Published:  12:00 AM, 08 December 2016

Women idealized in classical and current literature

Several years back, I read a remarkable book titled Cement by Fyodor Gladkov (1883-1958) a well-known Russian author of 20th century. It was written about the period in Russia in the wake of the Socialist Revolution that had taken place in 1917. The tough time that some Russian families faced to make ends meet at the end of the revolution was the prime thematic stream of the novel. The revolution did bring a lot of changes in Russia which the general Russians had looked forward to, but as it happened through a civil war, it also caused a great deal of havoc. Common Russians both in towns and countryside were fighting a new battle to restore peace, order and normalcy in their lives.

One of them was Dasha, a young Russian woman, who was making valiant efforts to retrieve solvency and happiness to her family. She was married and had a child. Dasha, in this novel, has been portrayed by Fyodor Gladkov as a tenacious woman, laborious and optimistic. She believed someday her family would regain the smiles and placidity the civil war had taken away from them. Dasha, with some other people of her town, was working relentlessly on a tremendously hard project of reconstructing a cement factory which could offer jobs to thousands of people of that area. Her husband Gleb Chumalov was involved in that task too. But the underlying difference between Dasha and her husband was the fact that Dasha never lost her spirits while her husband's mind was filled with pessimism about the future of the project. Dasha loved her husband not just as a wife, but as an inspiring comrade on the battleground of life. Through Dasha, Fyodor Gladkov exhibited the unflinching exuberance of a woman who instead of breaking down under pressure of poverty and uncertainty, held her head high and wanted to spread a similar fervor among others around her.

Dasha's endeavor for the betterment of both men and women of her locality should also be noted which embellishes her with the adornment of deep humanitarian principles. She adored her husband, she loved her family and her concern over the welfare of her husband and her child exposes her idealistic approach to social and familial life. Even the title of the novel is closely interlinked with Dasha. She played an admirably consolidating role to streamline things in her home as well as in her society. The word 'cement' symbolically puts forward Dasha's tireless hard labor to reunify her family and community with the bonds of love and dedication. Through Dasha's inclusion in the novel Cement, Gladkov in fact attached glory to the image of all hardworking and noble-hearted women throughout history.  

An almost identical female character was depicted by the American writer John Steinbeck (1902-1968) in his best-known novel The Grapes of Wrath. The novelist named her Rose of Sharon. I prefer to call her just Rose, the queen of all flowers, not just for her prettiness, rather for her wonderful humanitarian traits as found in the novel. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of thousands of Americans who left their villages to look for better fortune by moving into cities like California and Oklahoma. Rose was one of them. She was married to Connie Rivers and was carrying an unborn child inside her womb. Like her fellow American men and women who were in quest of better-paid jobs and livelihoods, Rose also dreamed of shinier days ahead. She wanted her baby to be born in an America where equal privileges would be made available to everyone regardless of gender and race. Her body ached with the weight of upcoming motherhood, but despite that she served her family and her community as far as she could. Her devotion to her family, dreams about a benevolent era still to come and her cooperation with the people around her made her resemble Dasha. Both Dasha and Rose viewed men as their companions in the journey of life, as co-fighters on life's battlefield.

Let's take a look at a few poetic lines from Al Mahmood, a celebrated postmodern poet of Bangladesh. Al Mahmood has been a highly eminent figure in the arena of poetry of our country for last several decades and his poems speak of the pleasures and pains of his countrymen living in urban as well as in pastoral areas. Moreover, a lot of poems by Al Mahmood reflect the poet's profound attachment with nature-with trees, rivers, birds, flowers and so on. In this article I would like to refer to one particular poem by this famous poet. Its title is Ek Lailar Kahini (One Laila's Story). In this poem the poet characterizes a hardworking woman, who, after completing her daylong arduous labor, at times comes to see the poet. Let's read a few translated lines from "Ek Lailar Kahini" as given below:

Why do you come to me, Laila?
Laila, what do you want from this poet?
Who are you, Laila?
By which name had Father Adam
Called you for the first time?

Al Mahmood finds it rather enigmatic when he tries to figure out who Laila really is, what she comes to him for. Still, he waits for Laila's arrival. Simultaneously, he makes Laila timeless as he relates her to the dawn of human civilization through an allusion to Father Adam, the first man sent to the world by God millions of years ago, according to the belief of some major religions. I would like to quote another few lines from the same poem:
Laila doesn't come for a tryst.

Neither does she come to allure me.
Laila loves her husband, she loves her home.
Her home and her livelihood are two oars
To propel her toilsome life ahead.

In the lines cited above, Al Mahmood speaks of Laila's moral uprightness, her loyalty to her husband, her love for her home in which her family lives. The poet metaphorically further adds that, Laila views her home and her means of living as two oars of a boat which push forward her efforts for survival. Through the character of Laila, Al Mahmood makes us familiar with a woman deeply committed to the well-being of her husband, her family. Laila does not regret for the tough combat she has been fighting to retain smiles on her face as well as on the lips of her family members.

In Bangladesh, Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was the pioneer of feminist movement. She worked a lot for women's progress during the early part of last century when women were not even allowed to step out of their households. Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain opposed this embargo on women and through her writings she made very strong initiatives to motivate the conservative society of her time to honor women and recognize their capabilities. In Begum Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's famous book Sultana's Dream we come across a feminist utopia, a female-dominated world. Through the story of Sultana's Dream Begum Rokeya in fact reflected her appeal for such an era when women would be able to secure a dignified status in the society.


The writer is a columnist for The Asian Age.

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