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A Bengali lady’s stark account of colonial England

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar | Updated on August 22, 2021

True to spirit: Nabanita Sengupta’s translation of Krishnabhabini Das’s ‘A Bengali Lady in England’ captures the fiery lady in all her earnestness

Nabanita Sengupta’s translation of Krishnabhabini Das’s travelogue, published in 1885, is a hat tip to the pioneers of modern-day feminism

* In fluent and emotional Sanskritised Bengali, which was the custom of the day, she noted the ways of the English, their customs and traditions

* The book is actually a sharp social and cultural commentary on all aspects of the British life, both virtues and vices

* Krishnabhabini’s work seems distinguished because of her keen observations, bold perspectives, and her inclination towards what’s technical

***

Krishnabhabini Das was 16-years-old when she discarded her traditional sari, donned Western attire, and crossed the deep waters to reach England. It was the 1880s and she was accompanying her husband who was travelling to England for the second time. The couple were leaving their minor daughter in the care of her extremely orthodox in-laws, who later ostracised them for ‘crossing the kalapani’(black waters).

While her husband taught prospective civil service examinees, Krishnabhabini thoroughly engaged herself in observing and absorbing the world around her. She travelled around London, spent hours reading in the British Museum, interacted with English families, and recorded her observations. “British women have always known how to preserve their self-respect and independence. They openly interact with men in public places, play and talk with them, and [have] various kind of experiences from their childhood,” she wrote. Back in her native society, this was next to unthinkable.

A Bengali Lady in England / Krishnabhabini Das; Translated by Nabanita Sengupta / Shambhabi-Hawakal Publishers / Non-fiction / ₹500

 

In 1885, the then 21-year-old published Englandey Bangamahila (A Bengali Lady in England), the first travelogue written by a Bengali woman. “Here, you will only find the differences that exist between an independent life and an enslaved one,” she wrote in the Foreword. In fluent and emotional Sanskritised Bengali, which was the custom of the day, she noted the ways of the English, their customs and traditions, the Royal family, politics, technology, women, education, religious and social practices with great detail. Almost obsessively she compared these observations with the practices at home, and her words carried her pain and anguish.

Krishnabhabini writes about Mary Carpenter, Florence Nightingale, and Lady Baker, and how English women, married or not, worked for their society. It is important to contribute towards the upliftment of the people, she argued.

She writes in minute detail about how the British empire functions, how it ‘sucks the life blood’ from its colonies; her words pulsated with anguish, frustration, and an unaffected pride and affection for her country. The book was so stark and audacious that the British had to finally ban it from Indian markets.

Nabanita Sengupta, assistant professor of English at Sarsuna College, University of Calcutta, has been studying travel writing by Indian women since 2007. Her translation of Englandey Bangamahila reflects the same lucid style and captures the fiery lady in all her earnestness. Sengupta’s annotated translation of A Bengali Lady in England adds another pillar to the scholarly edifice of women’s writing about travels and societies.

Excerpts from a phone interview with Sengupta.

What is so special about this record? Why did you feel the need to translate this book at this time?

This book is an excellent ethnographic study of England and India, particularly, Bengal. Although A Bengali Lady in England has often been classified as a travelogue, written during the first three years of Krishnabhabini Das’s stay in England, this book is actually a sharp social and cultural commentary on all aspects of the British life, both virtues and vices. From the first line, it’s evident that we are reading an honest and extremely sensitive mind that’s concerned about her native land and the plight of women back in her country.

This book is not an idyllic description of visiting exotic places or meeting important people. What we have here is the author’s attempt to adequately understand a society through her various readings and observations, an analysis of why and how English society achieved what they did (industries, technological advancement, little measures of women’s empowerment that looked towering from the Indian perspective), and how the author’s native society in India might replicate and imbibe that progress.

In fact, this comparative study — the parallel threads of marvel at the British virtues and simultaneous lament at the dismal Indian conditions combined with the imagination of feasible solutions remain a strong undercurrent of this work, which tugs at my heartstrings. If we remember that we are reading a 20-year-old Hindu middle class housewife, from an extremely orthodox family who visited England with her husband in 1880 and anonymously published this book that contained strong criticisms of the imperial power and a demand for better social conditions in the colony, it would probably help us decipher the book’s significance today.

What can you say about Krishnabhabini’s personality and role in the society at that point?

A woman who had left behind the sari and took to western attires during her travel and stay abroad, adopts the coarse white thaan (worn by widows) after her husband’s passing in 1909 probably as a means to an end. She would walk barefooted to the homes of young girls, many of them child widows, to educate them. Her conformation to the strictures of widowhood provided her with an easier access to the interiors of these households. She knew that only education could provide an escape from the miseries that the women had to face those days. She continued to teach, work towards the education and upliftment of the women, and write ferociously rebelling against prevalent social norms. This shows that despite numerous personal crises, she stood firm and only compromised as much as needed for her to work towards her goal — which was educating and empowering women at that time.

What do we know about Krishnabhabini’s interest in science and technology?

Krishnabhabini’s work seems distinguished because of her keen observations, bold perspectives, and her inclination towards what is technical. She never talks about her personal worries and situations but gives specific overviews of the Suez Canal that they cross during their journey, of the industrial infrastructure she witnesses in England, with a technological acumen that’s quite unusual of women of her time, and this is observed in many of her other writings too — essays in various publications and periodicals of that time.

What’s in there for today’s feminists and young folks?

The feminist movement in India has its roots in the 19th century reform movements led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Vidyasagar. It has been successfully taken over by several illustrious women, mostly belonging to the middle classes. Krishnabhabini then is one of the earliest voices of feminism due to her concern regarding women’s liberty, economic freedom and right to education. We find almost all the major concerns of early feminism reflected in her writings. Though her demands may sound very simplistic in today’s context when we are fighting about intersectional feminism and digital feminism, we have to remember that it is on the foundation laid by exceptional women like her that today’s fourth wave of feminism stands.

Swati Sanyal Tarafdar is a freelance journalist

Published on August 22, 2021

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