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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Rashmoni: a dim, distant light

[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.


Partha Chatterjee said...

After reading this article I have been forced to think that how many people whom I usually come across everyday will be able to give an extempore about someone as important as Rani Rashmoni. I can think of only a couple of people-my grandfather and my girlfriend.
Even my speech will be limited to a couple of points.But from now on, after reading this post, I will be able to add a few more words in my speech.
I feel very dissapointed when I see girls envying each other for marks,women fighting with their husbands because they can't stand the sight that her neighbour is wearing more jewellery than her.Education is the last thing they are intrested in.
Once there came a cartoon drawn by Chandril in Anandabazar Patrika where it shows mothers purchaing suitable grooms for their brides and the highlight of the cartoon is a banner saying "Biyer Bazaar-40% 0ff on every purchase."
It may seem very funny but it is the current picture of our society.When girls go to high school they are told by their mothers to find a guy for themselves by hook or by crook. My question to these mothers is that by giving such advises, can they answer their own consience?

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda,

First, I am honored to have my name on your post. I mean it because to-day was not a good day for me and you just made my day. Thank you for that.

You are so very right. I really wonder why in the age of information we as humans are not really enlightened. Even if we are why then, I am so under-privileged not to meet some such people.

I have my reasons to rant about but it is indeed true that we as individuals would have to take onus upon ourselves for our own enrichment, otherwise we may not have enough to pass on to our future generations.

People like Rani Rashmoni did the usual human duties and achieved the pinnacle of humanity without even making a "big deal" about it.

It is a shame that to-day, we don't even have the power / courage / strength to beat the so called 'system' which is trying to make a robot out of most of us. We are so powerless that we have virtually started using our cynicism and ignorance as an excuse to become inhuman.

Still some of us (the readers of your blog) think and feel - many either do such activities in isolation and suffer or worse, many more have stopped thinking beyond usuals.

Rani Rashmoni's life exemplifies that one doesn't need to be "superhuman" to serve the society. It is a pity we don't do that more often when we have more amenities to-day but perhaps much lesser intent.

Shilpi said...

Gleaming and quiet post that’s made me dig around in the tunnels of my head again. A woman in 19th century Bengal, no less. But maybe I should’ve started out with an “Ouch”. Sorry Suvro da, I wouldn’t have been able to talk for five minutes about Rani Rashmoni (although I did remember some connected bits, they wouldn’t have held an audience captive for longer than a minute, I'm afraid), but then I wouldn’t ever imagine that I have “better” ideals or greater courage or truer grit either.

Suvro da, I am one of your "Bengali women" readers but I know you know that I'm not one of those who have ever had the nagging suspicion that you didn't/don’t respect women enough. Yet I can't quite imagine that you’re likely to respect a man simply because he happens to be anatomically male either.

The other seamless connection that you make is something that I’ve observed through the years, sometimes with a sense of amused disgust – the personal dream about the sons and their green cards. I hear that now that dream isn't "good enough". Everybody else's son is a green card holder too; now there's nothing to "boast" about.

This cold, bright and concise post of yours Suvro da, and an indirect whack that I've received have certainly brought my own mental distractions, gruntings, grumblings and faffing to a silent halt, at least for the nonce.
Regards and love,

Rajdeep said...

Dear Suvro da,

This article moved me very very much. I hope you continue writing similar stuff more and more.

Love Rajdeep

Subhanjan said...

In my seven years of intimacy with Sir, we have had several discussions on countless issues. And I remember very clearly that in many discussions we had lamented that it is very hard to come across sensible, mature, well-read, and thoughtful girls and women. Unlike Partho I can not claim that my girl friend can give an extempore on Rani Rashmoni. What is really good about her is that she has a certain level of spirituality that I have observed in her on several occasions. Even that is very hard to come by these days.

