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38 c h a p t e r 3 Erotic Worship and the Discourse of Rights Spiritual Feminism in Saratchandra Chatterjee’s Fiction Ekti sadharan meye golp likho tumi Bada dukhodar . . . Ami atyant sadharan meye . . . Paye padi tomar Ekeye golp likho Sarat babu Nityanto sadharon meye golp. (“Sadharan Meye”) Please write a story about an ordinary girl A very tragic story . . . I’m a very ordinary girl . . . I beg you Please write a story Sarat babu The story of this very ordinary girl.1 In the poem “An Ordinary Woman” (1932) by Tagore, Malati, the speaker of the poem, begs Saratchandra Chatterjee (1876–­ 1938), the renowned novelist and champion of women’s rights, to write the tragic story of her life. In the rest of the poem Malati explains to Saratchandra that Naresh, her lover, promised to marry her after he returned from England, but upon returning he abandoned her. She tells Saratchandra that although her story is a tragic one, when he writes it as a novel he should make her achieve great success in her career and life and make Naresh suffer for mistreating her. For the Erotic Worship and the Discourse of Rights ❘ 39 speaker of the poem, only Sarat babu’s pen can sensitively render the misfortune of her life. Saratchandra’s fame as a novelist was won largely through his sensitive portrayal of downtrodden women, so much so that Rabindranath, a literary giant in his own right, writes a poem wherein the speaker begs Sarat babu (rather than Robi babu—­ or Rabindranath himself) to narrate the miseries of her life. In this chapter I look at Saratchandra’s widow remarriage novel in the period immediately after the Partition of Bengal (1905). The Partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon along communal lines provided fresh impetus to the Bengali nationalist movement, as Hindus and Muslims united to protest this division and invoked a cultural and linguistic identity that transcended religious divides. In this political scenario the women’s question was sidelined in favor of the nationalist agenda as writers wrote paeans to a united Bengali nation and patriotic tracts inciting the people of Bengal to boycott foreign goods and embrace local products (Swadeshi) in an effort to economically undermine the British Empire. While the social reform novel of the late nineteenth century had been used as a political tool to explicate the gains and pitfalls of widow remarriage, the Bengali novel after Partition veered toward nationalist politics. In the case of Rabindranath the women’s question was enfolded in the nationalist question, as we see in Ghaire Baire (The Home and the World, 1916), an explicitly political novel that interrogates the nationalist construction of woman as nation.2 In this literary and political climate Saratchandra’s social reform fiction, which resurrected the subject of widow remarriage and steered clear of nationalist politics, was met with much hostility from the bhadralok male intellectual elite, even though his women readers eagerly awaited the next installment of his novels. His popularity among his female readership was largely due to his radical views on the causes of women’s subjugation in Bengali bhadralok society. Unlike his literary precursors Bankimchandra and Rabindranath, Saratchandra had little formal education and pursued a largely undistinguished career as a clerk for an English company before the publication of his first novel, Baradidi (Elder Sister, 1907), brought him to public attention. His views were not the product of schooling but the result of his own experiences with women who had been shunned by bhadralok society—­ namely widows, courtesans, and lower-­class women. Whether for this or some other reason, he was more scathing 40 ❘ Erotic Worship and the Discourse of Rights in his critique of bhadralok society and more radical in his conceptualization of women’s agency than any other Bengali writer of his time.3 Since the women’s question was brought to the fore by the imperial contestation for power, Saratchandra’s stance was greatly mediated by contemporaneous colonial debates. He was particularly influenced by John Stuart Mill, whose father’s History of British India (1817) had set the tone for the debate on the women’s question several generations earlier.4 He concurred with J. S. Mill that women’s oppression stemmed from the patriarchal structures of society, which compelled them to a life of subservience.5 In the context of bhadralok society, the upper-­ caste middle-­and upper-­ class widow was the most unfortunate of these women for she not only had to...


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