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Snigdha Bhaswati
Date of Publish: 2017-02-11

A look at the status of women, through the lenses of two Assamese novels

The focus of this article is on the status of women in Assam in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in the spheres of marriage and education. It has as its source, a number of works of literature. We looked at the above mentioned areas majorly through what has been depicted in the novels namely, ‘Swarnalata’ by Tilottoma Misra (1991), the time frame of which is 19th century, ending exactly at the beginning of the 20th century and ‘Ayanaanta’ by Arupa Patangia Kalita (1998), set in the 20th century with the ending placed in a post independence scenario. Rita Chowdhury’s ‘Makam’ (2011) has also been referred to for the purpose of drawing parallels, and Arupa Patangiya’s short story ‘Pass Chotalar Kathakata’ (2000), has been discussed too in relevant contexts. Folk songs of the state have also been taken into consideration to understand certain arguments better. It is however, mainly through the lens provided by Swarnalata and Ayananta that we view our theme and both these novels are geographically placed in Upper Assam. The folk songs are taken from the regions of Lower Assam, which complement the mentioned sources and this is also an attempt to strike a geographical balance of sorts.

The trajectory in which the issue of education for women in Assam had advanced in the 19th and 20th centuries can be traced fairly well from the two novels which are our main foci. We can start by looking into Swarnalata (a true account based on the lives of the Extra Assistant Commissioner Gunabhiram Barua, posted in the town of Nagaon, his daughter Swarnalata and many others related to them by blood or emotions), and getting the idea that educating a girl, especially caste Hindu, was not a thought that came naturally to her parents. Gunabhiram, being under the influence of the Brahmo samaj, wanted his daughter to be educated but at the same time was skeptical of sending her to the nearby missionary school (missionary schools were set up for girls by this time, with the primary aim of spreading the message of Christ) for the sake of his wife’s religious reservations, hence he hired a private tutor (who was much astonished when he was asked to tutor a girl) and later she was sent to Kolkata for higher education. The rest of the girls, who could even dare to dream about education, would find the world not a very kind place anymore to live in. Lakshmi, a child widow and also the daughter of Swarnalata’s tutor, had to put up a stiff fight against her own family and the society to pursue her education and continue with it later, for which she had to be admitted in the boys’ school due to the lack of any facility for secondary education for girls in her area. Swarnalata’s tutor soon began to identify the meritorious student in her, something which he never believed girls could be, the same he later realized for his daughter, who turned out be way sharper than his sons. As we move on to Ayananta i.e. the 20th century, we see a little change in the situation. Whether or not to educate the girl child was no more the question. Girls were put into the missionary schools where they learnt the basics, but the twist of fate would only strike once a girl would attend her puberty immediately after which her student life would have to call it a day. The protagonist of Ayananta- Bina, was a keen and bright student who was in deep shock to learn that she could no more be formally educated and tried her level best to get back to the school, but with no success. While the primary schooling for girls was getting more normalized, the debate was now centered mainly on the curriculum- could a girl child be given the same education as that of boy or should she be taught only that which would enable her to become a good householder, with many being both for and against this.

As has been already mentioned, after puberty a girl could no longer dream of being sent to a school in a caste Hindu society, this is an obvious indication to the tremendous value attached to puberty in a girl’s life and it is here that we talk about Kalita’s short story ‘Pass Chotalar Kathakata’ and have a detailed look at the rituals associated with this, for the constraint of length, we will not be able to discuss the nitty-gritty of the post puberty ceremonies but what can be briefly said about this is, it is definitely a period of immense pressure and confinement for a girl, where she has to be necessarily jailed in a room away from the male gaze and eat only once during daylight hours. This continues for a period of seven days to three months depending on the time of her attainment of puberty, which apparently determines her future. I must stress here that it is not just a practice of the past, it exists in its full severity even now and Kalita’s short story is in fact set in the 21st century Assam. What has perhaps changed now is the age of marriage. In Swarnalata we see that marriage is hugely a pre puberty affair, arranged necessarily by the family. The girl was to be married before she attains puberty and would be taken to her husband’s house after she became capable of reproduction. However, this was the prevalent practice only in the caste Hindu societies, when we look at Makam and the tea labourer’s society there, set in the same time frame, we see that marriage was a decision taken by two willing adults based on their choice and preference. This was because the workers, whose lives in the tea gardens were only marginally different from slaves, found solace in marriage, and for them it was not a matter of norms, but emotions. In Ayananta, we see the age of marriage being pushed to post puberty, but it remained a strict decision of the family with no say of the bride in it.

Many of the Kamrupiya and Goalpariya folk songs have as their theme the pressures of marriage on a girl, in some we can find the concerns of a mother about her young daughter adjusting into the new family, and in others we hear the daughter’s wail with complaints of her father having married her off to an unsuitable groom (sometimes underage) for money, as bride price was a prevalent practice in lower Assam, which eventually gave way to dowry.

“Mon mor kande rey

Raati nisha ore kande

Ninder aalishe poti mok

Maa buliya daake

Mon mor kaande rey

Baapo kaana maa o kaana

O daroon o bidhi kaana parar log

Poicha r lobhe

Bechiya khaiche

Shwami nabalok

Mon mor kande rey”

This is one of the many songs, which describe the agony of a wife, whose under age husband calls her ‘maa’ in his sleep.

The real doom would however befall a woman if and when she would be widowed as lives in the precincts of widowhood were unimaginably harsh and painful. Both Swarnalata and Paas Chotalor Kathakata have given moving descriptions on the conditions of Assamese child widows and how their mothers would grieve over their colourless, confined lives; their young, growing bodies would reel in hunger, as they could be fed only once in the day. The concept of widow remarriage was abominable in a scenario as such and it was here again that Gunabhiram had chosen a progressive path by marrying a widow (Swarnalata’s mother) himself, he couldn’t obviously be banished from the society in lieu of his position, but this step was much condemned in the inner compartments of people’s houses.

Both Swarnalata and Ayananta however end with a note of positivity and hope where the two protagonists venture into the world to find and liberate themselves. Swarnalata decides to find love again after she fulfills all her responsibilities post her husband’s demise and Bina moves out of her house after she learns of her husband’s infidelity.

A woman’s life till today is bound by the ordeals imposed on her, by her own family first and then the society. Each society functions on some unsaid yet convened upon rules which are considered essential for its smooth existence, however, at the same time these do carry the potential to become unquestionable and oppressive and as the vigilance of societal norms become stricter, personal choices come to be restricted. While within these limits some have managed to carve for themselves a niche and some have also outgrown these, but there has been no real solution per se. This is because the solution is not in bending, but in breaking the walls. The age old oppression must come to a total end and there is no settling for anything less. With capitalist consumerism, the differences constructed around the sexes are but being reinforced in subtler, yet smarter ways instead of being otherwise. The need therefore is to identify these finer ways and fighting them at their roots. This will necessarily require one to move beyond the superficial solutions and venture into the depths of the issue which lie entangled with the questions of economic rights and property relations, giving the men the absolute authority over the production process and hence making him the sole controller of lives of the women around. The ultimate idea is equality of the two sexes, the destruction of the manufacturing of gender and branding of the watertight compartments of masculinity and femininity. The aim is not to make a ‘man’ out of the male or a ‘woman’ out of the female; the idea is to make a ‘human’ out of each individual, the idea is to let one choose and make decisions based on interest and capability and not sex or gender.

Snigdha Bhaswati

(Snigdha Bhaswati is a student of Lady Sriram College for Women, University of Delhi. She is currently in her second year and is pursuing Honours in History. she can be reached at - snigdha97@hotmail.com)

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