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‘New Woman’ then: A Study of First Light (2001)

By Bikash Chandra Mandal                                                                                   

This article seeks to address the question of “New Woman” in the nineteenth century colonial Bengal which is generally regarded as a period of an important historical event, Bengal Renaissance. Generally, the term, “New Woman” and the theoretical, conceptual significance associated with it sound very promising for women in general. But, what kind of picture do we really see of the “New Woman” in the everyday and practical social existence in the nineteenth century Bengal? Was it really a liberating force, a force for empowerment for Bengali women at that time at all or was it nothing but a new strategy, a gender-politics or a game of patriarchy leading to further subjugation of women in a more effective way than ever? How did the women in the nineteenth century colonial Bengal respond to it? How did they maintain their individual female subjectivity and freedom even after being within the reign of patriarchal discourse? If we think carefully about the representation of women, especially in the second half of nineteenth century in Sunil Gangopadhyay’s First Light (2001), we can sense the subtle play of Stephen Greenblatt’s “subversion and containment” dialectic in the ‘construction’ of the narrative of the “New Women” who, though given some freedom, rational and modern sensibilities through formal education, were ultimately denied distinct individual subjectivity and freedom. The novel is very significant in the sense that it also projects how the women resisted the patriarchal, hegemonic construction of the “New Woman” to create their own version of the ‘New Woman’ and thus situated themselves in a position of being straddled both ‘within’ and ‘outside’ the concept of “New Women”.

The nineteenth century in Bengal was a period of change, a transitional period when so many things were happening within (as well as outside) Bengal that seemed to transform the fundamental structures of pre-colonial society to produce a whole new set of social structures and values. The introduction of English education, the spirits and values of liberal and rational Enlightenment thinking of Europe, the various reformative agendas by native and colonial enterprise in Bengal, the rise of new Westernized Bangali middle class intellectuals, the breaking of old feudal system in Bengal to a new order of urban and capitalistic economy, the rise of indigenous Bengali literature and so on effected a paradigmatic shift in the nineteenth century Bengal society.

So, it is natural that the position and place of women at that time did not remain as it was before. In fact, as also thought by Partha Chatterjee in his seminal book, Nation and Its Fragment: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993), the very concept of ‘Bengali woman’ was revisited and restructured to cope with the changes that swept over colonial Bengal in the nineteenth century. That was the backdrop against which there emerged a whole new concept of women, the “New Woman” in colonial Bengal. Chatterjee in the same book, especially in chapter six, “The Nation and Its Women” and seven, “Women and the Nation” contributes significantly to our understanding of “New Woman” in the context of Bengal in particular. According to him, the “New Woman” is a hegemonic construct of the new patriarchy to incorporate them in the nationalistic male discourse. To him, “the ‘new’ woman was the reverse of the ‘common’ woman, who was coarse, vulgar, loud, quarrelsome, devoid of superior moral sense, sexually promiscuous, subjected to brutal physical oppression by males” (127). The “New Woman” would possess the “cultural superiority …over the Western woman for whom … education meant only the acquisition of material skills to compete with men in the outside world and hence a loss of feminine (spiritual) virtues;…over the preceding generation of women in their own homes who had been denied the opportunity of freedom by an oppressive and degenerate social tradition;…over women of the lower classes who were culturally incapable of appreciating the virtues of freedom” (Chatterjee 129). So, that is how new patriarchy defines the “New Woman” who must retain her femininity while pursuing material skills and who would have the capability to enjoy the freedom. She is neither to be the memsaheb, the Westernized woman nor the ‘traditional’ woman but the “New Woman”. But, as has already been said, the narrative of the woman in the First Light is, necessarily, the narrative of acceptance, resistance and rejection of the category of the “New Woman” engineered by patriarchy.

