Aruni Kashyap revisits the complex worlds and emotions that came to life in the works of the renowned Bengali writer.
Bengali author Ashapurna Debi is a household name in Assam mainly due to her trilogy, translated by Manu Sen. With more than 150 novels and 1500 stories, she has created such a large fictional universe that it is difficult to keep track of her work. In a career spanning 70 years, she mostly told stories about middle-class Bengali life.
When I read her stories like ‘Chinnamasta’ I wondered what a merciless pen hers was. She wrote about people who were so complex that we find it difficult to accept them sometimes, but never question their plausibility. In fact, I remember, my mother didn’t read Ashapurna Debi for many years after she had read ‘Chinnamasta”’ because she was disappointed that a woman author she admired so much could create such a problematic mother-figure like Joyaboteee. Widowed at an early age, Jayabotee’s world revolves around her son. But conflicts soon begin with her new daughter-in-law over petty things. On one occasion, deeply hurt, Jayabotee prays that her daughter-in-law would be taught a lesson for the cruel, impolite, mocking reference she made to her widowhood. Soon after, her son dies in a tram accident. But the story doesn’t end here: it ends in a scene, when Jayabotee, now recuperating from the tragedy, invites her daughter-in-law with a sweet voice to come and have her meal. Noticing a defeated, docile daughter-in-law having her meal, Joyabotee lets out a faint, triumphant smile. This is what Debi excelled at: with a mild stroke of her pen, she showed the immense complexity of the human mind.
I have been a great admirer of Ashapurna’s prose and her magnetic storytelling ability which is absent in many great authors who can write good prose but can’t tell a story well or who are great storytellers but write mediocre prose. Debi was skilled at both: you would read her story first following the gripping plot, but come back later for her technique, her voice. With each reading, a different aspect of the story is uncovered. Her style is conversational. Her sentences are tinged with sarcasm, irony and mild humour. But at the same time, she wrote in a lyrical, epic style when required. Her character-driven trilogy on the lives of three generations of Bengali women is her most famous and ambitious project. Pratham Pratisruti follows the life of a headstrong Satyabati in 19th century Bengal. Subarnalata is on Satyabati’s daughter, the child bride, set against the partition of Bengal and Swadeshi movement. Bakul-Katha is about Satyabati’s granddaughter who is an unmarried author.
Of the three novels, The First Promise is the most powerful, capturing the age with a huge cast of nearly sixty characters. What’s astonishing is that we remember all these characters vividly long after we have read the novel. We know how they think; how petty or generous or selfish or insecure they are; what they are jealous of and what they care about. In Ashapurna’s own words, the three novels are set against ‘tuchcho doinondin ghotonaprobah’ (petty day-to-day events). But what evokes awe in these novels is the way they capture history in daily conversations, events. Not for a single moment, we feel that The First Promise was written by a Bengali author during the late 1960s: we are instantly drawn into the world of 19th century rural Bengal, to the family of much revered, rich kobiraj Ramkali Chatterji who leaves his house after being beaten by his father with his footwear and comes back learning the art of kobiraji, and gains respect in the village because of his economic status.
Sometimes I wonder if the next two novels were written in haste. The attention to detail that Ashapurna paid to the first novel in the trilogy and many of her other famous novels such as Sochibabur Sonsar and the doomed love story Nodi Deek Hara gradually diminished in her short stories like ‘Sworgor Ticket’, ‘Barir Naam Shubhadirsti’ and ‘Jogonnanther Mati’. Subarnalata becomes a tedious read towards the end. So many characters emerge and vanish that it becomes difficult to follow the story. The First Promise has innumerable characters too, but they are treated in rich detail; we even hear their thoughts. Subarnalata, towards the end, almost gets filtered through the perspective of the ailing and dying protagonist. Bakul Kotha doesn’t have the dramatic events that hold the attention of readers like the previous two novels. The atmosphere in this book is mostly calm, with occasional disturbance. Anamika Devi (Bakul), a successful author, recalls the trials and tribulations of the women from previous generations.
In fact, by the end of this novel, the trilogy comes back to where it began. The opening lines of The First Promise says, “Satyabatir golpo amar lekha noi. E golpo Bakuler khata theke neoa.” (Satyabati’s story isn’t mine. I have borrowed it from Bakul’s notebooks). The prelude to Promise is a conversation between Bakul and the first person narrative voice of the author who wants to write a novel on Bakul’s life. She is amused by it, for she doesn’t believe that her life is worthy enough to be written about. Her laughter is that of mistrust and mockery because Bakul thinks she is totally ordinary (sadharon) and says, “Amar golpo jodi likhtei hoy, shey to aaj noi. Pore”. (If you really have to write my story, write it later, not now) because Bakul thinks before writing her story one should write about her grandmother (pitamohee) and great-grandmother (protipitamohee). Debi writes that behind the thousands of free Bakuls and Paruls of today’s ‘Bongodesh’ there is an extended history of struggle -- the struggle of their mothers, grandmothers and great grandmothers, who were just one among hundreds, and who dared to do things that inspired other women to break the bonds of tradition and patriarchy. It is the extraordinary struggle of these ordinary women who lived in the ‘onteshpoors’ of Bengal that Debi celebrated in the next thousand-odd pages.
Ashapurna Debi was one of the greatest storytellers of India. Winner of the Jnanpith Award, India’s highest literary award, she never received national fame like some of her peers, though she was a better author than many of them. For a long time, readers thought it was a man’s pen-name, for males dominated the Bengali writing scene when she started off. They couldn’t believe that a woman could write so powerfully. Her critics may dismiss her for not dealing with big themes, major political upheavals and for writing only about the domestic, but when did she step out? She used to say, “Ami ji dekhechi, tai likhchi”. Her fiction, mostly set inside the house, is an incisive look at Bengali life over seven decades seen through the window and whatever else comes through the door. But even with her limitations, in a droplet of water, she could show us the sea which few writers in the world could.