The Women’s Movement and I
When did I get embroiled in the women’s movement? This is not an easy question to answer.
The real breakthrough came when my former pupil and then colleague Ranajoy Karlekar, with whom we shared the most challenging dreams of leading a non-hegemonizing democratic social existence, helped the intrepid social activist Maitreyee Mukhopadhyay to bring together Nirmala Banerjee and myself to plan a day-long workshop to cover different aspects of women’s lives and the best ways of interpreting and engaging with these. After the day-long deliberations, a blueprint for starting an autonomous feminist group in Kolkata emerged. Sukumaridi was as our first president, who named the group Sachetana, recognizing from the start that no external amelioration is possible in women’s lives unless it is adequately leavened by conscious awareness. It was this initial commitment to awareness that brought us naturally to feminism, born out of the predicaments of women like us. Nirmala lent us her residence for its official address and Ratnabali gave us space in her home for meetings and other concomitant activities.
The journey that many of us began three decades ago shaped the trajectory of our lives and stayed with us. As feminist groups go, it is difficult to match this group’s potential. Apart from Nirmala and Maitreyee, who addressed the developmental depredations of women’s lives in our society, the acute gendering of our cultural lives were addressed by Malini Bhattacharya, then an active member of Sachetana; Ratnabali Chattopadhyay with her rich insight into paintings in history and its gendered potential; Madhusree Datta ‘Phuljhuri’, who was still committed to drama; Madhuchchhanda Karlekar with her deconstruction of the gendered site of advertisements; Krishna Banerjee and her daughter Nandini (Tumpa) with their activism in health and embodiments; Jayanti and her daughter Raka, who became a major feminist historian of labour, and now runs the School of Women’s Studies in Jadavpur University; and my daughter Tista, who sang and acted in many of Sachetana’s campaigns. One such campaign was the anti-dowry campaign, for which Malini wrote what I consider to be the best anti-dowry play, Meyedile Sajiye (Giving the daughter away [with dowry]). Madhusree directed it and we took it to slums, colleges, universities and other places. My best visual memories are of several such performances, particularly in the Manoharpukurbustee, and in Lady Brabourne College and Jadavpur University, where I taught. We brought out the journal Sachetana, its wonderful cover visual was by Ratnabali, with contributions by progressive writers and artists, such as Chhabi Basu, who contributed a marvelously feminist story ‘Meyemanush’ to it. Shanu Lahiri did the logo and painted a wonderful anti-dowry card for us, with Sukumaridi providing a short poem. Those were indeed heady days of activism, analysis, writing, talking and sharing that reversed Dante’s famous opening lines in Inferno for me: ‘In the middle of my life, I found my way.’
Not only did I find my way, but, one may say, the way found me. When, in 1987, Jadavpur University under the inspiring leadership of Professor Shankar Sen decided to begin a School of Women’s Studies as part of the number of interdisciplinary schools, the group that convened to discuss the structure chose me as the director and I was led into the other important stream of the Indian women’s movement, i.e., Women’s Studies, which Vinadi has justly described as the ‘intellectual arm’ of the women’s movement. Fortunately for us, the narratives of the first U.G.C. sponsored Women’s Studies Centres, along with the first non-U.G.C. funded Women’s Studies Research Institutes have been gathered and published in Narratives from the Women’s Studies Family (edited by Devaki Jain and Pam Rajput).
The familial framework does not take away from the inherent struggle that each of us had to undertake, that lends itself more to a movement than to a family. One had to prise open the basic assumptions in our knowledge-producing system, questioning deeply the underlying hierarchies on which it rested. I would like to record here the unearthing of newer and newer terrains of human resources both within and outside the university. Images keep floating before my eyes: Kamla getting our staid women colleagues to dance in front of handicraft stalls women had put up for the Fifth National Conference of the IAWS that Jadavpur hosted; two Australian participants to the Women and Science Forum in 1995 listening spellbound to Phulrenu Guha’s optimistic endorsement of the women’s movement in India and Women’s Studies as an integral part of it; Himani Bannerji coming from Toronto and setting the school into motion by her lecture series on ‘Feminism and Method’ with the number of men and women attending increasing every day; the metal sculptor Suzanne Benton, wearing her mask and welding scrap material into beautiful forms right in the heart of the Electrical Engineering Department, where no women had ever been known to weld; a hundred prostitutes of Kolkata gathering in our seminar room to have their pre-inaugural brainstorming for southern Kolkata before they founded the Durbar Mahila Samannoy Committee.
What, to my mind, is a sure sign that we practised Women’s studies as a movement is the solidarity with which we collaborated with different persons and institutions. Our opening national seminar was inaugurated by Ashapurna Devi where she gave a talk that we published in Indian Women Myth and Reality. Vinadi steered our second year’s Round Table on curriculum development in Women’s Studies that has remained the seed from which the later curriculum has evolved.
After retirement from Jadavpur I had to take on chairpersonship of the National Resource Group of Mahila Samakhya, a flagship programme of education and empowerment of women carried out in several states in India (unfortunately not in West Bengal). My condition was that we will not meet in Delhi. We met in several states, including Assam, where we came across the vocal and active women of the sanghas. Although these programmes were monitored by the state, the energies displayed were certainly those emanating from civil society.
The last phase of my ‘official’ involvement with women’s issues came through the West Bengal Women’s Commission. Before I joined I was invited to compile a collective status report on the women of West Bengal. Under the gigantic shadow of Vinadi and Phulrenudi’s ‘founding text’, ‘Towards Equality’, we decided to cover only the last three decades of the twentieth century. This gave me the advantage of starting the library of the Women’s Commission before joining. Though a government appointed body to which I was nominated by the government, I treated my position as part of the women’s movement.
The eight and a half years were no less exciting than the Fellini film of that name. More so because it involved women in their living process, faces and suffering that brought the dead statistics alive. It also brought me close to other members of the Commission despite different political affiliations. Though each in our own way left-oriented, we were determined to place the governing process under deep scrutiny. Apart from one Delhi-based smear campaign against me, when Mamata Banerji politically exploited the tragic death of Rizwanur Rahman, the progressive women’s movement had been greatly supportive. It is interesting to recall that our first public meeting was on the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Act, its blatant loopholes and ideological assumptions. The Commission has continued to work on this campaign. One of our early achievements was a booklet on the PC and PNDT Acts and their ill-effects. I cannot claim that we broke into it because the district of Calcutta, with all its clinics, USG machines and well-to-do citizens, has been declared the worst perpetrator of the adverse sex-ratio in the preliminary findings of the 2011 Census. Contrary to belief, Women’s Commission worked with the women’s movement on this. Groups, whether political or autonomous, and NGOs gave us a lot of support, just as we gave them ours.
My involvement with women’s movement has meant international networkings: three conferences on Women’s World took me to New York, (1990), Costa Rica (1993) and Kampala (1999). The South Asian Women’s Network took us to Sri Lanka twice and the Peace bus took us to Dhaka. My most memorable time with the South Asian women’s movement was my stay in ASR guest house and teaching in collaboration with the wonderful feminist scholars in Lahore. That year we spent 8th March in Lahore. Since street demonstrations were banned, we had the most vibrant celebration indoors. My other most memorable feminist International collaboration was our Shastri project in Khidirpur with Himani from York University and I from Jadavpur University. The entire team travelled to Canada and held dissemination workshops in Toronto, York and McGill universities.
The women’s movement brought the world home to us, locally and across many borders, the most difficult being the ones that are closest to us. To use our inner voice Rabindrath Tagore: You have made the alien, our own, my friend. The near ones far.