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Anne was puzzled; almost disappointed. From the media reports, she had expected loud protests, speeches booming and thunderous rebellion, with leaders and motivators.
The first winner of our March 2020 Muse of the Month contest is Shalini Mullick.
Anne hurriedly got dressed. Having packed her usual sandwiches and her phone charger, she reached for the parcel that had been couriered to her yesterday. Her landlady saw her rush out and waved at her. She had barely booked her return tickets, and she was already feeling nostalgic for this routine!
The trip had extended beyond her original plans of a week or two. Given how reluctant her family had been towards the idea, this hadn’t gone down well with them. The negative image of India for women’s safety had been discouraging, but she had persisted. A few friends had helped her plan the logistics, and Mrs Iyer had been happy to take her in as a boarder for as long as she wanted to stay.
She still remembered the first day of her assignment. Armed with information from google maps and the internet, she had taken the Metro. The swelling swarm of crowds at each stop had overwhelmed her. The ladies compartment, the concept of which had surprised her just a short while ago, suddenly seemed comforting and she had found herself a seat
As the metro sped by, she struck up a conversation with the girl seated next to her, asking for directions after the alighting at the station
The girl studied her carefully, making Anne conscious of her crop top and loose shorts, a stark contrast to her companion’s traditional attire and covered head. “Sure. Are you a journalist?”
“No, I am a student. Am here for research.”
“Join me. That’s where I am headed” she smiled and introduced herself as Sadiqa.
At the Metro station, they were joined by a young couple, who were medical students.
“Hope you don’t mind the walk. It is about 15 min away.”
She nodded and followed the three of them, feeling conspicuous as a few people stopped to stare at her; something she had been warned about. As she walked across the area, which was separated by a busy road with extremely chaotic traffic on both sides, the sights and noise of people going about their daily routine and the noise of traffic, horns blaring began to make her wonder if she had made the right decision.
Sadiqa sensed her hesitation “Is this your first visit here?”
“Yes, I am new to your country.”
“Don’t worry, stay with us. Let us know when you need our help with translation or anything.”
She learnt that Sadiqa was a student who had been injured in police violence in her university last week, and was a regular volunteer. They continued chatting, discussing Anne’s sociology dissertation and exchanging notes about the travails of student life.
A short distance later, Anne could feel a palpable change in the milieu. The roads were peppered with sign boards. Police barricades were frequent, the usual signs of routine life fettered down, and after a bare stretch they were in a large area.
It took a while for her to realize that they were actually on a very big road, except that there were no vehicles here. Instead what she saw were many temporary shelters, large banners and placards, the national flag, and huge cut outs. Wall murals and graffiti were prominent. Some loudspeakers and mikes were also installed, around make shift podiums. The sparse activity of the area immediately outside was replaced by the presence of many people here, mostly women. The ladies, some holding little children, were sitting in separate groups. Most of the women wore the traditional dress and their heads were covered. Few children were playing hopscotch in one corner.
Anne was puzzled; almost disappointed. From the media reports, she had expected loud protests, speeches booming and thunderous rebellion, with leaders and motivators. This seemed to be an unstructured street protest, one that might almost dissipate when the men folk came home; and the women left to attend to them!!
After an hour or so, though, Anne realized there was something different. For one, even though the contrast between her and the women was more marked here, than it had been on the street or the train, she felt comfortable. She didn’t feel like she was being judged for her presence or her clothes. A few of the children had smiled at her, and even offered her biscuits they had taken from one of the tents. When she had hesitated, the mother had encouraged her to take some and join them.
“Come, I will show you around.”
Sadiqa showed her the area which had lanes meandering away from it as well as leading to the main area. One tent had been converted into a small clinic where Aditya and Simran, the medical students, were counseling women and children and dispensing medicine. Away from loud speakers, an elderly lady was teaching the alphabet to a group of toddlers. Just after noon, a lot of school children, obviously back from school, ran towards a community kitchen chatting excitedly with each other.
What could have appeared as a large picnic on a cursory glance was actually a community gathering where everyone had a quiet sense of purpose about them, and they were focused on it calmly and confidently.
Below a partial bus shelter, a young woman, visibly in an advanced pregnancy, was quietly arranging some books on the table. Sadiqa introduced her to Ayesha “Welcome to our library.”
Anne learnt that Ayesha had started collecting and sharing books as she had been an avid reader in her school days.
“Sadiqa, How do things work there? Most of these ladies seem like they just shifted base here from their homes. Who organizes this protest?
“You are right. Many of these women are simple folk who have not even stepped out into the world before. They bear the brunt of discrimination both by virtue of their gender as well as members of a minority. In addition most of them are economically disadvantaged. Their exposure to life and the public domain is extremely limited”
“Isn’t this rather unstructured? How will they get their voice heard?”
“How long can the collective roar of so many empowered women be ignored? The movement has already motivated similar ones at regional levels. You heard their voice in far away America didn’t you?”
