Thursday, August 19, 2021

The Women Who Disobeyed Civily

[When the men were behind bars, women came to the forefront. Where are they now?]

It was the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930. The leaders of the freedom movement were in prison, along with tens of thousands of freedom fighters. The British thought they had been able to stamp out the movement, but then, something unexpected happened. In the words of Jawaharlal Nehru (as quoted in Discovery of India)- 

Most of us menfolk were in prison. And then a remarkable thing happened. Our women came to the front and took charge of the struggle. Women had always been there of course, but now there was an avalanche of the, which took not only the British Government but their own menfolk by surprise. Here were these women, women of the upper or middle classes, leading sheltered lives in their homes- peasant women, working- class women, rich women- pouring out in their tens of thousands in defiance of government order and police lathi. It was not only that display of courage and daring but what was even more surprising was the organizational power they showed.

That was the decisive moment when the British Government realized they could not hold India much longer. If women, who till a few years back were in purdah and were still not allowed to take part in public life, could come to the forefront to demand freedom, sooner or later they would have to leave the country.

But who were these women?

In the early days, it was only the wives, daughters and sisters of the leaders of the freedom movement who participated in the freedom movement. Since there were no women-only political organisations, it was difficult for common women to negotiate a place in the struggle, and the only women who could were women from elite families.

Though women were initially not allowed to participate in the Dandi March, two women, Sarojini Naidu and Mithuben Petit, stood behind Gandhiji when he violated the Salt Law. However, once the salt Satyagraha began, women from middle class families started pouring out onto the street. Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay led a huge contingent of women in Bombay who not only made salt at Chowpathy Beach, they even sold it in the city. The popular story goes that when Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was arrested and produced before the magistrate, she held up a packet of salt and asked if he would like to buy the 'salt of freedom'!

Women, who started coming out in response to Gandhiji's call for the Salt Satyagraha, began coming out in droves once the men started being arrested. They were led by the wives and sisters of the leaders, prominent among whom were Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru and Nehru's sister, Vijaylakshmi Pandit, but many women also rose to leadership despite not being from political families.

Sucheta Kriplani, Aruna Asaf Ali, and Durgabai Deshmukh, among many others joined the Freedom Struggle during the Civil Disobedience Movement. They all married freedom fighters from different communities (even religion), and continued to serve the nation even after Independence. Sucheta Kriplani became the first female Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. Aruna Asaf Ali was the first lady mayor of Delhi and did a lot of work in education. Durgabai Deshmukh was a lawyer who served as a member of the Constitute Assembly and later of the Planning Commission.

Initially, the police used only moderate violence against women, but when they kept coming out, women too were lathi charged and imprisoned for long terms. None of this, deterred the women, and despite having to manage the home in the absence of their menfolk, they continued being a part of the freedom struggle.

Some of them paid a very heavy price for their rebellion. Rani Gaidinliu, for instance, was arrested when she was seeking to drive the British out of Manipur and Nagaland when she was only 16 years old, and spent 14 years in prison before she was released after Independence.

There were other women who lost their lives in the Struggle. Matangini Hazra, the poor peasant woman who was also known as Gandhi Buri was shot dead by the police during the Quit India Movement when she was leading a procession of over six thousand people. Eighteen year old Kanaklata Barua was shot down while participating in the Quit India Movement.

Despite these setbacks, women were equal participants in the Freedom Struggle. They protested unjust laws, they sang patriotic songs, they hoisted the national flag, they ran radio stations and printing presses, and they provided shelter to freedom fighters fleeing the police. If India was able to gain Independence a lot of the credit should go to these women.

What after Independence?

Unfortunately, after Independence, women were not able to capitalize on these gains. Unlike in other countries, women were given Universal Adult Franchise right after Independence. Women also occupied positions of power, though in small numbers. There were fifteen women in the Constituent Assembly who helped draft the Constitution, there was one women in the first Union Cabinet of Independent India, and a woman headed the Indian delegation to the United Nations and was the first ever woman to be elected the President of the United National General Assembly.

