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Volume 27 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 17-30, 2010
INDIA'S NATIONAL MAGAZINE
from the publishers of THE HINDU
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BOOKS

The third factor

SUBHASHINI ALI

Vina Mazumdar's memoir is as much a handbook for intelligent and effective activism as it is an insider's record of momentous events.


VINA MAZUMDAR, Vinadi to all those who know her and are younger than she is, was chided by her older sister, Didi, for being a “rolling stone” because of her propensity to change jobs (and vocations) at the drop of a hat without giving much thought to the security of either her family or herself. Even the most casual reader of Vinadi's Memories of a Rolling Stone will spot the wry irony in her choice of a title that hints at her restless, seeking nature while the book itself gives the lie to the accusation of her being irresponsible and fickle. Accused of gathering no moss, she has certainly gathered many laurels that she never cared to rest on in her long and illustrious career as “activist and critic, academic and mobiliser, publicist and propagandist” (the words are hers) and beloved, loving but always clear-eyed mother figure to women and sympathetic men involved with the ‘second phase of the women's movement' in India, from the 1970s onwards.

It will not do to review Vinadi's book for its literary merit. She wrote it specifically as a record of “the revolutionary changes that India and its women experienced over three quarters of the 20th century and beyond”. Vinadi's telling of her own participation in these revolutionary changes – and the pivotal role that she often played – makes this memoir an important historical document.

The tone of the book is meandering and it reads very much like a long conversation with Vinadi. Today, she rambles when she speaks and hesitates a little more than she used to three decades ago. Just as you hold your breath, fearing that she will lose the thread, her voice becomes stronger, her eyes flash and she is back on track with a new vigour, a new clarity because she has started speaking of something that is important, something that needs careful elucidation, something that must be said, heard and understood. Memories of a Rolling Stone mirrors this quality. Events are not described chronologically, some names and dates have been mixed up, but the issues and the debates around them are crystal clear.

For Vinadi, education is a passion and a cause. She recognises its crucial contribution to her own development and spends a lifetime teaching, helping others to teach, writing reports and policy documents that will bring education into the lives of girls and women. Above all, she is trying to bring the magic and liberating quality of the education she was privileged to receive at the hands of a series of inspired and often semi-literate and illiterate teachers into the lives of millions of young Indians who were and are being increasingly subjected to a stultifying, corrupt, and soulless system of education that, as she says, “broke her heart”.

Her own formal education began in the Diocesan Girls School in Calcutta [Kolkata], where the teachers “focussed on comprehension”, and ended in Oxford where her tutor, Betty Kemp, believed that “my job is to teach an undergraduate how to teach herself”. Vinadi adopted this as a guiding principle for all teachers, including herself.

Patna University gave her her first teaching job and also the opportunity to meet her friend, companion and husband, Shankar, who passed away in 2007. A relationship strong enough to survive many separations and heated arguments was forged between them. Shankar was a committed Leftist, but very individualistic; a great teacher of Indian classical music and a caring father.

The reader is not allowed to learn much more about him. Along with Shankar, parents, brothers, sisters, children, cousins, nephews, nieces, friends and colleagues appear often and in vivid colours, but it is their contribution to something larger than family and self that becomes a memory worth relating for Vinadi.

Pishima, her father's sister, appears early in the book. The unhappiness she underwent in her marital home was not unusual, but she was. One night, she just left her husband's home and walked several miles to the river. Her own family lived on the other side. She got into a boat and told the boatman where she wanted to go and then, exhausted, she fell asleep.

The boatman brought her home safely to her father and made him promise that he would not ill-treat her. He told her father that his daughter's unhappiness must have truly been unbearable to make her do what she did. Pishima was a part of Vinadi's childhood, and, perhaps, left an indelible memory that helped propel her into the struggle against gender violence of later years.

Her mother, denied formal education, acquired literacy and knowledge with a dogged commitment. She hated the customs of dowry and the “showing of girls” (to potential in-laws) and fought for the education and independence of her daughter. Relatives, children and friends all bask in the warmth of Vinadi's love, but they have to earn it by contributing something to what her father called the “third factor”. Vinadi had once gone to him for advice at a point when juggling the demands of her career and family was becoming unbearable.

He told her that she was looking at only two aspects of the problem – her needs and those of her family but “there is a third factor in the equation… bring in the third factor and the problem will resolve itself…. So the third factor is this poor country, which made a substantial investment in your training. Do you have the right to waste that training?” Unarguably, it was the third factor that was the most important one for her.

Status of women

From Patna University to the University Grants Commission (UGC) and then to Berhampur University, she pursued her academic career, trying by example and by policy-framing to change the soulless conditions under which young people in different parts of the country were being subjected to what was euphemistically referred to as “higher education”. And then, in l972 she was appointed Member Secretary of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI), set up by the government in l971.

