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Rashmi Buragohain
Date of Publish: 2018-01-13

Mereng: Changing Perceptions of Women

 

Towards the fag end of colonial rule in India, there was a change in perceptions regarding women in Assam. Parents willingly and happily sent their daughters not only to schools, but to colleges too. There are instances of women taking up jobs and hesitantly jostling in the colonial society to create a niche. In an effort to record the achievement of a young woman who grew up in colonial conditions and whose contribution to the realization and assertion of the self can never be ignored, Anuradha Sarma Pujari has authored the novel Mereng, based on the life and times of Indira Miri, a noted educationist of Assam. It was a time when the last of the white sahibs were leaving and the “brown” sahibs were ready to step in. At such a moment the “brown” sahibs were no doubt ready to take the reins, but lacked the courage to step into a life in the wilderness of Assam. It was an opportune moment for Indira Miri who was ready with great enthusiasm to move into the wilds of the then NEFA and bring the “people of the jungles” into mainstream India. As a woman she proved that she is no less than a man and made the people realize that in spite of being a woman, and that too a widow, she is an individual who is capable of handling both family and work. Her immense service to the people is something to reckon with for the changing perceptions of women today.

The novel is set in the pre-independence era when ‘women’s education became a reality and educated women were making an impact on Indian society’. In Assam too there were the changing times that came in along with the Indian renaissance and we come across a good number of Assamese women coming out for education. But it was not that smooth a sail for them. The women’s question was taken up as a problem of Indian tradition. According to the Indian nationalists it was “necessary to cultivate the material techniques of modern Western civilization while retaining and strengthening the distinctive spiritual essence of the national culture” (Chatterjee 120). Application of the inner/outer distinction separates the social space into the home and the world. The male represented the world where practical considerations reign supreme and the woman represented the home which must remain unaffected by the profane activities of the material world. Most of the time education was open for only those belonging to the upper class and even if they get some education they were married off in their childhood. In such a situation it is noteworthy that Sonadhar Senapati sent his daughter Indira to Kolkata’s Scottish Church College and enabled her to be a graduate. Indira soon realized that education is such ‘a pure ornament’ that would never let you think about differences among people. Before leaving her at the Scottish Church College Sonadhar Senapati said to his daughter Indira,

“This is the most crucial time in one’s life. A person acquires education for his lifetime during his student years. Education and morals are the best resources. During this period one has to acquire not only knowledge of books, but also behavior and manners. Life ahead is not smooth. Education and morals will help you to withstand the trials and tribulations of life. I am only helping you, but it is your own duty to build yourself.” (Sarma Pujari 45, Trans. Own)

In spite of nurturing such liberal views one has to most of the time succumb to the clutches of the prevailing social norms. The British in India pushed the woman’s question further by promoting the idea that husbands and wives should be friends or companions in marriage. It reflected the well-known Victorian patriarchal ideals of what Geraldine Forbes has termed as ‘companionate marriage’ which the British introduced in India in the nineteenth century and embraced with great zeal by most of the social reformers. As soon as Indira graduates and is about to bask with a teaching job her father Sonadhar Senapati has other plans for her. He wanted her to get married as a concerned father would do during those days – “It is the duty and responsibility of a father to give his daughter’s hand in marriage to suitable man” (115). He also airs his fears that it would be dangerous for her life if her mind gets settled with the taste of a job (109). Indira has to negotiate her way through the proximity of the modern with the traditional.

The figure of the modern woman was seen as “the mother of the race, the companion and partner of the husband in fulfilling his social, spiritual and soon, as nationalism comes to the fore, political duties as his ardhangini” (Moral16). In Mereng too we can trace the hints of this new patriarchy when Indira starts her married life with Mahichandra Miri. She is constantly reminded by her husband regarding her education remaining unutilized by staying at home. But at no point do we see Mahichandra providing for her a space that would have enabled Indira to take any initiative to etch out an identity for herself. We find her accompanying Mahichandra wherever he was posted and was confined deeper into the domestic sphere when she became a mother of three. She is the ‘new woman’ caught in the web of ‘new patriarchy’ which she herself feels after the death of her husband. Later, she feels Mahichandra himself went away to let her learn to grow; if he were alive she would never have been able to go anywhere (233).

There was no stopping for Mereng now as she embarks on her journey abroad. Her father being her constant support in spite of his uneasiness with society, she was now all set to flaunt her widowhood, the streaks of which were visible once she settled down in Edinburgh. Once, when the landlady, Mrs. Campbell, asked her about remarriage she said that she could never think of any other man other than Mahichandra in her life (234). On first impression we may take this as the words of a devoted Indian wife, but if we look beyond that we may see her denial of letting someone to transgress her new-found consciousness and self-assertion. She came back to Assam to proceed to erstwhile NEFA as education officer on the insistence of Mr. Walker, the then director of NEFA. The tribes of NEFA during those days had the attitude of ‘attack or flee’ on seeing an unknown person. They hated vehemently any kind of intrusion by outsiders. Words went around that they chopped into pieces many of the adventurous British officers and also Indian government officers and threw them into flowing rivers. Such were the conditions when Indira Miri undertook the responsibility of development of education under the government and reached Sadiya to set up a centre for education. Mr. Walker was also happy that in spite of being a woman Indira has come forward to work in a ‘violent’ place.

Sarma Pujari is aware of the seriousness of the Indian woman’s dilemma and the generation old struggles behind it. But at the same time she holds the strong belief that a positive change in women’s social status cannot materialize without bringing about a change in the woman’s mindset and she is able to portray that through Indira Miri. Her Mereng, a biographical novel tracing the life of Indira Miri, an Assamese woman par excellence, is indeed what women today need to look up to in their journey to self-assertion. Indira Miri not only stepped into the world usually held by men but proved herself to be a successful educationist. The sheer grit and courage that she showed at a time when women were not expected to be in the shoes of men establishes the fact that women can achieve every goal if they are given their due status and opportunity. Sarma Pujari makes it a point to discover an individual who is not floundering towards self-realisation, but establishing self-assertion and changing the perceptions of women.

 

Works Cited

Chatterjee, Partha. The Partha Chatterjee Omnibus: Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World, the Nation and Its Fragments, A Possible India. New Delhi: OUP, 1999. Print.

Moral, Rakhee Kalita. “Assamese Modernity, Social History and the ‘New Woman’: Acts of Transgression in Colonial Writing”, Concerns and Voices. Guwahati: Cotton College Women’s Forum, 2010. Print.

Pujari, Anuradha Sarma. Mereng. Guwahati: Banalata, 2010. Print.

Rashmi Buragohain

( Rashmi Buragohain is an Assistant Professor, Department of English, Moran College. Her areas of interests are postcolonial studies, women studies, northeast writings. This is an extract of the author's Ph D dissertation "Re-presentation of Women in Colonial Assam: Reading Texts and Contexts" ( 2016) submitted to the Gauhati University. She can be reached at - rashmiburagohain@gmail.com )

 

 

 

 

 

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