An Unfinished Song

by Swarnakumari Ghosal

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The author of this book, a high caste Indian lady, is one of the pioneers of the Woman movement in Bengal, indeed the wealthy Tagore family to which she belongs has done more to raise the standard of the Bengali than any other Indian family. Although brought up strictly on Zenana lines, educated behind the purdah, and married at a very youthful age, Mrs. Ghosal was encouraged both by her father and her husband to develop her unusual powers of mind and character. Her father, Devendra Nath Tagore, was the great religious reformer and founder of the Brahmo Somaj, a society which devotes itself to fostering and preserving all that is high and noble in the Vedic religion. From her father Mrs. Ghosal inherits her passionate love and admiration for her native land, her ardent desire to rouse it from its lethargy, to inspire it to progress, and to help it cast off the yoke of its debasing traditions.

One of her brothers, Rabindra Nath Tagore, is the foremost Indian poet of to-day, adored by his countrymen, and eulogised both in England and America, where his poems have been issued in translated form. Another brother, Dwijendra Nath, founded what is now one of the chief Bengali magazines, which he dedicated to Bharoti, the goddess of Learning; while her third brother, Satyendra Nath, after visiting England, set himself to tear down the purdah, to remove from Indian women the many and tremendous disabilities under which they labour; he has been warmly supported by Mrs. Ghosal, who was one of the first Bengali ladies to mix freely in Society.

At a very early age Mrs. Ghosal, or, to call her by her beautiful Indian name, Srimati Svarna Kumari, which signifies the Maiden of Gold, showed unusual ability and force of character; before she was twenty she had published an anonymous novel which became an immediate success, and the revelation of its authorship caused a great sensation, as it was the first time an Indian woman had attempted such a feat. Soon after she took over from her brother the editorship of the magazine "Bharoti," thus becoming the first woman editor in India, and, except for a short interval when her two daughters took it in hand, she has conducted it ever since—a period of twenty-five years. Besides her editorial work she has produced novels and short stories, poems, dramas, farces, and popular scientific text books for use in schools. Several of her novels have been dramatised and her plays have been performed before enthusiastic audiences all over India.

Besides her literary and editorial work she interests herself in every movement that is set on foot to educate and raise her countrywomen, and has herself founded a Home for Indian widows, for the purpose of providing a refuge for those unfortunates whose relatives, now that old customs are losing ground, no longer feel bound to maintain them; this Home is directed by one of Mrs. Ghosal's daughters, while her other daughter founded and directs the "All India Women's Society" for the education of Indian women. Mrs. Ghosal's son holds an important position in the I.C.S., and is now on a visit to England with his wife, the Princess Sukriti of Cooch Behar.

Now that her children are married Mrs. Ghosal lives alone in the great Ghosal house, which stands in its large and beautiful grounds, shaded by palm trees and cooled by fountains, on the outskirts of Calcutta. Only a few months ago she lost her beloved husband, her lifelong companion, who shared her convictions and encouraged her in her work. Since then, although she does not adhere to the strict rules of the Hindoo widow, she has withdrawn from Society. She feels that, for her, the joy of life is over. "We shall be reunited in our future births," she says, and this she awaits with calm conviction. She has laid aside her wonderfully embroidered saris with their gold borders; her magnificent necklaces and bracelets and the splendid jewels that used to fasten her saris on shoulder and breast and in her dark hair she has divided among her daughters and grandchildren, and she now appears clad in flowing garments of soft white silk. She is tall and stately, a veritable "grande dame," her face is noble and expressive of high intelligence, and her manner calm and perfectly dignified.

One day for her is very like another; she rises at a very early hour, and upon the great terrace in front of the house she recites her morning prayer as the sun rises, endeavouring to "merge her small entity in the great ocean of entities"; she prays to the Almighty, All Beneficent Power, that good may befall every creature, that wisdom and happiness may be the lot of every soul on its journey up from ignorance to light. Then she goes to the south verandah where, after drinking a glass of milk, she spends the early morning hours in literary work, revising, editing, correcting and writing. At eleven o'clock she has her daily bath, an important ceremonial in the life of an Indian lady, even her heavy luxuriant hair is washed every day. After a very simple meal she rests and reads the daily papers or a book. At four she has another cup of milk, and until seven she strolls in her beautiful garden, or receives visitors (or before her husband's death she would drive out in her car and pay visits), and soon after dinner she retires to rest. Although Mrs. Ghosal still wears the native dress and retains all the beauty and comfort that India has to offer her, she does not hesitate to introduce European conveniences into her house, and her wide drawing room contains English chairs and tables. There she receives her friends with generous hospitality; when they first arrive tea is handed to them in pretty Japanese cups, then a number of trays are brought in covered with small dishes containing innumerable delicacies: quaint little cakes, delicious sandwiches, fried rice, biscuits spread with hot cheese, salads, fruit creams and sherbets; the hostess herself piles her visitors' plates till the pray her to desist, and finally finger bowls are handed round.

Mrs. Ghosal is a forerunner, a type of the future woman of India, now that education is becoming general. She has not wholly emerged from the seclusion of the purdah, there are still many relatives even in Calcutta whose feelings would be grievously hurt by total emancipation, with them she still keeps purdah, the change even in her enlightened family is going on slowly. Emancipation is not all gain, Mrs. Ghosal thinks; women behind the purdah lived such peaceful sheltered lives, nothing came near enough to hurt them except the sickness or death of their dear ones; anxieties passed them by, there was time for everything, no hurry, no striving to be "economically independent," and Mrs. Ghosal, with all her progressive ideas, still preserves the dignified tranquillity of the purdah nashin lady; brilliant as she is in the eyes of her countrymen, flattered as she has been, she never asserts herself nor gives an opinion unasked; and indeed the semi-purdah in which she lives has the great advantage that it affords her abundant opportunity for her literary work and study. Mrs. Ghosal has read and thought deeply; although she has never been to England she is greatly interested in everything English, and reads many English books; her favourite author is George Eliot, for whom she has a deep veneration.

This is the first time that a book of hers has been brought before the English public, and it should be of deep interest to all those who are concerned with the Woman question, for it presents a careful study of the Indian girl at this intensely interesting stage in the history of her development, and particularly of her attitude towards love and marriage; all that is best in the old traditions of her race still holds her fast, but she is reaching out eager hands for the freedom that will some day be hers.

E.M. Lang, 1913


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