The first autobiographical novel by an Indian woman writing in English was both beautiful and profound

The first autobiographical novel by an Indian woman writing in English was both beautiful and profound

The first autobiographical novel by an Indian woman writing in English was both beautiful and profound
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I began this series last summer with the first book written in English by an Indian. So when it was time to read the first book of 2016 for my bottom shelf, I picked another old volume that enjoys a similar honour. This time, it’s by an author who is credited with being the first woman novelist in English from India.

From 1887 to 1888, the Madras Christian College Magazine serialised a story in English called Saguna. It was an autobiographical novel by Krupabai Satthianadhan, a young woman in her twenties. In 1895, a year after her untimely death, Saguna: A Story of Native Christian Life was published posthumously by Srinivasa, Varadachari and Co. in Madras. The book was presented to Queen Victoria who, upon reading it, was so impressed that she asked for more books by the same author.

The novel was read widely both in India and England at the time, and received glowing reviews recommending the book “for its high moral tone.” But then, for the next hundred and odd years, it disappeared from the public eye. It was only in 1998 that Oxford University Press decided to reissue it with an introduction by editor Chandani Lokuge, and a new title: Saguna: The First Autobiographical Novel by an Indian Woman.

An autobiographical novel is defined as a work that merges fiction and autobiographical elements. Saguna captures factual details about the author’s life as well as the prevailing mood of the time with the help of wonderful descriptions, vivid character sketches, and poetic language. As is evident from the original title, it has predominantly Christian overtones, and as the new title indicates, it also deals heavily with “the woman question.”

From life to literature

The book opens with the author stating her intention to “present a faithful picture of the experiences and thoughts of a simple Indian girl.” In the beginning we come to know the autobiographical details, which are very interesting given Krupabai’s education and learning at a time when both were uncommon for women. Here are some of the basics.

Saguna/Krupabai was one of 14 siblings, born in Ahmednagar (then in the Bombay Presidency) to the first Brahmin converts to Christianity. Her father died early, her three elder sisters were married, and she was left at home with four boys for company. It was the eldest brother, Bhasker, who exercised a powerful and permanent influence on the young Saguna.

His death, when Saguna was thirteen, devastated her. In order to recover, she spent some time under the care of two European women who introduced her to British ways, and subsequently attended boarding school in Bombay, where she proved to be a brilliant student and developed an interest in medicine. She was even awarded a scholarship to attend medical school in England, but was not allowed to go due to her poor health and prevailing patriarchal attitudes.

She then entered Madras Medical College, the first medical college in India to admit women, but, unfortunately, was forced to give up her medical career because of depression and ill health. In 1881, she met and fell in love with a reverend’s son, Samuel Sattianadhan, who had just returned from university in England. The novel ends with their marriage, but in her own life Krupabai went on to become a teacher and writer.

A firm believer in girls’ education, she taught in zenanas and opened a small school for Muslim girls. Her essays, poems, travelogues, and fiction originally appeared in local newspapers, journals, and magazines, and were posthumously published in Miscellaneous Writings of Krupabai Sattianadhan. Interestingly, her second novel was called Kamala: A Story of Hindu Life.

Representing a new voice

In her Preface to the OUP edition, Lokuge discusses the persona of the “Indian New-Woman” who emerged during the late nineteenth century, “as a subsequence of British colonialist influences which included educational and socio-religious reforms. Defying institutional patriarchal ideologies that enforced her domesticity and subjectivity, the New-Woman sought greater equality between men and women.”

Sattianadhan begins her book with an account of her mother’s early life. At the time when we first meet Saguna’s mother Radha, she lives with an aging father and a helpless little brother in her older brother’s house. Her sister-in-law is a mean and snide woman, given to fits of violent temper. Radha slaves for her day and night and quietly bears any beatings she is given. Sattianadhan takes pains to point out that it was not just Radha but also other little girls who were thus forced to do housework for their families.

It is this early portrait of what young Hindu girls’ lives were like that paves the way for the two predominant themes in the book, those of the Christian faith and the treatment of women. “Poor girls? What can we expect from such impoverished, stunted minds?” asks Krupabai.

“The refined, civilised mind shudders or looks down with pity on the exhibition as a relic of savagery; and yet these are the daughters of India whose lot is considered as not needing any improvement by many of my countrymen who are highly cultured and who are supposed to have benefitted from Western civilisation.”

Radha’s misfortunes continue after she is forced to go and live with her husband’s family. Her mother-in-law is a stern and pompous woman. Radha is depicted as a helpless and sensitive girl who is completely dependent on other people and has no voice or agency. The two factors that cause her such distress are her sex and the religion she has been born into. Here is an excerpt about her mother-in-law’s treatment of Radha that combines both ideas:

“Her treatment of Radha from an outsider’s point of view was indeed objectionable, but we must make allowance for a Hindu notion of a daughter-in-law who is regarded as a lying, screaming wretch, ever ready to work any amount of ill to a mother-in-law, stealing the affections, when she can, of a good and dutiful son, turning like a serpent on those that have fed and clothed her, trying every means to get the power which the mother-in-law wields.”

From despair to faith

It is against this backdrop that we are introduced to a force that according to the author has the power to rescue people from oppression. One night when she receives a harsh beating by her mother-in-law and also learns of her beloved little brother’s death, Radha tries unsuccessfully to commit suicide. In short, this is her darkest hour. It is on this night that she sees her husband, with whom so far she has had very little interaction, engrossed in Christian prayer. “The words that he uttered seemed to hold her with a power and her whole soul was absorbed in listening. The words fell on her ears with untold balm and healing.”

