Title: A Bengali Lady in England by Krishnabhabini Das (1885)
Translator: Somdatta Mandal
Publisher : Cambridge Scholars Publishing
When, in 1882, teenage Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) left for an extended trip to England with her husband, leaving behind her six-year-old daughter, she regarded this as her self-sacrifice in the service of her long-suffering Bengali people. Even before leaving home, she took on uncomfortable English-style clothing, diet and deportment in order to prepare herself for that alien Western world. She determined to use her own challenging experiences in order to awaken and uplift her nascent nation, especially by improving the customary roles of women like herself. She wrote and published her discoveries and evaluation of Britain as a book, England-e Bangamohila, in 1885, even before her own return home. She would remain in Britain for a total of eight years, even as her in-laws married off her own distant daughter at age ten.
With this current volume, Professor Somdatta Mandal has added to her already impressive body of books and other publications by making accessible for the first time to Anglophone readers this significant book by Srimati Krishnabhabini Das. This translation enables non-Bangla readers to deepen our understanding this key transitional period in India’s and England’s connected histories from the acute first-hand perspective of a woman traveller and published author.
One of the striking features of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating account is how genuinely new and unfamiliar to her were her journey and life in England. By that time, men and women from India had been venturing to Europe for more than four hundred years. Even over the decade prior to Krishnabhabini’s own visit, many Bengali men and at least half a dozen Bengali women had preceded her. Indeed, this was the second trip for her husband, Debendranath Das, having returned only months earlier after six years in England where he had narrowly missed entry into the Indian Civil Service and had taken a degree in mathematics from Cambridge University.
Krishnabhabini, although married at nine and home schooled by her in-laws, had herself long read and heard about England. But, even to educated middle-class Indian women, distant imperial Britain still seemed overwhelmingly intimidating. Determined to enlighten her Bengali sisters through her book, Krishnabhabini still seems to have hesitated to assert her own authority to do so, publishing anonymously. Even her first publisher in Kolkata condescendingly prefaced the book by apologetically asking tolerance from readers for her misperceptions and simple language but applauding her sincere attempt.
In her account, Krishnabhabini repeatedly raises two central dilemmas. First, how can she and her compatriots preserve their own culture and values while simultaneously becoming Anglicized. As an example of this danger, she criticizes her contemporary, Ms. Pandita Ramabai (1858-1922), for having abandoned Hinduism to become a Christian ‘and hence degraded the Hindu race’. Initially, Krishnabhabini laments with shame how, through her own adoption of a ‘memsahib’ Englishwomen’s dress, she had distanced herself from her Hindu Bengali sisters. But she takes heart from her conviction that she has done so for their sake.
Krishnabhabini’s second dilemma is who should be included in her vision for the nascent Indian nation. As she first leaves Bengal and journeys by train to Mumbai, she notes both the stereotypical differences and also the foundational commonalities among middle-class Hindu women and men of India’s diverse regions. But she does not identify with people of lower classes or other communities living in India. Thus, her evocative account tells us much about her own personal perceptions and cultural journeys and those of many comparable people of her time and status.
Through Krishnabhabini’s thoughtful ethnography, we also learn much about English Victorian society and culture. Insightful outside observers like her can note and record customs and details that are so commonplace for natives that they often remain unremarked. Her descriptions of the world of middle-class English households, as well as the indigenous racial and other cultural attitudes toward Indians and other foreigners, thus enrich our understanding of this transitional period for imperial England.
Readers of Krishnabhabini’s fascinating and significant book will therefore find much to learn from and savour.
Michael H. Fisher
Robert S. Danforth Professor of History
Oberlin College, USA
I have seen so many new things in this country and have gained knowledge on so many new subjects; but the more I see and learn about it, the longer I am living here, the more I am remembering India and this makes my heart ache. As I compare this country with that, I understand the great differences between them even more. I am also suffering a lot of mental pain on seeing the pitiable condition of India. Sometimes, I feel totally frustrated and feel India’s sorrow will never be reduced. At other times, I feel a little hopeful and think just as I am feeling for my country, similar feelings are also reverberating in many people’s minds back there. Like me, many people are mentally suffering after seeing the miserable condition of my country and so, hopefully they will compare both the good and bad aspects of the homeland and foreign lands and try to do something for the well-being of our country.