“Yes, but …”
“That is the beauty of this movement, Anne. Their conviction and stand against divisible policy and for a united country is what makes them leave their homes and find a collective voice. They are empowering themselves, as well as each other. Isn’t that similar to what you have been studying in America? Women everywhere are finding equal opportunity to express themselves in the fourth wave of feminism, whether it is online, through flash mobs, or even the ‘Me Too’ movement”
Sadiqa stopped at another make shift tent where a bearded, turbaned gentleman was reading from a book. His audience was mostly young children and their mothers who recited the constitution along with him, and asked him questions about the same. She realized that the movement had cut across the traditionally drawn lines of caste and religion; which were common in India.
“They may not have had exposure outside the homes, but they know and understand what is good for them and their families, as women often intuitively do. They are speaking up so they can change the situation. The collective stories of so many cannot be oppressed. The feeling of solidarity with each other is obvious in how they maintain the community spirit of this protest.”
Anne realized Sadiqa was right. The was a bonhomie, a camaderie among the people here was what had made Anne comfortable when she had first entered the area.
Having found a friend in each other, they parted after exchanging phone numbers. Anne decided to interview as many women as possible and leave for home soon. The days of the next week fell into a routine, with Sadiqa or Simran helping her with translating as she interacted with the women.
After some time, she seemed to overcome the language barrier, and somehow connected with most of the people. They seemed to be happy to meet her, and have their photograph clicked in front of few of the giant cut outs displayed, or holding the national flag. On a few occasions she visited even at night, when the area seemed to take on a different buzz and vibrancy with poetry recitations, patriotic song singing and some performances by children. She met an octogenarian lady, who made lovely henna designs on her hands while telling her stories of her deceased husband who had been a freedom fighter.
She had been right about being able to complete the assignment soon, but not about leaving for home. Each day, she felt drawn to the place. She began to volunteer regularly. The women there had begun to feel like family and she had made close friends, especially Ayesha.
When Ayesha was at home after she delivered her baby daughter, Anne took charge of the library and used the occasion to discover the history of India’s overlapping feminist and nationalist movements. Using her Instagram account she began to crowd source books, especially those related to nationalism, policy, constitution and women leaders. She would have them delivered to her home and take them with her to catalogue and share with others.
Weeks had turned into months and it was now more than 3 months since she had arrived. She couldn’t postpone her return anymore, and had finally booked her tickets for next week.
Ayesha would be back today after more than a month, and she was looking forward to seeing her friend. She smiled when she saw Ayesha with little Saira, just a few weeks old. Anne had arranged a make shift crib in the library. She hugged Ayesha, who was already checking out the new books and gave her the package that contained clothes for the baby, and a cloth book. “This is Saira’s first book!” she said as she took the baby in her arms.
A library in Shaheen Bagh, a sit in protest venue in Delhi, would have seemed like an unlikely place for a small baby to be in, but little Saira cooed and smiled, as if she already belonged here, comfortable amidst the energy of so many women bound by a common sense of purpose.
As Anne began putting the books away, she found herself misty eyed. The power of the sisterhood and the conviction and resilience of these women had changed her in many ways. She would soon return to the life as she had known it, one that seemed a lifetime apart. The memories of the days she had spent in this library, so appropriately named after Fatima Sheikh and Savitri Bai Phule, both of whom were dedicated women reformers and educationists, would always remain a part of her.
Anne and Ayesha, quickly fell back into their routinely of working quietly, but now it was punctuated by gurgling sounds from Saira’s crib. As they organized and arranged the books, Anne said “Ayesha, I am sure you all will be successful in your mission. The future will be yours.”
Ayesha smiled “Not just me, Anne, The future belongs to us. All of us. You, me, Sadiqa, Simran, and everyone else who is finding the courage to speak up and claim their space.”
Anne had just begun to nod in agreement when little Saira gurgled loudly. She smiled and corrected Ayesha, “And Saira’s too!”
Editor’s note: It’s the new decade of the new millennium, and here’s a fresh theme for our beloved writing contest, Muse of the Month. In 2020, we bring to you quotes feminist women achievers around the world – we hope to bring you some food for thought, and look forward to the same engaging short stories that are a hallmark of our Muse of the Month contests.
Here’s the woman for March 2020 – March is Women’s History Month. And who epitomises Indian women’s history to where we are today, than Savitribai Phule, the woman who started education for girls and women, as well as for the Dalit-Bahujan samaj in the mid-1800s? As a co-incidence (there are no co-incidences, someone has said!), the anniversary of her death is on 10th March – she passed away on 10th March 1897, while helping people suffering from bubonic plague in Pune.
Savitribai Phule’s life and work was not known much till a few decades ago, to some extent as a result of the discrimination she faced as a ‘lower caste’ woman, promoting education for those traditionally kept away from any knowledge. But let’s not forget, that today we, Indian women, can read and write all thanks to her. She has recently been honoured by the naming of Pune University as Savitribai Phule Pune University. You can read a quick timeline of her life here.
There is not much saved of her words, though a book of her poems, Kavya Phule, is still in print in Marathi. A few of her letters written to her equally illustrious husband Jyotiba Phule while she was recuperating from an illness at her parents’ home, also survive, and the English translations are also available in book form – an excerpt from this book can be found here, from which I have taken the cue for the March Muse of the Month.
The cue is this quote by her: “Success will be ours in the future. The future belongs to us.”
Shalini Mullick wins a Rs 500 Amazon voucher from Women’s Web. Congratulations!
Image source: a still from Rang De Basanti
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