Snehalata’s Suicide

On the 30th January 1914, Snehalata, a yet to be married teenager doused herself in kerosene and set her own body afire. According to the eyewitnesses who tried to rescue her, Snehalata had committed suicide. She pleaded her kin not to save her as she had willingly embraced death. No suicide note was ever found around her and she maintained her stoic silence in the hospital as she lay dying. The only communication that she at all had with the hospital staff was when she asked for gangajal to drink because she was a devout and a spiritual person. The immediate trigger of the suicide seems to be a letter that Snehalata chanced upon in which her father assures one Harendranath Bandopadhyay, father of Dhirendranath, a prospective groom for her, that he will arrange all the money to be paid as dowry by mortgaging his property in North Calcutta. Disgusted and despairing at the impending financial ruin that her father would fall into, Snehalata committed suicide before her marriage. Her suicide inspired many yet to be married girls of Bengal to similarly set themselves on fire and succumb to burns. Snehalata’s suicide alerted Bengal to the menace of dowry in its society. In the contemporary Bengali society of the times, these suicides were related to the issue of dowry. Snehalata’s biographer, Rebatibaran Bandopadhyay, her father’s friend portrayed her as a martyr to the cause of a better society while Prabahini, a Bengali newspaper construed the Snehalata’s suicide as one which was a result of a sense of agency by which a young girl assumed total control of her body and decided to annihilate the same. Prabahini condemned the suicide as having been influenced by the Western sense of individualism, death being the final emancipation. Even in death the forces of patriarchy as represented by the newspaper resented Snehalata’s assumption of control over her body. There were some interpretations of the extreme conservative forces which saw Snehalata as being one who stood against the Westernization of the society, given Rebatibaran’s account of her devout nature.
Tagore put forth his own explanation, namely the bleak domestic life facing a married woman was good enough a reason for her to commit suicide, where death is the only means for emancipation. Later discourses which reviewed and reinterpreted the suicide said that since there was neither a note nor a dying statement and Snehalata, being a loner and withdrawn girl given to obsessive religious fervour, her suicide was dysfunctional and misled. This discourse also insists that dowry may not have been quite the reason for taking her own life for the phase of social reforms were quite over and the country was given to nationalism. All of the above discourses are true but partially so. The truth lies in the combined wisdom of all of the above.
Snehalata’s suicide was not an isolated episode of protest or of existential doom; instead given the fact that it encouraged and inspired many other girls to follow suit and the slew of deaths that followed Snehalata’s suicide raises her act from a case of an individual into a social fact. What forces were gathered in Bengal of the times so as to inspire suicide?
Bengal, during the life and times of Snehalata sufferred from death wish; the boys often took to the bullet, assassinated the British officers and died in the gallows. There was also, due to Swami Vivekananda’s inspiring life, an attraction of men towards celibacy and mendicancy. Death and renunciation combined together to create a life denying proclivity of the spirit. There was also at the same time a growing sense of opportunities both in terms of the emergence of a public space, expansion of the State administration and definitely an increase in the opportunity of professional jobs. The social reforms, which were primal before the Sepoy Mutiny were now complemented by a political activism but was neither dead in Bengal nor in any manner waned. Instead, the social reform spread from Bengal into other parts of India and was integrated into the pan Indian political movement. The overriding flavour of the times was the development of a politics which was mired in and not exclusive of the social reformist agenda. Indeed, the last letters by the revolutionary martyr, Dinesh Gupta shows his overt concern with social ills, especially those found in the Bengali society.
To the best of my mind, the rise of the Ramkrishna Mission, Bharat Sevashram like organizations, the rise of Anushilan Samity and even the RSS and the inspired martyrdom of the Bengali young men have the desire to exercise an individual agency in the larger cause of the society. In the language of Emile Durkheim, this can be characterized as being altruist suicide, where a culmination of a high ground of morality, the desire to articulate an ideology, a desperation to change the system and an excitement of the soul causes an explosive annihilation of the self and the body. Snehalata’s suicide can be placed in the overall death wish of the Bengali society of its times. Indeed, for girls it was suicide because boys had a better chance to die by the gallows. Indeed, a few decades later, there was rise of Bengal women terrorists and the two generals of the Chittagong armoury raid, Kalpana Dasgupta and Pritilata Waddedar show very similar personality trends of being withdrawn and reticent as Snehalata did. Snehalata, thus has a universal dimension to her case.
