In the year 1876 the December chill in Calcutta was suddenly stirred by the appearance of an anonymous novel. Its title was ‘Deep Nirbaan’ or the Extinguishing of the Lamp. Its readers were amazed by the maturity of the unknown author. And when they found out that it was by an eighteen year old girl? Disbelief joined exclamation.
“It is being said that a lady of high birth has written this. This is glorious indeed. Not many women can be said to possess such education, such authorship, such empathy – not just in Bengal but in other lands as well,” reported the Sadharani periodical.
A decade had hardly passed since the publication of ‘Durgeshnandini’ by Bankim Chatterjee, the first novel in Bengali. But was ‘Deep Nirbaan’ the first novel by a Bengali woman? Swarnakumari Tagore who wrote it was not even the first Bengali authoress. Before her had come names such as Martha Soudamini Sinha with her ‘Nari Charit’ , Nabinkali Debi with ‘Kamini Kalanka’, Hemangini Debi with ‘Manorama’ and Surangini Debi with ‘Tara Charit’ . As far as we know, the first Bengali poetess was Krishnakamini Debi who wrote Chittabilasini in 1856. Then came 1861 and the publication of a leaflet titled ‘What social evils must be eradicated in order to advance the country’ by Bamasundari Debi.
But the honour of being the first female Bengali novelist goes to Shivsundari Debi who wrote ‘Taraboti’ in either 1863 or 1873. She was a daughter-in-law of the Pathuriaghata Tagores. Her novel was translated into English by her son Shourindramohan in 1881.
Which leads us back again to the same Thakurbari, the Tagore family home but a branch other than the one at Jorasanko which gave us Swarnakumari.
Information: Thakurbarir Andarmahal, Chitra Deb.
Photo from Bethune School and College Centenary Volume 1949