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ASHAPURNA DEVI (1909-1995)

Ashapurna Devi was a Bengali novelist who portrayed the hopelessness and claustrophobia of woemn’s lives under patriarchy in the mid-twentieth century. She is best known for her trilogy of novels, Pratham Pratishruti, Subarnalata, and Bakul Katha.

She was born on 8 February 1909. She grew up in Calcutta, where her father was an artist and her mother a literature-loving housewife. Married at a young age into a traditional family, Ashapurna could not finish her education but at home she was allowed to read Bengali magazines and books. She wrote her first stories for young adults during the 1930s. Her first adult story was in 1937, ‘The Husband’s Lover’, in which she touched the changing and contradictory expectations men have of women: that they should be traditional, obedient wives and at the same time, stimulating, glamorous lovers to show off to others.

Her novel of protest, Pratham Pratishruti (translated by Indira Choudhury as The First Promise, Orient Longman, 2004) shook the complacent foundations of genteel Bengali bhadralok society. First published in 1964, it was the first volume of a trilogy that was to explore the space provided to women and the possibilities of occupying that space in middle class society. In Pratham Pratishruti, the heroine, Satyavati, is a tomboy who refuses to fit into the childhood prescribed for her. Her marriage is the usual mixture of torture with boredom, but somehow she survives with her spirit intact and even opens a school for girls. Her hopes centre on her daughter Subarna, whom she wants to bring up with the advantages she never had, but her husband’s family whisk Subarna off to the village and get her married in secret. Satyavati arrives too late to stop the ceremony, and in a memorable scene, merely gets back on the bullock cart and rides away again, never to return. The second volume of the trilogy, Subarnalata, published in 1967, describes Subarna’s married life, but Subarna is a meek and cowed version of her mother, tamely accepting all the indignities heaped upon her. When she asks her husband to build her a balcony in their new house, it seems as if a window will open for her on to the outside world, but when she walks through the finished house, there is no balcony. Her husband has forgotten. The last volume, Bakul Katha (1974), is a pale shadow of the first two.

In all Ashapurna wrote more than 150 novels and countless short stories. She won the Rabindra Memorial Prize in 1966, the Bharatiya Jnanpith and the Padma Shri in 1976. She received honorary D.Litt degrees from the Universities of Jabalpur, Rabindra Bharati, Burdwan and Jadavpur. She received the Haranath Ghosh Medal from the Bangiya Sahitya Parishad in 1988 and the following year Vishwa Bharati University honoured her with the title Deshikottama. She won the Jagattarini Gold Medal from the University of Calcutta in 1993 and the Fellowship of the Sahitya Akademy in 1994.
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