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Nivedita Sen

By Swarnakumari Debi . Translated from the Bengali by Rajul Sogani and Indira Gupta. 
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2004, pp. 253, Rs. 395.00


Swarnakumari Debi’s novels, the translators tell us, “occupy an important place in the history of women’s writing in India and also serve as valuable documents of the social history of Bengal.” The blow-by-blow account of Hindu rituals and festivities, particularly those that are part of marriage and its almost inevitable aftermath, widowhood, are indeed more precise and vivid than it would be possible for a male writer to describe, not being directly exposed to the nitty-gritties of the inner apartments of affluent households. So are the vignettes of what go on in the kitchen. In that sense, the importance of the novel as a social document cannot indeed be overemphasized. The wedding celebrations of both Tagar and Snehalata would be of immense interest to both sociologists and historians, while the details of the fasts and rituals of widowhood could be noted and militantly taken up by social activists working towards gender sensitization, for such reprehensible practices exist to this day in the less enlightened and privileged sections of our society. The novel is also concerned with social reform, the Brahmo Samaj’s rejection of Hindu rituals, and more specifically widow remarriage and the property rights of child widows, recurring more as debates between male characters than as episodes that precipitate some of the complex implosions in the predictably heart-rending story. The Hindu law that denied property and inheritance rights to a child widow whose father-in-law was still alive is one that seems to disconcert the woman writer more than any other inequities between men and women, and although she cannot resolve the problem, has an enlightened character like Jiban raise his voice against it seriously time and again.   The story is about Snehalata, brought up on the charity of distant relatives, who fits into the Cinderella prototype even more snugly than a character like Dukhu in Dakshina Ranjan Mitra Majumdar’s children’s story ‘Sukhu-Dukhu’. Snehalata is orphaned, spurned, shunned, abused, and violated, for legend has it that fortune is always tight-fisted with the nubile nymphet with willowy good looks, a sensitive mind, a hardworking nature and a kind heart. However, because this is not a fairy story for children, she does not get married to her Prince Charming in the end, but is driven to commit suicide. Between these polarized extremes at two ends of the spectrum, the Cinderella of the adult novel is not enabled to ...

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