Sultana's Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Reviewed by Aishwarya Subramanian

Sultana's Dream cover
Our good Queen liked science very much. She circulated an order that all the women in her country should be educated. Accordingly a number of girls' schools were founded and supported by the government. Education was spread far and wide among women. And early marriage also was stopped. No woman was to be allowed to marry before she was twenty-one. I must tell you that, before this change we had been kept in strict purdah.

In the above quote, "Sister Sara" explains to her guest Sultana how the unusual gender relations prevalent in "Ladyland" came about. Under the guidance of their scientific Queen separate universities were set up for the women, who developed devices to control the weather and to harness solar energy (the men's universities focused on the development of weaponry). When a neighboring country attacked, provoked by the Queen's refusal to give up some refugees, the Ladyland army, made up of men, was utterly defeated. It was left to the women to save the country and the women of the universities came up with the solution. The remaining men were confined to the zenana, the women's quarter, for their own protection, while beams of solar light and heat were directed at the enemy. Since then, the men of Ladyland have lived in the zenana, now called "mardana" (the masculine form of "zenana"), and now that they are used to it have ceased to complain. Women do all the work since men are considered unfit for most things; the country is a giant, beautiful garden, solar energy is used for cooking and electricity for flying vehicles.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain's Sultana's Dream was first published in the Indian Ladies Magazine in Madras in 1905, and as a standalone book in 1908, and is among the earliest known works of Indian science fiction—certainly of Indian science fiction in English. Most of the "science" is a bit hand-wavy. We're told that the weather is controlled by a hot air balloon suspended above the clouds which sucks in moisture through tubes—in case we find this hard to believe, Hossain has Sultana provide a reasonable excuse. "I could not understand how it was possible to accumulate water in the pipes. She explained to me how it was done, but I was unable to understand her, as my scientific knowledge was very limited." The description of air travel is perhaps less so.

Then she screwed a couple of seats onto a square piece of plank. To this plank she attached two smooth and well-polished balls. When I asked her what the balls were for, she said they were hydrogen balls and they were used to overcome the force of gravity. The balls were of different capacities to be used according to the different weights desired to be overcome. She then fastened to the air-car two wing-like blades, which, she said, were worked by electricity. After we were comfortably seated she touched a knob and the blades began to whirl, moving faster and faster every moment. At first we were raised to the height of about six or seven feet and then off we flew. And before I could realize that we had commenced moving, we reached the garden of the Queen.

The harnessing and directing of sunlight, presumably by means of parabolic mirrors, as a weapon seems comparatively quite reasonable. But more important than the examples of scientific progress here, I think, is the idea of science. There's a constant emphasis on the power of the intellect to solve such problems as the comparative physical weakness (as assumed by the text) of women. "'If you cannot save your country for lack of physical strength,' said the Queen, 'try to do so by brain power.'" Science plays a central role in this utopia; it allows the women to come to power in the first place, to eradicate disease, and to cultivate plenty of food despite the elimination of half the workforce.

It's easy to take Sultana's Dream less seriously because it is so slight, and in many ways feels rather naïve. Much of this impression comes from the framing. Most editions will inform the reader that Hossain was learning the English language at the time, and wrote the story partly in order to show her husband what she had learned when he returned from a business trip. The odd opening sentence, "One evening I was lounging in an easy chair in my bedroom and thinking lazily of the condition of Indian womanhood," would be easy to read as the stumbling of someone not yet entirely comfortable with the language. Then there's the fact that the whole thing is couched within a dream. This may not have been a cliché in 1905, but most modern readers are likely to come to it with a tendency to roll eyes at "it was all a dream!" endings. And yet, with more context, Sultana's Dream becomes a lot more radical than it appears (and it's already a world ruled by women with its men held in confinement).

My copy of Sultana's Dream has it published alongside Hossain's 1924 novel Padmarag. There's nothing SFFnal about Padmarag (unless you count a few major coincidences); yet the Penguin edition combining both of these works describes them as "Two Feminist Utopias." Padmarag takes place almost entirely in Tarini Bhawan, a charitable institution institute in Calcutta. Comprising a school for young girls and a home for distressed women, this is an incredibly close-knit community made up, in the main, of women whose marriages have failed for one reason or the other. There's an autobiographical element to this novel—Hossain set up a school for women herself, and some of Padmarag's observations on the difficulties of running a girls' school (particularly in one section, where the teachers are reading out complaint letters from the parents) certainly seem to be drawn from experience.

Women's education was a fraught topic in most parts of the world at the end of the nineteenth century. In colonial Bengal, during what became known as the Bengal Renaissance, this was certainly the case. The debates around women's education were informed not only by a tension between tradition and modernity, but between colonialism and anti-colonial movements—in contrast to the public sphere, the home was still seen as a space where traditional Indian norms could prevail. Women themselves were, unsurprisingly, mostly absent from this public debate about whether and what they should be taught, and accounts of women's education in Bengal can tend to look rather like a group of enlightened men benevolently educating their teenaged brides. The education of young women often had to take place in secret amid families where traditional roles were enforced—there are stories of husbands and wives meeting in secret at night so that he could teach her to read. Rokeya Hossain herself learned to read in secret with the help of an elder brother and sister, and her husband continued her education by helping her to learn English.

One of the means by which the education of women was made palatable was to recast it as wifely duty, something that would make women better companions for their husbands and mothers to their children. At one point in Padmarag it is suggested that former students of the school have made good marriages as a result of their educations.

