Rassundari Debi Biography
Life and Literature
Rassundari Devi is among the earliest woman writers in Bengali literature. Her autobiography ‘Amar Jiban’ (My Life) is known as the first published autobiography in Bengali language. Rassundari Devi lived in times when social reform had barely touched the lives of upper class/caste women in India.
Education was unimaginable for women and a literate woman was synonymous with a wicked/cursed woman. But Rassundari refused to remain an unlettered woman all her life. She taught herself to read and write, and constructed for herself an identity independent of her husband and children. She not only earned literacy by sheer dedication and hard work, but also used it for self-discovery.
The most authentic source to know about Rassundari Devi’s life is her own autobiography in which she has recorded all the major events of her life.
Rassundari Devi was born to a rural zamindari family in the small village of Potajia in Pabna (western Bangladesh) in 1809/1810. She lost her father Padmalochan Roy when she was only a small child. She was raised by her widowed mother with whom she developed a deep emotional attachment for life. Her mother was a very religious woman who taught her to remember God in good and bad times.
Rassundari’s writing is full of references to her mother and to God, both functioning as her significant other in structuring her thoughts and actions. Rassundari never received a formal education – educating girls was considered a sacrilegious act in her days. However, as a child, she would sit with the young boys in the outer room of her parents’ house where a missionary woman came to teach.
She would listen to the boys repeating alphabets written on the board and try to learn. Unfortunately, the school was soon burned down bringing an end to whatever little access she had to literacy. Rassundari’s later encounter with the written word proved that she had quite a good memory as she was able to recognize many of the alphabets she had learned back in childhood.
Rassundari was married at the age of twelve to a man named Nilmani Roy who belonged to a well-to-do landed household in Rajbari, Faridpur. The marriage took her to the far off village of Ramdia where, as she mentions in her autobiography, people were kind and caring enough. Still the grief of separation from her beloved mother and that too at such a tender age was too much to overcome, and she would cry all the time.
A Vaishnavite like her husband and his family, Rassundari was deeply religious. Her firm faith in God’s grace along with her unbreakable spirit helped her carry on in all the challenging times. At the age of fourteen, Rassundari Devi faced no choice but to assume responsibility for the entire household as her mother-in-law had lost her eye-sight and become bedridden.
She now had to do housework from cleaning to cooking to attending to guests and looking after everyone’s comfort. The family was a large one. There were servants but they were not allowed to enter the inner premises of the house. Her workload increased as she became a mother at the age of eighteen. She bore 12 children, of whom 7 died early. Unassisted and confined to the antahpur of the house, Rassundari kept performing her domestic duties, but felt a strange desire for something she knew was forbidden to her. The desire to gain literacy!
The desire to be able to read Chaitanya Bhagavata on her own. One day, her husband left his Chaitanya Bhagavata in the kitchen before going out. Rassundari gathered courage, detached a sheet from the book and hid it in the khori of the kitchen. Then she stole one of the palm leaves on which her son practiced handwriting.
By comparing the words written on the two sheets and with people’s speech, by recollection and recognition of the letters she had learned in childhood, by constant effort and determination, Rassundari taught herself to read at the age of twenty-six. She learned to write years later when her son expressed his annoyance about her not answering his letters.
Rassundari was widowed at the age of 59 and a few months after her husband’s death, she finished and published the first version of her autobiography ‘Amar Jiban’ in 1868. A final version was published in 1897.
Some Notable Works of Debi
In 1876 Rassundari’s autobiography ‘Amar Jiban’ (My Life) was published. The book is in two parts, the first of which, consisting of sixteen shorter compositions narrated her autobiography. The second part, published in 1906, contained fifteen shorter compositions, each preceded by a dedicatory poem. Jyotirindranath Tagore praised the book for the ‘wonderful train of events’ and its ‘simple sweetness’ of expression. Dinesh Chandra Sen called her prose an ‘epitome of simple prose compositions of the bygone era’. Her book was translated into Hindi as Mera Jeevan.