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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Sultana's Dream and Padmarag

Rokeya Hossain

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To purchase Sultana's Dream and Padmarag

Title: Sultana's Dream and Padmarag
Author: Rokeya Hossain
Genre: Fiction
Written: 1905/1924 (Eng. 2005)
Length: 220 pages
Original in: Bengali
Availability: Sultana's Dream and Padmarag - US
Sultana's Dream and Padmarag - UK
Sultana's Dream and Padmarag - Canada
Sultana's Dream and Padramarag - India
Le rêve de Sultana - France
El sueño de Sultana - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • Two Feminist Utopias
  • 'Sultana's Dream' was written in English, and first published in 1905
  • Padmarag was written in Bengali, and first published, as পদ্মরাগ, in 1924
  • Translated by Barnita Bagchi
  • With an Introduction by Tanya Agathocleous
  • This volume also includes two short essays by Rokeya Hossain

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Our Assessment:

B : the writing a bit rough and simple, but certainly of both historical and literary interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       'Sultana's Dream' is only a story, just twelve pages long and dwarfed by the full-length novel Padmarag which takes up most of this volume, but it's understandable that it is 'Sultana's Dream' that gets lead-billing in this pairing, given its standing as a landmark text -- written in 1905; by a woman; feminist; science fiction from India (though written in English).
       In the story, the narrator is: "lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood" when she finds herself -- in a dream, vision, or some similar experience -- in an alternate world, called Ladyland. The positions of the sexes are switched here: the narrator lives in a world of zenana, where women occupy a separate (and non-public) place, but now finds herself in a world where it is the men that are kept out of sight: "We shut our men indoors", her guide explains. This -- and how the country adopted this change -- is a significant difference from the world the narrator knows, but 'Sultana's Dream' also imagines scientific and technological advances -- not least an "air-car" (powered by electricity, not an internal combustion engine).
       It's an enjoyable little alternate-world vision -- though obviously no longer having quite the impact it must have when it was first published. Providing only a quick tour and history of Ladyland, and relying so on considerable technological advances, it is hardly a rigorous study of what-if -- but it's appealingly imaginative, and certainly an enjoyable little tale.

       The volume promises Two Feminist Utopias, but Padmarag is only utopian to a much smaller degree. It is a more or less realist novel, set in and around early twentieth-century Calcutta. It begins with a mysterious young man trying to make his way to the city late one night and then asking three women he encounters whether they might take in his sister for a time: "Please take pity on me and give me -- no, my unmarried sister -- shelter". They agree, giving him their Calcutta address, and soon the woman, named Siddika, is delivered to it -- though there's no further sighting of the brother .....
       The brother lucked into who he had run into: the three women are affiliated with Tarini Bhavan, originally set up by Dina-Tarini as a home for widows, with a school and a 'Home for the Ailing and the Needy' soon added to it. Significantly, the school takes no money from the colonial government -- so it is: "under no obligation to include in its curriculum any textbook featuring in the 'government-approved' syllabus" -- and, while welcoming donations:

Special care was taken to ensure that handouts were not accepted from the ruling aristocracy of native Indian states that had declared their allegiance to the British Empire.
       It is here Siddika is nicknamed 'Padmarag' -- "the ruby with the lotus hue". As one character then notes:
The name is appropriate as far as her beauty is concerned; but one hopes that her nature is devoid of the hard, stony quality of a padmarag, a ruby.
       Siddika is secretive about her past, not revealing her true identity or what brought her here. (There's no word from or about the mysterious brother, either .....) The women she now lives with are more forthcoming about their pasts -- all of them having suffered kinds of misfortune, inevitably in their marriages
     Usha: "Rafiya-di's husband was a scoundrel, Helen-di's was insane, and Sakina-di's was dissolute, but mine could not even lay claim to any one of these attributes."
       Unsurprisingly, it slowly emerges that Siddika has also suffered a misfortune related to matrimony -- promised off at a tender age, but the marriage then never seen fully through as would-be in-laws interfered with the plans.
       A man comes into the life of the women of Tarini Bhavan. They find him badly injured and treat him; they even lend him some money to get back home when his family, having heard he is dead, refuse to send him the necessary funds, believing him to be an impostor ("Unless we see you in person, we are not willing to believe you are alive").
       This man is Latif, a lawyer who had studied in Britain and has also been involved in some complicated disputes -- notably once representing (after a fashion ...) a Mr. Robinson, who: "as a white man, he could get away with anything". This Robinson, too, will appear on the scene again -- another grievously injured person whom Siddika tends to in hospital, and now at least tortured some by the guilt he feels about some of his past misdeeds.
       It's a bit of a convoluted story -- involving especially Siddika concealing her identity (or identities ...) -- but it does all get sorted in the end. Latif finally realizes who Siddika -- to whom he has, in any case, been attracted -- is, and the potential for a traditional romantic end after the melodramatic buildup is there for the taking; admirably Rokeya doesn't take that easy way out.
       Rokeya mostly avoids being too preachy, but certainly Padmarag presents some strong (and, for the time, often radical) opinions -- such as Rafiya's call that: "We must smash the core of this custom of seclusion". There is also considerable (justified) railing against this and other inequities of the colonial power's imposed law(s). Amusing, too, are the litany of complaints parents lodge against the school (and how those at the school react) -- yet another of the difficulties in providing education for girls, a subject Rokeya was clearly passionate about (as she also notes in one of the essays included in this volume: "The worst crime which our brothers commit against us is to deprive us of education").
       As such -- trying both to entertain and to comment on societal ills and problems -- Padmarag is a rather mixed bag. The basic, melodramatic story surrounding Siddika is actually a quite solid one, but in its presentation -- in fits and starts, with different characters long only aware of certain bits of the story, as well as with all the present-day distraction of life at and around Tarini Bhavan -- saps it of much of its potential power.
       There's still much here that is of interest and appeal, and some of the episodes and dynamics play out quite well, but it's a bit too rough and tumble.

       Rokeya and her work certainly do impress -- but, on the whole, the pieces in this volume -- including the two short essays, as well as Tanya Agathocleous's Introduction -- make for a collection that is a bit more of historic than purely literary interest and appeal.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 August 2022

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Sultana's Dream and Padmarag: Reviews (* review only of 'Sultana's Dream'): Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (রোকেয়া সাখাওয়াত হোসেন) lived 1880 to 1932.

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© 2022 the complete review

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