After reading about the knowledge, trade, labour, and women’s education in England, every Indian will understand how much more developed England is in comparison to India. Again, when you read about the English society, domestic life, personal independence of every individual, their love for the motherland, self-respect, etc., you will understand how different English life is from the Indian one. We Hindus are the descendants of the famous Aryans. Right from ancient times, even before the Greeks, our civilisation, religion, knowledge and learning have been famous in the world. We admired truth and courage. Even when all civilised nations had the practice of owning slaves, the Hindus were the only people who restrained themselves from such a heinous act as they did not believe in keeping another fellow human being bonded for life. Their brave deeds and fame spread across the world and their excellence in ancient mathematics, astrology, and philosophy acted as a leading light for other civilised races to follow and get inspired from to make new discoveries. We are the children of those Hindus but why are we in such a state now? Today, we have lost our courage, strength, wealth, prestige, independence, and complete happiness. Why are we residing in our own country in such a pathetic condition? Why have we forgotten the great achievements of the Hindus in cities like Kashi (Varanasi), Prayag (Allahabad) and Mathura today and are paying all our respects to Calcutta only? Everyone knows the reason why but no one is willing to give the answer or wants to listen to the answer. No one will even admit that this has happened due to our own fault. The English people have two hands, two legs, and no part of their body is different or superior to that of the Indians. Isn’t it our fault that now we are subservient to them?
The Hindu women who undauntedly committed themselves to the fire in order to maintain their sanctity when their husbands left for the battlefield were also, at one point of time, known in all corners of the world because of their bravery. Their religion, chastity and bravery were ideals to be followed but today we, their daughters, are subservient and are being crushed underfoot. Isn’t this the fault of India’s own sons and daughters? Where is the bravery and courage of the Indian women today? Where is their zeal today to offer all the jewelry for procuring food for the soldiers? Today, when we see the sons of India sitting idle like cowards, we ask: where is the zeal to ignite their minds once again? We have nothing now and we have lost everything due to our own fault. Lack of unity, like an evil serpent, has caused our destruction. It is because of this lack of unity that India is divided into so many parts and after the rule of the Muslims, she has now fallen under the control of the English. It is because of their unity that the people of this very tiny island could defeat the huge Hindustan and rule over it completely. It is because of this lack of unity that we are now turning poor and powerless and in spite of being civilised, we are subservient and considered uncivilised. Tiny termites get together and create huge molehills and if man tries to torture them in any way, instead of getting scared of huge human beings, they come out aggressively in hordes and start taking revenge for the torture inflicted upon them. But we human beings, with huge bodies, do not get together to protest but are afraid to face our rivals instead.
The Hindus were worshipped throughout the world at one point of time for their civilisation and repository of knowledge; but now they are considered uncultured, lifeless cowards who are subservient to the independent races of people. They are looked down upon and in spite of being creatures of flesh and blood, they remain complacent about it and endure all humiliation. Isn’t it our own fault that we do not even feel insulted about it? The Bengalis are the most intelligent and learned among all Indians but they are cowards and lack bravery. So, what is the necessity for all their wisdom and learning? Other people in different parts of India are not crushed under the feet of the British as the Bengalis are, nor do they quiver in fear after seeing a white man’s face.
These people behave very strictly with women. The educated Bengali youth are busy acquiring degrees and seeking their own pleasure but they are incapable of seeing the silent tears that the Bengali woman keeps on shedding while being confined in a cage. The English women are now struggling to become members of parliament, are creating a lot of commotion and trying very hard to win power for themselves. In a similar manner, if we could strike at the heart of each Indian and ask for women’s liberation, if we did away with our docile and tender nature, and instead of keeping all our sorrows confined within our hearts, could shout and create a commotion in front of them, probably the Bengalis would lend ears to our pain and suffering. But by remaining subservient for a long time, we have lost all our power and strength for an independent life and that is why we are incapable of being equal to men in all respects as the English women are attempting to be.
