Toru Dutt had the advantage of the Christian church and her parents, who supported her brief though impressive literary career. Even then, in those early days, she feared ostracism, and was wary of venturing out of her home, despite riding in a curtained carriage. If she had lived for a few more years, till the 1880s at least, she would have been witness to several changes. By then, it was not as though reform and change depended only on a missionary zeal among the British and the newly converted. The record of the Brahmo Samaj as well as of the more progressive among Hindu society in the emancipation of women and promoting girls’ education is a part of the mythology of modern Bengal. But hagiographic accounts and biographies rarely mention why reformers became the men they did. Or that they had a chequered past — as described by Ashis Nandy in his exposé of Rammohan Roy, who fought an acrimonious legal battle over property with his mother, Tarini. Interestingly, many reformers came from family environments of rigid dogma and oppression — if not torture — of girls and women, as is evident from the unhappy childhood memories of Dwarakanath Ganguly (picture) and Rashbehary Mookerjea. Within their relatively brief lives, these two men became outspoken critics of the kulin legacy that they had left behind.
The two men belonged to a growing cohort of social and religious critics who used the quill to put forth their views in a society that increasingly valued literacy. Advocates of reform strengthened their arsenal with impassioned denigrations in a number of publications — often using Sanskrit texts — of certain aspects of Hindu society such as sati, child marriage, strictures against widow remarriage and kulin polygamy, a complicated system peculiar only to Bengal. Very simply, under this form of polygamy, a kulin — usually the top-ranking among the Brahmins and Kayasthas — could only marry kulin girls or those from a few other similarly recognized gotras within the caste group. Due to selective marriage and a skewed sex ratio, the system resulted in a surfeit of unmarried girls. For many, the future meant a “dishonourable spinsterhood in their brothers’ households” or “a nominal marriage”. As Tapan Raychaudhuri points out, their lives — and occasional dalliances and subsequent brutal punishments — have fascinated those who wrote the earliest novels in the Bengali language to the days of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. Consequently, there were cases of notional marriages of one man to dozens, if not hundreds, of girls and women.
Of course, the stage for the system’s indictment had been set by that indefatigable supporter of women, Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar. On December 27, 1855, he submitted a well-argued petition to the British against kulin polygamy, followed by a second petition on July 22, 1856, signed this time by 21,000 persons, including leading zamindars. The government however, did not act as the onset of the events of 1857 completely altered its world-view for some years to come. A decade later, a third petition was handed over to Sir Cecil Beadon, the lieutenant governor of Bengal, who apparently responded positively. By then, of course, the powerful pro-kulin lobby, that included novelist Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, was opposed to any legislation. Though polygamy was not outlawed, widow remarriage was legalized — a recognition of the need for a way out for the hundreds of kulin ‘widows’.
Proactive legislation and an atmosphere of debate encouraged Dwarakanath to publish a journal for women and start an innovative school for girls. Rashbehary Mookerjea sought to propagate marriage reform within the kulin community as well as to create public opinion by writing songs and lampoons on the theme of polygamy. Clearly, their use of different methods and literary genres added greatly to the growing body of opinion and literature on the controversial subject. Trauma in their youth had deeply influenced both, and though Dwarakanath became a Brahmo, Rashbehary chose to criticize Hinduism while remaining within the fold.
In 1861, as a young boy of 17 in his village of Magurkhanda (in the Bikrampur sub-division of Dhaka district), Dwarakanath heard of the poisoning of a young kulin girl to whom he was much attached. Horrified by the event, he discovered that if kulin girls were not married by a certain age, it was not uncommon to murder them. Deeply pained, Dwarakanath not only vowed to eschew polygamy but also to work actively against the system. He started publishing a weekly magazine named Abalabandhab (Friend of the weak; the word abala or weak was quite often used as a signifier of women) from Dhaka. Many years later, he wrote of his investigations following the incident in his journal; he also created a sensation when he featured the story of one East Bengal village where “in a single year thirty-three Kulin women committed suicide or were murdered”. According to Ganguly, every one of them was the victim of premarital or extramarital conception as a result of rape or seduction. Their deaths were passed off as caused by cholera. Dwarakanath’s startling investigative journalism did not go unnoticed. A leading Brahmo, Sivanath Sastri, arranged for the young man to move to Calcutta. Conversion to the Brahmo faith followed, as did the opportunity for Dwarakanath to diversify his activities beyond Abalabandhab. According to the historian of the Brahmo Samaj, David Kopf, the journal “was probably first in the world devoted solely to the ‘liberation of women’”.
His father’s premature death meant that Rashbehary Mookerjea was brought up by his paternal grandfather. Poverty drove the latter to marry off his grandson eight times; following each occasion, marriage payments kept the family hearth going. Soon enough, the young Rashbehary reacted, at first through poetry and later with well-thought out arguments on why kulin Brahmins need no longer abide by an extremely restricting marriage circle. He became actively opposed to “this ugly tradition” which was responsible for the miserable state of “countless women” and soon acquired quite a reputation for his crusade against it — albeit at the cost of being labelled a madman. In the early days of Rashbehary’s campaign, he was not only regarded as an eccentric, but his bona fides were also questioned “because many knew me to be a high status Kulin and thought that marrying several times was my way of life”. In fact, on more than one occasion, both he and his family received death threats from incensed kulins.
Gradually, Rashbehary got a fair hearing for his cause. In order to reach out to a wider public, in his songs and rhymes he often adopted the voice of the oppressed kulin girl. In others, he is the arrogant kulin bridegroom. In a popular ditty, women neighbours cynically sing as they go to watch a kulin wedding:
Come, let’s go and see a wedding in
the Kulin’s house
You haven’t seen a wedding like this
You hear it is a wedding like a
Therefore in the ritual — at least
four cows have to be sacrificed to
We hear from people that they are
giving four daughters to the same
Oh! how hard-hearted are they —
parents have no kindness.
Rashbehary’s convincing use of the idioms of the feminine persona brought alive the kulin wife’s dilemma. Using the licence and tenor of women’s folk songs he was able to capture the imagination of those less responsive to Shastric dicta. His lampooning of the kulin bridegroom too must surely have caused unease in some quarters — an unease that characterized the sensitive underbelly of a Bengal buffeted by reform aimed at improving the status of women. That respect for the female body was the subject of so much public discussion and debate could hardly have gone down well with those for whom women were but the providers of pleasure and services, to be oppressed and abused at will. They reacted, but could no longer occupy centre-stage as public spaces were now the arena of well-argued discussions and arguments — and not of dogma alone.