A Kitchen of Her Own: The Life and Writing of Rashsundari Devi

“I came to nurture a great longing: I would learn to read and I would read a religious manuscript.” — Rashsundari Devi, Amar Jiban (translated from Bengali by Tanika Sarkar) 

According to the 2022 National Survey of India, the female literacy rate in India stands at 70.3%. This figure is a remarkable improvement compared to the colonial period of 1881, when the female literacy rate was less than 1%. Considering this progress, it’s hard not to wonder about the challenges that women may have encountered in educating themselves to achieve the current rate in just over a century. 

Throughout history women have struggled for the right to an education, typically viewed as a threat to traditional gender roles and the patriarchal system that confined women to domestic roles, casting them as objects of worship. In his 1836 Report on the state of Education in Bengal, William Adam noted common superstitious beliefs, writing that “a girl taught to read and write will soon after marriage become a widow.” This statement underscores the deeply ingrained fear of women’s empowerment and independence that existed at the time. It is in this context that Rashsundari Devi’s story is particularly compelling. She proved to be an exception in the 1860s, by not only learning to read and write on her own, but also by penning down ‘Amar Jiban’, ‘My Life’, the first autobiography by a Bengali woman. 

A trailblazer in many ways, Rashsundari Devi was born around 1809, in the village of Potijia in Pabna district, and married off at the age of 12 to Sitanath Ray, a landlord from Ramdia village in Faridpur. Her life was marked by a heavy burden of responsibility from a young age: at just fourteen, she took on the duties of the entire household, and over the course of her lifetime, she bore twelve children.

“I had to cook for twenty-five to twenty-six people twice a day… I was all by myself… I had to cover my face, my veil had to reach down to my chest, and, dressed in this way… I would start working at dawn, and I would still be at it until well beyond midnight.” 

Against this backdrop of demanding roles, Rashsundari’s decision to pursue literacy at the age of twenty-five was a “daring departure” [Tanika Sarkar] from the norm. “Everyone”, she writes, “got together to deprive women of education… I was a woman, and a married one at that. I’d die if someone was to rebuke me. Nor was I supposed to talk to others, so my fears kept me nearly mute.In a world where familial and social codes were staunchly against the idea of a woman even glancing at a piece of paper, Rashsundari narrates her story in Amar Jiban from the confines of the only space that was truly hers — the kitchen — and with the support of the only women she could speak to — the maidservants and her sisters-in-law. 

What led her to take this daring and unconventional step entirely on her own, considering she was extremely anxious and terrified about what people would  say? According to Rashsundari, an indescribable yet overwhelming desire to read a specific holy scripture drove her to clandestinely learn how to read. The book in question was Chaitanya Bhagabat, the initial Bengali biography of Chaitanya, the medieval Bengal saint who was devoted to Krishna and pledged redemption to the destitute, the lower castes, and women – all groups that were excluded by the brahmanical orthodoxy from higher spiritual pursuits and education. 

If the prospect of learning to read caused her great distress, the fear of obtaining the book, grasping it, and embarking on her lessons without a teacher was no less daunting. After she managed to obtain a single page from the book in secret, she was faced with the dilemma of where to hide it. 

“It must be the place where I would always be present but which nobody else visited much. What else could it be but the kitchen?… My eldest son was practising his letters on palm leaves at that time. I hid one of them as well. At times, I went over that, trying to match letters from that page with the letters that I remembered… But after a quick look at them, I would hide them under the hearth once more.” 

Thus, her journey of learning began in the kitchen, where she would fulfill her responsibilities while secretly finding time to learn how to read. Although it was easy to avoid the presence of men in the kitchen, she still had to hide from her sisters-in-law. With great determination, she decided to read from the manuscript during the women’s morning ritual worship, choosing a secluded area where she sat with the village women and began to read. The sisterhood in the space was so strong that one of the women kept watch and warned them of approaching individuals. Over time, Rashsundari opened up to her sisters-in-law about her desire to learn, and they welcomed her with warmth. In fact, she eventually began teaching them herself. Later, she even taught herself to write. 

At the age of fifty-nine, Rashsundari became a widow. The following year, in 1868, she completed the initial edition of her autobiography, ‘Amar Jiban’. Later on, she appended a second part, and the revised version was published in 1897 when she turned eighty-eight. The new edition featured a preface by Jyotirindranath Tagore, a renowned literary personality who happened to be the elder brother of Rabindranath. 

Geraldine Forbes mentions Rashsundari Devi among the ‘first generation’ of educated women who wrote about their lives and about the conditions of women, while fighting their own battles in the home. It was the ‘second generation’ of educated women in the early 20th century, who eventually came out of their homes and ‘acted’; they articulated the needs of women, critiqued their society and the foreign rulers, and developed their own institutions. 

“What was deviant behavior for one generation was acceptable behavior for the next… by the early years of the twentieth century Indian women were full participants in the redefinition of their futures.”

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