Gender and Caste Hierarchy in Colonial Bengal. Inter-caste Interventions of Ideal Womanhood

Deboshruti Roychowdhury; Stree, 2014. Rs 600

Review by Sarmistha Dutta Gupta

The privilege of upper-caste birth and life in a metropolis virtually desensitizes one to the existence of caste in everyday life in India. Much before the Mandal Commissions, anti-reservation stirs, Dalit leaders making their strong presence felt in Indian politics, and Dalit writings occupying a significant niche in translation studies, my first encounter with the harsh inequities of a caste-based social order was through popular fiction—more specifically through the writings of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay. I shall have occasion to come back to one of Saratchandra’s stories in the course of this review article. But first let us turn to the book Gender and Caste Hierarchy in Colonial Bengal.

Notwithstanding matrimonial advertisements in leading dailies and the cyber space which tacitly guard caste ideologies, history textbooks and academically researched volumes on modern India usually produced by upper-caste middle-class people like us, elides the question about caste almost completely. So it is not often that one comes across a book, such as the one mentioned above, that concerns itself with identity formation and social mobility of various caste groups and engages with the gendered nature of caste aspirations in relation to the ideal of womanhood.

The author Deboshruti Roychowdhury shows that the upholding of the caste-Hindu notions of adarsha nari or the ideal woman did not remain a prerogative of the high castes in late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Bengal. Linking ideology to materiality, she expounds how the upwardly mobile among the low castes—who found it materially more beneficial in appropriating high-caste gender norms—contributed in no small measure in the making of the ideal woman. The book thus is an attempt to resist the universalization of the construction of such an ideal only in terms of high-caste existence.

Focussing on certain everyday aspects of women’s lives, the book throws light on the way people with social agency amongst the low castes tried to socialize their women according to high-caste norms, thereby gaining status for their castes and at the same time helping preserve the caste hierarchy fundamentally through control of female sexuality. The tracts they wrote, the journals they produced and the caste associations these aspiring groups ran, also reveal how an almost homogenous ideal of womanhood was produced across caste and how such an ideal was instrumental in maintaining both caste and gender inequality.

One of the key concerns of the work being changes in the lives of low-caste women as a result of imposition of tighter control on them, what I sorely missed here is some discussion on the nature of patriarchal control on their lives before the remodelling based on brahmanical ideals began. The author does touch upon earlier practices like divorce and widow remarriage which later began to be disapproved by the castes trying to move upwards. However, I  wish she had gone into some length on why caste associations and its journals—in particular women’s journals like Mahisya Mahila—evaded or opposed issues like widow remarriage altogether and how such discursive spaces contributed to popularization of customs like widow celibacy among sections which had been widely practising widow remarriage. In general more discourse analysis would have been welcome, particularly around highly contested issues like the age of consent, and more voices of women from aspiring caste-groups—who were socialized into believing in caste-Hindu stereotypes of womanhood—could have been heard.

As I was nearing the end of the book, my mind kept going back to one of Saratchandra’s overpowering short stories, Abhagir Swarga or Abhagi’s Deliverance.  Abhagi, who lived from hand to mouth with her son Kangali, found herself captivated one afternoon watching the cremation of an elderly brahman woman of a landed family of her village. As the wealthy and high-born son lit his mother’s funeral pyre, Abhagi and the other onlookers from different castes seemed convinced that the fortunate woman was being delivered straight to heaven aloft clouds of smoke. The scene took hold of Abhagi’s feverish body and mind so completely that she, a dule by caste, had only one wish on her mind while dying shortly afterwards.

People of her caste would usually be buried on the nearest river bed, a brahmanical cremation being out of bounds for them. But Abhagi aspired for a cremation like bamun-ma or the brahman-mother, hoping her son Kangali would light her pyre and ensure her eternal deliverance. Against all odds, she also made sure that before breathing her last, Abhagi got to touch the feet of her husband Rasik Dule, who had abandoned her years ago. Social conditions—both material and ideological—cruelly denied Abhagi the cremation that she had so fervently hoped for, but mournful neighbours pronounced her an ideal woman who ought to have been born a brahman.

Abhagi came from a caste that was marginal even among the low castes of Bengal. She clearly did not belong to any of the upwardly mobile castes for whom elevation in social status during colonial times was intrinsically linked to emulating high-caste gender codes. Yet I kept thinking of the story in the light of the book I just read, of the kind of deliverance Abhagi wanted and the way her neighbours idolized her, all of which may have had little to do with material gain of any kind in this life for a Hindu but lots to do with afterlife. It is also a sharp reminder of brahmanical control of the religious and other aspirations of the lowest of the low, that serves to keep in place gender, caste and class inequities.

This left me wondering what happened to those marginal castes, who refused to accept the subjugation of the caste order and opted for a less humiliating everyday life and better privileges too in the form of free education and the like, through giving up the religion of their birth and converting to another? The book does take up the question of conversion briefly, but it left me asking if religious conversions of Hindu low castes in Bengal, primarily into Christianity and Islam, destabilized the gender-caste status quo in some ways. For instance, what about the first generations of Bengali women school teachers—from late nineteenth right up to mid-twentieth century—who happened to be mostly Christians? It would be interesting to know in what form these converts conformed to the brahmanical ideal of womanhood and how they may have resisted the same through their lives and teaching.

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