While tracing the various trajectories of the Bengali “New Woman” at that time as represented through Sunil Gangopadhyay’s historical fiction, First Light, which is an English translation by Aruna Chakravarti from the original Bengali, Prothom Alo, we find various historical as well as fictitious women characters besides their male counterparts. As historical women figures we find Kadambari Devi, wife of Jyotirindranth Tagore and sister-in-law of Rabindranath Tagore, Gyanadanandini Devi, wife of Satyendranath Tagore, Binodini Dasi, the famous actress of Calcutta , Abala Das (later Bose), wife of Jagadish Chandra Bose, Swarnakumari Devi, daughter of Debendranath Tagore, Sarala Devi, daughter of Swarnakumari Devi, Kadambini Ganguly, the first female graduate from colonial Bengal. Besides, there are numerous other women figures in the novel. But those figures mentioned are specifically and deliberately chosen to address the problematics and complexities concerning the concept of Bengali “New Woman” from the mid-nineteenth to the beginning of twentieth century.

In Kadambari, we can see the first light of the “New Woman” who scrubbed off the make-up from the face of patriarchal construct of the “New Woman” and unfurled the ugly face of New Patriarchy. She was educated, deeply sensitive having high aesthetic sensibilities and taste of her own, which was very rare among the women of her time. It is a well-known fact that young Rabindranath Tagore, a still struggling poet, was more attracted and attached to Kadambari than any other sister-in-law in the Tagore family. The question may arise: why was it so? It was not because she was extremely beautiful that earned her the name, “Hecate” (62) but because Tagore found in her an excellent, able, and sincere “critic” of his creative writings, “Rabi’s relations tried to encourage the boy with lavish praise. With one exception, Kadambari, to whom all his work was dedicated, was his sternest critic. She was always the first to read his poems…” (68). She was equally conscious how to manipulate Rabindranath’s mind psychologically to draw out the best of his poetic self, sometimes even through the comparison of him with Biharilal Chakraborty: “Comparison with Biharilal Chakraborty always infuriated Rabi. He would tear his verses to pieces and start all over again. Kadambari knew it and never stopped needling him in an effort to bring out the best in him” (68). So, this was Kadambari, an enlightened soul both intellectually and aesthetically, not a ‘distanced’ but ‘engaged’ Muse, the “New Woman” who literally guided the poetic self of Rabindranth to make him the Tagore as known to the world today. That was one aspect of her role and identity beyond the patriarchal view. There was another distinctive rebellious feminine self of Kadambari that saw through the hypocrisy of new patriarchy. She was married to Jyotirindranath Tagore who, busy in chasing after his material as well as aesthetic dreams, neglected her and pushed her to extreme loneliness and depression: “The younger generation of men, educated in the notions of the West, were pushing their wives out of purdah and bringing within the mainstream of their lives. These women had tasted the freedom and known the companionship of their husbands and were loathing to go back to their lives of loneliness. It was modern day dilemma” (Gangopadhyay 86). So, that was the double-faced patriarchy that expected women to be educated and, concomitantly, to suffer the deprivation of their rights without protest. But Kadambari did protest against such a move of new patriarchy. Her suicide was a symbolic rejection of the patriarchal discourse of the “New Woman”. She refused to be subverted and contained by patriarchy and to negotiate with her individual self even at the cost of her life.

