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What Little Girls are Made of

Nivedita Sen

By Sibaji Bandyopadhyay
Gangchil, Kolkata, 2007, pp. 175, Rs. 125.00

VOLUME XXXII NUMBER 11 November 2008

When girls were married off before or at the onset of puberty and relegated to household chores thereafter, the naughtiness or irreverence that makes fictional boys so popular was denied to them. For Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, the injunction from the Manu Samhita advising parents to marry off their daughters at the age of twelve neither authorizes the perpetuation of such an unreasonable, cruel practice nor justifies the absence of the girl child in contemporary Bangla juvenile literature. Although child marriage is neither practised nor endorsed in the urban, educated, middle class backdrop of children’s stories, why do writers as progressive and culturally evolved as Satyajit Ray write as if girls do not exist at all? Even Ray’s women characters are either appendages to brilliant husbands or widows marginalized within middle class or elite households. Bandyopadhyay’s book provides some pertinent rhetorical questions about children’s fiction that is mostly about boys and their exploits.   Girlhood that did not last beyond the early teens missed out on subversive acts of mischief at home and school. Bandyopadhyay does not refer to a crucial text that illustrates the girl child’s limits of possibility, in terms of the education she receives as well as in playing truant from it—Bibhutibhushan Mukhopadhyay’s Raanur Pratham Bhaag (1937). It deflects the conflict between the girl child’s studies and her resistance to it by marrying her off. Most girls who show resilience and want a normal childhood, in fact, have consciously been excluded from the wide repertoire of children’s fiction!   Bandyopadhay begins his thesis on little girls in juvenile literature with a tangential focus—the queens maltreated by their royal husbands in Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumdar’s Thakurmar Jhuli (1907), who are prototypes of long-suffering, ever-forgiving Bengali housewives. Yet in every other domain, Thakurmar Jhuli violates the establishment, subverts royalty and flouts class and caste barriers, even crossing thresholds of species, allowing monkeys to marry princesses. The second chapter engages with Sukhalata Rao’s Ali Bhulir Deshe (1922), in which Nanu, the girl child protagonist lives in an accessible ‘looking-glass world’ of her own creation. Ali and Bhuli, who co-opt Nanu in travelling back and forth from this realm, unleash the Bohemian and romantic in her, but the figments of her idle imagination provoke an anxiety that they could lead girls astray. In a second edition of Ali Bhulir Deshe 35 years later, however, Khokababu’s flights of ...

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