Despite the early head start, even today, the representation of women in public life remains disproportionately low, which results in the framing of policies that do not adequately empower women. India attained her Freedom seventy four years ago, but we will be able to consider ourselves to be truly free only when we are adequately represented in positions of policy making.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Does ‘merit’ have much merit?

 This would probably be controversial, but it still needs to be said. A lot of people oppose reservations, and I often hear "I worked hard, nobody handed things to me on a platter" to justify removing/ revoking reservations. They may think they have a point, because what they see is some people getting a coveted seat they couldn’t get despite having lower grades. Yet, is that how it really is?

I am born to Brahmin parents, and I topped every bloody exam I wanted to top. Through all my school and college days, I too opposed reservations "on principle"- I genuinely believed it was my hard work that got me where I was. And I expected others to put in the same amount of work to get there, instead of seeking reservations.

But guess what. I was wrong.

It didn’t happen overnight, but gradually I came to realise that while I had brains, and worked extremely hard (and smart), I also had a privilege that I was blind to.

I had access to the best education my parents could afford. Nobody questioned me when I aspired to occupy a place of excellence. My family supported me.

While I certainly had good brains, and worked extremely hard, it wasn’t just "my" hard work and "my" brains that got my where I was.

What got me there was generations of being at the apex of an inequitable system. A system that empowered and enabled me to compete on what I thought was a level field, but actually was one that was stacked in my favour.

There are many who are as intelligent as me. And are willing to work as hard. But at every stage they are denied opportunity.

They struggle to find teaches willing to teach. They do not have access to libraries. They do not have a family that can sustain their curiosity. They are constantly derided by the education system. Even after they get admission into good educational institutions, they are often no accepted as equals by the faculty and other students. Their competence is questioned, even though there is no reason to presume they are in any way not equal to the rest. In short, the field is stacked against them.

Till those inequities are removed, let’s not even think about passing a value judgment on people who do not have the benefits that we do.

Access to education, healthcare, livelihoods and social acceptance should be universal.

Only then will there be equity. And only when there is equity, would there no longer be any need for reservations.

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Meeting Myself

[My forty year old self met my thirty year old self in a train compartment. A few days later, she ran into me, literally.]

I saw her purposefully running loops around the park. She was wearing the same turquoise sleeveless tee shirt I was in. “Runner Girls India”, I knew it said, “Strong, fast and sexy”. With a twinge of regret, I realised her toned body filled the tee shirt in a way mine no longer did. But now was not the time for regret- I had work to do.

I knew her too well; she would certainly not take a break. If I wanted to speak to her, I had to run with her. I picked up pace, she did too. I accelerated again, so did she. She was exactly as I remembered her- she was not going to let anyone overtake her, even if it meant tiring herself out. This called for a change of tactics. “Hey, slow down a bit. I want to talk to you.” She looked over her shoulder. Curiosity won. She slowed down to let me match pace with her. We ran in companionable silence for a loop as we both got our breath back to normal.

She was the first to break the silence. “So you wanted to tell me something?”

“Not really. Just wanted to talk to you. I don’t often see women running in the park.”

“I don’t come here often”, she admitted. “The treadmill wasn’t working, and I needed to run. I prefer running indoors to be honest. What about you? Do you come here regularly?”

“Do I look like I work out regularly?” I gave a self-deprecating laugh.

“You can always make time if you want to.” It was a statement, not a condemnation.

“I could. But maybe I don’t want it hard enough.”

We ran together. I was secretly pleased to see I could still match her pace. “So, are you training for a race or something”, I asked, even though I knew the answer.

“I would love to run a sub 2:30 hour half marathon”, she confessed. “My best time is 2:34 which I ran in my first race. But no matter how hard I train, I just can’t seem to beat that time. But no, I am not training for a race. I run to keep my sanity.”

“It must be hard to manage children and work.”

“Well, if you really want to do something, you manage to fit it into your schedule somehow. But, yes, it is hard at times.”

