Shalini Mahajan

Memories, but not mine alone

I keep on remembering Bombay in 1992–93 when I think of resistance and women’s groups, particularly Forum (Forum Against Oppression of Women), the group I have been part of for the last sixteen years in a somewhat passionate, if careless, fashion.

I remember standing on the bridge at Dadar Railway Station, with the buzz of the rush hour footfalls around us, some fifteen or twenty of us, with placards proclaiming peace and calm, except for one condemning the breaking of the mosque, gently. We are as gentle as is possible to be, though we would’ve rather been shouting slogans of protest and pain. The fires around us have pushed desire for peace foremost and an appeal to sanity is all we can articulate at this time. We hope there will be justice at some point, but the atmosphere reeks of the wilful insanity that has been unleashed on us. Dadar is the garh of the Shiv Sena, their swords never quite hidden. And now, the air is full of their maha aratis, spectacles of horror masquerading as prayers.

We are singing “mandir masjid” endlessly these days – mandir masjid girijaghar mein baant diya bhagwaan ko; dharti baanti, saagar baanta, mat baanto insaan ko. . . . The only possible way in which we can perhaps pray.

My memories are somewhat faded. These stories were told to me in 1995 when I first joined to this group. I was not in Bombay in 1992-93, the years that changed this city in so many ways. I have had to fill this parenthetical gap in my life endlessly and when I first came to Forum, the first ever time I was part of a collective or any sort of radical politics for that matter, I could never have my fill of stories. This was very recent history and often while telling of what they had seen, lived through, the anger and horror, but mostly the pain, would shine in the eyes of these women. I learned what it meant to be an activist through these tales over endless cups of tea and shared cigarettes. I learned from the generosity with which my endless demands for reading materials and explanations were met.

I had questions that I was afraid to ask, about things like personal laws, something called 498A (I sat through a couple of long discussions before mildly asking the closest person – what exactly does this law say and then of course had no idea what cognizable and non-bailable meant), the names of various activists and groups that were flung about with great energy, and resistances which all but I seemed to be aware of.

Some I read about, sometimes I ventured to ask, and slowly, during walks to the station after a meeting, long train journeys home, by arriving early to meetings, by hanging around as only the young and jobless can, I started asking for stories: of how the group came about, which turned out to be many stories, slightly differing narratives, which were also part of the histories of the women’s movements in the 1980s; of what issues were taken up and how and where; of who the various groups and people were; what it meant to be “a group like us” or a strange formation called “autonomous women’s groups” a somewhat separate thing from acronym ridden organisations. Sometimes I glimpsed patterns but often, surrounded by a number of graduates from the school of social work who had read about all histories of resistance (or so it seemed to me), I felt woefully inadequate to handle this rush of connections where my training in literature seemed so alienating.

And I learned that being in such a group is akin to being in love, being in a formless relationship, and not just a web of individual interactions. I learned this from the intensity with which I would wait for the meetings, but also from the stories of fissures that I heard over time. In larger meetings, with other groups, where the surface interactions seemed to seethe with emotions that I could not understand, where statements meant more, where contexts ran deep. And being ever curious about such undercurrents, I spent hours and hours listening to the narratives of these women, over coffee, over drinks, sometimes just standing at bus stops. It seems incredible even today that they kept on taking out time to talk to me and never tired of telling stories spread over decades.

The last day of February, 2003: There is again a bunch of us, some thirty of us this time, with placards of peace and justice for Gujarat around our necks, at the Churchgate station. It is amazing how we keep on going back to reclaim spaces in trains and train stations, the lifelines of this city, while the State keeps on wanting to push us to a small corner of Azad maidan. The evening rush hour traffic is melding itself around us, though we often manage to break through with our leaflets and our songs. The cops are getting restive but we come in peace. The protest against Godhra, organised by the VHP outside the station, ends and those ‘activists’ see us and are enraged. Suddenly we are surrounded by over two hundred persons, with a thin line of police men and women between us, their batons pushing us into smaller and smaller formations. Above all the racket and the shouts of anger, we hear the police telling us to move. We try to stand our ground, telling them that we are peaceful: they should remove those who are attacking us. They plead to us to move for our own safety, becoming human in that constricted space. There is not much we can do, and we move.

I remember that this is how the protest at Dadar station had ended too. Here there was a poster that called Modi a murderer that they found offensive, then it was the one that said that breaking the Babri masjid was wrong. They were only some seven or eight of them then, but it was Dadar. And the police had taken us away, for ‘our own safety,’ even then. As I sat there with these wonderful women, waiting it out on those rough benches, still singing our songs, I remember thinking, we know what being safe is and it is not this. We are fighting for it with the tools that we have.

And for me, this sharing of memories, contemporaneously, is what has made it all possible.

9 May 2011.


Shalini Mahajan, Founder member, Lesbians and Bisexuals in Action                   (LABIA, formerly Stree Sangam)