#Sepia Stories

Sepia Stories: How Jyotirmoyee Devi Captured Stories of Bengal’s Women Stuck in Partition

indian women of history jyotirmoyee devi

She documented the Eastern Partition of India like few others. Meet one of the pioneering women writers of India, Jyotirmoyee Devi who chronicled the Partition of Bengal and reflected on the implications on women, children and families of such a life-changing event in Indian history.

This deadly partition on the Eastern front, just like the one in Punjab, was followed by cross-border migrations that also marked a period of extreme communal violence which agonised and scarred many families.

She wrote the famous partition novel ‘The River Churning’, in which, she mainly depicted the lives of women in Bengal who had to bear the burden of this communal divide, and whose bodies were inflicted with sexual violence, rape and the resultant social exclusion that emanated out of such atrocities.

Landmark Work

Since there was a dearth in the kind of literature that recorded such gruesome atrocities inflicted upon women, her work becomes extremely important. The life of women and little girls in Rajasthan, and the discriminatory gender and caste norms that policed and defined their existence also feature majorly in her works.

Growing Up

She was born in Jaipur within an upper-caste and economically well-off family. Her place of birth impacted her writings profoundly in the later years. Deprived of an opportunity of formal education, her grandfather’s library became the sole means for her to establish a relationship with reading. Even when a little girl, she tried to use her relative privileges to make reading and books informally accessible for a larger number of females without upsetting the elders in her house. 

In her time and social reality, beyond the age of ten, very few girls were allowed to continue their education for they had to be prepared for marriage and learn domestic chores, which basically meant a curtailment of their childhood. Even though Jyotirmoyee Devi was married at the tender age of ten to a lawyer, unlike many of her contemporaries she was given leeway to pursue reading and writing.

Within a span of ten years, she had six children, but when she was twenty-five, her husband unfortunately died of influenza, and she had to return to her parents’ house to live a life of social ostracisation as an upper caste window. The religious norms were very stringent in her time and context, and a widow was expected to retain her chastity within the boundaries of home. The thought of widow-remarriage was considered sacrilegious back then.

Beyond Herself

Stifled by orthodox traditions and secluded as per religious instruction, reading became an outlet for her to reach the world beyond home and find comfort and solitude. This also gave her an opportunity to kindle the aspiring writer within her and claim a space. She moved to Bengal later after having spent a lot of time in Rajasthan.

The leading Bengal magazine Bharatvarsh published her first poem in 1922.

Prominent Writings

A significant chunk of her writings revolved around the restricted lives of little girls and women in Rajasthan. Her story “Beti Ka Baap” calls forth attention towards the evil of female infanticide and limited opportunities for social interaction that young women in Rajasthan had. 

Her short story Sheii Chellata is a commentary on the construction of a woman’s body as an allegory of familial honour upon which a violence of any kind, if inflicted, could lead to their abandonment. These women then, had to beg and plea for their livelihood, due to limited or no economic independence.

In her Partition novel Epar Ganga Opar Ganga, The River Churning, one can deduce the socially established link between the chastity of a woman and her identity, as a metric of ‘holiness’ that was used to define her purity, in the most absurd and outrageous means. Being a victim of rape or any kind of sexual violence resulted in a lifetime of social ostracisation. The novel also makes efforts to recover the tragedies suffered by women along religious and communal lines, that have been erased in public memory. 

Her stories Sona Nupa Roy won the Rabindra Puraskar in 1973.

Lived Realities of Women

She was deeply aware of the sociological conditions of the settings within which her stories were embedded and the lived realties of women and girls in Rajasthan who were enmeshed in several boundaries and social expectations that hounded their existence.  Having lived in both Bengal and Rajasthan, she was able to acquire a unique amalgamation of cultures in her thought-process, which had a cerebral effect upon her writings. She questioned the status of women’ right through her writings all her life.

She has deeply dealt with the issue of Partition and the costs paid by women who were condemned to a life of isolation and loneliness afterwards. She tried to steer public attention towards the truth that a patriarchal outlook towards women’s bodies compels them to bear the burden of ‘patriarchal nationalism’ that actually suppresses women and marginalised identities in the name of independence.

During her political career, she was considered by many to be way ahead of her times, and her works of fiction and non-fiction carry immense significance even years later after her demise in 1988.