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More than just ‘presiding deities in their kitchen’

More than just ‘presiding deities in their kitchen’

Sanjukta Dasgupta |

The contribution of Sarala Devi 1904-1986 to the women’s movement and culture of Odisha is truly extraordinary. Yet it is a matter of surprise that her role as an activist and writer has not received due recognition both during the British governed colonial times and in independent India. Whereas Swarnakumari Devi Ashapurna Devi and Mahasweta Devi among many other women writers of West Bengal commanded varying attention to their writings the achievements of many of the women writers of Odisha seemed to have been neglected or systematically elided. The editor Sachidananda Mohanty has done pioneering work in recovering the lost voices of the women writers of Odisha and has published extensively on various women authors including Sarala Devi who wrote 30 books and 300 essays participated in Gandhi’s Salt March and other movements was jailed for around 6 months became a member of the Odisha legislative assembly and worked for women’s welfare lifelong.

In her foreword Geraldine Forbes has remarked that ldquo;our understanding of the development of Indian feminism is incomplete without Sarala Devi’s voice.rdquo;xv

Sarala Devi was born into a zamindar family attended school till the seventh standard was married at the age of 14 to Bhagirathi Mohapatra who was a lawyer by profession. He too was born in a nbsp;zamindar family. It is obvious that her husband’s interest in nationalist politics and the Gandhian movement inspired Sarala Devi a great deal. Instead of having to face the stereotypical resistance of a patriarchal family Sarala seemed to have enjoyed the freedom to read write and take part in political movements with confidence. The book showcases a selection of Sarala Devi’s writings translated from her native language Odia into English which range from Literary Feminism Sisterhood for Empowerment the Gandhian Vision to Literature and Religion among others.

The editor Sachidananda Mohanty tracks the ldquo;complex trajectoriesrdquo; of Sarala Devi’s ideological beliefs that shifted from quite radical views to conservative evaluations about the roles modern women were expected to play. So Mohanty comments ldquo; She was a Gandhian feminist and a critical modernist who eschewed exclusive binaries between the home and the public space the sacred and the secular.rdquo; xxinbsp;

Interestingly Sarala Devi’s first feminist essay Rights of Women Narir Dabi is sometimes compared to Mary Wollstonecraft’s foundational feminist text nbsp;A Vindication of the Rights of Women. In her essay Sarala Devi asserted that one of the primary reasons for war and destruction as recorded in epics and historical narratives has been the result of the insult and neglect meted out to women. She categorically refers to the abduction of Helen of Troy the insult to Draupadi the assault on Ravana’s sister Surpanakha among many other such examples that led to all the violence bloodshed and mass murder. So in the essay Sarala Devi poses the question that lies at the core of women’s struggle for identity mdash; ldquo;Why should women be denied equal rights wherever they can demonstrate skills and competence matching those of their male counterparts?rdquo; 7

In a tone of scathing sarcasm Sarala stated ldquo;Women today are the presiding deities in their kitchenrdquo; 6. nbsp;Also she interrogated the myths and religious texts that represented women as unreliable and dangerous elements mdash; ldquo;The scriptures have always looked upon women with suspicion. nbsp;It is grossly insulting to promote the view that women by nature are disloyal unchaste and destructive.rdquo; 7

If Sarala had raised these issues of protest in colonial India in the 1930s it seems rather mystifying why in her essay first published in 1959 The Awakening of the Women of Odisha Asanta Kali nbsp;she would priorities Indian culture and traditional value systems and criticise the liberation that western culture made available to women. Sarala Devi had lived through the sixties and seventies of the twentieth century when the women’s liberation movement declared that the personal was the political leading to laws being made to protect women from domestic violence that included marital rape.

From an advocate of global feminism Sarala Devi seemed to have experienced an attitudinal shift as she professed to sensitise Indian women and particularly the women of Odisha about their rights and responsibilities and the efficacy of pursuing the Gandhian values of sacrifice of personal gain and Indian customs and traditions for the benefit of their country mdash; ldquo;The life of the awakened women of Odisha has become materialistic under the influence of Western education science and philosophy. nbsp;So the awakened women are now completely alienated from our Vedic value systemrdquo; 68. Such statements seem more akin to Rosseau’s Emile rather than Mary Wollstonecraftlsquo;s claiming rights of women in 1792. nbsp; In fact historical evidence suggests that Sarala Devi may not have familiarised herself with Virginia Woolf’s twentith century feminist manifesto A Room of One’s Own published in 1929 nor with the avante garde writings of the Bengali women writers of the colonial and post-colonial period. The contradictions in her arguments are significant.

We notice that Sarala Devi advocated the need for women to become members of the legislative assemblies and Parliament participate in social work and try to root out immoral trafficking and malnutrition of women and children in her essay ldquo;My Story: Sarala Devirdquo; Mahila Mahal published in 1961. Yet in the same essay she categorically stated ldquo;Modern women are bent on adopting modern ways forgetting the pious and sacred customs of the past such as vratas fasting worshipping festivities and the allied principles. The culture of Indian and Odisha womanhood is under threat because of this.rdquo;81

Mohanty’s selection also includes an extract from Chapter 9 of her novel Basanti an extract from her play Tulasi Das along with several short stories written for children extracts from Sarala Devi’s own translations from Hindi into Odia of the Katha Ramayana: Adya Kanda along with a representative collection of thought-provoking essays. Sarala Devi used multiple literary genres with felicity from poetry and plays to short stories the novel and essays apart from playing a dedicated role as a political activist and social reformer.

The book does not just endeavour to recover the lost world of Sarala Devi however. The reader must notice that this book of selected writings of Sarala Devi translated into English for the first time in the twenty-first century not only introduces Sarala Devi to scholars and researchers of South Asian studies Gender Studies and literature studies. The translations are all reader-friendly though they are also attentive towards culture specificity. The book emphasises that translation is a cogent practice in bridging cultures minds location and ideas as the editor signs off by stating mdash; nbsp;ldquo;this is one way translation could be a mediatrix between the authortext and the readers.rdquo; xlix

The reviewer is professor Department of English Calcutta University.