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Significant Lives: Biography, autobiography, and women's history in South Asia

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Looking at women’s lives in South Asia, it is impossible to separate the strands of narrative self-justification from the cobwebs of historical obscurity and neglect. Women’s autobiographies have been of quite extraordinary importance to feminist scholarship in India, and have been in many ways the single most important resource in constituting an archive of women’s experience that might feed activism and theory: by contrast, biographies of women are relatively scarce.

The first prose autobiography in the Bengali language, perhaps the first to be printed in any Indian language, was composed by a woman. From the second half of the nineteenth century to the beginning of the twenty-first, we have a substantial number of personal narratives – written accounts, journals, dictated reminiscences – that have allowed us to recover ‘in their own words’, the hidden lives of women, and made space for them in a social imaginary that has important literary and aesthetic dimensions, and exceptional ethical and cultural force.

Let me illustrate this by citing two autobiographical narratives by women, composed almost a hundred and fifty years apart, but making an extraordinary cultural impact despite the historical insignificance of the lives they record. The first is Rasasundari Devi’s Āmār Jiban (My Life), published in two parts in 1868 and 1897, the second part carrying a preface by the poet Rabindranath Tagore’s elder brother, Jyotirindranath. The second is a memoir published only ten years ago, Dayāmayeer Kathā by Sunanda Sikdar (2008), which won a number of literary prizes and was translated into English by Anchita Ghatak for the feminist publishers Zubaan in 2012. Both works are set in rural East Bengal, and both authors would be unknown had they not written their personal histories: in Rasasundari’s case, absolutely unknown, since there is no archival record of her existence; in the second, that of Sunanda Sikdar, who belongs to the modern biopolitics of official documentation, comparatively unknown, since her life-records might exist, but the memoir’s subject, the child Dayamayee who spent her first ten years in the village of Dighpait in East Pakistan, would never have acquired the shape of a life. 

Rasasundari’s text constitutes a foundational moment in South Asian women’s writing, because the whole focus of her narrative is on acquiring the means of self-representation, that is, writing: on becoming, as she puts it, jitāksharā ‘winner of letters’, a stronger expression than the neutral sāksharā, ‘lettered’ or ‘literate’. The struggle that informs Rasasundari’s autobiographical self-representation is carried on during her adult life like guerrilla warfare: occasional raids, retreat and consolidation. For Rasasundari, the conservative Hindu prohibitions against educating women had left her unlettered since early childhood, when she had been allowed to sit and listen to the boys’ lessons in her paternal family. In adulthood, learning to read becomes an endless struggle, in which silence and stealth are Rasasundari’s only weapons. One of her first forays is to steal a page of her husband’s Caitanya-Bhāgavata when she finds it outside the kitchen, and to compare it with her son’s writing exercises and those ‘letters of the mind’ that she has retained in memory from childhood. It is a slow and almost impossibly frustrating process. Married at twelve, she is twenty-five when she learns to read the Caitanya-Bhāgavata, in moments snatched from housework, in the kitchen or in her bedroom where her sisters-in-law cannot see her. She is past forty before she learns to write, since, as she explains, to write you need so many things: paper, a quill, an inkstand, someone to instruct you. It is only after widowhood, when she comes to live with her son and is relieved of the immense burden of housework she had borne almost from the start of her married life, that she can write her history.

Sunanda Sikdar’s memoir of her 1950s girlhood in a small East Bengal village, officially East Pakistan after India’s Partition in 1947, is set over a century later. Unlike Rasasundari’s, it is almost accidental, forced out of her by her inability to carry any longer the burden of a past that she had deliberately ‘forgotten’ in a different country, and left behind when she crossed the border into India at the age of ten.  Her autobiography is an exercise in recovering the suppressed memories of her early years, part of a life cut asunder by the processes of political division, migration and resettlement. As such, it attempts to reclaim the girl left behind, to give shape to an identity that gains wholeness through writing.

The genre of personal narrative allows women to compose their textual identities in two senses, identity as self-sameness, being identified with one’s own event-history, and identity as sign, being identified as different from others. This assumes historical resonance precisely because it makes a claim for women to enter two related discourses: the philosophical discourse of a self identical with its own event-history, as claimed by consciousness and memory, and the political discourse of the person as a forensic category identifiable as itself and none other, and claiming responsibility for its actions (as John Locke would describe it). It allows these narrated identities to enter the archive and to constitute in many ways the single most important resource for a whole generation of feminist scholars and researchers working to make women’s history visible. Yet for women especially, the making of a textual identity often seems to work against a liberal ideology of the self, demonstrating the difficulty women experience, in a grossly unequal society, in aligning selfhood with publicly or socially constituted personhood. The search for women’s lives produces the intricate networks and meshes that constitute women’s history, making it, not marginal to mainstream history but its thorny undergrowth.

Further reading

Read more on the OCLW website.

Devi, Rasasundari. 1981. Amar Jiban [My Life]. In Naresh Jana et al, ed. Atmakatha [Autobiographies] vol. 1. Kolkata. Ananya Prakashan.

Sikdar, Sunanda. 2012. A Life Long Ago. Trans. Anchita Ghatak. New Delhi: Zubaan. 


The Oxford Centre for Life-Writing is a Centre dedicated to the study of life-writing