International Women’s Day: A Hindi tract with feminist ideals from a time before feminism was known

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Mrinal Pande
Seemantini Updesh (A Tract for A Married Woman), is a rare 19th-century Hindi work rooted in what we now recognise as feminist epistemology. The author is an anonymous Hindu woman (ek agyat hindu aurat, the book says), who perhaps lacked the facility to write Hindi in the Devanagari script. So, she dictated the text to one Pandit Rishi Ram Gaur of Ludhiana, a man who understandably had a better grasp of the newly standardised Hindi as well as the script .

In 1882, when the tract was first published, attitudes towards Hindi as well as female literacy and education were undergoing dramatic changes. The British government, to bridge the communication gap between its officials and Indians, sought to develop standardised scripts, grammar and punctuation marks for Urdu and Hindi since common folk had no access to Persian or English.

Given that and the abysmally low number of literate women at the time, the text’s first print run of 300 copies is substantial. Seemantini Updesh was first published from Lahore, then the print capital for Indian vernaculars. In September 1988, it was reprinted (published by Shesh Sahitya Prakashan, NOIDA, Uttar Pradesh) by the noted Dalit thinker and activist the late Dr Dharmvir.

The immediate reason for its revival, he said in the preface to the reprinted version, was the Roop Kanwar Sati case – when an 18-year-old who had killed herself in her husband’s funeral pyre in Rajasthan in 1987 – that had shaken the nation’s conscience. While zealots, in the name of community sentiments, demanded that there must be no probe into what was obviously an illegal death, Dr Dharmvir decided it was time for Indians to re-read Seemantini Updesh, a voice of sanity from our collective past.

The voice of the unknown author who exposes and castigates the hypocrisy and double standards of Hindus is that of a mature woman. It is at once learned and street smart, sassy and philosophical. She bluntly denounces the patriarchal Hindu tradition of the northern plains, which allowed men to treat women as dispensable shoes (“pair ki jooti”) in the name of culture and tradition.

It is equally sharp on women who accept their place within the family quietly, without a whimper of protest, as their duty and their Karma. The author appears be a well-travelled and childless dowager from a prosperous Hindu family in Punjab, influenced by teachings of the reformer Swami Dayanand Saraswati. She had obviously received enough education to be able to quote the saint poet Tulsidas, the Smritis and the Dharmshastras. It is hard to tell if the author was a native Punjabi , but she seems to know lives of women of Punjab and the western Uttar Pradesh, especially the Agra region, well.

She obviously came across English women regularly and admires them frankly for their liberal attitudes towards clothes, education and the relative ease with which they talk to men. She, however, does not urge Hindu women to convert but to adopt their best practices, such as discarding heavy jewellery used by families to buy their loyalty and silence . She also asks Hindu women to rethink their ornate but uncomfortable clothes that only help impede mobility and make them unnecessarily self conscious.

The publisher of this remarkable tract was one Munshi Kanhaiya Lal Alakhdhari of Lahore, who is thanked liberally in the preface as a man who supported the cause of justice. Little else is known about the publisher or even the nature of the interaciton or contract between author and publisher.

There are a few other good men mentioned in the preface, described as rare gems who must be thanked by all Hindu women in need of emancipation: Shiv Narayan Agnihotri editor of Biradar e hind, Rai Novin Chand ji, who authored several books for women and Swami Dayanand Saraswati, the founder of Arya Samaj and its many educational institutions.
Some translated excerpts from the tract:

On jewellery :
“What a woman loves most of all in the world, is not her son, husband, father or brother, but her jewellery. They receive neither education nor the training for any type of remunerative work. They just dream on of a day when they will be married and get to adorn themselves with loads of jewellery. …whatever they get is never sufficient..those that have no jewellery avoid being seen in public and those that have strut about in all social gatherings and take care to be see and admired…

“Oh you wearers of nose rings, who will bore holes in your own bodies to hang gold from, aren’t you ashamed of yourselves in the mirror? If you say the nose ring is a sign of your being married, ask yourselves what sign of matrimony do the husbands display? If you say our ancestors willed this, I ask you which Dharmshastra , which chapter in Manu’s Smriti, ordains that women tear holes in their noses to wear a nose ring?

“…I also ask you what use are glass bangles that often cause would when they break?…when a husband dies the widow must have her glass bangles removed. Does marriage lie in glass bangles then?…Married women in Punjab or in England never wear glass bangles, does that kill their husbands?…I am told this is a tradition created by our family elders. Ask yourselves, were they not ordinary mortals too? Were they born through some other means and not through the usual channels?

“In Mahabharata and the Puranas they frequently break tradition to make their lives easier. Why not accept that tradition from our past?…Remember these are shackles. And until you remove them yourself, you will not be able to liberate yourselves. The western women who wear no bangles or toe rings as mark of being married, also have loving husbands who wait on them. And once he dies, they are free to remarry. You, who have marked your arms and legs with gashes and wounds with your so called Suhag jewellery, are destined to remain a tearful widow forever once you lose your husband.

“Try, to substitute your husband for these trinkets you hug close to your heart so he shall not go astray…Even a labourer after his day’s work is over, goes to bed in easy to wear clothes whereas you, my rich sisters, carry your gold chains and baubles on your back like a slave. Think about it!”

On traditional clothes :
“A long skirt, a short top and a scarf, this is what all women from ‘good families’ are permitted to wear…If someone were to say the flyaway skirt exposes more than it covers when there is a breeze or when we climb up stairs, they are told Pyjamas are only worn by Tawaifs, not housewives. That means those who are shy must dress shamelessly and those who wish to display their bodies must look coy? What is this? If you say these skimpy tops do not cover us well, why cant we wear Kurta or Kurtis? We are told Kurtas are worn by the traders and if you wish for the Kurtis that Christian Mems wear, you must become a Christian.

“So what is Hinduness? If covering your bodies better is Christian, is being a Hindu opting for nakedness?…If our men have opted for suits and boots like the Christian men, why must we be denied western clothes?

“Most women wear what they are given to wear. Their approval is neither sought nor asked for. Men buy what they wish for their wives, usually cheap stuff. They change their clothes three times a day but expect wives to change may be 12 times a year.

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