“Maybe you are trying too hard?”

“What do you mean?”, she went on the defensive immediately. “I don’t have a choice. I need to operate within too many constraints, and unless I prioritise, I will not be able to get everything done.”

“But doesn’t that take a toll on you?”

“Do I have a choice? If I don’t make time for the things I am passionate about, I won’t be able to do them, would I? There are many other things I would like to do, but since I don’t have time, I haven’t even taken them up. But what I do, I do well.”

I knew she could deliver an entire TED talk on this, so I gently cut her short. “But maybe you don’t have to give everything your 100%. Maybe so of the things you feel you have to do will get done even if you are not there to do it.”

Her curiosity was piqued, but she was not giving up. “Okay, tell me what I should de-prioritise”, she challenged. “I need to get the kids ready for school and send them off, and I need to be back on time to pick them up. I have to build my life around that window. If I do not want to give up on my job, my running and my reading, how else can I manage my time?”

“Maybe you can seek help in getting them ready for school? Maybe you don’t always need to be around to welcome them? Maybe you can miss a few workouts? You can’t really plan everything, you know.”

She was not convinced. “Is that what you do? Maybe things are different for you.”

“Things certainly are different. My kids are older, but I’ve trained them to be independent; they take care of themselves, and if they don’t do something, they should have, they face the consequences. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but once I got here, life has been so much easier for me.”

“Well, I don’t know. I could try, but what if things go wrong?”

“If something goes wrong, you fix it. You will not know till you try, will you? Take a leap of faith- you may be surprised how far you can go.”

We ran a few more loops together. I was silent; she didn’t try to speak either. I had given her a lot to process- I had asked a perfectionist to embrace imperfection. But at least I had sown the seed. She would think about it. One thing to be said about her- she was not afraid of change.

“I need to drop off now. You carry on. Its been nice meeting you”, I told her.

“Yes, nice meeting you too. Perhaps I will see you around sometime.”

“Oh absolutely. You will meet me sooner than you think. Keep running. Who knows- before the year is up, you may run a sub-5 hour marathon.”

“Impossible! I can’t even go below 2:30 hours in the half.”

“Never say never.” I smiled at her and dropped off. She carried on, ponytail swinging from side to side. I watched her retreating back till she was out of sight. She didn’t know it then, but my 40 year old self had many surprises in store for her in the next decade.

Friday, July 2, 2021

The Last Rites

 When I saw photographs of Mandira Bedi at her husband’s funeral, it was her grief that I first noticed. Every inch of her body was weighed down with sorrow, and it was sheer will-power that was pushing her forward to do what needed to be done. Looking at her waif like body in the androgynous tee shirt, it was hard to believe she was a mother herself, and yet, it was to shield her son from the trauma of conducting his father’s last rites that she was pushing herself. As a mother, I could empathise.

As a woman, I also realised that though it not her intention to make a statement, she certainly sent out a strong message to other women- they too could conduct funeral rites.

Rituals don’t matter much to me, but I know women who have fought members of their extended family to be permitted to conduct the last rites of their parents. Some were able to do so, many not. Mandira Bedi’s action will make it easier for others.

But is it enough?

Should the struggle be against Patriarchy which does not consider women the equal of men? If yes, what Mandira Bedi did will be a big affirmation- women less privileged than she is can now demand their right to conduct the last rites of the family members they are close to.

But is that the real fight? Shouldn’t the real struggle be against Brahminical Patriarchy which requires that funeral rituals which can only be performed in the presence of a Brahmin priest?

During the peak of the COVID crisis, we heard of cremation workers who (in the absence of priests) conducted the last rites of people.

Now that things are back to normal, will the same cremation workers continue to be assigned the task or will the privilege be taken away?

When my grandmother passed away, my grandfather declared that no rituals will be conducted because she doesn’t need a Brahmin priest to intercede on her behalf.

Wouldn’t that be a much more meaningful victory if we can normalise funerals without the rituals?

