Five women who pioneered writing in English in South Asia

Five women who pioneered writing in English in South Asia

By Dr.Lopamudra Maitra Bajpai/

Unknown, yet well-known to the eye of faith!

Ah, I have heard that wail far, far away

In distant lands, by many a sheltered bay, When slumbered in his cave the water wraith 

And the waves gently kissed the classic shore

Of France or Italy, beneath the moon,

When earth lay trancèd in a dreamless swoon:

And every time the music rose — before

Mine inner vision rose a form sublime,

Thy form, O Tree, as in my happy prime

I saw thee, in my own loved native clime. 

(From- “Our Casuarina-tree” in “Ballads of Hindostan – Miscellaneous Poems,” by Toru Dutt.

Thus goes the second last paragraph of the poem by Toru Dutt from India in the mid-19th century, reminiscing about her childhood as she sublimely and metaphorically reconnects the past with the present, and memories with the current reality.

Reminding one of the yew trees of Borrowdale, immortalized by English poet William Wordsworth, this poem by Toru Dutt is also reminiscent of an era when women in India began to contribute to a changing political, socio-cultural and religious landscape all over South Asia.

English was a foreign language, but it had become the official language of the South Asian region thanks to British rule. Interestingly enough, the period also witnessed an amalgamation of thoughts and expressions of regional languages with English. The amalgamation marked publications which now have historical value.

Though access to formal education and a foreign language like English was limited, especially for the females of the region, many made English a platform of expression and steadily rose to establish themselves as names which are etched in the history of South Asian literature.

Some of the works of these authors are still available through recent reprints, but many are not. .

Toru Dutt

Toru Dutt- India

Toru Dutt was well versed in Bengali, French and English. Always interested in literature and the arts, she was encouraged to write by her father- Govind Dutt- a linguist and a writer himself. He was an employee of the British Indian government. Her mother, Kshetramoni Mitter, was also a writer in Bengali and translated an English book, “The Blood of Christ”, into Bengali. Toru Dutt’s writing received further encouragement when she received her lessons in art, literature and history during her stay in France and England between 1869 and 73 with her family.

Shortly after returning from Europe, several of her writings came to light. Her earliest were essays written at the age of 18 on French poets, Leconte de Lisle and Joséphin Soulary. These were published in the Bengal Magazine. However, her first book was “The Diary of Mlle. D’Arvers” (also known as “The Romance of Mlle. D’Arvers”) had  illustrations by her sister, Aru, who fell seriously ill and passed away in 1874. The book was released in 1881.

The death of her siblings, her sister Aru and earlier her brother Abju (in 1862 at the age of 14 in India) affected her deeply and Toru’s  poem “Our Casuarina Tree”  was a symbolic expression of her happy childhood with her siblings. In 1876, the first edition of her book “A Sheaf Gleaned in French Fields” was published by the Saptahik Sambad Press, Bhowanipore.  This was a compilation of translated French poems on which she was working along with her sister Aru. This book caught the attention of M. Andre Theuriet who gave it a positive review. In 1877, the book fell into the hands of Professor W. Minto who was the editor at the Examiner. He gave it to Sir Edmund William Gosse, an English poet, author and critic. Gosse was impressed by Toru’s work and decided to reach out to her.

However, she fell seriously ill soon after and passed away in Kolkata on August 30, 1877. Many of her works were published by her father posthumously by her father like – the compilation of poems in “Ancient Ballads and Legends of Hindustan”.  Gosse praised her lyrical writings, knowledge of languages amidst which she maintained a personal disposition of her own.

Many years later, author Harihar Das, being in awe of the wonderful works of Dutt decided to immortalise her contributions by publishing the book “The Life and Letters of Toru Dutt” in 1921.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain – Bangladesh-

You need not be afraid of coming across a man here. This is Ladyland free from sin and harm. Virtue itself reigns here…” and so goes the words of Sister Sara- one of the main characters of “Sultana’s Dream”– a story of a feminist utopia, where men are banished and women reign supreme. This was an English story by Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain and one of the earliest from the region. On an afternoon, in 1905, while her husband- a magistrate, was away on work, Rokeya wrote “Sultana’s Dream”. It was published in the Madras-based English Periodical The Indian Ladies Journal that same year. This was her only story in English, the rest being in Bangla.

Rokeya went on to write for women and social reform.  She started writing in the Nabanoor from about 1903, under the name Mrs. R. S. Hossain and wrote regularly for the Saugat, Mahammadi, Nabaprabha, Mahila, Bharatmahila, Al-Eslam, Nawroz, Mahe-Nao, Bangiya Musalman Sahitya Patrika, The Mussalman, Indian Ladies Magazine, etc.

