A Discourse on ‘Freedom as Mobility’

Book Review by Meenakshi Malhotra

Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)

Translator: Somdatta Mandal

Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing

Somdatta Mandal’s translation from Bengali to English, A Bengali Lady in England, is a first person account  of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class  Bengali lady who accompanied her husband to England for eight years between 1882 and 1890.Her narrative, England-e-Bangamahila was published in Calcutta in 1885. 

Women’s travel writing in Bengal circulated /proliferated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century through the popular form of serialized publications in journals such as Bharati (1877),  Prabasi (1901), Bangadarshan , Kalpataru, among others, but Krishnabhabini’s account was the first full length travelogue. Though there followed a rich output of travel literature, it would be a fallacy  to box the many writings as a single, homogenous genre. Travel writing in this time undergoes several generic modulations and modifications as it journeys through the turn of the century. For example, Krishnabhabini’s account could also be described as ethnographic writing  as she turns her gaze on British society, culture, customs , manners.

In addition to being a wonderful addition to the archive of women’s writing, Das’s account seems to reverse the gaze. It offers a fascinating glimpse into 19th century English life and culture, as she attempts to set the record straight in many ways. Krishnabhabini’s capacity for observation is admirable in its sociological detail, especially so when we consider that she was barely out of her teens when she wrote the book. A Bengali Lady in England also offers a wealth of ethnographic detail on English life, character, interaction between classes, marriage, attitude to work, family organisation and life.

As Krishnabashini responds to a spectrum of sights, sounds, affects during her extended stay in England, we come across many nuggets of information. The process of travel offers opportunities for emancipation where exposure to other cultures offers her a way of viewing and of gaining a perspective on her own experiences and that of her sisters in India. Krishnabhabini constantly refers to her Indian sisters and bemoans their sorry state and ignorance when she sees how active British women were in their families and societies. Her motive here is to overturn the largely negative view of British women that prevailed in colonised spaces like India, based on their view of the “memsahib” who were often stereotyped as being snobbish and indolent. Her endeavour seems to be to inform her Indian sisters that British women in England were more active than the colonial “memsahibs” they usually came across in India.

She is eloquent in lauding the virtues of British domesticity by pointing out the merits of companionate marriages, where the wife is active in being a true helpmate to her husband as well as being the custodian of the private domain. Her perception is that Indian women and men would benefit in emulating such models of domesticity, instead of remaining in segregation and separation. As the translator and editor Somdatta Mandal points out, Krishnabhabini’s opening of the veil as a means of freeing herself from the constraints of her family and society is probably the first step in “the discourse of freedom as mobility’’ that enables her to construct her own sense of self (Mandal p.xx). Though she deplores the materialism evident in English society, she is also acutely conscious of the difference between the two countries. Thus she writes, “the more I compare the two countries, the more I realise the great difference between them and looking at the poor condition of India, I keep on suffering within.”(150)       

The translation and commentary by Somdatta Mandal, a translator and academic of considerable reputation and experience, highlights Krishnabhabini’s keen and observant eye, both in her translation and her comprehensive introduction to it. Her introduction shows evidence of her scholarship as she contrasts Krishnabhabini’s narrative account with her husband, Devendra N. Das, who with “an Orientalist agenda”(Mandal xxiii) was trying to “educate his fellow Britishers with the myths, religion and lifestyle of Indians back in India-speaking about the jogee, the astrologer, the zamindars, the nautch girls, infant marriage, the matchmaker, the Hindoo widow, funeral ceremonies, et al-his wife was trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life-English race and its nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, education system, religion and celebration, British trade, labour ”, cityscapes and rural life. Both the editorial commentary and Krishnabhabini’s narrative are peppered with delectable nuggets of information.       

Exposure to European literature, proliferation of print culture and ideas of romanticism percolated into the ‘Bhadralok” consciousness creating new modes of self-fashioning and new reading publics that made space for the publication of serialised travelogues . Much of the travel writing which did emerge and prove popular at this time were those authored by Hindu, upper class, western educated males, who were often renowned luminaries, scholars, or litterateurs in their own right. Several of the travel accounts are of men travelling outside India, usually to England. These works contained observations on western culture and a comparative study with India’s own. Romesh Chunder Dutt wrote Three Years in Europe: 1868- 1871, which was published in 1896. Both Rabindranath Tagore and Vivekananda authored various works on travel. An earlier account of travel writing was Bholanauth Chunder’s Travels of a Hindoo (1869) which chronicled his journey from Bengal to Punjab.

In contrast, socially sanctioned forms of travel for women till the mid nineteenth century was largely restricted to pilgrimage. However, with the advent of the railways and the opening of the Suez Canal, by the mid-nineteenth century we have instances of women, usually from educated Bengali upper-class families, travelling for entirely secular reasons—for convalescence, their husbands’ work, for leisure, or even for education. Aru Dutt and Toru Dutt went to England at around 1870 to pursue an education.

In 1871 Rajkumari Bandhopadhyay, wife of social worker Shashipada Bandopadhyay, became the first Indian woman to visit England. In 1877, Rabindranath Tagore’s sister-in -law, Jnadanandini , along with her children, travelled by ship to England to accompany her husband, Satyendranath Tagore(the first Indian ICS officer). This was against the wishes of her father-in -law, Maharshi Debendranath Tagore. In each of these instances, the act of travelling to a foreign land was deemed sacrilegious and transgressive, with the women facing extreme social backlash and, in the case of Rajkumari Bandyopadhyay, ostracisation. However, these acts set the way for further instances of travel, and more importantly, written accounts for the same. In 1894 Jagatmohini Debi set sail for England, and in 1902 published Seven Months in England (England e Saat Mash).

Krishnabhabini’s work is indeed a pioneering effort as far as Bengali women’s documentation of their travels, at home or abroad, are concerned. Yet her travel to England came at a personal cost; she had to leave her daughter behind with her conservative in-laws, resulting in lifelong estrangement. However, what ultimately makes this book unique it the quality of its specularity, its simultaneous awareness  of the self and other. It is this quality of self-consciousness or self-reflexivity which makes it  truly a  text of modernity.


Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition  to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.