But is it not true that a majority of men too, of all ages, seriously lack any kind of intellectual depth and proper ambitions. After ten years of schooling, two years of high schooling, and three years of graduation, I have hardly three friends with whom I can have serious and interesting discussions on anything from attrition to literature. Whenever I look around I see boys fooling around, or engaging in bogus chit-chat, or abusing each other. Oxford Bookstore is visited mostly by foreigners and elderly people. But the number of youngsters visiting INOX is perhaps a hundred times greater. When I was in IMS, I remember a student (whose score was estimated to be around 96 percentile in CAT), was saying the councillor, "How will I manage the GD and PI? I never had a hobby. I do not know what my weaknesses are and what my strengths are. I have never read any book, listened to any music, or seen any movie. I do not read newspapers at all. Apartfrom my studies all I have done is masti. What will I do Sir? Please help me."

This boy had made it to one of the IIMs. I do not remember which one. All that he did was to cram up several facts on GK and current affairs. Now is that a student of real 'quality'?

Anything can happen in this country. Standards are pathetic and the evaluation systems seem to be wrong somewhere. Whether you are talking about a boy or a girl, all are the same. The real good ones stay away from the society, and spends hours in the National Library. They never go to the IIMs. I am very sure about that. And I will always have respect for them

Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Suvro sir’s tribute to Rani Rashmoni is both educative and thought provoking. There is so much to learn from our history and there have been so many titans, yet we love to choose the wrong idols.

It may not be out of place here to remember another exceptional woman, Rani Bhabani of Natore, who lived in much darker and dangerous times and not only survived, but also contributed immensely to the society. From what I have read about her, I believe she was one of the greatest Bengalis of all times. I don’t have access to my books at the moment. This is what the Banglapedia (the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh) says about her.

“Rani Bhabani (1716-1795) was famous for her sagacity, generosity and extensive social works. … On the death of her husband Raja Ramkanta in 1748 she became the dejure zamindar of Rajshahi. She managed the vast Rajshahi zamindari most efficiently and effectively for over four decades maintaining cordial relationships with the nawabs of Bengal.

“Rani Bhabani ran the vast zamindari with tact and tenacity during the most critical and transition period of the East India Company’s administration. She lived a very austere and religious life but her generosity knew no bounds. She gave large portion of her zamindari to the Brahmins as Lakhiraj (rent free lands) for their maintenance and other charitable activities. Writing in the Rajshahi Gazette O'Malley mentioned that the Rani established about 380 shrines, guesthouses etc, built many temples in different parts of the country and endowed money and lands. She constructed a big road that runs from Natore to Bhawanipur in Bogra and is still called Rani Bhabanir Jangal. Besides, numerous tanks and sarais were built with her money. Doctors were entertained to give medical relief to the poor in different village and her charity extended to the animal world. She was a great patron of Hindu learning and bestowed large endowment for the spread of education. Rani Bhabani died at Baranagar at the ripe age of 79.”

Despite their vastly different backgrounds, the similarities between the biographies of the two Ranis are astounding.

Subhasis Graham Mukherjee said...

A well written tribute to an extraordinary woman- accompanied by an analysis of some current shortcomings which could be avoided with such history lessons.

The realization of the importance of women in positions that require intelligence, judgment, and tact is increasing. The US top job almost went to a woman- the opposition, realizing the importance and impact of the issue fielded a woman for the VP ticket.

Here are a few other resources on the net if anyone wants to read more on Rani Rashmoni.

Rani Rashmoni
From Wikipedia

Rani Rashmoni on BengaliNet

Rani Rashmoni on NationMaster

Here's a well compiled blog on Great West Bengal People

Sudipto Basu said...

Dear Sir,

With regards to your lament about the abundance of philistines in our society, I cannot but silently agree. And there goes a silent nod to what Subhanjan da says too! As an index of equality, or at least near-equality in Indian society, I think a complete lack of knowledge or taste in anything worthwhile is right at the top of the list-- boys know, or maybe don't, only as much as their female counterparts. How deliciously ironic!

But why do I silently agree? Because I can only speak as much as I know about Rani Rashmoni-- which does not amount to much. Have only read a few details about her in Shei Shomoy, and can only boast as much. I think it is off-the-mark that I can speak for more than five minutes on certain other people who are part of the pantheon of great people having graced our country. *winks*

I think I must mention that I have known some girls my age who are sufficiently knowledgeable, sensible and sensitive-- why, one of my best friends can write a whole lot better than me when she wishes to! It must also be conceded that the number of such boys crosses, maybe just crosses, the number of such girls: but that is not quite a lot. A last point-- some may wonder why some women, inspite of knowing and reading a lot, never choose to write publicly. That, alas, I have never understood, though I have witnessed this on some occasions before.