Her writings spoke of breaking social norms and barriers and called out to women to break out of all injustices and hindrances. There are dedications to Begum Rokeya in  universities. Public buildings and a National Award named are after her in Bangladesh. She remains an inspiration for many till date. She was in 1880 in the village of Pairabondh, in the Rangpur district of Bangladesh. Her father was a highly educated and successful zamindar or landlord who had married four times. Rokeya was the daughter from his wife Rahatunnessa.

Rokeya had two sisters and three brothers and her eldest brother Ibrahim Saber, and her immediate elder sister Karimunnesa Khanam Chaudhurani both had great influence on her life. Both the sisters went on to learn Bangla and English from Ibrahim and became famous writers.

Rokeya was married to Khan Bahadur Sakhawat Hussain at the age of 18. He was the Deputy Magistrate of Bhagalpur (now a district in Bihar, India) . She was  encouraged by her husband to continue her education in English and Bangla and also write. She soon adopted Bengali as the principal language for her literary works so that her writing could reach the masses.

In 1902, she wrote her first Bengali essay- “Pipasa” (Thirst). Amidst others were- “Matichur” (1905), “Padmarag” (“Essence of the Lotus“-1924)- a novel, “Abarodhbasini” (“The Secluded Women“-1931), Boligarto (short story), “Narir Adhikar” (“The Rights of Women“) an unfinished essay for the Islamic Women’s Association, “God Gives, Man Robs” (1927) republished in “God Gives, Man Robs and Other Writings”, Dhaka, Narigrantha Prabartana in 2002 and “Education Ideals for the Modern Indian Girl” (1931)- republished in “Rokeya Rachanabali”, Abdul Quadir (editor), Dhaka, Bangla Academy- 2006.

Rokeya’s story “Sultana’s Dream” a satire became extremely popular.Through the fantasy of a man-free world, she shredded the myths of superiority that sustained the seclusion of women. She continued to write in a number of genres, short stories, poems, essays, novels and satirical writings, developing a distinctive literary style of her own.

Rokeya also founded the Anjuman-e-Khawateen-e-Islam (Islamic Women’s Association). This held debates and conferences on the status of women and education. Her husband had set aside money to build a school primarily for Muslim women before he died in 1909. This was the Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School at Bhagalpur. Property disputes later on however prompted the school to be shifted to Kolkata in 1911. The Sakhawat Memorial Girls’ High School  remains an important girl’s school in Kolkata run by the State Government of West Bengal. Rokeya passed away on December 9, 1932 due to cardiac complications. December 9 is celebrated as Rokeya Day in Bangladesh.

Rosalind Mendis

Rosalind Mendis- Sri Lanka

The neat, large house, situated in the heart of Kandy was rather old-fashioned, but… was altogether a comfortable house. Such was Seethagiri Walawwa…” Thus began the novel “The Tragedy of a Mystery” by Rosalind Mendis. It was the first attempt at writing a novel in English by a Sri Lankan woman.

The novel winds its way through the towns of Kandy, Nuwara Eliya, Matara and Colombo. The novel was published by Arthur H Stockwell Ltd, Ludgate Hill, London, in 1928 and reprinted in 1986 by The Centre for Society and Religion with the help of one of  Rosalind’s daughters.

The focus on a romance between a native Kandyan girl and an Englishman. The story was on unrequited love, an inexplicable coincidence, meeting on horseback around the Kandy lake and death. It portrays sublime emotions spanning cultural values and social customs.

Rosalind was born in 1903 as Rosalind Jayasinghe in Hedeniya in Kandy district of Sri Lanka. Her father was Paul Jayasinghe, a businessman and owner of many acres under tea and rice. Their house was full of guests including Up Country British tea planters who encouraged young Rosalind to experience socio-cultural diversities.

Rosalind’s mother was the third wife of Paul and Rosalind was the fifth of eight children. She was married at the 18 to Tennehewa Abraham Albert Mendis and lived in Colombo thereafter. Rosalind became a mother of five and remained busy with household chores. But her love for writing was always at the centre stage. She would write even on Sunday mornings- instead of visiting the church for the weekly service. It was only after several years that she was a regular in the Sunday morning mass.

Several years later, Rosalind went onto write books which dealt with socio-cultural expressions of traditional customs and conflicts arising therein. These are- “Nandhimitra: A Story of Ancient Ceylon” (1952), and “My Son Lia and Other Short Stories” (1975). The former was a romantic historical novel and was translated into Sinhala by well-known Sri Lankan author and historian Martin Wickremasinghe. Both the English and Sinhala versions were illustrated by Ivan Peries. The cover of “My Son Lia and Other Short Stories” was designed by Richard Gabriel. Rosalind died at the age of 93 in Sri Lanka.


Zaib-un-Nissa -Pakistan

Zaib-un-Nissa was the country’s first female columnist in English as well as an editor, publisher and political commentator. She was a pioneer in Pakistani literature and journalism in English as well as feminism in the region. Her English column in the newspaper Dawn in Pakistan made her the first female political commentator of the country. Later, she left Dawn and was the founder and editor-publisher of the magazine Mirror. She was also sent on several press delegations abroad and in 1955 became the first woman to speak at the ancient al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt.


