If I were to tell a common person of my age that a woman from the hinterlands of Bangladesh had written a science-fiction in 1906 with themes of eco-feminism, he would probably think I am joking. That is how scarily ahead of her times Begum Rokeya was. Almost as if she was a piece in a fictional matrix handpicked by a celestial puppeteer and positioned a century prior.
A few days ago, I was honoured to have contacted a scholarly science-fiction author, Anandajit Goswami. It is through him, I came to learn about the relatively forgotten and fascinating life of Begum Rokeya. Also known as Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, Begum Rokeya was one of undivided India’s first science-fiction author. Rokeya was born in 1880. She was also an educator, political activist and feminist thinker in what is now Rangpur in Bangladesh. As soon as I came to know about her, I grabbed my hands on the book called “Sultana’s Dream”.
It was a short read. Probably twenty-five or thirty odd pages and having read the work, I couldn’t help but to take a back seat and contemplate. The book was about a fictional world called “Ladyland” where the roles of men and women were reversed. Women ruled the world and men were restricted indoors. A couple of jokes here and there poked fun at the male members of the society and overall, it felt juvenile. However, there were several layers in the story, much like an onion. We not only have to read this novel completely but we also have to think why would someone write such a novella? It also gave us a hint at how repressive the society would have been in Eastern Bengal, especially during her days. Adding on to the fact, would be the author’s freedom to write.
Normally, gynarchy is a subject which is more often considered a part of fantasy and / or erotica literature. Also, one might guess what good might few pages of male bashing would do? How does it even relate to an author’s freedom to write? This is where the second layer arrives. This novella has elements of using renewable resources, eliminating road traffic whilst hovering on air and so on. It also contained hot-air balloon travels, something which was in sync with the contemporary sci-fi novels of that time. The novella in fact, began with flying in skies. This could have represented her will to break the shackles and unchain herself, something which she was not able to speak overtly.
The third layer is the fictional world of “Ladyland” itself. The Ladyland does not have crime, and hence does not require basic judicial and administrative functions. Well before George Orwell depicted excessive surveillance and conformity in his novel, 1984, Begum Rokeya brought in the idea of benevolent dictatorship. That too, under a queen to whom everyone listens to. This novella also shows the primal instinct of women as a nurturer, which is undermined by old classical literature where the masculine and feminine represented order and chaos naturally. Society in this novella is completely eco-friendly. Even the air-travels are balloon oriented.
The fourth and the final layers are the idea of how such a society comes into being. I can, at most, reveal one more thing for if I indulge in writing about “Sultana’s Dream” further, I might as well say the entire story given its length. There is a subtle idea of propaganda which she tried to push as a political literary device. The whole idea that ‘size of an elephant’s head is larger than a human’s but at the end of the day, human controls it.’ It is somehow strange how profound yet abstract piece like this which is a monument in Indian subcontinental history stands like a recluse.