Radha’s husband Harichandra is an intellectual, well-read young man from a wealthy and “remarkably religious” Brahmin family known for its adherence to high morals and religious rituals. For him and his family Christianity is “the religion of the mlechas.” And yet, following a period of existential crisis and soul searching, it is to this religion that Harichandra turns. The impact on the Brahmin community, needless to say, is scandalous.

But Harichandra’s life is transformed into one of pure bliss. “Here was the infinite revealed in all its perfection, thus showing the possibility of an indissoluble union between God and man…he seemed lifted out of himself, up above all the world. A wild, delirious joy shot through his frame, and all his heart glowed with a new-found happiness. He could bear anything, suffer anything. All difficulties vanished.”

From this moment on in the book, faith becomes an integral theme, and passages of similar grandiose prose extolling the individual’s sublime connection with a higher spiritual power recur. Harichandra is the first in the family to experience the moment, but certainly not the last.

As good as a man?

Initially, Radha is “rebellious and uncontrollable,” refusing to accept the Christians and sahibs, and clinging to her festivals and fasts. But, soon, she too begins to doubt her belief in “shastras and idols.” Eventually, “the calm of the Christian Sabbath, the call for morning and evening prayers, her husband’s devotion, and the great forbearance shown to her ignorant, superstitious ways by those whom she felt were superior to her – these and many other things changed her attitude towards the new religion, and gradually she succumbed to the strong influences of Christianity.” The new faith is shown to be liberating. “There was now no feeling of constraint between Harichandra and Radha. The unnatural fetters of custom had fallen away…”

The children of Harichandra and Radha are devout Christians and even do missionary work in villages, spreading the word of god. The passages that deal with this subject are abstract and lofty and almost sound like sermons. In contrast, the sections dealing with “the woman question” are more concrete and rooted in the characters’ temperaments. Unlike her mother’s gentle and submissive nature, Saguna’s is a lot more feisty and independent. Even as a child, she refuses to accept the traditional place reserved for girls, and wants to be just like her brothers, something they don’t take to kindly.

“ ‘But she wanted to do exactly like us,’ said one of my brothers impetuously in self-defence.

‘And am I not as good as a boy? I can do as many sums as they,’ I said as I came out hastily, afraid of losing ground, ‘and I can read and write too.’ ”

Not only does Saguna read and write, but she does it rather well. Bhasker is the one who encourages her and shows her what books to read, and tells her about famous men. This is the start of a remarkable education and a lifelong love of learning. Later in the book, Saguna proclaims, “I would now throw aside the fetters that bound me and be independent. I had chafed under the restraints and the ties which formed the common lot of women, and I longed for an opportunity to show that a woman is in no way inferior to a man. How hard it seemed to my mind that marriage should be the goal of woman’s ambition, and that she should spend her days in the light trifles of a home life, live to dress, to look pretty, and never know the joy of independence and intellectual work.” Towards the end of the novel, Saguna turns down three marriage proposals in a single scene in favour of independence and a career.

However, her desire for independence does not prevent Saguna from falling in love with Samuel. While the novel ends there, in real life Krupabai went on to give up her career in medicine, and live a fairly conventional married life, following her husband wherever his work took him.

According to Lokuge, Krupabai, despite all her rebellions, remained, at heart, a dependent woman. As a child she idolised her older brother on whom she was totally dependent intellectually and psychologically. Later, she became dependent on her husband.

“She is torn apart by having to assert that she is ‘as good as a man,’ even while admitting the inbuilt compulsion to succumb to the tradition of being “only a woman.” It’s not just in this regard but overall that Sattianadhan displays strong internal conflict between opposing forces.

An internal battlefield

On the one hand, she appears to adopt Western ways of life, beginning with a Western faith. Hers seems to be a colonialist view of things. On the other hand, she consciously critiques Western ways of life. The author herself admits to these moments of self-division. In my opinion, these add a layer of complexity to the book, which, we should not forget, is not just meant to be an evangelical treatise or a manifesto of women’s rights. It is, above all, a novel.

Lokuge calls this book “a literary masterpiece of its time.” It is not hard to see why. This slim volume is full of beautiful language and characters that come alive on the page. Places and scenes are described evocatively. In contrast to the lofty language in the Christian sections, it’s when Sattianadhan writes about people – whom she no doubt knew personally – that her empathy and insight make the scenes quite moving.

For instance, the first time we see Radha, she is standing with her friend by the ghats in the town of Shivagunga. “The two formed a little world in themselves, amidst the large bustling world around them. None knew their feelings, their joys, their sorrows.”

This book would not be half as interesting as it is if it were not for the fact that it is a more or less accurate rendition of the author’s own life. Every now and then, she reflects on the nature of her memory, and how the passage of time has altered her perspective. These not only offer a window into Krupabai’s soul but also make the character of Saguna more introspective and reliable.

Before he got fatally ill, Bhasker often told Saguna that his greatest desire was to do great things. He once pleaded with his sister, “speak boldly to your countrywomen.” Despite Saguna’s own early passing at the age of 32, she has left behind a literary legacy that few Indian readers might be aware of today. In this book we have a fascinating record of an educated, Anglicised Indian woman’s experiences and perspective on issues of national importance towards the end of the nineteenth century. Surely, the adored older brother would have approved.

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