“How,” starts the marketing literature for Noorjahan Bose’s recent autobiography, “does a girl from a tiny Bangladeshi island end up reading Tagore, Marx and de Beauvoir and become a leading feminist campaigner?” How indeed?
Noorjahan Bose (born 1938) is a Bangladeshi social worker and activist who, as a feminist writer, has won both the recipient of Ananya Literature Award (2010) and Bangla Academy Literary Award (2016). Her autobiography Daughter of the Agunmukha, originally written in Bengali as Agunmukhar Meye (2009) and now available in an English translation by Rebecca Whittington, is an eight-part description of her journey from a remote village in erstwhile East Pakistan to Cambridge and Washington. It highlights the struggle of her life from being widowed at just eighteen to pursuing a master’s degree in Social Work at the Catholic University in Washington DC, after which she founded two US-based organisations (Ashiyana and Samhati) to empower South Asian women.
The Bengali word Agunmukha means “fire-mouth”. Here it refers to a large river in the coastal area of Bangladesh. Six other rivulets flow into its estuary before merging into the Bay of Bengal. There are several islands and sandbars (char) on these rivers, formed as a result of soil erosion and its accumulation. Surrounded by dense forest of the Sunderbans, the islands (Barobaishdia, Chhotobaishdia, Char Kajal, etc.) are vulnerable to cyclones and tidal flooding. The author mentions two such devastating cyclones which killed her maternal grandparents, a younger brother and several other relatives in Barobaishdiha island. When the author was a child, the villages in these islands were mostly inhabited by farmers and fishers and are still considered underdeveloped areas. They had to cross the Agunmukha to reach the nearby towns and cities for education and medical treatments. Death by drowning was a common mishap.
The eldest of the seven siblings, Noorjahan Bose was born in Katakhali village on Barobaishdia island, prior to Indian Independence and Partition. Her father, Abdur Razzak, was a well-to-do farmer and her mother, Johora Begum, hailed from an affluent Muslim house in Tungibaria, a neighbouring village.
In those days, the custom was to marry girls off early. Johora Begum had herself been married at the age of seven, but she did not want the same for her daughters. She played the pivotal role in ensuring the author’s education. There was only one primary school in their village; most girls gave up studies after completing it since their family members did not allow them to study in high schools that were usually located in faraway towns. Johora Begum sent the ten-year-old Noorjahan to her aunt’s place in Phelabunia, a suburban town, and later to Barisal, a city, for higher studies. Her academic journey, however, was far from smooth. She was molested and raped several times by a paedophile uncle while escorting her home from the city. At sixteen she fell in love with Imadullah, a young associate of one of her uncles who was a political leader of the leftist party; they married in a haste. Imadullah encouraged her to study but his untimely death in April 1956 interrupted her studies. At that time, she was five months pregnant.
After the birth of her son Jaseem in August, 1956, she had to take up the job of a hostel superintendent in Barisal. Later, she switched to a teaching job in a school so that she could spend more time with her infant son. After a year or two, she resumed her studies, enrolled in a college for a bachelor’s degree.
Being the eldest child of her family, she took up the responsibility of educating her siblings. In spite of financial hardships, she rented a house in Barisal at her own expense so that her younger sisters could pursue higher studies under her care and protection. It was during those days of her struggle that she received ample support from Swadesh Bose (1928-2009), a leftist activist and intellectual, whom she married in 1963 and with whom she had two daughters—Monica and Anita. Since Bose was a Hindu and the author a Muslim, their inter-faith marriage raised communal issues and they had to leave East Pakistan overnight with the help of a few well-wishers.
Bose, a comrade of the author’s deceased first husband, was actively involved in the Bengali language movement of Bangladesh during the 1950s (which was in resistance to the Pakistan government’s imposition of Urdu as the national language) and had been arrested for the same cause several times. On completing his MA in Economics from Dhaka University, he worked at Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE) in Karachi. He then moved to Cambridge with a PhD scholarship, in 1963, and a decade later to Washington, in 1974, with a job in the World Bank.
