A Bengali woman’s austere account of colonial England
* In fluid and emotional Sanskritized Bengali, which was the custom of the time, she noted the ways of the English, their customs and traditions
* The book is in fact a sharp social and cultural commentary on all aspects of British life, both virtues and vices
* Krishnabhabini’s work appears distinguished due to his sharp observations, bold outlook, and penchant for the technical
Krishnabhabini Das was 16 when she ditched her traditional sari, donned western clothes, and crossed deep waters to reach England. It was in the 1880s and she was accompanying her husband who was traveling to England for the second time. The couple left their underage daughter in the care of her extremely Orthodox in-laws, who later ostracized them for “crossing the kalapani” (black water).
While her husband taught candidates for public office, Krishnabhabini was deeply involved in observing and absorbing the world around him. She traveled around London, spent hours reading at the British Museum, interacted with English families and recorded her sightings. “British women have always known how to preserve their self-esteem and independence. They openly interact with men in public places, play and talk with them, and [have] various kinds of experiences from their childhood, ”she wrote. Back in his native society, it was almost unthinkable.
In 1885, then 21 years old, published England Bangamahila (A Bengali lady in England), the first travelogue written by a Bengali woman. “Here you will only find the differences that exist between an independent life and a enslaved life,” she writes in the Foreword. In fluid and emotional Sanskritized Bengali, which was the custom of the time, she noted the ways of the English, their customs and traditions, the royal family, politics, technology, women, education, religious practices and social with lots of detail. Almost obsessively, she compared these observations to the practices at home, and her words carried her pain and anguish.
Krishnabhabini writes about Mary Carpenter, Florence Nightingale and Lady Baker, and how English women, married or not, worked for their society. It is important to contribute to the upliftment of the people, she argued.
She writes in great detail about the functioning of the British Empire, how it “sucks the vital blood” of its colonies; his words were full of anguish, frustration and an intact pride and affection for his country. The book was so hard and bold that the British eventually had to ban it from Indian markets.
Nabanita Sengupta, Assistant Professor of English at Sarsuna College, University of Calcutta, has been studying travel writing by Indian women since 2007. Her translation of England Bangamahila reflects the same lucid style and captures the fiery in all its sincerity. Sengupta’s annotated translation of A Bengali lady in England adds another pillar to the scholarly edifice of women’s writing about travel and societies.
Extracts from a telephone interview with Sengupta.
What is the particularity of this disc? Why did you feel the need to translate this book at that time?
This book is an excellent ethnographic study of England and India, especially Bengal. Even if A Bengali lady in England has often been classified as a travelogue, written during the first three years of Krishnabhabini Das’ stay in England, this book is in fact a sharp social and cultural commentary on all aspects of British life, both virtues and vices. From the first line it is evident that we are reading an honest and extremely sensitive spirit who cares about her native land and the plight of the women of her country.
This book is not an idyllic description of visiting exotic places or meeting important people. What we have here is the author’s attempt to adequately understand a society through his various readings and observations, an analysis of why and how English society achieved what it did (industries, technological advancements , small steps of women’s empowerment that seemed imposing from an Indian perspective), and how the author’s indigenous society in India could replicate and imbue this progress.
In fact, this comparative study – the parallel threads of wonder at British virtues and the simultaneous lamentation of dismal Indian conditions combined with the imagination of workable solutions remain a strong undercurrent of this work, which touches my heart. . If we remember that we read a 20 year old Hindu housewife from an extremely Orthodox family who visited England with her husband in 1880 and anonymously published this book which contained strong criticisms of imperial power and a demand for better conditions in the colony, this would probably help us decipher the meaning of the book today.
What can you say about Krishnabhabini’s personality and role in society at this time?
Woman Who Ditched Sari and Adopted Western Clothing During Travel and Stay Abroad Adopt Coarse White thaan (worn by widows) after the death of her husband in 1909, probably as a means of achieving her ends. She went barefoot to the young girls, many of whom were widows, to educate them. His conformation to the constraints of widowhood allowed him to access more easily within these households. She knew that only education could enable them to escape the miseries that women had to face at that time. She continued to teach, work for the education and upliftment of women, and to write, fiercely rebelling against prevailing social norms. It shows that despite many personal crises, she remained steadfast and compromised only as needed to work towards her goal – which was to educate and empower women at the time.
What do we know about Krishnabhabini’s interest in science and technology?
Krishnabhabini’s work seems distinguished due to his sharp observations, bold outlook, and penchant for the technical. She never talks about her personal concerns and situations but gives precise glimpses of the Suez Canal they pass through on their journey, of the industrial infrastructure she witnesses in England, with a technological sense quite unusual for the women of his time, and this can be seen in many of his other writings as well – essays in various publications and periodicals of the time.
What is there for feminists and young people today?
The feminist movement in India has its roots in the 19th century reform movements led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vidyasagar. It has been successfully taken over by several illustrious women, mostly from the middle classes. Krishnabhabini was then one of the first voices of feminism because of its concern for women’s freedom, economic freedom and the right to education. We find almost all of the major concerns of early feminism reflected in her writings. While her demands may seem very simplistic in the current context where we are fighting intersectional feminism and digital feminism, we must remember that it is on the foundations laid by exceptional women like her that the Fourth Wave of Feminism rests. today.
Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance journalist