When Jhumpa Lahiri won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and we in Kolkata suddenly became aware of this new star on the literary firmament the rush to claim her as one of our own (and thereby share in the international limelight that was shining brightly on her) was fierce. But soon the consensus amongst the Calcutta cognoscenti was: “Oh! She is the Ashapurna Debi of English.” It was not meant to be flattering.
Ironically, we were unaware then that Jhumpa Lahiri’s master’s thesis, completed at Boston University in 1995, was on Ashapurna Debi herself. We now learn from Matchbox, a new collection of Ashapurna Debi’s stories translated into English by Prasenjit Gupta and published by Hachette India, that that is indeed so. Lahiri’s admiration for Ashapurna Debi is so unbounded that she even compares Ashapurna Debi to the greatest Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore. “Debi’s portrayal of realistic subjects in a realistic yet light-hearted manner resembles, to a certain extent,” she wrote then, "the style of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), who is generally acknowledged to have both created and perfected the medium of the short story in Bengali literature.”
Any thought that the thesis, written at age 28, was only an expression of youthful exuberance and unformed mind is dispelled by the interview she gave to a Bengali journalist at the Jaipur Lit Fest in 2014. There she told Somak Ghoshal, now with a publishing firm himself, that she learned a great deal about her craft from Ashapurna Devi’s writings. Lahiri is not a fluent reader of her “mother-tongue” though she speaks and understands it well enough (though no Bengali in her right mind would ever refer to Ashapurna Debi as just “Debi” as Lahiri has done her in her thesis – Debi is not a surname as is, say, Lahiri. Ashapurna Debi’s last name was Gupta. Debi is simply an honorific, the male counterpart to “Babu,” that was used to denote a respectable status in society.)
Anyway, Lahiri’s mother, who was “passionate” about Ashapurna Debi, would read the stories on tape for her daughter who would then listen to them at her convenience and was so inspired by them that she even went on to translate them into English. “Her language felt pure, immediate and radically different from what I was reading in English at the time,” Lahiri is quoted as saying in the interview. “But it was her understanding of human nature, along with her ability to peel away the layers within the family that fascinated me most.”
Maybe Jhumpa Lahiri’s exposure to Bengali literature is limited to her mother’s preferences and the fact that her mother is passionate about Ashapurna Devi is no surprise at all. Women of her generation and background usually were. If you were a young woman in the Fifties and Sixties you could not but be transfixed by Ashapurna Devi’s depiction of Bengali middle class life from a woman’s point of view, the way she gave ordinary women whose lives were restricted to the four walls of their homes an identity of their own, sensitively highlighting the many indignities and injustices a woman has to face in her day-to-day life, how her dreams are dashed and joys snuffed out by the daily grind. She spoke to these women as no one before ever had, and in a language that was simple and clear and as close to the spoken word as possible.
It was also the time when Bengali society, churned by the Partition and the huge refugee influx into this part of Bengal, was itself changing rapidly. The old settled world with clearly defined roles for men and women lay shattered. The clear distinctions between the home and the world were dissolving and women began to see the world differently. Ashapurna Debi was wholly in sync with the new hopes and aspirations, the broadening horizons of the new Bengali woman, albeit middle class women.
No wonder she was immensely popular in her own lifetime, getting due recognition with unstinted sales, awards and social esteem. Her books resonate even today, as shown by the success of the recent Bengali television serial, Subarnalata, based on the second of her much acclaimed trilogy. Even “English-medium” girls who had never read Ashapurna Debi responded to the eponymous Subarnalata’s yearnings for “book-learning” and a less mundane life.
Yet, Ashapurna Debi was not and is still not considered among the greats of Bengali literature. She is there, high on the shelf but not on the top tier. Of course, what makes great literature is a debate that will never end. We can all have our lists of “must reads”. Maybe, too, it has to do with the limited world Ashapurna Debi dealt with, the middle class woman’s world, that is hardly prime material for the sort of angst necessary for great literature. Yet, to live a life without having read Ashapurna Debi would be an incomplete life indeed.