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My great grandmother Manjulabai Chaudhari was an inspiration – widowed at 25 with 3 kids, she stood tall and raised up many women with herself.
Always go with the choice that scares you the most, because that’s the one that is going to require the most from you – Caroline Myss.
Let’s go back to Pune in 1890s. What can you expect there with respect to the education and upliftment of women? The movement to educate women and create a safe space for them was just gaining roots. Meanwhile it was considered a social taboo for women to mingle in the mainstream of society forget educating themselves or having independent careers.
My great grandmother, Manjulabai Chaudhari was born under such circumstances in the 1870s in the lap of luxury in one of the prominent families of Pune city. She was unfortunately widowed at an early age and was left to fend for herself and her three children. Mind you she was not even 25 years old and had studied up to a respectable 7th standard. As per the norm prevalent then she was expected to shave off her head and stay in a closed room either in her husband’s or father’s house for the rest of her life. Her fate was sealed.
But she and destiny chose otherwise. As a first step she absolutely did not shave off her head and decided to stay on her own with her children rather than as a dependent with refugee status in either her father/brother or in laws’ house. Manjulabai Chaudhari then took up a job as a teacher and also started educating herself.
Manjulabai was closely associated with Ramabai Ranade, the educationist and social reformer. Ramabai along with her husband, the legendary Justice Ranade had started the Seva Sadan — an institution to educate girls, for the first time in Pune.
Meanwhile as days progressed Manjulabai completed her graduation in 2 subjects: Sanskrit and Math. She both taught and educated herself at Seva Sadan. In the evening all the prominent ladies of Pune would throng to Manjulabai’s residence in their palanquins and tongas, i.e. horse carriage. All the neighbors would think that the high society ladies have gathered to gossip and exchange news.
But Manjulabai was too busy a lady for all this. As she would cook rotis on the oven (chulha) in the evening for her children the 6 – 7 ladies would sit next to her and she would teach them Math. The movement to educate women had gained roots and these ladies wanted to become literate. They could not go anywhere or study openly in their houses as it was considered a social taboo for women to study; especially if they belonged to the so called high caste and class. So this was a way they had found out to study without society noticing it!
Manjulabai then did her post graduation in both the subjects –Mathematics and Sanskrit. When I completed my Masters in HR from TISS after doing my masters in English Literature with an ok academic track record, my mother told me that I should not feel proud as the first woman to complete her double post graduation, as this honour in our house goes to her grandmother and my great grandmother Manjulabai Chaudhari. It is so true — looking at the kind of circumstances under which she educated herself, I was no match for her.
Image source: Aparna Vishwasrao
Meanwhile Manjulabai took another bold step. She took up a job with the government which was transferable in nature. Even today in the 21st century I see so many women professionals who cannot take up postings in different locations due to family reasons and here my great grandmother was willing to travel with 3 children in tow.
My grandmother spent a large part of her childhood in the hill station Matheran, as her mother was posted there for a long time. There wasn’t a higher secondary school at Matheran, as it was and continues to be a very small place. So Manjulabai sent her son to a boarding school. Many years ago when I visited the Matheran school and the nearby surroundings which matched with the way my grandmother had described them I did get goosebumps and was wondering how did a single lady defying all norms come and stay here more than 100 years back?
Manjulabai Chaudhari continued with her government service and retired as the chief inspector of schools for the state of Maharashtra. Even after retirement she served as the principal of a school in Nagpur. She left behind enough and more wealth for her three children, distributed equally amongst the 2 daughters and one son. But more than material wealth I think she left behind a rich legacy of courage, grit and a desire to learn and grow.
Pioneers like my great grandmother have paved the way for us and we are today only standing on their shoulders, reaping the benefits of the work that they did to emancipate and educate women. In a way we had it easy as girls and women growing up in 21st century India.
One important thing in Manjulabai’s journey as I learnt from my grandmother was that she was very collaborative in nature and managed to negotiate the change with the support and consent of all her family members and society. Her biggest support and succor in this journey was her mother i.e. my great great grandmother! What is it that I learned from the legacy of the great lady whose genes I have inherited?
As we stand today and count the number of women CEOs and leaders in all walks of life I think I was lucky enough to have a great woman leader at home who continues to serve as an inspiration to me and all other women and girls in my family each day!
Published here earlier.
Image source: pixabay