Saturday, June 26, 2021

When Me met Me

[This is what my 40 year old self told my 30 year old self when they accidentally shared an empty coach. My 50 year old self may have very different things to say- maybe I should get them to meet.] 

The first thing I noticed was her book; Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". The train was almost empty, but I chose the seat directly opposite her.

She was in her late twenties, though the severe hairstyle made her look older. Her clothes were too big for her­­––perhaps she hoped to cover the excess fat, but she only looked shapeless. I noticed she was using a boarding card as a bookmark––definitely a professionally qualified executive.

She must have sensed my scrutiny, because she looked up. I met her eye, and smiled.

"I was looking at your book", I said. "I have exactly the same copy."

"It's one of my favourite books,” she confessed. "Must have read it at least a dozen times."

"Me too." We got chatting.

"Who runs?", she asked, looking at my backpack with the logo of a marathon.

"Me. I've done four half marathons, and one full."

"W-O-O-W", she drew out the syllables. "I can't even dream of running 5 kilometers."

"Why don't you try? You might surprise yourself. That's what I keep telling my kids."

"You have kids? You don't look it."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"You're so slim."

"Well, I do work out."

"I wish I had the time."

"You can always make time." I knew how superior I sounded.

"I guess so! But tell me", she said, changing the subject. "Is motherhood all it's made out to be?"

"I can't imagine not being a mother", I replied. "But have kids only when you are ready to put your life on hold for them."

Her station came. "Been great meeting you. Hope to run into you again,” she said grabbing her bags.

"We will." I reassured her. "And one other thing. Harry Potter. Do start reading Harry Potter!"

I don't understand why my friends are dreading turning Four-Oh. My twenty-nine-year-old self had not recognized me, and she was clearly impressed by what I had become. How many more surprises are in store as I advance further into the best age––the middle ages.

Originally posted here

Thursday, June 24, 2021


[To the Me that I am, and to the Me-s that I was]

She is Ten-

Riding her shiny red bicycle

Flying with the wind

Falling down, getting up

Testing the limits of her world

Free to be who she wants to be.

She is Twenty-

Pushing boundaries, fighting the world

Rebelling for the sake of rebellion.

Breaking conventions, finding her own path

Reading, thinking, arguing

Figuring out who she wants to be.

She is Thirty-

Trying to please everyone

Trying to do everything

Her life is going where she wants it to

She’s vaguely discontent

Is this who she wants to be?

She is Forty-

Permanently exhausted

Taking on more than she should

Pushing herself to do it all

She has it all. She is happy.

Just as she wants to be.

She is Fifty-

Still learning, still growing

Making mistakes, not repeating them

Doing the best she can, failing often

She is Imperfectly perfect, Smiling, 

Just as she wants to be.

Monday, June 21, 2021

Bhagyalakshmi, a Tale

 Her fingers gently trace the curls on her daughter’s head while she suckles noisily. Whatever the tempest raging in her mind, an unerring calm always descends over her when her daughter is latched onto her breast. Her Bhagyalakshmi. Her baby. Her innocent, defenseless baby. Did she even suspect her entire universe was about to collapse around her?

As long as Bhagya’s father was alive, there was hope. He would recover and come home from hospital. She would nurse him back to health. They would move back to the city. She would take up cooking jobs to support themselves. She could even do some embroidery work on the side to earn extra money to send home to the family. They would be happy together. Someday, Bhagya would get a younger brother. They would have his namkaran in the village.

But it hadn’t happened that way. Bhagya’s father didn’t recover. He was in hospital for a month. He was fighting. He seemed to be getting better. They said he would be released in a few days. Then he suddenly got worse. And today, he died. He was gone. Her anchor was gone. She was a widow with a baby girl. She had nowhere to go.

His family blamed her. Blamed her for seducing their son. Blamed her for bringing bad luck on the family. Blamed her for bringing the disease into the family. Blamed her for falling sick. Blamed her for infecting the entire family. Blamed her when people began to die; Sasurji, Devar, Sasuma, Jethani. She blamed herself too. But she hoped they would forgive her.