There are so many kinds of pleasurable sights in this country but what I prefer to see most are the meetings where men and women participate equally, play games together and also, grown-up women going to school. I love to see how all of them move around like brothers and sisters and play and laugh together. Which Indian’s mind would not be filled with joy after seeing this? But after looking at their happiness, instead of forgetting our sorrow, we become doubly sad. The more I see the mark of independence on the face of the English woman, the sad and demure face of the Indian woman arises in my mind even more.
Many people lack racial strength, intelligence or unity; but the firm love for their nation has helped them to uplift themselves from a miserable and subservient state. But we do not even know the meaning of what love for the nation is. We spend our days complacently and do not get excited or eager to sacrifice our leisure even when we see the torture being inflicted upon our homeland. Like animals, we only prefer self-gratification and are totally oblivious of the welfare of India. We do not sit down together to have serious discussions on issues that would either develop the nation or bring more harm.
To conclude, I want to say that it is no use lamenting ancient times. Instead, we should specifically think of the present and the future. A truly knowledgeable person should understand the issues related to the past and then, act carefully now as well as in future. When we consider both our homeland and the foreign land together, we understand the reality of the present condition. We should constantly evaluate and then, adopt methods that will improve our present condition and also be beneficial in the future. If we analyse the history of civilised and prospering nations, we find that they have been continuously changing. This change has come very slowly and the gradual development has brought in a new countenance. We also see that those races which have not undergone any change at all and have remained in the same static position for a long time are now declining to a worse position and moving towards an imminent downfall. Just as man, animals, trees etc. change continuously, in the same way the main goal of every race is also to bring forth change. So, the only way to rectify the current miserable state of our country is through change and development.
Many people are excited by the idea that “we have to become independent” and ignite false hopes in the minds of others. But we must first consider whether we have the requisite qualifications to become independent, whether we can retain that independence and whether we have the strength to gain that independence. Before succeeding in our goal, we should know the ways and means to be adopted to achieve that goal. We should know whether we possess the virtues of the race we want to defeat and bring them down from their position as rulers. We have to ascertain whether we have sufficient power, knowledge, and tactics within ourselves. If we don’t have those qualities collectively, instead of showing false chivalry, we have to do away with superstitions and all old and harmful traditions and try our level best to inculcate all their virtues.
Leaving behind all my friends and relatives, I bade farewell to my loving motherland with a lot of difficulty and am now living in this foreign land. I don’t even know whether I will be able to see my birthplace and my loving friends and relatives again. Many thoughts have been disturbing my mind for a long time and at times, I cannot control the pain and anxiety within me. That suffering has doubled after coming to this foreign land and I am expressing parts of it in this book in order to offer solace to my own mind. If any part of this book seems bad to my fellow countrymen, they will hopefully pardon me by thinking that the more one is hurt, the more loudly one speaks out. Many people could have written this book in a more refined language, expressed the inner thoughts of my mind in better words; but no one else could experience the mental stress and turmoil that this Bengali woman is undergoing for residing in a foreign land. My readers can discard the bad sections and select only the good portions, if there are any. If even one person is inspired by new thoughts and feelings after reading this book or thinks about his homeland and the foreign land, I will know that all my labour has been successful.
Here, Mother! I have come to independent Britain
With lots and lots of hope
I thought I will win eternal peace
But Mother India! Where is the happiness?
The more I listen to songs of independence here
The more I see jubilant spirits all around
The more my heart breaks into hundred pieces
And flows away in tears.
This Britain, like your daughter
A tiny country, but vigorous in spirit
Shakes the earth with its strength and bravery
Humanity is scared in fear
Of its courageous feats.
But no one fears us
Finding us cowards, they chase us far away
Mother! They take away all your wealth
And chain you instead.
As I look at this zealous spirit
This great pleasure, rich in wealth,
I despise myself and loathe to remain alive
In low subservient disgrace.
If you were ugly, and
Only with deserts full of sand,
Even that was better than this slavery
And to live a life of abject disgrace.
