The First Promise is a translation of Ashapurna Debi’s novel, Pratham Pratisruti , originally published in Bengali in 1964. Celebrated as one of the most popular and path-breaking novels of its time, it has received continual critical acclaim: the Rabindra Puraskar (the Tagore Prize) in 1966 and the Bharitiya Jnanpith, India’s highest literary award, in 1977. Spanning the late eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ashapurna tells the story of the struggles and efforts of women in nineteenth-century, colonial Bengal in a deceptively easy and conversational style. The charming eight-year old heroine, Satyabati is a child bride who leaves her husband’s village for Calcutta, the capital of British India where she is caught in the social dynamics of women’s education, social reform agendas, modern medicine and urban entertainment. As she makes her way through this complex maze, making sense of the rapidly changing world around her, Satyabati nurtures hopes and aspirations for her daughter. But the promises held out by modernity turn out to be empty, instigating Satyabati to break away from her inherited world and initiate a quest that takes her to the very heart of tradition.
Indira Chowdhury’s confident translation, with its conscious choice of Indian English equivalents over British and American colloquialisms, carries across the language divide the flavour of Ashapurna’s unique idiomatic style. This edition also includes the translator’s reflections on the process of translation itself.
Ashapurna Debi was born in 1909. Her conservative family did not send her to school, but encouraged by her mother, she learnt to read and write on her own and published her first poem in the children’s magazine Shishu Saathi. Married at fifteen to Kalidas Gupta of Krishnanagar, she continued to write with his support. Pratham Pratisruti (1964) is the first of a trilogy that includes Subarnalata (1966) and Bakul Katha (1973). Translated here as The First Promise, it won her the Rabindra Puraskar in 1966 and the Bharatiya Jnanpith award in 1977. Ashapurna published 181 novels, 38 anthologies of short stories, and 52 books for children. She died in 1995.
The Translator Indira Chowdhury was formerly Professor of English at Jadavpur University, Kolkata. A PhD in History from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, her book The Frail Hero and Virile History (OUP, 1998) was awarded the Tagore Prize (Rabindra Puraskar) in 2001. She also compiled the Supplement of Indian English words published in the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary in 1995. In 2006, she was awarded the New India Fellowship for her forthcoming book on the institutional history of Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Her latest book, (co-authored with Ananya Dasgupta), is titled Homi Bhabha: A Hundred Years (Penguin India, 2009).