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Othered Places and the Bengali Leftist Female Bildungsroman: Sulekha Sanyal’s Nabankur and the Pre-Independence Communist Everyday

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Part of the Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies book series (GSLS)

Abstract

Most canonical studies of gender and nationalism in Bengal leave out of their purview the resistances Bengali middle-class women waged against the social constructions of the bhadramahila figure. One middle-class woman writer who, in her quest for a liberatory politics, aligned herself with leftist-communist ideologies is Sulekha Sanyal. Sanyal published her novel, Nabankur (The Seedling’s Tale), a leftist female bildungsroman, when she was only 26. This essay examines the novel’s literary, class, and gender politics through an engagement with Sanyal’s problematization of both the patriarchal disciplining within a rural landlord household and the emerging middle-class bhadramahila discourse. Sanyal looks to the Communist Party and the peasant movement for affective places of belonging—ideological spaces from within which young women from middle-class and elite backgrounds could question genteel norms of gendered selfhood. Operating within an ideology of vanguardism, as Sanyal’s female protagonist does, leads to a complicated reinforcement and naturalization of the middle-class norms of gendered gentility, yet one that contests both the literary prescriptions offered by the Party and those of a more mainstream Bengali literary public sphere.

Keywords

  • Bengali female bildungsroman
  • Internal peripheries
  • Othered places
  • Relief kitchens

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Notes

  1. 1.

    The Bengal Famine of 1943 lasted roughly for a year, from 1943 to 1944, during which approximately 2.1 to 3 million people died within the province of Bengal alone. Often described as a “man-made” famine, during which the colonial British government enabled the creation of a black market for grains, rather than an effective system of redistribution and relief, the Famine remains a traumatic event in Bengali history and culture. Much of the leftist cultural productions of the era centered on the famine in direct and indirect ways. For more detailed analyses of the famine, see Mukherjee and Davis.

  2. 2.

    For a scholarly account of such material ways in which women in nineteenth century Bengal grappled with new notions of home and domesticity, see Walsh.

  3. 3.

    These texts include, but are not limited to, such memoirs and autobiographies as Manikuntala Sen’s Shediner Katha, Chhobi Basu’s Phire Dekha and Reba Roychowdhury’s Jiboner Taanne, Shilper Taane, Sabitri Roy’s novels Swaralipi and Paaka Dhaaner Gaan.

  4. 4.

    For the second-wave’s problematization of Marxism, see Hartmann and Rubin. For overviews of the domestic labor debate within Marxist-Feminisms, see Oakley and Federici.

  5. 5.

    Following cultural geographers like Timothy Creswell, I define the term “transgressive geography” as the creation of an alternative sense of spatiality that enables acts of moving beyond what Creswell terms “normative geography,” those spaces and places that maintain and reinforce relations of power; “transgressive geographies” are ultimately related to questioning power and attempt to move beyond specific constellations of power within a given context (pp. 9–10).

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Dhar, N. (2022). Othered Places and the Bengali Leftist Female Bildungsroman: Sulekha Sanyal’s Nabankur and the Pre-Independence Communist Everyday. In: Banerjee, R., Cadle, N. (eds) Rethinking Place through Literary Form. Geocriticism and Spatial Literary Studies. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-96494-8_2

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