religionists and reform-minded men who made up her clan, Saraladebi cared deeply for the emancipation of women and a social order that gave them more liberty than the tradition of sheltered, circumscribed upper-class lives allowed many contemporary women.
Through her, we see how complex these ideas were for early thinkers to grapple with. Some of Saraladebi’s attitudes will seem out of place in an India after Gandhi, after independence, and after successive waves of women’s movements whose concerns have ranged far beyond the boundaries of caste, class and religion to which Saraladebi’s life was subject. Banerjee addresses several of these in her excellent introduction, describing the close relationship of Hindu nationalism with anti-imperialism in early Bengali intellectual circles, as well as a worldview which sometimes accommodated other religions and traditions in an ideal Bengal, and sometimes ignored them or antagonized them outright.
Saraladebi’s recounting of her life ends with her marriage to Chaudhury. This is perhaps not surprising, considering the circumstances in which it came about. Having lived for years in a family which advocated independence and involvement in public life for women, she was perhaps surprised to find them susceptible to social pressures. At 33, her wedding with Chaudhury, whom she had never met, was hurriedly set up by her sister, and it seems evident that Saraladebi found no viable way of refusing the arrangement.
Some scholars, including Rajmohan Gandhi and Martha Nussbaum, have stated that Gandhi and Saraladebi’s relationship was in fact an intense platonic romance. Banerjee does not delve into the politics or the personal consequences of their connection, but we may assume that her later years as a Gandhian gave us a different feminist, and a different nationalist, from the one on candid display in The Scattered Leaves of My Life. In itself a valuable and deeply interesting work, Saraladebi’s memoirs lead us to wonder when we might see a comprehensive account of her life, work and place in the Indian independence movement in English.