CLOSE READING - Swarnalata: A journey towards light : Anjali Sarma

Tilottama Misra’s novel about renowned Assamese reformer Gunabhiram Barua and his daughter is not just a finely-crafted biography but has also been expertly translated by Udayon Misra into English

Tilottoma Misra’s Swarnalata is a historical and biographical novel of rare brilliance depicting the intellectual and social environment of an era. The novel, published in 1991, is set in Assam and Calcutta in the latter part of the 19th century, an important period in Assam’s history.

Tilottoma Misra
Udayon Misra (trans.)
Zubaan, 2011
`295, 293 pages
Assam came under British dominion as per the Yandaboo Treaty in 1826. The end of indigenous rule brought about a change in the Assamese mentality and social life. Christian missionaries played a key role in the transformation that Assam was going through. Orunodoi, the mouthpiece of the Christian missionaries, excited a renewed interest among educated Assamese people in national consciousness, language and literature. On the other hand, Bengal, which had become part ofthe British Empire a century earlier, was already witnessing what was known as the Bengal Renaissance, thanks to the Brahmo Samaj movement led by Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar.

In Swarnalata, Misra has portrayed Gunabhiram Barua, an English-educated man and a senior government official who, influenced by the Brahmo movement, advocates widow remarriage and women’s education. Swarnalata, the title character, is his daughter.

Barua lives by example. He marries a widow after the deathof his first wife and staunchly supports equal rights and education for men and women. Though there is no formal education system for women in Assam, he makes sure that his wife Bishnupriya gets at least home education. Barua and his family pursue Western education while holding their own literature and culture in high regard. He is religiously liberal although he hesitates to send Swarnalata to a Christian missionary school because it propagates a particular religion. Swarnalata develops aliberal mind because of the family environment. Barua appoints Panchanan Sarmaas a private tutor for his daughter before sending her to Bethune School,Calcutta. Against all odds, Swarnalata’s parents want to “shape her as an ideal of the new age.”

Swarnalata learns from her parents about the values of modern education and religious tolerance. Gunabhiram rationally tries to give an inquisitive Swarnalata an idea ofwhat caste really is. He believes, “One does not lose one’s caste by going tochurch.” He also says, “Caste divisions are one of the evil practices of ourcountry. A person’s nature is his real caste. One who possesses a good nature naturally belongs to a higher caste. One who indulges in evil practices actually belongs to a lower caste.”
Barualives by example.
He marries a widow after
the death of his first
wife andstaunchly
supports equal rights
and education for
men and women

Even an educated person like Panchanan Sarma struggles to break free of the prevailing evil customs. His daughter Lakhipriya herself is a victim of superstitions. Sarma gives off Lakhi in marriage when she is a child. Early marriage is perhaps a major reason why she becomes a child widow. The novelist vividly narrates the status of women in conservative Assamese societythen, where women’s education and widow marriage are taboos, where a widow is forced into a life of austerity, and where a man can marry several times. It is a society where woman is nothing less than a commodity.

When Panchanan Sarma’s family comes to know that he wants his daughter Lakhipriya to join Swarnalata in her lessons, Sarma’s elder brother Bholanath lectures on women’s education: “The true meaning of women’s education lay in their doing their duties w ell and in providing succour and satisfaction to the husbands at all times. Educated women are by and large thought to be women of ill repute.”
The rules followed by Lakhi while going to study in Bilwa Kutir, Gunabhiram’s house, well illustrate the situation Barua faces for marrying a widow and embracing Brahmo religion. An innocent Lakhi, however, puts a pertinent question to the male-dominated society on widow marriage when she asks Lakheswar, a distant relative: “If there is no harm in a man marrying a second time, what is wrong if a woman does it?”

Gunabhiram is saddened by the indifference of Assamese society towards women’s education. The novelist describes his feelings in symbolic language: “Watching the dark dense forests on both sides of the river,Gunabhiram was filled with a feeling of despair. Calcutta was lit up by so manyglittering lamps. Would he alone be able to bring some light into all thisdarkness in Assam?”

The story of the novel, however, gives an indication that an orthodox society like Assam’s is undergoing some change. This is evident fromLakhipriya’s admission into a boys’ school in spite of being a widow and from her remarriage with Dharmakanta. That is why Gunabhiram and Bishnupriya have decided: “We’ll never get our Swarna married before she is fourteen, no matter what others may say.”

Notwithstanding the limitations of the social life in Assam, Swarnalata moves ahead in life by benefiting a lot from the intellectual and liberal environment in Calcutta. The conversation she has with her friends Tora and Lakhi while working for the Assam-Bandhu journal at Bilwa Kutir reveals her maturity. As Tora and Lakhi observe: “Those girls who stay indoors with their heads covered are seen as the good ones and girls like us are termed shameless”. Swarnalata chimes in: “Our people think that way because they have not learnt the true meaning of women’s liberty.”

An important event in Swarnalata’s life is the talk of her marriage with Rabindranath Tagore, son of Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. Debendranath, however, rejects the match on learning that Gunabhiram had married a widow. Finally, Swarnalata marries Nandakumar Roy, a doctor who has recently returned from London. Hers is a happy married life until the death of Nandakumar. He dies the day her father retires from government service. After the passing of Nandakumar, Swarnalata gets married to Hooghly College principal Khirodchandra Roychoudhuri.

Swarnalata, despite her misfortunes, faces life with patience and fortitude. Towards the end of the novel, she comes across as a progressive girl who can take decisions on her life. This is how the writer,through the character of Swarnalata, depicts in lucid and pleasantly emotional language what Gunabhiram did for women’s education and emancipation in 19thcentury Assam.

The novel has been translated by renowned professor of English literature Udayon Mishra. A translation is successful when it is able to portray the book’s main idea. To achieve this, a translator’s needs to have command over both the languages and the subject matter of the book, which the translator does in this case.
Swarnalata has a special characteristic as a biographical novel. It does not deal with the entire life of the eponymous protagonist, but rather charts her mental growthas an young adult. The novel belongs to the genre of Bildungsroman, or the ‘novel of development’. Novels of this kind in Assamese are very few; more so because the genre focuses on the psychological development of women. In the light of this, Swarnalata is a big achievement for Tilottoma Misra and a unique addition to Assamese literature.

Gunabhiram Baruah was one of the forerunners of modernity inAssam. He not only wrote ‘Ram-Navamir Naat’, a drama on widow remarriage, but also married a widow himself. The novel is based on his daughter’s life.Translating such a novel into English itself is worthy of praise.

Udayon Mishra’s translation has been received well by readers. He has successfully rendered the prose into English and yet preserved the nuances of the Assamese dialects. He has retained words like deuta, aai, maaisena, borkhuriti. The spontaneity of the language has helped readers to enjoy reading the novel.

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