[This article was written in response to Tanmoy’s recent request, and stimulated by things I have been reading, including an article in The Sunday Statesman a couple of weeks ago]
‘Rani’ Rashmoni (born in 1793 – the very year that Lord Cornwallis established the modern form of zamindari in Bengal with the Act of Permanent Settlement – to a poor farming family), was married at the age of 11 to Babu Rajachandra Das, wealthy zamindar of Janbazar in Kolkata. I wonder how the match was made: maybe her fabled beauty helped, or maybe it was her extraordinary native intelligence. It is known that she had a most unusual appetite for education, and her husband, who started by tutoring her, came to be deeply impressed by her innate worldly wisdom and began to depend more and more on her counsel for managing and growing his vast business and properties (a kind of respect and reliance that would be rare to find even among ‘educated’ modern-day husbands, though I am not at all sure whether the wives or husbands are more to blame!). Her husband passed away when she was pushing forty, and she lived on for almost three more decades.
In an intensely male-dominated world, and in a Bengal that was virtually supine under the heel of a harsh and predatory British government, she lived a life of exemplary independence, shrewdness, charity and piety: very few people I meet have the depth of mind even to realize how incredible that combination is. Ably assisted by her devoted son-in-law Mathurbabu, she not only preserved and expanded her wealth, but, while making enormous philanthropic bequests to numerous deserving causes and risking the wrath of the government and her own material ruin again and again in the process (as when she bought up loads of East India Company shares dirt cheap during distress sales triggered by the terror of the 1857 mutiny – how proud George Soros and Warren Buffett would have been to know her!), she continued to live the simple, self-effacing, almost penurious life of the traditional Hindu widow (obviously out of deep personal conviction – I am reminded of Khushwant Singh’s reminiscences about his own grandmother – no mere cabal of Brahmin priests could have browbeaten a woman like that into it against her will): she did not need to live the useless, horrendously expensive, wild life of the page-three party-animal (so common in metropolitan circles in all lands and ages, from Babylon to New Delhi today) to prove to society that she was somebody. And of course, many learned elderly Bengalis will insist that her greatest work was discovering, employing, tolerating and encouraging the divine madman who came to be known as Sri Ramakrishna, who, through his great disciple Vivekananda and his mental disciple Subhas Bose, contributed in largest measure to bringing about whatever renaissance Bengal can boast about in the last thousand years (that even the memory, leave alone the pride in the truly great is gone is of course another story – those who have boasted of Sasanka and Atish Dipankar and Sri Chaitanya and Rammohun Roy and Tagore and Satyajit Ray have only Sourav Ganguly to cling to, and their only personal dream is that their sons might get a green card to settle in the USA. How much we have ‘progressed’ over the last three or four generations, indeed).
How many young, educated, ‘ambitious’ Bengalis today can even talk for five minutes about a figure like Rani Rashmoni, leave alone naming her as one of their ideals? How many of today’s young Bengali women between 15 and 40 will do it? Can they claim that they have ‘better’ ideals (if, indeed, they have any ideals worth the name at all) – because they are cleverer, more informed, more worldly-wise, more ‘liberated’ now? And in this context, this is to all my women (especially Bengali women) readers, who have the nagging suspicion that I do not ‘respect’ women enough: I do, but after having read this little essay, and then visiting what I wrote about Sudha Murthy a few months ago ('Wise and otherwise'...) and the blogpost titled ‘Those who love: book review’ about Abigail Adams that I wrote a year ago, can they not understand that though I try very hard to admire women, I have found pitifully few around me who live up to my expectations?
P.S.: …and I am not an incorrigible MCP. I was reading Krishna Basu’s article in a Bengali newspaper the other day (Shongbad Protidin, Nov. 15 2008), lamenting over how Indian women are still taught to be proud of the achievements, however small, of their menfolk – fathers, husbands and sons – while the majority of men still sneer at the idea that they could be proud of their women, too. My wife is in many ways a very quiet, reclusive, ‘ordinary’ woman, never likely to make it to the headlines, but I am immensely proud that she does not obsess over sarees, jewellery, makeup, and her daughter’s report card, that she has a mind to think with, that she reads a lot of books, gives a lot in charity, and has some serious spiritual concerns. I am looking forward to being proud of my daughter, too.