Vani Subramanian


46 years of that thing called life and living. About 20 of them spent under a quaking flyover in Delhi, several times a week. Collectively, singly, joyously, despondently, hungrily, gluttonously.. Two rooms, a small group, all part of a much bigger picture.

Memories of being a Saheli (Saheli Women’s Resource Centre according to government records) are like the smells of tadka and flaming hot soya sauce from the kitchens of Deez and HongKong below. Wafting in at will, swirling freely into each other. Rich, noxious, mouthwatering… all at the same time. I am part spectator, part character in the scenes that flash by at random.

Scene 07.

It is early days yet. for me to have a sense of what can be termed a movement. I just see a loose collection of groups and individuals who come together sporadically over things that concern all of us. Issues, like free radicals, float in the air, bringing us together and erupting into bigger things.

We are at ICMR protesting against the unethical trials of a hazardous contraceptive called Norplant. I’m just beginning to understand the politics of population control and what it’s doing to women in countries like ours. the effect it has on women in countries like India. “Khatarnaak garbhnirodhak Norplant par shodh band karo” everyone is yelling. Khatarnaak, band and karo are the only words from the slogan that I fully understand. Nirodh I know of course, but haven’t bought my first pack yet. Haven’t come to terms with sex in own my life yet; haven’t even started talking about it.. Yet here I am, trying to yell about contraception on the street!

But over the years, out repeatedly against unethical marketing and trials of many such contraceptives, at some unknown point, the naara does becomes mine.

Scenes 01/402/99/101.

Ruby and I walk in for the first time. Beside a towering bookshelf, one group is talking to someone in trouble. We enter the second room. The tubelight is working here, and there’s a huge curved ‘bossy-looking’ table which I wouldn’t have expected in a place like this.. Thankfully, its authority is undermined by the women sitting around it. Laughing, arguing, smoking with their feet propped up on it. Unapologetic, not stirring even when outsiders walk into the room. Even for someone hailing from the ‘cool’  world of advertising, where chairpersons are addressed by first names, this comes as a shock.

I wonder at my own reaction. I wasn’t looking for ‘good’ social workers in sarees, but to find myself suddenly stripped of the taj of the bad girl of the colony is also a shock. I delight at the new standards to be met and challenged.

Long before Khaap Panchayats and the Sri Ram Sena arrived on the scene, the family, society and the press were good enough at playing moral police. We had just jumped walls to bust the press conference for the launch of of yet another terrible contraceptive, Depo Provera. We had two genteel 60-above women leading our group. Cartoons and discussions in the press focus on the ‘decorum’ of ‘decent’ ‘women’ jumping walls but ironically that keeps the Depo debate alive. And I enjoy the unison with which we celebrate being neither decorous nor decent!

Yet even within the movement, not everyone likes ‘bad girls’. At a rally, a comrade walks up to me, with a  big hug and a greeting of zindabad. Then she buttons me up saying, “Accha nahi lagta”. I seethe.

But ‘morality’ isn’t a one way street.

At an Autonomous Women’s Groups national meet, we are sharing the difficulties of being AWGs. I am amazed at the openness with which the internal mess within our group is being laid bare. My own middle class morality of ghar ki baatein ghar mein rakho is squirming. The political is personal.

Scene 136.

We’re driving past Rajghat to the university to ‘Take Back the Night’ against attacks on women on the dark, unlit streets of the campus. We’ve practiced songs, crafted glittery banners and all, but we’re still itching. Something seems to be missing.

Can’t remember who or how the song Taun, taun… from the film Makdee starts playing in our collective heads (Real Ravanas, we are!). And we’re on a roll. “Down, down… Arre Oh VC, Sun to Zaraa, Gaddi ko Chod, Bahar To Aa, Dekh To Zaraa, Raasta Andhera Hai, Safety ka Mamla Hai, Down Down….

Many a times, as I pass through that section of the Ring Road, the lyrics often automatically start replaying  in my head. The entire city is dotted with memories.

Months later, hundreds of us are at Dhaula Kuan. At the very spot where a woman was abducted from and gang raped. This is just one among the many protests where the song, with its simple and ever-changing ditty, has been joined by new voices. Each avatar of the song is a reminder of how relentlessly such attacks on women continue.

Scenes 22/254.

I think she was wearing a pink salwar kameez, but who knows. Fact is, her cheeks were pink with the heat, and with emotions. Can’t recall her name, but I can’t forget her arms. Pink, raw and obviously painful. Those scar tissues were saying more about the violence inside her marital home than words ever could.

Another year, another afternoon, I walk into the office. Someone is talking to a woman who is accompanied by a blind man. I wonder why she has brought him to a women’s group for help… but it turns out she has come seeking help and protection from him. A blind man who is violent and abusive. The process of learning continues.

Scene 43/243.

We’re working on the logo for the Sixth National Conference of the Women’s Movement to be held in Ranchi. We are trying to incorporate a set of hands into the feminist symbol, holding the world of women within them. But how do we represent those hands as women’s hands? Not slender feminine palms. Not long tapering fingers. Not long nails. Bangles. We settle on bangles… Indian,  female, but clanging with many unsettling questions regarding representation.

Many more unsettling questions continue to rankle. How do we fight for equal rights for women in a world rife with majority-minority, caste, religion and class divides? In fact, who do we see as ‘women’, and who do we not? How do we move ahead with the understanding that gendered inequities apply to many who don’t fit the stereotypes of men and women that we ourselves have challenged, without compromising ‘women’ as a political entity?

The maze of questions ahead makes looking back a darn sight easier. But only because one is together with others, can one continue to explore these things, to dare, to dream for change.


Vani Subramanian
Member, Saheli, New Delhi

9 May 2011