In Sultana's Dream, on the other hand, there's no sense that women's education should exist for any reason other than that women want to learn things. If anything, women are depicted as far more fit for the benefits of education than men, who waste their opportunities on silly things like bombs, and not gardens. The heroes of this story are the women of the university, through whose research and commitment to science the entire country is saved.

There's obviously an element of gender essentialism here: women are productive, virtuous, and like gardens and cleanliness, while men are either making weapons, going to war, or wasting time smoking charoots. But this is all a dream, and nothing needs to be consistent. Early in her visit to Ladyland Sultana is told that she looks "mannish"—"They mean that you are shy and timid like men." The text suggests that men's temperaments, whether as lazy warmongerers or timid homebodies, might be the result of socialization. We're told that the men complained at first about their confinement, but by the time the story opens appear to have become used to it. In Padmarag, both men and women are shown to be capable of villainy.

As I was reading Sultana's Dream I also revisited Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland, and was struck by the difference in tone between these two texts. On the surface they're rather similar; both countries in which a war has weakened or eliminated the male population, both societies have eliminated war and illness as a result of their new forms of governance, both are devoted to education and the cultivation of gardens. Herland was published about a decade after Sultana's Dream and it’s tempting to place both in a tradition of turn of the century feminist utopias, alongside the likes of Anna Adolph's Arqtiq (1899), and Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett's New Amazonia (1889). This is probably a valid context in which to put it, even though it's unlikely that Hossain herself would have read these novels, or would have been aware of writing within such a tradition.

Yet Sultana's Dream is far less earnest in tone than a book like Herland. Firstly, because the dream sequence setting allows it to be so—Ladyland does not need any sort of fleshed out, or consistent theory of men or women because that simply isn't how dreams work. Framing the whole thing as a dream allows Hossain to make the story as absurd as she likes. Sultana herself often points out the absurdity of the circumstances prevailing in Ladyland. And while Gilman can make unthinking pronouncements about "savages" and promote eugenics for the greater good of her fictional society, Hossain realizes that gender is not the only form that oppression can take. Towards the end of the story the Queen makes a pointed comment about how her people do not "covet other people's land" (Padmarag contains numerous references to the inequalities between the European settlers and native Indians).

We do know, because she mentions it elsewhere in her writings, that Hossain had read and enjoyed Gulliver's Travels, and if Sultana's Dream is to be placed in an English language tradition at all, Swiftean satire seems to me to be a better fit. These playful inversions (the timidity of men), the exaggerated and universal gender tropes, the weaponizing of her society's own follies and turning them back upon it (when the women first confine the men to the zenana, it’s the necessity of maintaining purdah that they cite); it's all a game, and it's very funny but there's a clear discomfort with the gender norms of her society and how they manifest in male-female relationships. Early in the story Sister Sara asks Sultana a question women are still asking—if men are so dangerous, why is it women whose movements must be curtailed?

Sultana's Dream's concerns about gender roles in India are particularly interesting when applied to the private sphere. Padmarag is essentially a novel about failed marriages—or rather, about women who have been failed by their marriages. One woman has been rejected by a husband who cannot believe her not to be jealous of her stepchildren. One is abandoned for another woman. A third, an Englishwoman, is tied forever to the husband she can’t divorce since he's in an asylum. Siddika, the "Padmarag" (ruby) of the title, was abandoned by the fiancé she'd never met in favor of a more lucrative match. In the course of the novel she meets him and the two fall in love, yet she ultimately rejects him and the whole institution of marriage, choosing instead to dedicate her life to the upliftment of women.

Hossain's marriage was by all accounts a happy one. Khan Bahadur Syed Sakhawat Hossain championed his wife's writing and shared her beliefs about the importance of women's education; upon his death he left her money for the specific purpose of starting a girls' school. But she also came into conflict with her stepdaughter's family and was forced out of her home after her husband's death.

According to Hossain's own account of the incident, her husband's first words upon reading Sultana's Dream were "a terrible revenge!" The story was written while her husband was away on business, partly to pass the time and partly to show him how far her fluency in English had improved—since he had encouraged her to learn the language. And what had she chosen to write for him in these circumstances? A story in which education was not doled out to women by fond husbands (who, however progressive they might be as individuals, still had the power not to give their wives these opportunities), where their championing was not needed in order that women's words be taken seriously—where she might have been the one going away on business (by flying car!) and he the one stuck at home writing fiction. A terrible revenge.


Bibliography:

Hossain, Rokeya Sakhawat. Sultana's Dream and Padmarag. New Delhi: Penguin, 2005.

Jahan, Roushan. Introduction. Sultana's Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones. New York: The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1988.

Walsh, Judith E. "What Women Learned When Men Gave Them Advice: Rewriting Patriarchy in Late-Nineteenth-Century Bengal," The Journal of Asian Studies, 56. 3 (Aug., 1997): 641-677.

Karlekar, Malvika. "Kadambini and the Bhadralok: Early Debates over Women's Education in Bengal," Economic and Political Weekly, 21. 17 (Apr. 26, 1986): WS25-WS31.

This book was selected for review by Nic Clarke as a donor reward for a contribution to last year's fund drive. (Thanks, Nic!)


Aishwarya Subramanian is an editor and freelance writer from New Delhi, India.