Lesser Known Important Autobiographies

Success of a literary piece is often in balance to its literary worth. Good works receive good response. But sometimes, it’s not so. Availability of publishers and marketing also affect the popularity of a book. The medium of the book also determines its fame. Sometimes ordinary works by established names also sell; names sell. Many lesser known autobiographies of modern India are, in fact, quite good. It’s just a matter of coincidence or circumstance that they have not received much attention. I give this lecture today with an intention to do justice to some good but less known autobiographical work.

Many autobiographies exist in the lesser known space. Autobiographies by some women and some Dalits are worth mentioning. Dalit voice is an intense cry for justice across India. Marathi literature leads the path here but many voices in other Indian Languages like Gujarati, Panjabi, Telgu, Tamil and Malayalam are strongly coming up.

The Dalit autobiographies reflect a burning desire for freedom from the clutches of caste. Dalits experience a sense of repulsion from upper castes for no fault of theirs. The chance of birth stigmatizes them forever.

Discrimination has decreased in today’s India but it has not died. The mind-set has not changed. We all live in the comfort of being ‘upper caste’. Naturally, there is an automatic backlash from the other side. This kriya-pratikriya (action-reaction play) has to stop in today’s India. The first step is to accept the injustice of the Brahminical order. Self respect, dignity and honor that no reservation policy can give.

The voice of the Dalit in the autobiographical space goes much beyond constitutional provisions. Just as there are forty-eight laws in this country protecting, supporting and positively discriminating in favor of women and yet we have horrors committed against women on a daily basis; just like that laws have not fully succeeded in erasing the caste bias. Dalits write autobiographies exactly as the sword to kill the old system. The intensity is only to be felt. T.K.C. Veduthala, Kumaran Asan, Mahashweta Devi, Neerave Patel, Palamalai Sudhakar, D. Gopi, Sara Joseph, Datta Bhagat, Laxman Mane, Dr. Narendra Jadhav, Daya Pawar, Arjun Dangle, Namdeo Dhasal, Rabi Singh, Babulrao Bagul, Urmila Pawar, Baby Kamble, Om Prakash Vamiki, and Sharan Kumar Limbale are some of the very powerful Dalit voices. They don’t write on love; they don’t write on bravery, courage, friendship and so on. They just write to tell what it means to be a Dalit in India.

Urmila Pawar’s ‘The Weave of My Life: A Dalit Woman’s Memoirs’ is a remarkable piece of work, to say the least. It has been translated into English by Maya Pandit. Urmila begins her journey from her village in Konkan. Her story is the story of three generations of a Dalit family to lead a life of modernity. The family comes to Mumbai. It’s my observation that Dalits never speak against English language; Western culture etc. because they know what this language has done for them. Democracy, equality and liberty - these ideas came to India via English language and Western influence. Only Dalits know the suffocation of rural settings. Urban spaces are Dalit-friendly. No one cares in Mumbai as to who you are. Urmila frankly talks about what it means to be a modern, educated, emancipated Dalit woman. She concedes that the scene has changed. She goes on to question Dalit vote-bank politics and its dangers. We don’t want the society to go to further divisions. To be a Dalit woman is to be a double slave- a slave to caste and a slave to patriarchy. For her, both the Dalit movement and the feminist movement are equally important. Beaten by upper caste and then beaten by men of their own caste, it’s a bleak, dark world for a Dalit woman. She talks about Dalit modernity. This autobiography tells us how different is each life and its world. Urmila’s mother was a single parent. She talks at length about the newly merging patterns of patriarchy in our surroundings. Family, domestic violence and patriarchy connive to create new traps for women. It’s an outstanding piece of work, definitely deserving more attention than it has received so far.

Baluta’ by Daya Pawar (1935-1996) depicts crude realities of the caste system in India. Daya has a staunch intellectual vein. He is well-versed in world literature. All his life he was involved in various social movements of Dalit upliftment. The book depicts a Dalit’s struggle for a peaceful existence. Daya suffers both physically as well as mentally. The book shows his deep empathy towards his people, his unwavering beliefs and his untiring spirit. The book depicts the helplessness of a Dalit. The book also received anti-Dalit backlash. But Daya Pawar succeeded in bringing to notice the plight of the masses of Dalits. He received many awards, including one from the Ford Foundation.

