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Writing Woman, Resisting Woman: A conversation with Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

By Sanchayita Chakraborty and Priyanka Chatterjee   

A feminist writer, historian, and an activist of women’s movement, Sarmistha Dutta Gupta pleasantly agrees to share with us her experience, her journey towards gendered understandings of history and culture in this ‘alap’, a candid conversation for the current Café Dissensus issue, “New Women: Then and Now”. This rendezvous happened in a green, cozy corner of her house. She spoke to us in Bengali and we have translated this interview into English.

The Journey Begins: Birth of a Feminist Understanding

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta reminiscences about her early life as a student and as a young member of ‘Sachetana’, another significant feminist organization of the 1980s:

“Actually, I was a student of English literature. I did not have any formal training in history at college and university level. The mid-eighties, when we were students, had been witness to the rise of autonomous women’s movements across the country. Feminist groups were formed; various social movements were fermenting. During our student-life, the formal syllabi of English literature hardly contained much of women’s writings or any specific gendered discussions. The School of Women’s Studies at Jadavpur University had not started yet.

But it would be significant to take cognizance of the fact that informally there would be a lot of discussions both inside and outside the classroom around feminism and women’s movements.  The writings of Wollstonecraft or Virginia Wolf or Simon de Beauvoir would be brought into discussions by teachers like Jasodhara Bagchi, Malini Bhattacharjee, Sajni Mukherjee, Supriya Chaudhuri, and others, offering us many new perspectives.

Besides that, I also became a member of one of the first feminist groups in India called ‘Sachetana’. Malini di (Malini Bhattacharya) was a member of ‘Sachetana’ then. She had written an anti-dowry play called, Meye Dile Sajiye (‘Giving Away the Girl’) in which I enacted a role and through the rehearsals and performance of the play, I imbibed a gendered understanding of social issues. Later, I also translated the play into English which was published from Seagull. As already mentioned, many of our teachers informally introduced feminist issues through their teaching of literature, like Jasodhara Bagchi introduced a lecture series by Himani Banerjee on many feminisms. Himani di engaged with the histories of different feminist movements in these lectures, probably given in six or eight parts, such as Black Feminism, Socialist Feminism, etc..”

First Steps in Retrieving the Lost Voices

“I also came to know of many unheard of women writers then who are now hailed as prominent women writers like Sulekha Sanyal and Sabitri Ray during my student days from teachers like Malini Di ( Malini Bhattacharya). After the death of Simone de Beauvoir (the leading French Feminist) in 1986, a huge seminar was organized at Jadavpur University in her memory where many women writers participated. Susie Tharu and K. Lalita came to the seminar and shared their experience about editing the two volume book, Women’s Writing in India, which was forthcoming then from Oxford University Press. We also began reading on our own newly published translations of Mahadeviakka’s poems or Ismat Chugtai’s short stories. This opened up a whole new world for us.”

Translating Words: A Story of Retrieval    

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta continues recounting her experiences of retrieving the lost women writers from the pages of history:                                                

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta has been working as a translator of women’s writings from Bengali to English, bringing in the forgotten narratives to new light. She talks about her translation projects:

“In the nineties, I began unearthing women’s writings which had been excluded from the literary history of Bengal. Along with my friend, Swati Ganguly, Professor of English at Visva Bharati, I co-edited The Stream Within. This was a collection of thirteen short stories by contemporary Bengali women from both sides of Bengal. We selected, critically introduced and translated the works here. In this volume, the works of Sabitri Ray, Sulekha Sanyal, and Jahanara Imam (from Bangladesh) are translated into English for the first time. Later on I have translated works of Mahasweta Devi, Malini Bhattacharya, Jyotirmoyee Devi, and others.”

