Indian history is no exception to the unfortunate universal norm of ignoring women in historical narratives. If an Akka Mahadevi or a Meerabai gets a mention, it is because their poems have a timeless alluring intensity. If a Gargi of the Upanishads or a Bhaskara’s daughter Lilavati gets a mention, it is because they are found in books by their contemporary men and not purely on their merit. Lakshmibai of Jhansi and Chenamma Rani of Kittur are in the records owing to the British record-keeping as well as people’s memory. These are exceptions, proving the rule of complete silence about women and their struggles which make us who we are.
As one looks around, one finds that the life of literally every woman is a tale of unsung heroism. It would be obviously impossible for one to mention all such women whose life stories one has seen unfolding before one’s eyes. Here are a few:
Tara, whose name means a “star”, was married to a soldier who fought in the Bangladesh war. He took early retirement and opted for farming when the government decided to provide agricultural land to servicemen seeking early retirement. The small piece of land allotted to him was in the rocky hills of Nasawadi taluk in Baroda district. The other farmers in the village did not like to have a newcomer and got him murdered within a year or so.
Story of Tara
Tara was left with a very meagre income and three children to bring up. Being the wife of a proud soldier, she decided to work and joined the malaria eradication department as an attendant. But, having to face constant sexual harassment as a good-looking young woman, she realised that she needed to have a man to protect her dignity. So, she married a distant relative. Within months she realised that he did nothing but drink using her earnings. She continued to work with utmost honesty and brought up her children, educated them, and arranged for their marriages as well.
By this time, she was exhausted and had contracted an incurable cancer. I knew her through her years of struggle and rarely saw her without a smile. Recently, she called using the mobile phone she had acquired to say that the time to say goodbye had come. My wife asked her if she had any unfulfilled desire. She said: “None. I have everything that one can have—a brave husband, good children, and good grandchildren. When I enter the other world, I will walk with my head held high.”
Tara of Bhayali village in Baroda is only one among millions of them. Surekha, whose husband was lured away by a godman soon after her marriage, and whose in-laws ascribed the loss to her stars and, therefore, banished her from the prosperous family, worked her way through difficulties, brought up her daughter and son and courageously fought every sinister attempt at abusing her. She got her son trained as a junior technician and her daughter wants to join the civil services.
Tara of Nasawadi in Gujarat, Surekha of Bailhongal in North Karnataka, and millions of others—with life stories even more horrifying than theirs—are Mother India incarnate. Mehboob Khan’s classic film with that title released in 1957, with a mesmerising performance by Nargis and Sunil Dutt, and Bimal Roy’s Sujata of the same period, with Nutan as the artist, depicted the archetypal courageous Indian woman whose moral sense never gets diminished in adversity. Their realism was remarkable. It is even more chilling in real life for Indian women.
There are, and there will be, stories of extraordinary moral integrity and courage of men as well. Yet, given that a woman facing calamities has to face extreme social threat and vulnerability surrounded by a sex-starved society, the quality of moral courage that she requires is altogether of a different order.
On her own terms
I recall meeting a folk artist in Maharashtra some 20 years ago. She was born in a family that performed the Tamasha and was therefore seen as morally lax. With her talent and beauty, she was noticed by rich village heads and sought by them. She resisted, inviting their wrath. She had to face mindless cruelty in order to protect her dignity. To escape all this, she moved to another district, worked hard to gather her own troupe, wrote Tamasha scripts herself, and started performing.
Determined to end the tyranny of social customs, she collected funds from village women and built a private auditorium. She started performing there on her own terms. If any of the male spectators ever made advances, she wielded a whip that she had acquired to bring him back to his senses. Then she brought a motorcycle and rode it to tour nearby villages to offer financial help to girls who wanted to study in college. One year, she made a substantial gift to the local temple out of her earnings and claimed the honour of performing the puja during the annual temple festival. Chanda Indapurkar was her name. I was with Mahasweta Devi when I met Chanda. She touched Mahasweta’s feet and asked for, in blessing, “courage to fight injustice”. After the visit was over, Mahasweta Devi said to me: “She is greater than all my novels. She makes India great.”
As I recall Chanda, my mind also goes back to Kalpana. I first got to know her when she was 16 or 17, just married to Roxy Gagdekar. Roxy’s family was residing in the infamous Chharanagar locality of Ahmedbad, defamed as a den for illicit liquor and gambling. His father, a lawyer by training, was arrested several times on false charges and died rather too early as a result of police torture. Roxy and Kalpana chose to sell milk, unlike others selling liquor, for their livelihood. This was the time when I was trying to set up a small library and establish theatre activities in Chharanagar. Kalpana took part in the plays and blossomed as an actor with huge talent.
She would not have realised the significance at that age, but among her early admirers were Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Mallika Sarabhai, and Romila Thapar. Kalpana worked hard at her art. I remember, when President Kalam visited a small town in south Gujarat, Kalpana had to perform. But getting to the stage protected by security police from the spot where the actors were made to wait required some running and a lot of walking in the scorching sun. She did that despite being in an advanced stage of pregnancy. She was later noticed by the writer Narayan Desai, who had written a play on Kasturba’s life. Kalpana played the role with a rare elan. She became quite a celebrity in theatre, Gujarati cinema, and TV ads. Her children are now in college, and Roxy has progressed from being a stringer for a Gujarati paper to becoming the BBC’s correspondent reporting from Ahmedabad. A quarter century’s constant struggle has left Kalpana tired but not broken in spirit. She has literally lifted the family from the gutter to a lofty and dignified place.
Will the Kalpanas and Chandas of India ever enter the pages of Indian history? I doubt it. But it is they, and the Taras and Surekhas, that make us who we are. They are in every family, poor or rich, rural or urban, Hindu or Muslim or Sikh or Christian. The quiet, unstated strength of the people of India and their great wisdom and moral strength flow out of these millions of incarnations of Mother India, not out of religious books or political ideologies. No government scheme can make them what they are and no calamity can break them and change them into something else.
I wish our history had placed Kasturba Gandhi, Kamala Nehru, and Ramabai Ambedkar at the centre of the narratives that we learn as history. India would have been a far more civilised place and would have never invited upon itself the spectre of having to witness the revival of the Manusmriti, which thinks of women as no more than property, together with land and cows, to be used and abused.
Ganesh Devy is a cultural activist and founder of Dakshinayana.
- Indian history is no exception to the unfortunate universal norm of ignoring women in historical narratives.
- As one looks around, one finds that the life of literally every woman is a tale of unsung heroism.
- Tara of Nasawadi in Gujarat, Surekha of Bailhongal in North Karnataka, and millions of others—with life stories even more horrifying than theirs—are Mother India incarnate.
- Will the Kalpanas and Chandas of India ever enter the pages of Indian history? I doubt it. But it is they, and the Taras and Surekhas, that make us who we are.