Recall Value: She was First.


Recall Value is a series focussing on the unknown and overlooked in Indian History.

Written by Sasha Shinde

Artwork by Preksha Sipani

She created the path that poets like Taslima Nasreen and Mallika Sengupta would walk on in the future, emboldened by the knowledge that Kabita Sinha had trodden the same path before.

Kabita Sinha was very much like her protagonist in  Ishwarke Eve; misunderstood by men, ahead of her time, and supremely intelligent.

If you’re even the slightest bit acquainted with modern Bengali poetry (and by modern, I mean post-Independence), chances are, you’ve heard of Kabita Sinha. Born on 16th October, 1931 in Kolkata, Kabita Sinha was the daughter of Shailendra Sinha and Annapurna Sinha. She was an avid reader, having spent most of her childhood in her mother’s paternal home, Andul, owing to its great library. As a result, she started writing when she was very young.

She studied Botany at Presidency College, Kolkata (then Calcutta), but was unable to complete her graduation there after marrying Bimal Roy Choudhury, who was an author and editor himself, going against her family to do so. If that doesn’t show you that she was a rebel, the fact that she was involved in dissidence movements of the 1950s might. She was also a supporter of the liberation of Bangladesh. (unverified) 

Sinha resumed her studies at Asutosh College, years later, and graduated with distinction. She taught for a while before holding the position of assistant editor in the state government of Bengal. She joined the All India Radio in 1965, and eventually became the station director at Darbhanga in Bihar. From 1966 to 1967, she co-edited the poetry magazine, Dainik Kabita, with her husband.

Her poems are often called modernist as they touch upon the ontological questions of life. While this is true, a very obvious and apparent feminist aspect to her works cannot be ignored.

I was first
to realize
that which rises
must fall
Like light
like dark
like you
I was first
to know.
Obeying you 
or disobeying
means the same.
I was first
to know.

- Kabita Sinha, Ishwarke Eve (Eve Speaks to God), translated by Pritish Nandy.

The biblical character of Eve has been interpreted in many different ways throughout history. In a piece titled ‘When the Silent Women Finally Spoke’, Javaria Nousheen speaks of how Eve has been held responsible for the fall of mankind, and for persuading Adam to do the same. She points out that even in Milton’s Paradise Lost, Eve is shown as “a temptress and a vain woman” whose chief error is her curiosity. 

Kabita Sinha, in Ishwarke Eve, chose to create an Eve who was defiant, and one who did not bow down to the whims of God. She created her own destiny, breaking free from what she believed to be akin to prison, and bore the consequences of her actions without complaint. Her depiction of Eve was fresh and made her a character one to be looked up to instead of deigned. Nikhat Hoque, freelance writer at Feminism in India, and Social Media Manager of British Bangladeshi Poetry Collective, put it best when she said that Sinha’s Eve goes “against the grain of what has already been said about her.”

 “When I first started reading it, I wondered what she (Sinha) meant when she said ‘I was first’,” Hoque said of Ishwarke Eve. “Because Adam came before Eve, and he had someone (a partner) even before Eve, I believe. But as the poem goes on, we get a grasp of what she means by ‘first’. She means that Eve was the first to think.” 

I was first
to touch
the tree of knowledge
to bite
the red apple.
I was first,
first to distinguish
between modesty
and immodesty–
by raising a wall
with a fig leaf
I changed things

Kabita Sinha may not have been the first poet or writer in Bengali, but she holds the distinction of being the first author to write about the issues of Bengali women stuck in the traditional housebound role. She was perhaps the first poet in Bengali literature  to  embrace  feminism  within  her  writing.

She created the path that poets like Taslima Nasreen and Mallika Sengupta would walk on in the future, emboldened by the knowledge that Kabita Sinha had trodden the same path before. Known mainly for her poems, she was also a novelist, radio director, editor, and all-in-all path-breaker. 

I was first.
I was first
my body
the first sorrow.
I was first
to see
your face
of a child.
Amidst grief and joy
I was first.
I first
sorrow and pleasure,
good and evil,
made life
so uncommon.

