Review: Widows of Colonial Bengal by Aishika Chakraborty
A heightening patriarchal preoccupation with marriage and sexuality placed the figure of the widow at the centre of the conflict between reformism and nationalism in Bengal during the British Raj
Aishika Chakraborty’s Widows of Colonial Bengal is a well-researched study that looks at, among other things, Ishwar Chandra and the Widow Remarriage Act, the Brahmo marriage, ascetic widowhood, the survival and maintenance of widows, and the fight for rights during the British Raj. The book opens with a look at the social and political impact of the passage of the Widow Remarriage Act, 1856. “The ubiquitous widow, draped in white, became a major social preoccupation,” she writes explaining that though the passing of the law did not immediately have the effect expected, it did have some social impact on the situation and on the lives of widows in Bengal. She points out the conflict between reformism and nationalism, which, she elucidates, was perhaps the consequence of a heightening patriarchal preoccupation with marriage, remarriage, sexuality and the survival of widows.
Caste in Bengal had certain distinctive features. Notable among these was the complicated ranking system of Kulinism. The term kul refers to the social and ceremonial position of the Kulin family in the hierarchy of Bengali Brahmins. The term is closely associated with the Kulas – the extended family and kin groups, or lineage. The family name immediately revealed an individual’s position in the Kulin hierarchy. Bengalis with the family names of Banerjee, Chatterjee, Mukherjee and Ganguly (changed by the British from their original denominations) are Radi Kulin, the highest-ranking Brahmins. The Varendra Brahmins were equal in the hierarchy. The work of the Ghatak Brahmins was to note all births, deaths and marriages in the family. The non-Brahmin Vaidyas and Kayasthas were beyond the orbit of the Kulin family. The Kulin order ranked each caste section into three hypergamous groups including the Kulin, the Siddha Srotriya, and the Sadhya Srotriya. A Kulin male could marry a female from any of these three groups, but a Kulin female could marry only a Kulin male. Girls from Siddha Srotriya and Sadhya Srotriya could marry a Kulin male, however. Thus, the demand for a Kulin bridegroom was very high. A father could get a groom for his daughter only by providing a heavy dowry. Kulin men could also marry several girls because the supply of men was lower than the demand. Since girls had to be married before puberty, especially among Brahmin families, many were married off in early childhood. In some cases, the husband would be many years older, so widows of 10 or 15 were not uncommon. Records show that a four-year-old girl became a sati.
Chapter three maps the Brahmo marriage reform movement, the first and only attempt in 19th century Bengal to decentralize marriage and bring it under civil law. This is perhaps the longest text in recent times to detail the Brahmo concept of marriage as a contract and not as a sacrament. The Brahmo Samaj was identified as a “protestant” faith branching out of rigid Hindu Brahminism, which was entirely against widow remarriage.
The next chapter deals with the Rukhmabai Case of Bombay (1884-1886) and the death of child-bride Phulmoni of Calcutta (1889). These two cases dealt with questions of consent and resistance. Rukhmabai fought against her husband’s legal case on “restitution of conjugal rights” which the Nationalists protested against as they saw it as a threat to Hindu marriage. This escalated when the Phulmoni death happened. Since Phulmoni’s death was unquestionably caused by marital rape, the government was forced to propose a legislation on the age of consent. This too met with strong resistance.
The chapter on Ascetic Widowhood traces the history, sociology and patriarchal ideology backing the idea of Brahmacharya, which was vehemently opposed to widows having sex. Deeply ingrained in the minds of most widows, they considered it a sin to violate their asceticism mentally, emotionally or socially. As Chakraborty writes: “The fate of widowdhood was assumed to be, in some form or other, of the widow’s own making.” (Page 263).
Chakraborty refers to Kalyani Dutta’s Pinjare Boshiya (1996), which, based on her true experiences, looks at the limits of tolerance of Bengali widows. She talks about an aunt who was widowed at 11 and lived to be 95. When she died, the great-grandchildren of the family jokingly remarked that if she could celebrate her 95th birthday having lived on just one meal a day, she might have lived to celebrate her 200th if she had allowed herself two square meals! The author has also drawn examples from old Bengali theatre to present educated widows who knew what was happening and why. Chapter six explores, in great detail, the financial and economic problems that widows faced, and their survival in women’s homes across Bengal. She also cites examples of widows who fought back against families who demanded the property the women had inherited from their husbands.
The book includes several true-life examples of those who were victims and others who rose stridently against torture, abuse and intolerance. The final chapter details the stories of two very distinguished widows, Rani Rashmoni and Maharani Swarnomoyee of the Cossimbazar Raj, who exemplified, through their entire lives, the resistance, resilience and the fight for rights.
Though the author is the director of the School of Women’s Studies, Jadavpur University, and has authored several scholarly volumes including The Moving Space: Women in Dance (co-edited, 2017), she steers clear of academic theories and avoids the use of deadening jargon. While this work will interest the lay reader, it also offers a sound framework for future researchers and scholars.
Shoma A Chatterji is an independent journalist. She lives in Kolkata.