A short conversation about Ashapurna Debi / Ipshita Mitra

Ashapurna Debi was one of the most prominent Bengali writers of the past century. Ipshita Mitra worked tirelessly as an editor to bring out her collection of short stories in English titled Shake the Bottle, translated by Arunava Sinha. What follows is a short conversation about Debi and her works, and Mitra’s persistence as an editor.

You have mentioned that Shake the Bottle took three years to complete. What drew you to Ashapurna Debi’s work…what made you persist?

Persistence. Ashapurna Debi wrote in a language I could only claim to be my mother tongue. I can neither read nor write Bangla. Before I could be drawn to her works, her characters—Satyabati, Subarnalata and Bakul—had become familiar to me, albeit vaguely. My mother, for whom Debi’s trilogy—Pratham Pratisruti (The First Promise, 1964), Subarnalata (1967) and Bakulkatha (The Story of Bakul, 1974)—is a bible she grew up reading and continues to swear by, established my first connection with Debi’s extraordinary women. The more I heard, the more I realised how things have not really changed for women through centuries. Much later, when I learnt about the thread that truly united Debi’s protagonists, that surpassed their biological identity, it overwhelmed me. And that was their love for words. Satyabati was situated in a space and time when a woman would be severely condemned for even composing rhymes. When she first writes on taalpaat (sheaf of palm leaves), much to the chagrin of the patriarchal society, she is bemused by the criticism she is subjected to. Isn’t the Goddess of Knowledge, Ma Saraswati a woman?, she questions. And because as a woman she did not have access to ink (a male privilege), she would prepare a paste of leaves and use the sap to write. No wonder Debi called herself ‘Saraswati’s Stenographer’. Subarnalata, Satyabati’s daughter, another young bride like her mother, writes when the world sleeps. She, of course, was ‘privileged’ to use a pen and ink. But society was not ready to allow that privilege to her. She burns every piece of her writing out of sheer helplessness, ire and frustration. In the third generation, Bakul, Subarnalata’s daughter, is a writer whose publisher gives her enough grief because her words are not only read but very much in demand. For me, this was a stunning revelation. That it took several generations for a woman to even hold a pen and paper was a rather painful reality I found extremely difficult to come to terms with. A woman sinned because she embraced letters and ink? These women persisted, resisted and resurrected in their own way. They moved forward, they did not take a step back, they honoured the struggle of that one woman who did ‘dare’ and paved the way. So, whether it’s three generations or three years, persistence is essential. Without resilience, it’s hard to evolve. And I am extremely blessed that as the daughter of an era which stands a century apart (and yet connected) from a time and period these fearless and feisty women inhabited and existed in, I have been associated with an endeavour of making Debi’s universal stories global. And then there was Arunava Sinha’s perseverance that made me persist. The award-winning translator handpicked some of the most powerful and poignant stories from Debi’s exhaustive repertoire and gifted the world of readers—Shake the Bottle and Other Stories.

It’s interesting that you speak of resilience – of the writer, the translator, the editor. Also, of resilience of women, in general, especially in a deeply patriarchal society like ours. India has recently been ranked as the most unsafe country for women in the world. How do you think, as an editor and as an Indian woman, Ashapurna Debi’s work connects with this time, which is both very similar and very different from her time. 

The woman of today has become more visible in the public sphere from the woman Ashapurna Debi was writing about: true, the 21st-century modern woman is no longer confined within the walls of domesticity. She has ventured to avenues that were inaccessible to her before. But am not sure if these women and their lifestyles have been ‘sanctioned’ whole-heartedly by the patriarchal society. The woman has stepped outside of the zenana, she juggles both home and the world and probably has more agency, but I am not confident if society at large has been able to reconcile itself with the thought of an independent woman exercising her autonomy. The patriarchal world is still comfortable with the idea of a silent, submissive and subservient woman. Anything contrary to this is considered an act of transgression (though applauded, albeit patronisingly). So even if a woman sportsperson becomes World No. 1, she’ll be asked about her plans to “settle down”. Motherhood defined a woman’s identity then, it defines (sadly) her even now. Some of Debi’s heroines are, in fact, more rebellious and progressive than some of the present-day women can be. Debi’s women were situated within the domestic space but they knew how to subvert even in submission. The mother in one of the stories in this collection tries to steal a few hours for her daughter by concealing a bitter truth. Honestly, while I do feel women then and now battled and continue to battle gender prejudices and biases, today unfortunately, I feel we are also going backwards. A woman minister makes a bizarre comment about a woman’s “purity” and why she should resist from stepping inside a temple during “those days of the month”. I think the decolonisation of the mind is yet to happen: why should a woman be expected to “juggle” Ghare Baire (Home and the World) and the men only “Baire”, and in a misplaced sense of gender equality, women too regale in executing the dual role of a ‘housewife’ and ‘working woman’ efficiently. Why should she? A woman has to, must please everyone. Why? Because, the ‘essential’ role of a woman is to be a ‘nurturer’. Therefore, a woman might have been ‘allowed’ to pursue her dreams in the outside world, but she is still expected to manage the household as well. So, even if you achieve the zenith in the outside world, your merit as a woman will always be evaluated on the basis of your ‘performance’ in the zenana. This is what has not changed through centuries. The mindset. Are you woman enough was the question then and still is. 