Dr. Narendra Jadhav’s autobiography ‘Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey Out of the Caste System in Modern India’ is a story of the impact of teaching his children that gave them a sense of self-respect, dignity, identity and awareness of human rights. He leaves his native village, Ozar in Nasik and comes to Mumbai. Once again we find that villages are the den of caste-consciousness in India. A Dalit finds it very difficult to succeed in a village. Cities and especially big cities give opportunities to Dalits. This transformation of the family from an exploited lot to a self-awakened human entity is the core of this book. The author’s father chose to fight the hierarchy of caste and created his own destiny. The book describes how the father was mercilessly beaten and insulted in the village. But unlike general Dalit tales, this story does not at exploitation. It goes beyond. It brings the success of the struggle of this family to the front. It’s a positive story. It ends in triumph. It underlines the importance of empowerment through education. A poor family attains middle class status by the grit of the father, strength of the mother and hard work of the children. India is abundant with such raw potential.

The Dalit autobiographies reflect a burning desire for freedom from the clutches of caste. Dalits experience a sense of repulsion from upper castes for no fault of theirs. The chance of birth stigmatizes them forever. Even small children know how they are ‘inferior’ from the bigger people. Now time has come the vast majority of India not to feel marginalized anymore. They must enjoy what the constitution has granted them; what Nature has given them. Time to ask or beg has gone. Time to feel dignified has come.

Apart from autobiographies by Dalits, a number of autobiographies by women also deserve mention. Critics have talked about critical resistance to women’s work. Any literary work by a woman is not easily accepted. Women autobiographers end to lose themselves in several characters of their lives. These women have written in a genre which implies self-assertion and self-display without actually doing so. Krihna Hutheesing, Nehru’s sister wrote ‘With No Regrets: An Autobiography’ in 1943. Apart from personal details, the autobiography is also important for understanding the history of those important times.

In 1947, the year India achieved freedom, there came an autobiography named ‘Girl in Bombay’ by Ishwani Pseud. Ishwani belonged to Shiya Khoja community. Very advanced for her times, this girl refused to take her husband’s name and tribe as she wanted to continue with her father’s name and sect. She found the atmosphere of the house of in-laws backward and even got a divorce. She describes the hypocrisy of the women of the house of in-laws where at the formal dining table the ladies ate very less, hid the food in their handkerchiefs and ate their fill afterwards when the men were not watching them. This work is remarkable simply because it is ahead of its times. It talks of sophisticated issues like hypocrisy in relationships.

Maharani: the Story of an Indian Princess’ (1953) by Brinda is another story of a woman who trying to defy the social canon and male supremacy. Her crime is the grime of so many Indian women- not being able to deliver a male child. She is sent abroad to learn the educated, western ways and again back home is expected to be docile and dumb. She has to undergo a painful operation for getting a son, which fails. Her three daughters, Indira, Urmila and Sushila come to this world only in hope of a male child. Brinda rebels against the dynasty of her father-in-law; opens a school for girls in her area and does a lot of social work. She never gets the approval of the family.

Another lady who was tortured for not producing a male child and who also chose to write an autobiography was Kamala Dongerkery. Her autobiography ‘On the Wings of Fire’ (1968) shows that autobiographies were written to settle scores, to put one’s point across and to prove oneself right. Kamala Dongerkery was much troubled by her mother-in-law. She went on to make a place and a name for herself as a handicraft expert.

Sita Rathnamala wrote ‘Beyond the Jungle’ in 1968. A girl born and brought up in the lap of Nilgiri hills, she always had a desire to go beyond the jungles and explore the world but her life-journey told her that beyond the jungles, there’s another jungle of concrete which is more cruel and ruthless. She failed to marry the man she loved simply because he was a Brahmin and she was not.

Urmila Haksar came with ‘The Future That Was’ in 1972. Urmila’s problems multiplied because she was not only a girl but also a girl of ordinary looks. Her confusion with her puberty, the unresponsive female members of the family, the discrimination led Urmila to choose her own path. She studied well, became a Professor of Political Science at Kamala Raje Girls’ College, Gwalior; married a historian N. Haskar; and abandoned her maiden name Sapru for good as it reminded her of her painful days. This again is a positive story where the will of the individual conquers the challenges of society.

Gayatri Devi of Jaipur was once voted to be the most beautiful woman of the world. Her beauty could never come before the world, had she not given up purdah to join politics. She wrote ‘The Princess Remembers’ in 1977. Gaytri Devi has penned down her life history smoothly mixing it with her public life and her contribution to the welfare of her state of Jaipur.

One woman who strongly quested the ‘devi’ image of the Indian women was Dhanwanti Rama Rau, who wrote her autobiography ‘An Inheritance’ in 1977. She talks about the weaknesses, foolishness that women are forced to inherit. This is their inheritance. She studied at Presidency College, Madras. Although trapped in a loveless marriage, she went on to do a teaching job and attained her individuality.