The character of Gyanadanandini Devi also adds up significantly to our understanding of the “New Woman”. She was the most prominent and burning example of the kind of woman who openly dared to flout and upset the patriarchal codes, values, and expectations. According to the novelist, “Gyanadanandini’s metamorphoses from an ordinary village girl to the most advanced Indian woman of her times was like a fairy tale come true” (90). She was among the first to debunk and deconstruct the “home” (representing the private, domestic women’s sphere) and the “world” (representing the public sphere, the domain of men) dichotomy of the Bengali society. She was a woman of great intelligence, spirit, and indomitable moral courage who controlled and dominated both the spheres, private as well as public, speaking English and French fluently, attending balls and banquets comfortably along with her male counterparts. She found the traditional conservative view about the role of women just as a sexual partner and nurturer of children who should be kept to the “dark interiors of the zenana” (91) and for whom the “undergarments were unnecessary luxuries” (91) extremely disapproving. “She was first to adapt the Western style of dress to the needs of her own country…She started covering her torso with chemises and jackets” (91) and introduced a new style of wearing sari known as the “Pirali style” (91). She was courageous and confident enough to travel to England with her three minor children without any male companion and to live there for several months alone: “such a thing was unheard of in those days. No Indian woman had ever crossed the ocean without a male escort” (90). Besides she openly challenged the traditional superstitious Brahmin society that strongly believed that by crossing the “kala pani” (the sea) one would lose one’s caste and would be excommunicated. She was also the first to leave the ancestral home and break up the old joint family tradition. Later she is described as “shrewd, practical and worldly wise. She kept a vigilant eye on everything. The house ran as if on oiled wheels and she had complete control over her husband and children” (94). The last statement has a great significance as far as the question of women’s education is concerned and we might miss the gender-biased political overtones implied in the statement unless we go through the following lines from Chatterjee’s afore-mentioned book: “Education then was meant to inculcate in women the virtues – the typically bourgeois virtues characteristic of the new social form of ‘disciplining’ – of orderliness, thrift, cleanliness, and a personal sense of responsibility…and the ability to run the house according to the new physical and economic conditions set by the outside world. For this, she would also need to have some idea of the world outside the home, into which she could even venture as long as it did not threaten her femininity” (129-30). The statement above again points out the hypocrisy of patriarchy. In Gyanadanandini we see the “New Woman” who retained her individuality and freedom as a woman and also protested against patriarchal hegemonies from within it. Her life is an example of the journey and struggle of a woman from the margin to center, from private sphere to public sphere due to her undaunted moral courage even at the face of orthodox society in colonial Bengal.

The figure of Swarnakumari Devi appears a bit problematic and ambiguous too from the perspective of “New Woman”. Apparently, she looks like a revolutionary figure who rejected her domesticity and duties of motherhood to be a “writer”: “she took herself very seriously as a writer and intellectual. Although she had given birth to several children, she refused to let her life to be cluttered by them or by needs of her household. She believed that a writer of her stature should not demean herself by domestic occupations” (181). So, we find her engrossed in her writing even when her four-year-old daughter was hurt badly and crying bitterly. Here, it may look like that she was deliberately neglecting the traditional roles attributed to women by patriarchy and, in this way, was liberating herself as a “New Woman” which is very much illusory and falsifiable. She was actually caught in the trap of patriarchy that decided how a woman could be a “New Woman” which sometimes involved the rejection of ‘home’ and projection of self in the public sphere, mainly a ‘male domain’. Swarnakumari Devi simply, by mistake, accepted that paradigm to exert her female self and was just contained in the patriarchal discourse of the time. As a woman, Kadambini Ganguly was very conscious of her dreams and career in such a field which the society was dead against. She was the “first female graduate from Calcutta University” (315). She started to study medicine. She was never ready to compromise with her dreams and career. She cared least about social expectations of her time. So “she had decided to marry Dwarkanath Ganguly, a man seventeen years her senior…her teacher in school…a widower with two children” (315-16), very poor and “extremely unattractive…totally without grace or charm” (316). She deliberately married such a man only because “they had a shared ideal…that marriage to anyone else would put an end to her medical career” (316). She is the example of how serious a woman can be about her own career and can do anything to keep her dreams alive. We can also think of Abala Das in this context.

These are the “New Women” distinct from the dominant construct of the “New Woman” in their new roles, who were conscious about their individuality deconstructing the patriarchy to reconstruct and affirm their individual female subjectivity. They tried to project their womanhood in their own individual way. They sought to construct their own female subjectivity beyond the space of patriarchal hegemony and resisted the patriarchal formulations to create their own version of self-freedom.

Bikash Chandra Mandal
is a Research Scholar at the Department of English, Visva-Bharati University. He is interested in postcolonial perspective of history, Bengal Renaissance, Modernity, and partition literature.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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