The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- From the kitchen to the air balloon


“Why do they (wealthy sisters) cling so tenaciously to their idle crude custom, and know no higher ambition than to glide along in the same groove as their ancestors, instead of proving themselves worthy of the times they live in by basking in the free air of enlightenment!” This is Dosebai Cowasjee Jessawalla, recounting her exhilaration as her balloon took off over the Seine in Paris (The Story of My Life, 1911). In a short while, she would be trying to stop herself from shivering in the cold with a good draught of the wine she was carrying, and offer the same to the “delicate” European lady beside her. Cowasjee in Paris seems to be a far cry from a Rassundari Devi peering into her alphabet through the sari she drew over her face while she cooked and thanked god for his favours.

There is no doubt that Cowasjee speaks in a different voice, that of an upper class, Western-educated Parsi. In fact, for many of her kind included in this anthology, like Brinda Maharani of Kapurthala gallivanting in Europe, or the authoritative Maharani Chimnabai Gaekwad of Baroda, or even the talented, well-connected Toru Dutt, the turn of the 19th century was an exhilarating period. Western education and contact with Europe were throwing up opportunities of freedom no one knew existed. But the “air of enlightenment” was not as “free” as Cowasjee would have us believe. The experience of Cowasjee’s mother, Meheribai, as she endeavoured to have her daughter educated in Mrs Ward’s seminary, or Cowasjee’s own as she brushed aside hostility from the Parsi community for travelling to Delhi to attend Lord Lytton’s Durbar in 1876 could not have been very different from Rassundari’s.

For by the late 19th, early 20th century, the “women’s question” had already become much politicized and the nationalist discourse had set out the specific role it required the Indian woman to play. They were to be educated and infused with culture, but only to the extent that was required for them to manage the home, to give their educated husbands company, to bring up their would-be-babu sons, to swell the numbers at nationalist meetings against the raj. The women themselves were sometimes aware of this. Cornelia Sorabji, the first Indian woman barrister, writes, “Women’s rights have become a slogan — rights visualized out of focus”. She doesn’t sound too irrelevant today.

This anthology tries to do several things. For one, it brings together different voices as they speak out through letters, tracts, novels, short stories, articles, autobiographies and other writings till 1947 (although two writings have been included that are dated later for specific reasons) to not only hold out their varying “range and quality”, but to have them re-appraised. While Toru Dutt’s and Sarojini Naidu’s letters are called up for reassessment against their numerous other writings, de Souza and Pereira also want reputations reassessed, like that of Iqbalunnisa Hussain keeping in mind her virtually forgotten, yet outstanding novel, Purdah and Polygamy. The other purpose of the anthology, the editors say, is to bring out the varying attitudes to issues concerning women, like education. For instance, Sunity Devee of Cooch Behar wrote that her father, Keshub Chandra Sen, stressed that education should equip women to run the household efficiently. This was more important than having degrees attached to the name. Maharani Tapaswani’s school in Calcutta gave cooking lessons so that girls did not become alienated from household chores. And Rani Chimnabhai of Baroda, despite suggesting women look for job as lecturers and in advertising, believed wifehood and motherhood to be the “all-important” roles of women. A near-perfect conformism with the nationalist prescriptions. They were truly basking in an era of limited free air supply.

There is another task the editors set out for themselves. Serving in Mumbai, and witness to the strident tradition of anthologizing of period writings by women in eastern India, the editors could not but try to redress the balance. Which is why they try to include as many writers of the western region as possible, particularly a sizeable section of progressive Parsis. The editors pay equal attention to Indian Muslim women writers. The short biographical notes accompanying each writer are pithy, informative, although too short in some cases. In others, they sometimes quote exhaustively from passages that are repeated soon after to illustrate a point. This was unnecessary, for the brilliance of the prose in most cases leave no room for misunderstanding.

The excerpts are an amalgam of travel-writing, political discourses, literary experiments and personal reminiscences. In the heavier among them — Pandita Ramabai’s observations, Anapurna Turkhad’s letter to the Spectator and The Times of India, Dr Rukhmabai’s letters to the Times, Herabai Tata’s article, Kitty Shiva Rao’s book on education, Mithan Choksi on women’s colleges — the concerns with rights of franchise for women, education, the purdah system, the plight of child brides, widows and women in general dominate.

The short stories of Cornelia Sorabji and Ramabai Trikannad are delightful. The same goes for the recollections of Maharanee Sunity Devee’s romance, the travels of the Maharani of Kapurthala and Cowasjee. Toru Dutt’s letters are a revelation of the emotional intensity of the 21-year old writer, although Sarojini Naidus’s letters to Jawaharlal Nehru, important because of their political context, are not that remarkable. Vijaylakshmi Pandit’s account of her becoming a cabinet minister is funny and heartening. Two Gandhians, Sucheta Kripalani and Aruna Asaf Ali, talk about their experiences, more public than personal. “Perhaps most of the women represented here were so caught up in women’s movements and the nationalist struggle, that their autobiographical writing tended to focus more on the public life than the inner person”, suggest the editors.

The anthology has tried to set records straight where they were available. But the women’s reticence about themselves, and often the error of subsequent generations of biographers who have given dates and details a miss, have left gaps which will be difficult to fill. In the end, it is not only the “passion” of these women in doing “whatever they were doing” that puts us to shame, but also their use of the language they had only recently learnt. The “sense of belonging” that de Souza and Pereira might have felt with this extended family after having sifted through piles of dusty remembrances, thus does not come naturally.

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