Shudha Mazumdar’s autobiography ‘A Pattern of Life’ (1977) is again a tale of a childhood spent in the inferiority complex of being a girl, performing vratas and pujas to get a good husband, and finally getting married and adapting to the ways of the house of the in-laws. Her real story begins when she loses her husband early in life and then goes on to defy the social norm of not dressing up properly, not putting on colored sari and bindi. She does everything, continues with her social work and visits other parts of the world.

Vijaya Laxmi Pandit, another member of the Nehru family came with her autobiography ‘The Scope of Happiness’ in 1979. Her crusade for inheritance rights for Indian women is described in this book. She really managed her political career and her personal life well. A woman of great charms, she became India’s ambassador to other countries and represented the nation at the United Nations. One interesting incident reported in this book is the birth of India Gandhi. Motilal Nehru anxiously calls, ‘Hua’, implying thereby the coming of a boy. The reply came, ‘Hui’, meaning thereby the girl had arrived. This ‘hua-hui’ incident tells the desire of a son. Who knew that the ‘hui’ that is, the girl Indira would become the most powerful prime minister of the country!

Durgabai Deshmukh, wife of the then Finance Minister of Nehru’s cabinet, C. D. Deshmukh had quite a turbulent life. Her autobiography ‘Chintaman and I’ (1980) is an effective description of her child marriage, her separation from her husband without even knowing or going to him, her father’s noble influence on her, her interaction with Gandhiji, her protest against Devdasi and purdah systems, her education at BHU and Andhra university, her organization Andhra Mahila Sabha, her meeting C.D, Deshmukh, her sense of inferiority before him, his proposal and her marriage to him. Quite an eventful life, indeed! Her perfect blending with C. D. Deshmukh, their love for each other is the USP of this book.

Another happy life-tale comes from the pen of Renuka Ray. Renuka belonged to one of the most advanced families of Bengal. Even her birth was celebrated. Her father was an ICS and her maternal grandfather was the first Principal of Presidency College, Calcutta. Her maternal grandfather had actually taught the likes of Radhakrishnan and Rajendra Prasad. Gandhiji, Gopalkrishna Gokhale and others visited her house. She went on to adorn high places in government in free India. However, in the end the tone of her book does not remain very positive as she describes her husband’s death and related issues. Renuka talks very little about her children. Most of the autobiography is crowded by public events.

Vijay Raje Scindia published her autobiography ‘The Autobiography of the Dowager Maharani of Gwalior’ in 1985. It is more or less a very sad tale of a woman’s lonely battle in life and her estrangement with her only son, Madhav Rao.

Portraits of an Era’ (1988) by Tara Ali Baig is an autobiography which is more concerned with outer world than with self. The book artistically draws Gandhji, Nehru, Jinnah and his Parsi wife Petit, Sarojini naidu, rajendra Prasad, Homi Bhabha. Somerset Maugham, Anna Pavlov, Dalai Lama, Uday Shanka, Devika Rani and many other important people of those times. This book is more a piece of informal history that an autobiography. It’s written in very live and lucid language.

One colorful title comes from Dr Prema Naidu who wrote her autobiography named, ‘In Love with Life’. She was a professor of medical science at Osmania Medical College. She has described her life with such tenderness. Her fiancé proposed to her through a hurriedly written chit. She and her husband, due to their very busy schedules could meet only on weekends. She turned those weekends into special occasions; she loved playing a simple housewife to her husband on those days. Prema Naidu’s book shows her contentment and peace of mind.

Dilip Tiwana came with a poignant autobiography ‘A Journey on Bare Feet’ in 1990. It’s a story of acute gender discrimination. It depicts typical Indian mind-set. This is a story of every Indian girl. Although Tiwana was born in a rich, zamindar family yet the thinking of the family was very orthodox. Her mother was taunted for not giving a son quickly. Her grandmother rebuked her mother, ‘What good are you if you cannot give us a son? ... Oh, God, it’s our bad luck that you have fallen to our lot. That bride of the Peepal tree house took no time in giving birth to two sons in quick succession. A lucky family!’ The tales of gender bias are tiring indeed but they will be sung as long as the bias is there. Let a new religious code be written. Let girls and their children inherit the girls’ name. Let girls light the pyre of parents. If we want to stop these wailing tales, we’ll have to improve the society.

Sharanjeet Shan came with ‘In My Own Name’ in 1991. The same old story of a girl being ‘parai’ (outsider) unfolds here. Shan shows tremendous courage and grit in fighting for her space. Shan says that parents calls daughters ‘goddesses’ and offer all good eatables to boys. Brothers are encouraged to play, to study and to eat. Girls forever crave for the love of their parents which they are never going to get.