Only the weak tolerate such torture.
Mother! It would even have been better
If we were all caught in a web of ignorance
If we were savages like the Zulus,
And possessed the wealth of freedom,
We would be free of all pain.
Of what use is the wealth of knowledge
Of art and civilisation
If the priceless wealth eludes us
And glorifies the whole world?
Only heartache abounds!
I can see you suffer
With greater clarity from this distance
But alas! This merely doubles the pain
And increases it further.
Mother! It’s a terrible Bengali life.
So I think once more
If we were seeped in sea of ignorance
I would not cry ceaselessly
Sitting with a broken heart,
In this distant land of free Britain.
I see lots and lots of wealth
In Britain that has come
Floating from India,
Leaving the country forever in poverty
They will never go back again.
I also see the flag in the distance,
Flying with pride on top of the palace.
Inside sits Queen Victoria,
Ruling from Britain our mother India
With the Kohinoor crown on her head.
But, as I contemplate how
The Kohinoor becomes your jewel
And finds a place in the heart of England,
I remember this and such events in history.
And feel overwhelmed.
The goddess of Britain is not above you
O Mother! What injustice!
Even now I cannot think of it
The jewel of Ranjit Singh on her head.
Blood boils in my veins.
About the Book
This is a translation from Bengali to English of the first ever woman’s travel narrative written in the late nineteenth century when India was still under British imperial rule with Bengal as its capital. Krishnabhabini Das (1864-1919) was a middle-class Bengali lady who accompanied her husband on his second visit to England in 1882, where they lived for eight years. Krishnabhabini wrote her narrative in Bengali and the account was published in Calcutta in 1885 as England-e Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England). This anonymous publication had the author’s name written simply as “A Bengali Lady”. It is not a travel narrative per se as Das was also trying to educate fellow Indians about different aspects of British life, such as the English race and their nature, the English lady, English marriage and domestic life, religion and celebration, British labour, and trade. Though Hindu women did not observe the purdah as Muslim women did, they had, until then, remained largely invisible, confined within their homes and away from the public gaze. Their rightful place was within the domestic sphere and it was quite uncommon for a middle-class Indian woman to expose herself to the outside world or participate in activities and debates in the public domain. This self-ordained mission of educating people back home with the ground realities in England is what makes Krishnabhabini’s narrative unique. The narrative offers a brilliant picture of the colonial interface between England and India and shows how women travellers from India to Europe worked to shape feminized personae characterised by conventionality, conservatism and domesticity, even as they imitated a male-dominated tradition of travel and travel writing.
About the Translator
Somdatta Mandal is former Professor of English and Chairperson of the Department of English and Other Modern European Languages at Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan, India. Her areas of interest are contemporary fiction, film and culture studies, diaspora studies and translation. A recipient of several prestigious awards and fellowships, she has been published widely both nationally and internationally. She has also an award from Sahitya Akademi for the All India Indian Literature Golden Jubilee (1957-2007) Literary Translation Competition in the Fiction category for translating short stories series ‘Lalu’ by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyaya. She has written two academic books and edited and co-edited twenty books and journals, including three anthologies, Indian Travel Narratives (2010), Journeys: Indian Travel Writing (2013), Indian Travel Writing: New Perspectives (2021) and “India and Travel Narratives” for Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities Volume 12 (3), May 2020.
Among her translations on travel writing are The Westward Traveller by Durgabati Ghose with a foreword by Ashis Nandy, Wanderlust: Travels of the Tagore Family, Englande Bongomohila (A Bengali Lady in England) by Krishnabhabini Das, Bangamohilar Japan Jatra (A Bengali Lady’s Trip to Japan and Other Essays) by Hariprabha Takeda with a foreword by Michael H. Fisher, Chitrita Devi’s Onek Sagar Periye (Crossing Many Seas), Rabindranath Tagore’s Pather Sanchoy (Gleanings of the Road), and two travel memoirs of Nirmalkumari Mahalanobis along with Rabindranath Tagore, Kobir Shonge Europey (With the Poet in Europe) and Kobir Shonge Dakkhinattey (With the Poet in the South).
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