The author too had been associated with leftist politics since her school days. She observes that the writings of Marx and Lenin opened up vistas of a new world to her. She participated in rallies organized by the communist groups and acted as a volunteer for their social work programs. One of her inspirations behind these involvements was Manorama mashima (aunt), an elderly woman, who carried out welfare activities in the slums like Mother Teresa. While staying in Kolkata as a refugee during the Bangladesh Liberation War, Noorjahan met her and also joined local support groups to help the refugees of Barisal. She observes that these group activities enhanced her skills to connect with people, which during her stay abroad helped her to combat alienation and loneliness.
In Cambridge, she made a circle of her own by interacting with the working-class community and the research scholars’ wives belonging to different nations and cultures. Soon, they formed a women’s group, gathered at one another’s place with their kids and entertained themselves by chatting over coffee and snacks. Friendship and empathy struck a bond of transnational sisterhood among them, which the author reminisces as follows:
Once I made friends with women in Cambridge, I realized they were as helpless as me in this patriarchal society. Their sorrows and mine flowed together… My life had been crushed, shattered because of my gender. In Cambridge, I slowly started putting the pieces back together.
In Cambridge and Oxford, she met many well-known scholars and interacted with luminaries such as Amartya Sen and Nirad C Chaudhury. Her exposure to the Western society broadened her worldview. She realised that patriarchal tyranny, violence against women and social inequalities are universal. She understood that Marxist ideals of social equality cannot be attained if discriminatory practices based on gender and religion were not eradicated. The root causes of gender inequality became clear to her after she read Simone de Beauvoir’s works that explored the concept of gender as a social construction and explained women’s subordinate position in relation to it.
She could relate Beauvoir’s arguments to her personal experiences. In particular, she refers to the incident of her first husband’s burial. In spite of being so close to him, neither her mother-in-law nor she were permitted to see Imadullah’s dead body. She considers her in-laws’ decision to bury him without informing them as an unforgivable act and remarks ruefully,
Even today, in this society, important decisions are made every day without mothers, daughters and wives having any say. I wonder when this will change.
In her village, she had seen that to men polygamy was a matter of choice, however, to women, marriage was a compulsion, a means of survival and social security. Her grandfather’s marriage to a teenaged girl was a shock to her. Since Islam permits a Muslim man to have four wives, her grandmother’s tears and protests could not prevent it. Her father and her uncles did not say anything against the unequal match for fear of losing their inheritances. She also gives a brief account of the miserable life of one of her aunts, who was widowed at a young age and was remarried four times. The marriages she was forced to make were incompatible and oppressive. They broke her in both mind and body, but there was no respite for her till she died.
In her own married life, the author faced several challenges, such as raising a fatherless child single-handedly, tackling the problems of inter-faith marriage, managing the household affairs all alone during her pregnancy in the UK and overcoming the depression of losing several family members to natural calamities. By observing the plight of women in her family and abroad, she realized that education was the only means of emancipation for women.
After marriage, motherhood and immigration, there was a long gap in her studies. While in Washington, she told her husband that she wanted to resume her studies, but at that time it was not possible for him to pay the fees. Instead, she started earning money by teaching Bengali to the children of the Bengali immigrants in her neighborhood, within a few years, saving enough to pay the fees herself.
During her stay in Washington, she received anonymous letters that threatened to kill her husband if he did not convert to Islam. Refusing to submit to the Islamic fundamentalist forces, she reported the matter to the local administration and brought it to the notice of the World Bank authorities.
These episodes of Noorjahan Bose’s stormy life convey a message of women’s empowerment and self-reliance. Her leftist political outlook, which was common to many other people of her generation, is supported by her uncompromising zeal to situate the issues of gender inequality within the wide spectrum of communist discourse in South Asia.
Besides unfolding a personal story of struggle and resilience, it is also significant as a feminist text representing Bangladesh’s contemporary history from a woman’s point of view. It includes in its frame, the history of several other leftist Bangladeshi women, of both Hindu and Muslim families, who were a part of the socio-political battle against the autocratic rule of the Pakistan government from 1948 to 1971. The title “Daughter of the Agunmukha” illustrates the author’s rootedness to her birthplace. It also suggests her affinity with the fiery spirit of the river, that endowed on her an indomitable courage to strive against poverty, patriarchal tyranny and religious bigotry.