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This article is a part of the #IndianWomenInHistory campaign for Women’s History Month to remember the untold legacies of women who shaped India, especially India’s various feminist movements. One Indian woman is profiled each day for the whole of March 2019.


She hailed from an ultra-orthodox family of north Kolkata. Her paternal grandmother did not permit her (and her sisters) to attend school since it would involve stepping out into the ‘big bad world’. So the young girl lived a cloistered life, devoting herself to reading. As a matter of fact, books were her doors and windows to the vast world that lay outside, often beckoning to her silently. By her grit and sheer determination, the spirited woman surmounted her obstacles to emerge as an ardent feminist and champion of women’s liberation.

Early Life

She was born on 8th January 1909 in a traditional Bengali Baidya ( traditional ethnic physicians) in north Calcutta. Her father Harendra Nath, Gupta, a famous artist, was employed with a renowned British furniture making company. Her mother Sarola Sundari, belonged to a liberal family. Reading was her passion. She inculcated this passion into each of her daughters. Theirs was a joint family with a great dichotomy between male and female children – thanks to her imperious grandmother’s bigoted ideas. While the girls of the household were forced to remain unlettered and unschooled, the boys were taught by private tutors.

However little Asha was indomitable. In fact, by regularly listening to the readings of her brothers/cousins, she eventually managed to learn the Bengali alphabets. As luck would have it, due to an ever-growing family there arose paucity of space in the ancestral house. Hence Harendranath Gupta decided to relocate his family to a more spacious accommodation. In the new environment, Sarola Sundari and her daughters got ample scope to read to their hearts’ content. To cater to Sarola Sundari’s voracious reading habit, her home had a steady supply of books and magazines from local libraries.

by regularly listening to the readings of her brothers/cousins, she eventually managed to learn the Bengali alphabets.

During leisure hours, this slew of women read nearly every book they could lay their hands on. Although she missed out on formal education yet Ashapurna educated herself enough for people to sit up and take notice. Those were politically turbulent times. Though the girls of the Gupta household had minimal exposure to the outside world, they were aware of and sensitive to the upheavals and incidents taking place countrywide under the dynamic stewardship of Mahatma Gandhi. This kindled a strong sense of patriotism in her.

The Budding Litterateur

While growing up Ashapurna began dabbling in poetry. At 13, she secretly dispatched a poem captioned Bairer Dak (the outside beckons) to Sihu Sathi, a Bengali children’s magazine. Not only did the poem get published but the editor also sent her a request to submit more literary pieces. She never had to look back!

Life Changes

At age 15, Ashapurna married Kalidas Gupta whose family lived in Krishnanagar. The couple lived a fairly peaceful, harmonious life, settled down in Kolkata permanently and eventually became proud parents of a son. The young wife had to juggle household chores with her literary creativity. Initially, she wrote only for children. Her Chhoto Thakurdar Kashi Yatra (Great Uncle Goes to Varanasi) was a hit in the genre of children’s literature. In 1936 she made her debut in adult fiction. Her story Patni O Preyoshi was published in the puja bumper edition of Ananda Bazar Patrika. In 1944, came Prem O Prayojan, her first adult novel.

Fountainhead Of Feminism

Through the entire gamut of her literary works, the focus is on gender bias (discrimination) and the sexist mindset of men. Her short stories, novellas as well as larger novels vividly portray the emergence of quintessential middle-class Bengali women – their repression, angst, growing awareness, awakening of conscience and the final revolt. Call it revolt or revolution, the manifestation gives a severe jolt to male chauvinists, leaving them stunned!

Ashapurna’s (female) protagonists spent a major part of their day in the kitchen cooking meals for their armies of families, hanging out washed clothing, drying pickles, mango slices and bori (lentil dumplings) in the sun. Recreation or leisure comprised needlework/ embroidery, catching up on neighbourhood gossip which trickled in via domestic help and occasional visitors. Their “outside” was the roof (terrace) from where they could catch a glimpse of sun moon stars and clouds, a dash of greenery. The plucky and lucky ones managed to bypass common terrace walls and strike friendship with women of neighbours’ homes – which was frowned upon by formidable mothers- in-law. Commonly married at age 8 or 9, these women raised a bevy of offsprings by the time they entered teenage!

Through the entire gamut of her literary works, the focus is on gender bias and the sexist mindset of men.

During her lifetime, Ashapurna composed more than thirty novels, poetry, ten volumes of collected works, besides children’s fiction. However, it was her powerful trilogy which catapulted her to fame and glory. The three novels (written between 1964-1974) Pratham Protisruti, Subarnalata, and Bokul Katha depict the women’s liberation from colonial to independent India.

Also read: Salma Siddiqui: Prominent Member Of The Progressive Writer’s Movement | #IndianWomenInHistory

The plots revolve around the lives of Satyaboti, her daughter Subarnalata and her daughter Bokul. Satyaboti is a strong-willed woman who refuses to accept the straitjacketed life of a married woman. Having found a chance to relocate to Calcutta she champions the cause of women’s emancipation and establishes a girls’ school. With dreams, aspirations about her daughter’s future cramping her mind, she elicits the first and only promise from her spouse: education for their daughter and no child marriage. Paradoxically, when Subarnalata is tricked into marriage by her grandma, her timid, demure father watches helplessly.

Disappointed by her spouse’s inability to redeem his pledge, Satyaboti leaves him for good! Subarnalata’s married life is no bed of roses as she is treated like a doormat by her husband. To him, she is a housekeeper and an object of physical gratification rolled into one. Burdened with household chores and child-rearing, a hostile atmosphere at home notwithstanding, she manages to find time to write her autobiography. It eventually sees the light of the day! In the third and final part, we are impressed by the personality of Bakul, an educated and economically independent feminist writer. She appears contemporary to readers of today.

Awards & Accolades

For her significant contribution to the field of literature especially feminist literature, Ashapurna Devi was bestowed the Jnanpith Award as well as the Padma Shri by the Government of India in 1976. She was conferred D.Litt by the Jadavpur Burdwan and Jabalpur universities. Vishwa Bharati University ,(Shantiniketan, Bolpur, W.B) decorated her with Deshikottama in 1989. She also won a Sahitya Akademi fellowship in 1994.

A Life Well Lived

Even after coming into limelight, the octogenarian Ashapurna Devi continued to lead a low profile life surrounded by her family and loved ones. On 13th July 1995, she passed away. Her literary creations – translated in several vernaculars – remain part of school curriculum. In 1998, the Indian Postal department issued a stamp on her – as a joint recipient of the prestigious Jnanpith award.

Also read: Begum Rokeya: The Writer Who Introduced Us To Feminist Sci-Fi | #IndianWomenInHistory

References

1. Read Bengali Books
2. Sociology Group

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