Now he was gone. What would happen to her?

Her baby opens her eyes and looks at her. She kisses her on the forehead and gently shifts her to the other breast. She latches on and started suckling. Her baby is constantly hungry. Her milk is no longer enough for her. Soon she would be ready for solids. How would she manage? Would things have been better if they had remained in the city. If they hadn’t come back when the cases started rising?

The memories of last year were still fresh. They were living together when Lockdown was announced. He had no money; he used to send all his savings home. They survived on her savings and the goodness of strangers. When lockdown was extended, he wanted to walk back home. But they knew his family would not accept her. He could not leave her behind, so they stayed. They begged their employers for money. Only one Madam obliged. On many days, they went to bed hungry. They didn’t think they would survive, but somehow they did.

They were ready to give up and go back to his village when one house she worked in called her back. She begged them to pay her in advance. They agreed. Gradually, she got a few more jobs. Her husband was not so lucky. He was a driver, but the family he worked for didn’t want him back. He couldn’t find another job. He drove an auto for two hours every day when the owner took a break. Sometimes, he was hired as a driver for half a day. Once, he drove a family to the mountains for a holiday. They had chicken when he returned.

Last year, it had been just the two of them, so they managed somehow. Now, with Bhagya, they knew they could not survive another Lockdown. Already, her husband’s earnings had started to come down. The old lady she had engaged to mind Bhagya while she went to work came down with COVID. Their neighbours were falling sick. They had no choice; they had to return to his village.

She looks down at her sleeping baby. Feels her soft palm pressed against her breast. Her tiny chest rises and falls with every breath. She gently caresses her baby’s fair cheeks; traces the curve of her long eyelashes. Her daughter is prefect in every way but one; she was not a boy.

He hadn’t been able to contain his joy when she told him she was pregnant. “When the child is born, my family will accept you”, he told her. They got married in the temple the very next day. She could not afford a new saree, but she felt like a bride when he draped the red chunni on her. “You look like a Rajput princess”, he told her when she gazed shyly at him from under the chunni. Who knew? Maybe she was a Princess; all they had told her was that she had been abandoned outside a temple. Orphans like her do not have a history.

If he was disappointed not to have a son, he didn’t show it. “She is Bhagyalakshmi. She will bring us luck”, he declared. He got the Punditji to cast her horoscope and sent it home to his family. They hadn’t even acknowledged it, but he continued to send them money every month.

“If I were not an orphan, your family would have accepted me”, I told him often. “They will when they get to know you”, he would assure her. But they hadn’t. And now they never would. She was on her own, with Bhagyalakshmi.

A wave of grief lashed over her. The anguish of losing her husband- the handsome man who had won her heart; the tender lover who encouraged her to move in with him, the kind hearted partner who refused to abandon her, the brave warrior who fought so hard to stay alive. She pushed it aside and surfaced. Now was not the time to wallow in self-pity. She had to think of staying alive and keeping Bhagya alive.

She couldn’t stay here any longer. She would have to return to the city. She was efficient, she was clean, she was honest. People would employ her. But what about Bhagya? Who would look after Bhagya while she was at work? How would a single woman with a child survive on her own in the city? How would she keep Bhagya safe when she grew up?

No, she wouldn’t be able to take Bhagya with her. She would need to secure her future before she left.

She holds her baby close. Then wraps her in her red wedding chunni. She kisses her on the eyes and lays her reverentially in the wooden chest. She places a Mata ki Tasweer and prays to her to watch over her baby. She takes one last look at her beautiful baby, slides the horoscope under her head and closes the lid of the chest.

With the moon as her witness, she will float the chest down the Ganga. When they finally find Bhagyalakshmi, they would know that she is the daughter of a Kshatriya family; she will not be a nameless orphan like her mother.

The next day, when the family wakes up, they will find that she is gone.


The next day:


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