You make a very interesting observation—being a woman is performative. It’s reminiscent of what de Beauvoir said that one becomes a woman. But do men have to become men? How are Ashapurna Debi’s men?

A man is, therefore he rarely ‘becomes’. A man tends to derive meaning of masculinity by his behaviour toward women. And this behaviour is often (read mostly) patronising, infantilising and prejudiced. Ashapurna Debi’s men too suffer from this malady. In ‘The Fragrance And Its Essence’, Aloka Tripathi’s husband, for instance, doesn’t shy away from asking his wife to ‘doll up’ in front of his guests, just to further his own career. He says, (quite unabashedly) “I can’t tell you how useful your performances are proving.” The wife is ‘allowed’ to be a ‘doll’ and a ‘dancing girl’ only if the husband wishes so. On the contrary, if you look at someone like Anindita Sen and her daughter in the story ‘The Deceiver’, you would realise how a woman cannot do the same for another woman—play along—without censure. The wife is severely reprimanded for being audacious in her motive to bring a ‘few hours of happiness’ to her newly widowed daughter. I think, a man’s ‘performance’ is premised on his ability to silence a woman who questions. A case in point could be ‘The Butcher’, where Samaresh accuses Kamala of killing their child, because women “cannot bear the pain of harsh words. None of you can tolerate the slightest slur.” This is a telling scene because the child’s death hasn’t encouraged even an iota of remorse in Samaresh, who, by the way, is the father of the child. Instead, what he is busy arguing is that Kamala should have had the tenacity to stomach verbal abuse from the womenfolk in the kitchen and attend to the crying infant, which is not a man’s ‘duty’ anyway. Samaresh conveniently forgets his own “harsh words” he hurls at his wife who is not even given enough time to mourn the loss of her child. Again, the private vs public paradigm is upheld where women end up bearing the brunt. And in this, there is no consolation for the woman, she is only subjected to accusations. So yes, am not sure if Ashapurna Debi’s men are redeemable…much like today’s men.

Ashapurna Debi is an Indian writer – but she is also a distinctly Bengali writer. How do you think Bengal seeps into her writing and imagination? What are the similarities and differences you encounter while reading other Bengali women writers? Other Indian women writers?

Wow. The answer to this question would require a space of a lifetime and maybe beyond. Being a ‘probashi Bangali’, the Bengali alphabet was unfamiliar to me. And I still am an illiterate as far as reading and writing in Bangla are concerned. So, when you ask, what is distinctly Bengali about A. Debi, I immediately get drawn toward words – ‘poitey’, ‘moshari’, ‘chochhori’, ‘Chhotoboudi’, ‘Maloti-mashi’ etc – that have been retained as is by Arunava Sinha in the English translation. These words create an imagery that is distinctly ‘Bengali.’ When Gourishankar struggles to take out the key, he asks for a pair of scissors so that he could cut off his ‘poitey’ and free the keys, much to the chagrin of his son who thinks it to be a sacrilegious act. Now, a poitey is essentially a piece of thread but the cultural trope, the sensibility, the sanctity of the ‘sacred’ thread is distinctly Bengali. Similarly, a mosquito-net (moshari) evokes a very Bengali way of living. I mean, I haven’t seen mosquito-nets at my non-Bengali friends’ place. Have you? Also, the geographical landscape is obviously Bengali. As a writer, Ashapurna brings to the fore the interiors of a Bengali household, which other Bengali women writers, like Mahasweta Debi or Nabaneeta Dev Sen do not really focus on as far as their women protagonists are situated. Mahasweta Debi’s Dopdi (Draupadi) is fighting the external forces, the soldiers, in the forests. Nabaneeta Dev Sen’s travelogue Truckbaahane Myakmahane (On a Truck Alone, To McMohan) is about a woman’s solo trip on a truck.The woman, in both instances, has crossed the threshold. On the face of it, these women writers could be perceived as different from A. Debi but aren’t they still connected? It was because a writer like Debi who had written about the inner world, the inner voice of a woman, that subsequent women writers could derive inspiration from her and explore a woman’s ‘outside’ journey in their respective literary works. In a way, Ashapurna’s ‘home’ led the successive generations of women writers to the ‘world’. On the other hand, someone like Maitreyi Devi, who was A. Debi’s contemporary, wrote It Does Not Die 42 years after Mircea Eliade’s 1933 novel Bengal Nights. She hadn’t even read his book, she had only heard about it from people, including her father. After reading her story, the question that lingers is, was Maitreyi Devi conscious of the patriarchal concerns/constraints that she dismissed Eliade’s story as a figment of his imagination? And then there was Ismat Chughtai, an Indian, non-Bengali writer who penned works such as Lihaf, Masooma, Garam Hawa. Recall Amrita Pritam’s Puro in Pinjar or even Krishna Sobti’s Mitro Marjani (To Hell With You Mitro), how distinct they are as characters but so similar in their existence and allocated fate. Whether it’s the 20th or the 21st century, the story of a woman has somewhere remained the same. Has it not? I wish to be proven otherwise. 

A self-confessed chai addict, Ipshita Mitra likes to believe she is in an unrelenting love affair with books. She was Senior Editor with one of India’s leading publishing houses and has recently joined a popular Indian news website. Melancholia and nostalgia comfort her soul at times of severe helplessness and restlessness. Farida Khanum and Roberta Flack sing her lullabies every night. She likes to write letters and draw horrible doodles. She has been wanting to buy a typewriter since 1989.

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