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Questioning White Supremacy: Bengali Woman's 1885 Travelogue Questions the Racist Roots of Imperialist England

A map of colonial Britain | Image credit: File

A map of colonial Britain | Image credit: File

Krishnabahini Das accompanied her husband to London to observe and document the lives of the British and study the cultural differences between Indians and British.

No journey is purposeless. Those who wander aimlessly harbour a secret desire to know the unknown. Those who migrate for work or education do so to avail better opportunities and build good lives. Those who travel for leisure want to replenish their souls with new sceneries. However, rarely does one hear of voyages which are undertaken with the explicit desire to understand the root of white supremacy, although, in the 1880s, a 20-year-old Bengali woman named Krishnabhabini Das did precisely that.

Das accompanied her husband to London intending to observe and document the lives of the British - the colonisers of India - and study the cultural differences between the Indians and the Britishers. Her observations were published as a travelogue titled Englandey Bangamahila in 1885, which was subsequently banned by the British government because its content was deemed 'dangerous' by the authorities.

In a recent English translation of Das's book, A Bengali Lady In England, by author and academician, Nabanita Sengupta you get a glimpse of 19th century London in all its flawed glory. Although autobiographical in nature, Das rarely speaks about her everyday life in London and focuses her lens on the lives of the British citizens in this travelogue. She chronicles their mundane public lives with colour and vividity and presents a subaltern view of the culture and customs, social hierarchy and habits of the English folks. Her account is hardly the first travelogue to do so but what makes her book unique is that she is perhaps one of the few Indian women, and the first Bengali woman, to write about the British lives in England from her own experience.

The key merit of her travel writings lies in the fact that she anchors on issues which were not only mainstream back then, but is equally pertinent even now.

In her book, Das writes in details about pollution, especially the dark smog which engulfed London in the late 1800s. We have often read about the 'foggy England' in Dickens's novels, and there have been several non-fiction books that have discussed the London smog at length. However, Krishnabhabini's travelogue connects the dot and shows the chain of causality as she explains to her readers how the smog is a by-product of the industrial revolution, which changed the face of England in the 19th century.

She recounts the horrors of living during those 'dark' times in graphic details and anyone reading the book today (more than 130 years after she wrote it) is bound to be filled with a sense of foreboding and fear of the growing level of pollution in our cities.

Furthermore, she talks about refugee asylum, immigration and religious persecution. She explains in her book, how the British, despite their many shortcomings, don't 'disturb' those who flee their own country and take refuge in England and co-exist with them peacefully. Read these paragraphs from the lens of contemporary issues like the Brexit and the brewing refugee crisis, and Krishnabhabini's words sound like a painful reminder of all the ideals Britain is failing to uphold in modern Europe.

The most significant contribution of Das's book is the way she compares the condition of Indian women to that of their British counterparts. In one of the poems in the book, Das laments:

'In Europe, wherever I go

I find women equal to men,

Contrarily in unfortunate India

Her place lies at the feet of the men.'

The reason her writings sound relevant is that Das was a progressive, open-minded and opinionated woman. Even in the late 1800s when Bengali women were expected to hide their faces under a ghomta (veil), were not entitled to higher education and were married off at a young age, she didn't kowtow to the mores and arrived at her own conclusions about people and situations. As she draws comparisons between the British and Indian women Das explains that she believes that women are 'not inferior to men in terms of intelligence.' she writes, "the fact that they (women) have achieved as much as men in spite of all the hurdles they face actually prove they are superior.'

Das is also not hesitant in making prescriptions for the betterment of Indian women. She writes, 'instead of just aping the manners of these (British) women if we can imbibe their virtues than perhaps we shall be truly benefitted.' She is open-minded in absorbing what she feels is 'virtuous' in English culture, and recommends that her own countrymen also do so if they want to progress.

Despite her progressive notions, she is also full of moral judgements. She denounces the British culture for overindulgence, showmanship and alcoholism. The biggest problem she finds with British society is its class hierarchy. She is disgusted by the ill-treatment of the 'lower class' by the 'upper class'. However, while she acknowledges the fact that there exists similar caste-based discrimination in India, she goes on to say that caste-based discrimination is better than class-based discrimination, which is a very problematic statement to make. Das doesn't endorse the caste system explicitly in her writings, but there are several places in the book where one finds her hailing the Hinduism. In her defence, she talks about a pluralistic (and inclusive) Hindutva which doesn't believe in slavery. However, it is hard to say what her stance is on the caste system, which changed rapidly in India in the late 1800s, under the British raj.

While reading this text, one has to keep in mind not only the socio-cultural background of the late 1800s but also the fact that Das was just a 20-year-old brown woman, a housewife, with no formal education when she wrote this book. Her notions of British life were mostly constructed out of research, and the limited scope of observation that she got while she was out in public spaces. She may have had little to no access to the private lives, inner circles, and societies of London. But, her curiosity to learn, to imbibe new virtues, and skills from them, her mental bandwidth to analyse situations is what makes this book a satisfying read. As the translator of Das's book, Nabanita Sengupta ably keeps the cultural nuances intact and contextualises Das's original text with an in-depth introduction and annotations. The English translation is simple and contemporary, making it accessible to the readers. Although academic in essence, and a significant text for Victorian and postcolonial studies, it works as a travelogue too, as it teleports the readers to the 19th century London.