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Rassundari Das

I just finished doing a history project on the life of a girl child in the early 19th century. While the project wasn't an awful lot of fun (writing pages and pages does tend to become tedious), I did learn quite a bit. One of the things that I learned that I thought was pretty neat was the story of a woman named Rassundari Das. She was a Bengali woman who was born in 1809 and died sometime near the end of the 19th century. Her claim to fame is that she was the first Indian person to write an autobiography.

Personally, I've always felt that autobiographies show extreme conceit - I mean, just how big-headed would you have to be to go out and write a book chronicling your own life? But I'm not here (much as I may wish I was) to discuss the pros and cons of autobiographies - I'm here to discuss Rassundari Das. She was born in Bengal (probably the great-great-grandmother of the chap who started K.C.Das Sweets, eh?) in a high-caste, low-income, conservative Hindu family. She wrote an autobiography titled "Amar Jiban" which translates as "My Life". There was a missionary school in her house which, being female, she was forbidden to attend. However, she would sit close by and pick up the rudiments of reading and writing (honestly, Rassundari, don't you know it's rude to eavesdrop? ;)). At the age of twelve, she was married off to some landowner chap from Faridapur. She says that her desire to learn to read sprang from a desire to read religious texts (ha! She probably just wanted to read comics). At her husband's house, she continued her education by secretly reading his religious texts. She was widowed at the age of 59. The next year, she finished and published her autobiography (although how she managed to find a publisher in that chauvinistic era evades me completely).

Then for thirty years she sat and read comics (because she was married off before she could begin reading them proper) and published the second part of her autobiography. This one had a foreword by Jyotirindranath Tagore. She spent her life far from Calcutta, the epicenter of Bengali literature and culture, but still had the honour of writing India's very first autobiography. She wrote both her books in Bangla and the mere writing of them, an act forbidden to women of the time, in itself is worthy of commendation. Now that, I think, is a woman worth respecting. And perhaps even a book worth reading.

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