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The Early Indian Women Writers series reviews a few remarkable books by Indian women from the 1900 – 1950 period.
An Unfinished Song by Swarnakumari Debi Ghosal revolves around a young Bengali girl in the process of discovering herself amidst a gradually changing India.
Review by Sunayana Roy
Although the average reader usually places Swarnakumari Debi as a member of the illustrious Jorasanko Tagore family (Rabindranath was a brother), this author/editor was well-known in her own time for her literary prowess as well as her progressive politics and philanthropy. She edited the Bengali literary magazine Bharati for nearly thirty years, helmed the Ladies’ Theosophical Society in Calcutta for two and was one of the earliest members from Bengal to attend the Indian National Congress.
It is a reflection on the way we treat our women writers that her legacy would have died with her in 1932, were it not for renewed literary interest, during the last decades of the twentieth century, in the role played by women in the Bengal Renaissance and rise of Indian nationalism.
This edition of An Unfinished Song features the author’s own translation of her Bengali novel originally published as Kahake (“Whom”) in 1898. Moni, a young girl with a happy childhood and close family ties, finds herself in the dilemma of not knowing her own mind as she appears to fall in love first with a man who turns out to have feet of clay and then rapidly with somebody else even as her marriage is arranged by her father to an old family friend. As she struggles to understand her own heart she contrasts the ties of duty and worldliness with unusually clear insights into her own desires. Thankfully, the dilemma is eventually resolved, easily and unexpectedly, to everybody’s satisfaction.
The historical perspective makes the novel fascinating: set in the days when young, well-to-do Bengali gentlemen went to study in Victorian England and returned captivated with their exposure to the West, the novel tries to balance the free thought of the non-colonial scholar with the growing influence of Indian nationalism.
One passage is particularly relevant to the scattered Indian diaspora of our times; Moni ponders on her fluency and comfort with English, how easily she speaks, writes and quotes in it, and compares that with her command over her mother tongue. Bengali, the language she does not recall really learning and whose use is scorned in her sophisticated urban circles is nevertheless the language she finds herself seeking when she needs to write out her innermost thoughts.
The role of women in society is the underlying concern throughout the novel. When Moni rejects her first suitor because he treated his earlier fiancée badly, her older sister presents the worldly view of the situation by pointing out the man’s good social standing and how it was the woman’s fault in the earlier case for expecting too much. Moni however takes a more humanitarian view of the matter and insists that her husband be morally and ethically upright. To be 19, unmarried, and insist on turning down a socially acceptable proposal because of the man’s questionable past actions was a step not lightly taken in the nineteenth century. Such reflections also make the reader ponder on the state of feminism in India today, how far we have come from the chains of our great-grandmothers and how far we still have to go.
Although the plotline is simple and easily told, one finds oneself turning back pages to re-read a particular sentence or paragraph every so often because the pages are peppered with reflections on the nature and idiosyncrasies of women – nuggets of universal wisdom that do not appear archaic over a hundred years later. The language is naturally old-fashioned but not anachronistic. Despite a couple of typographical errors, the lyrical passages and flowing prose make this introspective little novel a pleasure to read.
Publishers: Oxford University Press
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