'all for now, I guess.


Suvro Chatterjee said...

Silence sometimes speaks louder than words. It is highly educative that of the eight comments received so far on a blogpost relating to a woman, only one has been written by a woman!

supra said...

WE, AS a nation of a billion plus people, have a habit of making heroes out of people. Whenever the cricket team goes out and does well, we give it a royal welcome back home. If a women’s cricket team were to win the World Cup and come, not even the media would be at the airport to welcome it! The Indian women have often been subjected to biased measures. You may call it inequality of a kind.

Even in the 21st century, women are not given the respect that they deserve.
If there was ever a doubt in anyone’s mind as to which gender is dependent on the other, you just need to go through your daily schedule. Your morning tea would not taste as sweet if it weren’t for your mother or wife preparing it. You would not get your matching tie or shoes, if it weren’t for her providing it. The little things that come so easily in life would not have been that easy if it weren’t for a woman doing those.

Women have a special place of pride and honour in the Indian Society. Their role in nation building is also well recognized. If we turn the pages of History we come across great women rulers, queen warriors, women leaders, women Freedom Fighters, women saints, scholars, writers, social workers.

It is vital to note that equality can never be achieved since a man and a woman are different from each other and secondly, the attitude of the typical Indian male-dominated society deters any kind of equality between the two sexes. As a popular saying goes, “Man is born free but everywhere he is in chains” has been crafted keeping a woman in mind. She is born free but is answerable to either her family or society while making important decisions. At this juncture, she doesn’t need to fight for equality or celebrate Women’s Day to prove that she is worthy enough. It is essential for a woman to understand that by constantly comparing herself to a man, her ability to accomplish bigger goals in life will get weakened. She must realize that if she chooses to conquer the world, then nobody can stop her from doing so.

I wouldn’t have been able to talk for five minutes about Rani Rashmoni, but I think she surely can be an ideal to any woman in today society. I agree to this that Rani Rashmoni has achieved so much in one life time which probably all average woman of today’s century cannot even dream of doing. Gandhi was no advocate of blind adherence to tradition; its strong current could help us swim far, or sink us; for him the deciding question was whether it would take us closer to God (Truth), selfless service and love of all human beings." And what do ancient books say about women? "Her father protects her in her childhood, her husband protects her in youth, and her sons protect her in old age; a woman is never fit for independence…" Gandhi saw how wrong that was, how unjust, how harmful to all; he spoke strongly against child-marriages, the isolation and subjugation of widows, the cruel domination of men over women, and women’s own subservient mentality. In Ethical Religion he says, "True morality consists, not in following the beaten track, but in finding out the true path for ourselves and in fearlessly following it."

Shilpi said...

I can’t help but write a couple of things in response to Supra’s comment.
1. Regarding sports: There isn’t a specific bias against Indian women, Supra. It’s the same/similar situation for most female sportswomen, and across the world and the “bias” is not limited to just cricket. There has been a lot written on why female tennis stars do not earn the same amount of money as the males do, why women soccer matches aren’t as widely viewed…

2. It’s not a matter of which gender is “more” dependent on the other and by how much. That idea (and variations of the same), is one of the fundamental problems that still persists with certain brands and strands of feminism. The idea is to understand that the gender categories are inter-dependent (or at least to understand that that is how it should be, and could be), and all individuals (irrespective of gender) can understand that at the deepest level, if they are sensitive and keen and observant enough. I could write more about this but this will do for the nonce.

3. It’s interesting that you should think that women occupy a place of honour and pride in Indian society (because I would, on the whole disagree) at least as evident from any run of the mill history book, which are/were used in school. (How many school history books contain a page or two about Rani Rashmoni, for instance? I remember Rani of Jhansi had a page in her name and I remember we read a page on Swarnakumari Devi when I was in Class 2. She had a page to her name in a Bengali school book). Although I don’t think this is something peculiar to India.

