John Ruskin observed, “Shakespeare has no heroes; he has only heroines.” Almost all his major women characters — Desdemona, Cordelia, Imogen, Rosalind, to mention just a few — were ‘conceived in the highest type of humanity.' As one scans the pages of Indian history, not to speak of the epics of the hoary past, there have been countless instances of subjugated women who have overcome oppression of all forms. They have protested against patriarchy, subverted hegemonic structures, broken social norms, fought for moral rights, and in effect struggled to create space to combat cultural impositions and religious restrictions which underlie social and psychological repression. One such daring woman whose life and writings are discussed in this Sahitya Akademi monograph by Sachidananda Mohanty is Sarala Devi.
Born into wealth in 1904 in a Zamindar family that subscribed to the values of conformist orthodoxy in Odisha, she died unhonoured and unsung in 1986, having lived a life of fulfilment as a public intellectual.
Mohanty's diminutive biography recounts briefly her life and works in three chapters. The first chapter “Life and Times” highlights the areas in which Sarala's contribution to public life has a lasting value and for which she will be remembered.
Among these her valiant efforts to transform Odisha into a progressive state in keeping with the demands of the modern world, her writings based on social evils and the disparity among the peoples, women and their biological needs, and championship of women's involvement in wider areas of public life deserve special treatment. She discarded the beaten track view that regards women belonging to the third world as ‘a singular monolithic subject'; she would rather maintain that Indian women are capable of fighting out and overcoming class, caste and religious divides. Mohanty examines Sarala's life against the backdrop of the 20th century which noticed an upsurge in progressive movements such as the campaign for widow remarriage, abolition of untouchability, and the freedom struggle in which many women threw themselves heart and soul. Sarala was mostly self-educated; she read with deep interest the works of Raja Ram Mohan Roy, Swami Vivekananda and, of course, Gandhi who was, in a sense, her patron-saint. Here is Sarala on Gandhi: “Work aimed at education and liberation of women and ensuring their collective well-being formed an important part of Gandhiji's vision of the future.” Inspired by the teachings of Gandhi, she and her husband established the Alakashram, a school that was meant to impart education along the lines envisaged by Gandhi. As a nationalist and patriot she took an active role in the Quit India Movement and courted imprisonment along with her husband.
As a committed activist she played a key role in many cultural and educational organisations. She tried her hand at all literary forms; her output includes 30 books and around 300 essays. She was a poet, novelist, essayist, biographer, playwright and literary critic. She boldly spoke her views on marriage and the woman's body. “I maintain that the wife's body can never be owned by her husband. It's her property and not her husband's. She can leave her husband at her will.... No man can keep a woman under control on the basis of the fact that he is married to her... The success of marriage depends on ....mutually shared morality”.
Mohanty concludes, ‘In all that Sarala did, as a writer, activist, reformer, nationalist and institution builder, she displayed consistently sensitivity, fearlessness, honesty and a spirit of dedication”. Apart from a bibliography of Sarala's works, her essay, “The Rights of Women” and her letter to her husband from prison are included. Sachidananda Mohanty's Sarala Devi is a sensitive recreation of the life and letters of a woman who reminds us how we can make our own life sublime.
SARALA DEVI: Sachidananda Mohanty; Sahitya Akademi, 35 Rabindra Bhavan, Ferozeshah Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 40.