Born in 1918 on December 25 in Kolkata, Zeb-un-Nissa Ali grew was a regular at literary meets and was a participant in social gatherings at her home,  No:48, Jhowtalla Road where various dignitaries, thinkers and philosophers of the age would gather. Her father- S. Wajid Ali, was the first person to translate the writings of the well-known Urdu poet Muhammad Iqbal into Bengali, and was an avid Bengali and Indian nationalist and writer. Zeb-un-Nissa Ali was educated at the Loreto House Convent in Kolkata and both her parents encouraged her to write. Many of her writings were influenced by her  visits to rural Bengal and the Punjab, including her father’s birthplace, the Bengali village of Tajpur.

Her writing first came to be noticed in 1936, when a poem was published in Bombay’s Illustrated Weekly of India. She remained a regular contributor to the magazine until 1947.

In 1941, her first book of poetry, “Indian Bouquet”, was published by her father’s publishing house and proved to be very popular. Soon, another book of poems was published “Lotus Leaves”. She moved to Punjab in Pakistan after her marriage with Khalifa Muhammad Hamidullah in 1940 who worked as an executive for the Bata Shoe Company. The couple helped many refugees during the partition of 1947 who came from India.

Amidst her works were “Indian Bouquet” (1941-Gulistan Publishing House, Calcutta), “Lotus Leaves”, (1946 – The Lion Press, Lahore)”, “Sixty Days in America” (1956 and 2nd edition 1957 – Mirror Publications, Karachi), “The Young Wife” (1958-– Mirror Publications, Karachi) and (2nd edition 1971, 3rd edition 1987, 4th edition 2008- by Oxford University Press), “The Flute of Memory” (1964 – Mirror Publications, Karachi), “Poems” (1972 – Mirror Publications, Karachi). The Young Wife and Other Stories was published by Oxford University Press, Pakistan in August 2008.

Begum Zeb-un-Nissa Ali Hamidullah died on 10th September 2000 in Karachi in Pakistan at the age of 81 due to a lung disease.

Kungzan Choden

Kunzang Choden -Bhutan

Born in 1952, Kunzang Choden from Bhutan is the first woman from the country to write a novel in English. Born in Bumthang district, she comes from a family of wealthy farmers. For the purpose of education, Kunzang Choden was sent to Kalimpong in eastern India. She undertook an ardous journey of 12 days to reach the convent. She went onto do her Bachelor of Arts from Indraprastha College in Delhi in Psychology and another Bachelor of Arts in Sociology from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She has also worked at the United Nations Development Program in Bhutan.

Married to a Swiss, the couple reside in Thimpu in Bhutan at present. In 2005, Kunzang Choden published her first novel- “The Circle of Karma”, by Zubaan Books, India. The story takes place in the 1950s, in the backdrop of Bhutan. It is set against the initial period of imperially regulated modernisation in the country. The struggles of the main protagonist is portrayed through a native Bhutanese woman who is a road-builder and has to deal with traditional and restrictive gender roles of pre-modern Bhutan on one hand as well as new roles that involve sexism developing through the socio-economic changes in the country.

Amidst her other works are- “Folktales of Bhutan” (1994), “Bhutanese Tales of the Yeti” (1997), “Dawa: The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan” (2004), “The Circle of Karma” (2005), “Chilli and Cheese- Food and Society in Bhutan” (2008), “Tales in Colour and other stories” (2009)

Kunzang Choden describes her many interactions outside Bhutan and with people with different cultural backgrounds which have shaped her thoughts and expression. The writings of Kunzang Choden were also inspired by the oral traditions of her homeland.

She has also created a museum of stories- the Ogyen Choling museum of stories in her own house. In an interview (March 3 2017, The Hindu) Kunzang Choden described the museum as “ a dzong, almost a fortress, with four floors and 22 rooms for the exhibition. Our roots there go back 600 years, but after the 1950s, when there were social reforms, things changed for us feudal families. We had to find a new meaning and fit into this new Bhutan. Some people turned their homes into hotels, but I felt we can’t do that — we must honour our ancestors. So I asked myself what else one could do with such a building and the only thing I could think of was a museum. Because I realised that the house is full of stories….”

“Every single artifact has a story behind it. And stories are not just to be told, but they have to be interactive. That is how Bhutanese stories are. And one story leads to another — so these would be stories about Bhutan’s history or our family. Ninety-nine per cent of the artefacts are from my family and I’ve organised them into themes. There is a Trade Room, where I tell visitors about how, for example, we sold horses to Tibet. There’s also a War Room, which tells the story of how we fought the British. You will see antique bows and arrows, and so people ask how Bhutan wasn’t colonized, when the British had more advanced weapons….”

(The featured image at the top shows the Pakistani writer Zaib-un-Nissa)