|mama and me 1954 Peking|
In just a week Delhi will vote. As a responsible citizen I will cast my vote. In the recent assembly elections I was elated to know that we had a new option that seemed, if nothing else, to be the much needed counterpoint to the kind of politics we have been subjected to in the past decades. Once upon a time I voted for a particular party because I believed in what they stood for. That was when there still was a modicum of ideologies so there was a sort of choice and one stuck by it not realising the surreptitious changes that were happening till the rude awakening of realising that the two main parties had become strangely similar and ideologies had taken a back seat. It did not matter who you voted for the end result was the same: corruption, programmes that looked and sounded good but just remained that sounding good and were never implemented. In my wife, mother, professor, conference organiser days, voting was not a top priority. My world was so restricted that I had I guess lost the ability to see with my heart and look beyond the invisible and almost impregnable societal barriers.
Then I lost my parents and went through an inordinate and endless period of mourning that seemed to be a rather pusillanimous coping strategy with my new status of an orphan. I woke up six years later in a small slum lane and opened the eyes of my heart when I saw Manu. Life would never be the same as I had crossed the invisible walls. You may wonder what all this has to do with elections and voting. Well it is quite simple everything that one had heard, read, even believed in and of course never questioned revealed itself in its stark reality. In the words of the Bard something was rotten in the kingdom of.
. India. In 2004 when one found out that as a voter one had the right not to vote
, I exercised that right to show that I distrusted all candidates.
Today we have the NOTA button. One would think that I would press it with alacrity. But I won't as it is no solution at all as it actually means nothing. My years in project why have been an eye opener in myriad of ways and have proved beyond doubt that the political parties have let down the people who deserved their attention and wit every year have been only interested in using every trick in the book to meet their vile agendas. To counter them it is time we did something. At least we women who are now known as the power of 49. It is time we exposed the games and machinations of those to whom we entrusted our country and dreams.
Today, more than ever before, I feel the pull and presence of the long lineage of women I descend from and the compelling to reminisce about them as they all played a part in women's rights and India's freedom.
I only have second hand knowledge that I gathered at the feet of Kamala my mother. She spoke of her paternal grandmother who fought for rights within her very traditional home in Varanasi. The only sister of seven brothers she wanted all her brothers had and was willing to do everything in her power to get what she felt was her right. When she wanted to study only Christian teachers were available and the deal was that she had to bather from head to toe everyday after her lesson. Her study table and chair also had to be 'bathed'! In those days women wore saris without bloused or petticoats but her teacher wore them so she threw a fit and got her blouse and petticoat. When she reached Varanasi as a bride in the heat of summer, her bare feet burnt like hell. Women did not wear shoes then but men did and her brothers who had accompanied her were walking in comfort. You can guess what happened. Madam got her shoes though the cobbler only knew how to make men's shoes. She wore them with pride. This is also the woman who watched with pride her son burn all his clothes and leave his home with a heavily pregnant 15 year old wife to join the freedom movement. The young woman was my Nani, Lajjawati and the baby she carried was my mother Kamala.
Nani was the daughter of the official priest of the Maharaja of Jodhpur and had led an easy and happy childhood before she was married to a promising and handsome young man who was reading law and who was the son of a police officer in the British Police. They had a sprawling house in Varanasi and all the comforts. Barely a year after her marriage, her husband decide to leave everything to join the Freedom Struggle. This woman left her marital home with nothing but her husband's chosen destiny that she embraced with joy. She lived years of want and struggle, battling, often alone as my Nana was frequently in jail, to survive without compromising the dignity of the family. When her children wondered what white drink their friends had - milk - she mixed flour and water and gave it to them. She bought the market leftover vegetables sold cheaper at night and the tiniest potatoes that a little girl had to painstakingly peel at night. As women were in purdah, it was the same little girl who rubbed turmeric and oil on her father's and his companions' bleeding backs a result of the merciless beatings they suffered at the hands of the British Police. These women were the unsung heroes of the freedom struggle.
The mother-in-law daughter-in-law duo was formidable feminists. They intuitively knew that education was the key to real freedom and above education of girls. Kamala my mother was enrolled in the first girls school that opened in Meerut and was roll no 1. The Raghunath Girls 'School'
now an Inter College still exists. Ma was one of the five initial students mentioned. When she was in class VI, her father thought she had studied enough! But that was not the plan of his mother and wife. The battle for Ma's education had begun. The tactics were borrowed from the unsuspecting father: hunger strikes! Ma would go on a supposed hunger strike though she was gorged at night by her supporters, and then the two battle axes would stand in front of my Nana with sad faces and in maudlin voices would say: Kamala has eaten nothing
just as he was about to take his first bite. This happened over and over again and Ma finished school, went to Banaras Hindu University's as a hosteler and do her BA, MA and LLB. Later in Prague she would complete a PHD.
When the issue of Ma's marriage came up a deal was made with her father. She would not get married before India's Independence. The reason was she preferred to live life as a spinster then give life to a slave child. She was 30+ when she got married and the free child is me. Thanks to these formidable women I was born with the proverbial silver spoon but also smothered with values and a love for the country that gave me life. When did I lose my way?
Today more than ever before I feel the weight of the legacy of these women who believed in equal rights for all genders, who were willing to give up everything, sleep hungry, wear ungainly clothes but never let their spirit die. How will I face them when we meet again and what will I tell them when I am asked how is the India we gave you.
I have no answer.
(to be continued)