The author looks back at Bengali women whose writings in the early 20th century blazed a trail for a new generation.

Bengali women writers have always held their own in a male-dominated literary world. Swarna Kumari Devi (b. 1855) was India’s first woman novelist. But novels written during the 19th century did not deal directly with human relationships. They were mostly historical tales. The love element consisted of idealised romantic love or illicit love that inevitably met with retribution. Swarna Kumari Devi’s works continued this tradition. Her novels like Deep Nirvan and Chinna Mukul, though greatly admired, were never revolutionary. 

However, Anurupa Devi (b. 1882) and Nirupama Devi (b. 1883) introduced a dynamic note in the portrayal of human relationships. Both started writing when Saratchandra Chatterjee was the acknowledged king of fiction. In fact, Saratchandra himself was a great admirer of their work. Both Anurupa and Nirupama wrote fearlessly about the social ills of the time: polygamy, forced marriages, dowry-related torture, and the heartbreak of widowhood or of being discarded by the husband for no fault of theirs. They wrote about society’s ruthless attitude to widows who dared to fall in love and, most of all, the utter helplessness of women in a male-dominated world. Though Saratchandra also wrote on these subjects, Anurupa and Nirupama told the stories from a woman’s perspective.

Nirupama’s Didi — perhaps her most popular novel — had a rather unusual theme: the deep affection between two women married to the same man. Her other novels also explore unexpected twists in human relationships. Bidhilipi depicts the love between an elderly man and a young girl; Shymali is about the love of a blind girl; in Anukarsha the devotee falls in love with the saintly ascetic.

Anurupa’s stories were more dramatic. She ruthlessly pointed out the evils of the prevalent social code. In Ma, Arvind, a rich man’s son, falls in love with his poor friend’s sister Manorama. Arvind’s father agrees to the marriage under pressure but banishes a pregnant Manorama when her father fails to pay the dowry and forces Arvind to marry Brajarani. . . In a dramatic finale, a dying Manorama hands over her precious son Ajit to the childless Brajarani because she realises that Brajarani really loves him and Ajit, who bitterly resented the stepmother, addresses her as ‘ma’. Anurupa’s others novels include Mantrashakti and Poshyaputra. Nearly all her novels were made into successful stage plays and films.

Apart from Nirupama and Anurupa, there were other women writers who made their mark. In her autobiography, Rassunadri Devi (b. 1809) described the life of women in her time. Roquia Begum (b. 1880) wrote a delightful fantasy in which men are confined to the mardana while women rule the country. Shailabala Ghoshjaya (b. 1894) wrote of an educated Muslim girl falling in love with an illiterate Hindu driver. Santa Devi (b. 1894), Sita Devi (b. 1896) and Jyotirmoyee Devi (b. 1896) too carved out their own niche. But none raised her voice against the exploitation of women by the society as strongly as Anurupa Devi and Nirupama Devi, who paved the way for women writers of the next century.

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