The decades of the early twentieth century is known as the Bengal Spring, the age of the Sobuj Patro days, a journal literally called as the Green Leaf to signify the onset of spring. Snehalata may have desired to blossom in the spring as an individual, a person in charge of her own destiny and yet while the promises were galore, the real opportunities were rather restricted and her destiny appeared to be immutable from marriage and domesticity made worse by dowry. The rise of popular culture, which the Prabahini insists was a corrupting influence has a rather consistent impact of imbibing in its consumer a sense of individual agency, a sense of destiny, of serendipity and a higher meaning of existence which invariably imbibes a consciousness of being special and marked out for larger purposes of life. For a woman, or a young man, who faces only the bleak reality, the lure of a higher purpose might topple her over the top into self destruction. Despite heaping upon Snehalata the death wish in vogue among the youth in Bengal, one cannot deny the fact that dowry was definitely a growing evil of the Bengali society and that there was also a deep feminist angle to the suicides inspired by her.
Bengal has a rich tradition of feminine protagonist. Women have composed texts, spelt moralities, fought ethical battles. The feminine domain in Bengal has existed since ancient times in contest, competition and often in conflict to the male domain. We have Khana and Mihir fight over what should constitute astrology and whether astrology should be used for the prediction of the weather and crops or should it remain clearly a means to foretell individual fortunes. Khana was Mihir’s daughter in law and her popularity grew to overshadow the fame of her celebrated father in law. The latter is said to have killed Khana by pulling out and severing her tongue and leaving her to bleed to death. The post Vaishnav days saw the rise of Monosha who fought for space with Lord Shiva and consequently the battle of the Gods translated into a battle between Behula, the young bride and the ego of her father in law, Chand Saudagar. Debi Choudhurani, a female dacoit during the Sepoy Mutiny also stood against her greedy father in law, who exiled her because her widowed mother was unable to arrange for a good dowry. Women in the early 19th century were also great renouncers who often took shelter among the wandering minstrels to escape being burnt as a Sati or plain domestic violence. Women often stood as a moral force against patriarchy and many times like Khana, Behula or Debi Choudhurani faced the risk of being assassinated by the men in their own families. Therefore, it should not be very surprising if Snehalata and the others who followed her were actually protesting against dowry.
Historians may contest the above thesis by saying that were she to protest against dowry then where were her letters, pamphlets and so on. This strain of thought show a clear lack of understanding of the feminine spaces and feminine discourses in Bengal. The femininity of Bengal is also low economic class and hence of a lower social standing. Women’s power in Bengal comes from her subalternity.Bengal is overwhelmingly agrarian; rice cultivation is intensive and focussed and useless in larger fields. Much of the village economy also consists of processing simple food products like rice puffs and rice crisps; congealed pulse pastes, papad and above all, gur. There is also a substantial vegetable and fruit cultivation which requires the tending of leaves, shrubs and trees. These become women based occupations while weaving, oil crushing, trade are male activities. Feminine and the masculine are thus often in a Marxian conflict over issues of appropriation of surplus. Women have their own spaces, ow channels of communication, own set of coded friendships like mouriphool, juiphool, secret names by which close associates are referred to and communicated with. Denied of communication through the public sphere, women spread their messages through rituals, fables, folklore; a communication made possible by the peculiar arrangement of their economy. This network today translates into kitties of village women, which manifests today as microfinance. Women’s agency translates as silence into the public sphere precisely because the latter does not have the necessary auditory apparatus to pick up the sound bytes. Snehalata is not silent; she appears to be silent because she does not have the same timbre as the voices in the public sphere. Yet in a tradition inherited from Khana and Benhula, Phullara and Prafulla, she is a very articulate woman, who wishes to claim her dignity in the new age that dawns and when denied of the same by an impending marriage without which the society has not been able to accept the existence of a woman, extinguishes that very life of hers which must be defined in terms of fetters of social customs and hence denied human freedom. Snehalata claims her dignity by denying her body to patriarchy; her suicide speaks a language which even the present day and age is scarcely capable of decipher.

About secondsaturn

Independent Scholar. Polymath.
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