The First Indian Autobiography, and by a Woman


In 1865, an autobiography published by a woman from a village called Ramdia in rural Bengal was a first for India in many ways. It was the first autobiography by an Indian on record. And that too by a woman. In a fiercely male controlled society, a belief was widely held and promoted that women by sex, are not capable of reading and writing. Rassundari Devi's biography was the first proof that women are capable of learning how to read and write. Nearly a century after Rassundari Devi's biography, Will Durant, the greatest biographer of human mind and philosophy, was to find out exactly the opposite. His works show that most important human intellectual endeavors were product of woman's mind. Agriculture was most certainly invented by woman, while men could not think beyond hunting.


However, to deprive women education, promoting the myth of intellectual inability was not thought sufficient. The other widely promoted myth was that a lettered lady was destined to turn widow, making her in effect, killer for anyone who cared to marry. There were most certainly a few other women before Rassundari Devi, who learned letters under the patronage of fathers that were powerful, influential and doting -- but remained under oath to keep their literacy under total secrecy for the rest of their living years. Girls had to be married off by 10 or 12 and that's where even for the outstandingly privileged, their clandestine encounter with letters would end.


Therefore it is not surprising that Rassundari Devi waited to outlive her landlord husband (her sons were mature men by then), before putting ink to paper. "Her son's palm leaf (textbook) and the fragmentary remembrance (of letters from childhood) were her precious Rosetta Stone. This was her modus operandi (of learning)".* A formidable feat of courage in rural India in 1860s. Nevertheless, it risked retribution from the high cast men, varying from being ostracized (the least) to outright murder. She had thus far lived her life adhering to every rule the syndicate of high cast men had set for women, making it hard to condemn her on the basis of character or conduct. She had already robbed her opponents of the 'widow' argument. A rebel who didn't give opponents a chance.


Written in Bengali, Rassundari Devi's biography reveals her trepidations at the age of 12, on waking up to a boat full of strangers in mid-river, and finding herself dressed as a child bride. And then begins a life of endless ordeals.


What she wrote is a vista to not only to women's life of the late 18th - early 19th century, but also to the contemporary hindu society in general. The theme of this oldest account has been told, retold in many ways through fiction writing over a period of time. In Bengali (beginning with Bankimchandra), Tamil and Marathi, and also culminating in Munshi Prem Chand's writings in hindi. Every major writer focused on addressing the point that was hurting our society the most --- the plight of woman and the injustice to her.


*Subrata Dasgupta



5 comments:

Param said...

glad to see you still are drawing with pencil :)
btw, should it be 'high cast' ot 'high caste'?

Rahul said...

For this one, there was no alternative. High Caste obviously. I have never been a good proof reader.

krishfantasy said...

thnx for the article..it was really helpful.

krishfantasy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Manohar N said...

A Telugu man called Vennelacunty Soob Row wrote his autobiography before 1839, and he could not publish it because he died of illness. Later his son published it in 1873. It is written in English.