4. So are women “given” respect or are they “kept” in chains then….or is it both or is it neither? You do bring up very interesting and rather pertinent issues in your comment, Supra. And I’m wondering in the same vein whether ‘respect’ (in the sense of honour and regard) is something that can or should be automatically given. A basic and essential consideration regarding the preservation of human dignity – yes. A basic respect given on the premise that one is dealing with a human being – yes. But more than that and it must and has to be earned, at least by my book. Respect, in the sense I mean it, would depend on very specific characteristics, habits, and actions of an individual. I can respect a person irrespective of class, race, status, age, gender, religion (and what-have-you). Similarly I cannot respect an individual simply because s/he belongs to a particular social category, which is socially held in high esteem.

5. We may be in a better position to address whether “equality” can be achieved and identify the “types” of equality that we wish to achieve (and not just between men and women) once we answer the question: what does equality mean? Or at least, “What do I mean by equality?” I do agree though that women do not need to celebrate Women’s day….yet once again I wonder what you mean Supra, when you say “…if she chooses to conquer the world, nobody can stop her…”? Do you mean that metaphorically or otherwise, I wonder. And if you do mean it metaphorically – why stop with the world….I’m reminded of a quote by Kshana that Suvro da told me about some time ago. “Naalpey sukhamasti, bhumaiva sukham”, which translated stood “Trifles do not interest me. Nothing barring the universe in its entirely will satisfy me…”

6. I completely agree with what you say in your last line where you quote Gandhi. The only way one can find one’s self is to find and follow one’s own path. And this point of yours connects very well to your observation about “being answerable”….In absolute terms, I don’t think any human being is answerable to anyone for his/her actions. The only person one is answerable to is one’s Self (the categories of people who do believe in this principle vary wildly and widely, interestingly enough).

Shilpi said...

Terrible, terrible typo in my previous comment.
“Trifles do not interest me. Nothing barring the universe in its entirety will satisfy me…”
That's what it should read! Many apologies.

Suvro Chatterjee said...

See? This post was my tribute to a woman, and just how many girls/women have written in, if only to say 'Thanks, this has revised my opinion of you'?

Kaushik Chatterjee said...

A lesser known facet about Rashmoni’s benevolent disposition, retrieved from the dusty pages of archival resources, relates to her empathy with the plight of the fishermen, who were denied their rights of livelihood. The story goes that during the second half of the nineteenth century, by dint of a provincial statute passed by the Port authorities, severe restrictions were imposed on the fishing activities along the river Hooghly , which entailed payment of a statutory registration fees to the Government.

Well, not receiving sympathetic support from the educated intelligentsia of the times, the hapless fishermen approached Rani Rashmoni, who immediately took up cudgels in their favour.
Interestingly, without creating much hue and cry over the issue, she moved subtly, persuading the Government to have the river stretch, (mostly used by the fishermen), from Ghushuri to Metiabruz, leased to her on a sum of Rs 10,000/-. With the Government, somehow, unwittingly and indiscreetly agreeing to her request, Rashmoni, in a great show of intelligence, farsight and enterprise, had the entire area girded through iron chains and moorings, which practically brought the entire shipping movement to a halt.

Exhorted by the Government to see reason and have the fairway immediately released for shipping trade, Rashmoni had the gall to call their bluff as she declared, in no uncertain terms, that since the entire leased area, was under her permissive possession, she was perfectly entitled to put the same for best possible use, as deemed appropriate.

Realising that they have been somehow caught in a sticky wicket, the Government took up the matter, pursuing it to the High Court. However, the Government had to relent eventually with the following face-saving settlements :
· Rani would be given back the lease amount and the river-stretch would be freed for unrestricted movement of the ships.
· Full fishing rights would be restored to the fisherman, without any concomitant obligation on their part for paying any fishing cess.

The decision vindicated Rashmoni’s enthusiastic championing of the fishermen’s cause and endeared her further to the masses.

Love and Regards,
Kaushik Chatterjee

Suvro Chatterjee said...

It gladdens my heart to see that a post like this has held a place high on the most-read list for a long time now. However, the last comment written here was in 2009! Doesn't any current reader (many of whom were far too young to read and understand an essay like this back then!) have anything to say or ask in connection with the subject?