PHOTO COURTESY: SUNIL KUMAR SEN

VINA MAZUMDAR WITH a friend at Oxford. She has spent a lifetime teaching, helping others to teach, writing reports and policy documents that will bring education into the lives of girls and women.

The repercussions of the report prepared by the CSWI were phenomenal. The committee travelled all over the country and heard submissions from more than 10,000 women from all walks of life. What its members saw and heard was a revelation first for them and later for all those who read their report.

It is best to let Vinadi speak for herself: “But the impact on ourselves and on me personally was of a different kind. My earlier struggles represented an individual woman's efforts to balance the demands of professional and familial responsibilities. The new struggle was increasingly a collective, ideological one to rediscover the Indian nation, the world, the past, the present and the future – from the perception of India's hidden and unacknowledged majority: poor working women in rural and urban areas. As an academic and an educational planner, I too had contributed to this intellectual purdah that excluded the majority of Indian women's lives, labour, dignity and dreams from any public attention. The educational process – my great love and priority – had acquired an inimical demonic face, and our idealised democratic state – in which I had taken such pride – had at best to be held guilty of criminal negligence, and at worst of oppression and exploitation of that vast majority.”

A few years earlier, an astrologer in Berhampur had told her that in a previous life she had passed by a woman being tortured but had not stopped to help. She would have to pay for this in her present life, he had said.

The tearing away of the “intellectual purdah” pushed Vinadi into activism and academics in the service of activism. It also helped in the rebirth of the women's movement. Her involvement in the struggles against violence against women, which coalesced around the Mathura rape case, the anti-dowry joint campaign in Delhi and the anti-Sati movement of the 1970s and 1980s, and for the rights and rehabilitation of the victims of the l984 anti-Sikh pogrom went hand in hand with her bringing into existence, with a small band of committed and brilliant colleagues, the hitherto unknown discipline of women's studies. All this and more are described in what makes up the bulk of the book.

Important interventions

The seminal role that Vinadi has played in flagging issues and in framing prescriptions to deal with them becomes apparent on reading her Memories. Some of her important interventions need mention. Reservation of seats for women in elected bodies is a demand that many are claiming credit for today. Actually, it was the CSWI report that first recommended the election of women's panchayats and reservation of seats for women in municipalities but rejected extending this to legislative bodies. In their note of dissent, Vinadi and her colleague on the committee, Lotika Sarkar, say: “When one applies the principle of democracy to a society characterised by tremendous inequalities, such special protections are only spearheads to pierce through barriers of inequality…. Our investigations have proved that the application of the theoretical principle of equality in the context of unequal situations only intensified inequalities, because equality in such situations merely means privileges for those who have them already and not for those who need them.”

A pioneer in the field of women's studies in India, Vinadi established the CWDS (Centre for Women's Development Studies) and was part of the sustained campaign that has led to departments of women's studies coming into existence in universities and colleges all over the country. Unlike many academics, however, who exhibit a contempt for politics and mass movements, Vinadi recognised that they were crucial for effective mobilisation and struggle. She was one of the moving forces behind the coming together of the seven sisters, which included organisations with Left and democratic orientations and also the CWDS.

In her own words, “Through the last two decades of the 20th century, the seven sisters functioned as the collective voice of the second wave of the women's movement in India….” She was also extremely appreciative of the role played by women politicians such as Susheela Gopalan, Ahilya Rangnekar, Gita Mukherjee and Pramila Dandavate in pushing legislation and strengthening the movement.

Vinadi's Memories is as much a handbook for intelligent and effective activism as it is an insider's record of momentous events. If at all it can be faulted, it is on the count that she does not give her readers much information on what she herself regarded as her most rewarding projects – the Bankura and Medinipur projects in which she not only learnt about the lives and struggles of poor, illiterate rural women but contributed to their evolving into confident community leaders. She refers to them constantly as her Bankura and Medinipur “gurus” but does not tell us much about them hoping, perhaps, that this will goad us into reading her detailed and published reports.

Risking the wrath not only of Vinadi and her redoubtable Didi, I would say that her book proves conclusively that she is no rolling stone. Rather, she is like a tall and shade-giving neem tree whose roots go deep into the nourishing earth like hers do into the progressive and democratic traditions of the national movement and of her own family. The rest of her, however, is adventurous, growing in many different directions. Like the neem, the shade she provides is therapeutic, encouraging not only other plants to grow beneath but also many diligent earthworms to flourish and go about their important task of contributing to the natural fertility of the soil, as a Reader of Zoology eloquently explained to her. Traditionally, in India travellers have been advised to sleep under a neem tree at night. This helps them to wake up completely invigorated to continue on their journey with renewed energy and vitality.

Vinadi tells us that her favourite poet is Rabindranath Tagore. She quotes him in her book: “The wonder of it all makes me sing.” May she sing for many, many years to come.



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