Mrinal Pande, daughter of famous Hindi novelist Shivani too has a similar tale to tell. Her book ‘Daughter’s Daughter’ (1993) is all about the pain of girls. She narrates how her mother suffered for not getting a son soon enough, how it is always a disadvantage to be a girl in the Indian society. Girls mean ‘kharcha’ expenditure; boys mean ‘munafa’ profit. It has become all the more difficult for girls to survive in today’s world. ‘I know, even as I write this, girls are being destroyed in wombs by new techniques, being tortured and burnt for dowry… survival is not easier for young girls today than it was for us.’

A man has the luxury of forgetting his gender and write like human beings. Women are forced to remember that they are women; therefore women’s writing is more gender-centric. It’s a basic question that autobiography is autobiography; why should there be a separate section in every critical book or library or book store: women’s autobiography. It means we know what to expect in women’s autobiographies. They are a separate category. Tears will continue as long as discrimination will. No nation can prosper and laugh if its women are weeping.

An autobiography is a prolonged speech in self-defense, some critic has said. It’s true. Women write glorifying their childhood. Adulthood means pain for them. ‘Father’s aangan (courtyard)’- these words are sufficient to bring tears to an Indian woman’s eyes. Marriage is the central point in their lives. Life is divided into two big halves- before and after marriage. Indian women also write because they want to tell the world that they also lived. They want to leave a dot somewhere. Every writer of an autobiography considers herself special. ‘How I became what I am?’ This is the question.

This lecture was delivered at Academic Staff College, GG Central University, Bilaspur, Chhatisgarh, India on 13th March 2013

Related Books and Websites:

  • Urmila Pawar. 2004. The Weave of My Life. Kolkata: Stree Samya.
  • Dr. Narendra Jadhav. 2003. Untouchables. USA: Simon &Schuster.
  • Dagadu Maruti Pawar.
  • ‘Chokhamela’.
  • Estelle ed. 1980. Selves in Hiding:women’s Autobiography. UP: Jelenik Indiana.
  • Krishna Hutheesing & Alden Hatch. 1967. We Nehrus. Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Krishna Nehru Hutheesing. 2007. With No Regrets - An Autobiography. Read Books. ISBN 1-4067-7661-0.
  • Vijya Laxmi Pandit. 1990. The Life of Vijaya Lakshmi Pandit. New Delhi: Sterling.
  • Dasi Binodini, My story and my Life as an Actress, Ed. and Trans. Rimi Bhattacharya.
  • Baby Kamble. 2009. The Prisons We Broke. New Delhi: Orient BlackSwan.
  • Laxmibai Tilak. 1994. Smritichitree. Mumbai: Popular Prakashan.
  • Ishwani Pseud. 1948. ‘Girl in Bombay’. Bombay: Disha Books.
  • Savvitri Devi Nanda. 1950. The City of Two Gateways: The Autobiography of an Indian Girl. London: George , Allen and Unwin.
  • Brinda. 1953. Maharani, the Story of an Indian Princess.
  • Shoilbala Das. 1956. A Look Before and After.
  • Kamala Dongerkery. 1968. On the Wings of Fire.
  • Sita Ratnamala. 1968. Beyond the Jungle.
  • Urmila Haksar. 1972. The Future That Was.
  • Devi, Gayatri.1996. A Princess Remembers: the Memoirs of the Maharani of Jaipur. Rupa & Co. ISBN 978-81-7167-307-0
  • Dhanvantari Rama Rao. 1977. An Inheritence.
  • Shudha Mazumdar. 1977. A Pattern of Life.
  • Vijay Laxmi Pandit. 1979. The Scope of Happimess.
  • Durgabai Deshmukh. 1980. Chintaman and I.
  • Renuka Ray. 1982. ‘My Remenicnences.’
  • Vijay Raje Scindia. 1985. The Autobiography of Dowager Maharani of Gwalior.
  • Sharanjeet Shan. 1991. In My Own Name.
  • Tara Ali Baig. 1988. Protraits of an Era.
  • Prema Naidu. In Love with Life.
  • Dilip Tiwana. 1990. A Journey on Bare Feet.
  • Mrinal Pande. 1993. Daughter’s Daughter.


More by :  Prof. Shubha Tiwari

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Views: 3761      Comments: 1

Comment very informative ,excellent article-prof.dr. antonycruz

Dr. antony cruz
28-Jan-2014 08:00 AM

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