Relocating History: The Political Roles of Women   

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The journey of the researcher had begun. And during the research, Sarmistha Dutta Gupta had found hidden pages of history. She recollects:

“During the research for The Stream Within, I was struck by the political consciousness in some of the women writers that I had begun to discover. This led me to explore the intertwining of women’s writing and politics in Bengal. This was a wholly uncharted domain when I took it up. We always associate political writings or any kind of political consciousness only with males, just as we stereotyped women’s writing or women’s journalism with ‘soft’ and ‘feminine’  issues. In my research I tried to look at the trajectory of six different Bengali periodicals between 1920s and early 1960s. Each of these periodicals had different ideological leanings and some were brought out by men, some were brought out by women. My research tried to show how different literary spaces promoted different kinds of writings by women. The journals brought out by women, political women from revolutionary groups or communist women, consciously advocated women’s writings on a much larger range of political and social issues. The primary materials that I retrieved in the course of my research have been anthologized in the volume Pather Ingit in Bengali. In my English book, Identities and Histories: Women’s Writings and Politics in Bengal, I have tried to write a gendered history of women’s political participation in late colonial and early postcolonial Bengal.

Ubacha’ Series: The Stories of Women in Different Struggles of Freedom

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta is also the founder-secretary of the organization ‘Ebong Alap’. ‘Ebong Alap’ has recently launched the ‘Ubacha’ series digitally in social media. When we ask Sarmistha Dutta Gupta about the purpose behind launching the series, and how, she thinks that the idea of political freedom is intertwined with the concept of personal freedom, she explains:

“‘Ubacha’ series has a tagline, “Nana swadhinatar laraie sarik meyeder katha” (narratives of women participating in different kinds of struggles for freedom). The first quotation comes from Saiyda Manoara Khatun, a housewife who largely lived behind the purdah but whose autobiography encapsulates many moments of political consciousness. The ‘Ubacha’ series is basically a series of quotes by women who were either political activists like Gita Mukherjee and Bina Das, or fought many social battles against castes, class and patriarchy.”

She then adds, “I think the idea of political freedom is intertwined with the idea of personal freedom. The sense of personal bondage for a woman who had been a traditional housewife, who had not gone outside the home, who only got the chance to be educated privately at home and who had been an occasional writer of a memoir or diary is interlinked with her realization of political freedom. The quote from Saiyada Manoara Khatun, for example, shows how she witnessed the Swadeshi movements in Bengal only from her windows and how that had shaped her ideas of freedom, her sense of nationalism.”

Ebong Alap’

The very name of the organization is striking. Ebong Alap started its journey in 2003. It was formed by a group of friends, both men and women, who all happened to be feminists. She talks a little about ‘Ebong Alap’:

“‘Ebong Alap’ engages with critical pedagogy and gender-sensitive citizenship. We started our work by publishing a series of books in easily-readable Bengali on some of the key contemporary issues having a huge impact in the world we live in. Our target readership is primarily non-academic. Of late we have switched to critical publishing through our webzine ‘Ekhon Alap’. ‘Ekhon Alap’ is the only space in the web that focuses on discussing gender issues in Bengali. Apart from publishing books and publishing the webzine ‘Ekhon Alap’, ‘Ebong Alap’ has been trying for the last fifteen years to make educational institutions gender-sensitive. For that, we do regular workshops with school teachers from different districts in Bengal and sometimes with undergraduate college students of rural Bengal. For the last nine years, a new chapter has been added to our work. We have been working with women of two gram panchayat of an island in the Sunderban delta. The work we do with these amazing women is to build their capacity in a way that enables them to create a space for fighting gender-discrimination at home and in their community which has been a tremendous learning experience for the entire ‘Ebong Alap’ team and we are very proud today of the young change-makers of this Sunderban island.”

As the task of women empowerment still remains unfinished, micro-steps that coalesce to bring about greater change in the larger framework of life and living, become essential in giving more meaning to the identity of ‘new woman’ now, always by tracing the contribution of ‘new woman’ then. There remains more to learn, more to know.

Bios:
Priyanka Chatterjee shuttles between her lives in Siliguri, where she lives, and Gangtok, where she works as a Research Scholar in the Department of English, School of Languages and Literatures, Sikkim University, Sikkim. She is striving to impact the everyday lives of herself and others by her sustained academic endeavours. She can be reached at: site_surfer@yahoo.co.in

Sanchayita Paul Chakraborty is a PhD Research Scholar in the Department of English, Bankura University, West Bengal, India. Her area of research is Women’s Studies and Feminist theories. She can be reached at sanchayita.dhritiman@gmail.com

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

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