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RASHSUNDARI DEVI (1809–1900)


Rashsundari Devi’s account of her life, called Amar Jiban and written when she was 73, is one of the earliest memoirs by a woman extant. A simple housewife in a Vaishnav family, Rashsundari hid a page out of her son’s book and a sheet of paper, and taught herself to read and write after the household slept, scratching letters on the soot-covered walls of the kitchen. She had to look after 12 children and a large household, yet her account is lucid, polished and movingly honest. Her daily work was so tough and the hours so long she could hardly tell night from day, yet the desire to learn was strong in her, and she had powers of introspection strong enough to map her own ambivalence to the idea of a woman—herself—learning this forbidden knowledge. In those days women who learned were universally thought to be destined for widowhood; Rashsundari describes how the older women would scold and rage if they saw a piece of paper in a woman’s hand, ‘but somehow’ she says, ‘I could not accept this.’
 
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