Her novel Charjon Ragi Juboti (Four Angry Women) was published in 1956, and she followed it with Ekti Kharap Meyer Golpo (The Story of a Bad Woman) in 1958 and Nayika Pratinayika (Heroine, Anti-Heroine) in 1960. Her first book of poetry, titled Sahoj Sundari (Natural Beauty) was released in 1965. Her next anthology was titled Kabita Parameshwari (Poetry is the Supreme Being), and it is perhaps her most well-known and appreciated collection of poetry, having poems like Ishwarke Eve and Deho (Body). Among her other poetry compilations are Harina Bairi (Enemy Deer, 1985), and her Shreshta Kabita (Selected Poems), published in 1987.

Sinha passed away on 17 October, 1998 in Boston, USA. According to Siuli Sarkar’s ‘Gender Disparity in India: Unheard Whimpers’, “the first feminist poet of Bengali Literature died unrecognized, ‘banished from paradise, exiled.” 

I was first
to break
the golden shackles
of luxurious
I was never
a puppet
to dance
to your tune
meek Adam.

Kabita Sinha’s 1984 novel, Paurush (translated into English as The Third Sex) explores the issues that two marginalized women encounter; one is a widow, while the other is a eunuch, or ‘Hijra’. 

The widow, Sarala, is forced to work at her husband’s workplace, leaving behind her role as a housebound wife to earn a living and support her in-laws. She has to endure words of abuse both from her work-colleagues, and her in-laws, despite being the one who supports them. She feels like she no longer belongs anywhere, all but disowned by her own brother. 

Nikhat Hoque spoke about the parallels between this novel’s Sarala and the protagonist from Tagore’s Chokher Baali, Binodini, who are both widows.  “In her (Sinha’s) text there is no ‘other man’. There is no saviour that comes in to take her away, whereas, in Chokher Baali, there are two of them. Sinha chooses to focus on the individuality of the woman (Sarala).”

Sinha sprinkles in troubles that working women endure; sexual harassment and discrimination. The rest of Sarala’s story shows how she overcomes hardships, earns self-respect, and becomes self-reliant, leaving her old life behind. 

The transwoman, Sakhisona, rejects the traditional jobs that are assumed of the trans community in India, prostitution, or ‘entertainment’. She buys a sugarcane juice-producing machine and dreams of building a life with Lakshman, who helped her through all this. She is pulled out of her fantasy after learning that Lakshman is in a relationship with someone else. She realizes that there is little space for her in a society which rejects anyone that doesn’t fit into their box of heteronormativity. She returns to the Hijra community, determined to bring others within the community into the mainstream and gain acceptance.

Both these women are trying to survive on the lowest rungs of a male-dominated society. The problems they face may be different, but symptomatic of patriarchy. Sinha, herself in a profession dominated by men, understood this, and her treatment of the protagonists in her story is indicative of the same.

I was
on your earth.

There are unconfirmed online accounts of Kabita Sinha having used an alias, i.e. Sultana Chowdhury. Hoque, however, believes that this isn’t entirely impossible. “I haven’t found any credible sources that back this, but it makes sense that she would write under a pseudonym. She was someone who left her family and married against their will. In the Bengali context, this would be very problematic and people would not be encouraged to read her writing,” she says, adding that this could be another reason, apart from the subject matter of her works that she isn’t as widely read today as she should be.

Kabita Sinha, along with her contemporaries in other languages, Amrita Pritam, and Kamala Das, tried to write women as women would; distinct entities with minds and bodies of their own, often trapped by what society deems good enough. Kabita Sinha was very much like her protagonist in Ishwarke Eve; misunderstood by men, ahead of her time, and supremely intelligent.  She read between the lines, understood the place that women were forced to occupy in society and then chose to fight it, the only way she could; with her words. And she was the first to do so.

Listen, love,
yes, my slave,
I was the first
banished from paradise,
I learned
that human life
was greater
than paradise.
I was first
to know.