Nirupama Devi’s Didi is a poignant portrayal of women’s lives in colonial Bengal; it shines light on caste-induced restrictions and widow remarriage
Women are known by the roles they play throughout their lives. They are daughters, sisters, wives and mothers before they are anywhere near themselves. It is both a tragedy and an irony of a woman’s life; it has been, for centuries. While the women of today fight to not be a side character in their own stories, our literature is proof that it is the women of the recent past who have used their voice to carve out a way for women of tomorrow to fight back. Nirupama Devi (1883-1951), in her widely acclaimed novel Didi (1915), writes of women as victims of their tragedies and as the fallen fools of the cruel ironies of a man’s world.
Some may argue that she wrote only what she saw and (forcibly) accepted as the norm, but it is our duty as conscious readers to read it through the combined lens of feminism and revolution, as much as simply letting it be a record of social history (or rather, her-story). One must not forget that Nirupama Devi’s writing was not only a reflection of her life and times, but also a critique of it. It may seem subtle to many, but she mirrors the harsh truths of being a woman in colonial Bengal (or anywhere in the world, for that matter).
Recently translated into English by another veteran, Alo Shome, who has been translating Bengali classics into English for the last 15 years, Didi opens with what feels like a hopeful beginning, when a young man, Amarnath, believes it possible to break free from the shadows of his caste — where money marries money. This hope is brief — Amar is married to a “suitable” girl, Surama Devi, found fit by his father’s standards — and partial, as he marries a second girl of his own choice, Charu, a poor widow’s almost teen daughter. Amar, however, is not our protagonist. Didi is initially a story of Surama, the daughter of a well-off zamindar and a daughter-in-law of another, but is also the story of women around her. There is Charu, who “lacks a vital element — a good dowry to accompany her”, and despite that, chooses and is chosen by Amar.
Surama, in one instant, becomes a discarded co-wife, and an innocent and affectionate Charu’s Didi — elder sister. She is married but denied a marriage, and the benevolence (and obligation, if one might add) of this new title — “Didi” — conceals the agony of the person it addresses. Then there is Uma, widowed at the tender age of 8 — like Nirupama Devi herself — who lives following rules of her fate, rules she did not relate to or understood the gravity of. There is also Mandakini, another teen girl, orphaned and passed around from one home to another, because nobody wants to take the responsibility of an unmarried girl. Eventually, all four — Surama, Charu, Uma and Mandakini — find their place in Nirupama Devi’s fictional world, but by the virtue of being women, they remain outsiders forever, in some sense or the other.
Didi, at first glance, may seem like a story of unusual friendships and sisterhood, or to some extent, even undeserving forgiveness, but the essence of the story runs deeper than that. Vital themes such as child-marriage, widowhood, the impossibility of widow remarriage, the “burden” of an “unmarried” (Hindu) girl, etc. add depth and volume to the story. The narrative also reveals that the restrictions on women in the novel (and of that time) are more or less caste-induced, specifically catering to upper-caste norms, as often is; whereas women from downtrodden and economically weak backgrounds, women who expect very little from life and are expected very little from, in return, have much more (social and moral) mobility. Women are expected to be unconditional caregivers; their initiative, effort and skill are underestimated by the restrictive shadow of their gender. They live uncredited lives and Nirupama Devi portrays this sad reality accurately and efficiently.
In many ways, Didi — her longest and most critically acclaimed novel — is similar to Nirupama Devi’s own life; the places, people and fates we encounter in the story seem to have drawn inspiration from her own tragedies. She was married at 10 and widowed shortly after. Born to an orthodox Hindu father who believed in the purdah system and was against widow remarriage, she assumed the responsibility of managing her household and family members, for most of her life; and chose to spend her final years in the holy city of Varanasi. She went by a literary pseudonym, Srimati Devi; was valued and praised by peers such as Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay; and participated actively in reform movements such as Mahatma Gandhi’s Civil Disobedience Movement.
Although Nirupama Devi’s literary significance has been recognized, it feels too late, too less. Bengal has been the land of culture, sophistication and artistic souvenirs and Bengali literature remains one of the most revolutionary kinds, from classics to modern-day works. Gifted, brilliant writers, the likes of Rabindranath Tagore, Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay, and many more, have emerged from colonial Bengal. It is, however, impossible to not be affected by this late discovery of Nirupama Devi — especially for the English readers — and subsequently, the unimaginable loss of what must have been many great writers like her. With the release of Didi, one can only hope to find more such critical works, especially stories of and by the forgotten women of history and literature.