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Savitribai Phule Deserves Much More Celebration, As The Pioneer For Education For Girls In India

Posted: September 14, 2020

Savitribai Phule is an inspiration in more ways than one – overcoming the barrier of caste and her gender, she pioneered the education of girls in India.

In her YA book Savitribai Phule and I, Sangeeta Mulay juxtaposes the life of Savitribai Phule with the life of a young Dalit woman trying to get an education and make space for herself in a casteist society, and in doing so she leaves us much food for thought about what we need to truly empower young DBA students.

A quote from the book: “I had not heard about her myself until I had chanced upon her diary. Was this ignorance on the part of all of us, or was it that she simply had not been given her due? A doubt crept in my mind. Were her achievements overshadowed by her caste?”

My memories of learning about Savitribai Phule in school are vague. Was it in history, or was it a chapter in one of my language textbooks? Sadly, I don’t even remember the teacher who taught it to us – though I do remember that she spoke with much passion about all the indignities that Savitrimai had to overcome to start the first school for girls in India. It was clear to me, even back then, that the debt I owed to Savitrimai, as a girl who had the privilege of an education, was invaluable.

What was not spoken about then, and that I did not realize until much later, was how her caste was, and continues to be, a reason why she hasn’t received her due.

Casteism exists – whether or not you accept it

I’m not surprised we were never taught much about caste as children, either at home or at school. It is almost as if by saying it, we would manifest it. Indeed, many would argue that the best way to get rid of casteism is to pretend that caste does not exist.

For Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi people, caste and the oppression because of caste, is a daily reality. They cannot ignore it, as easily as we do.

This denial of caste is a privilege reserved for the so-called ‘upper castes.’ We do not suffer from the existence of caste – in fact, we benefit from it, whether or not we want to – that is just how the systems are set up. So denying that caste exists, and refusing to learn about it, is just a way for us to ignore uncomfortable truths, and to rid ourselves of the responsibility of actively eradicating caste. Our convenient ignorance allows us to be comfortably selfish.

In Savitribai Phule and I, Sangeeta Mulay does not shy away from talking about caste.

The struggles of a young Dalit student

Her protagonist, Shabri, is a young Dalit woman, from a village that does not have electricity or even proper toilets. When she ends up in a big city college to learn engineering, she suddenly has to contend with lecturers who taunt her about her having secured a seat via reservations, smart English speaking peers who look through her, and her own lack of self-confidence.

Because she does not have the benefit of extra coaching, or even the sort of family support that her peers get, she is struggling with her studies, to the point that she is failing classes. The few reserved category students who are in her class are men, who ignore her because she is the ‘wrong gender’. The other women in her class are Savarna, upper class women, who don’t treat her cruelly, but who also ignore her, simply because she is different.

She is constantly made to feel inadequate and unwanted. She suffers from a crippling loneliness. She is worried about failing and not being able to support her parents in the future. The way her pain has been described is moving.

Shabri’s experiences are not all that different from those of any Dalit students in our country, and like some of them, she too is exhausted enough and overwhelmed enough by the prevailing casteism to attempt suicide. Luckily, just as she finds the rope she wants to hang herself with, she also find the lost diary of Savitribai Phule, and this discovery changes her life.

Why Savitribai Phule and I must be read

Firstly, the book offers us an insight into the life of Savitrimai herself, through the (fictional) diary entries in the book. We get a sense of the kind of person she must have been and the sheer grit and determination she possessed. We also realize how her caste and gender identity have played a role in keeping her from receiving the fame she rightly deserves. For intersectional feminists, this book is a must read.

Secondly, as Savarnas, we are often unaware of the struggles of those from DBA backgrounds, and even those of us who want to help, don’t know how we can. Savitribai Phule and I, lays these out for us, and helps us understand how we can be good allies.

We must begin by unlearning what we have about caste; we must learn to share resources with DBA people without making it seem like we are doing them a big favour (we are not; we are just giving them what they were deprived of, because of the inherently biases systems); and we must not speak over them or take up space.

There is a moment when Shabri receives help from a Savarna man, Bhuvan, and I was worried that this would become yet another ‘savarna saviour’ type story. Thankfully though, the focus of the book stays on Shabri – she is very much the ‘heroine’ of the book, and when Shabri asks Bhuvan to back off, he does so gracefully, without making her feel that she owes him anything. That in itself is a departure from how these stories usually go in pop culture.

The book is also a quick and easy read, even as it gives us much food for thought. It is billed as a book for young adults, though I think that even younger teens can read it easily, with guidance from adults. At the same time the content is not so juvenile that adults will not find value on it. I think that this is a book everyone can and must read.

What could have been better

I was a little disappointed that the book does not mention Fatima Sheikh, who offered refuge to the Phules when they had to leave Jyotiba’s father’s home, and who, along with Savitribai, was one of the teachers at the schools they set up. That her name is omitted, while the name sof some other associates and colleagues are mentioned, feels like a grave injustice, because just like Savitrimai, Fatima Sheikh is also an inspirational figure who has not received her due.

While some off the situations and struggles in the book feel all too real, and play out exactly as they would in real life (for example, Shabri’s desire to start a Girls’ Education Day in honour of Savitribai Phule receives vehement opposition, and it gets politicized needlessly), the way in which these conflicts are resolved seem simplistic and overly fairy-tale like.

However, I do understand why the author may have wanted to end on that high note, and can only hope and pray that a day will come, in real life, when we really will have such a strong and successful anti-caste movement.

Another thing that seemed a little far-fetched to me is how every liberal that Shabri comes in contact with is anti-caste, and completely welcoming of her and her ideas. However, I’ve personally experienced that being a ‘liberal’ or a ‘leftist’ doesn’t automatically make one anti-caste. Liberals can be just as problematic as those on the other side of the political aisle, and I wish the book had reflected that complexity.

At one point, liberal students of all castes come together to start an anti-caste movement called ‘We Are All Shudras.’ While I understand what the author was going for, I wondered if it isn’t a bit performative and problematic, because the way it is worded seems to encourage appropriation of struggles and identity. Thankfully, in the book, it plays out as an actively anti-caste movement, and not merely as a performative hashtag.

On the whole, I enjoyed reading the book greatly. I felt greatly engaged with Shabri as a character and was rooting for her throughout. Even through her intial self-esteem issues, her desire to achieve shines through; and once she gains insights through Savitrimai’s diary and sees herself differently, she truly begins to shine. As she thinks to herself, at one pivotal moment, “I had learned something new today. That it is easy to discover your voice for something that you passionately believe in. Something within you makes you take that one bold step in order to accomplish something. That is all it takes. One bold step to magically open a path ahead.”

Reading the book did make me wonder why we don’t celebrate Savitribai Phule much more. We should have a celebration, on the level of Teachers’ Day, that marks her work and her legacy, and which can be used as a platform to raise awareness about the many struggles that girls and women still face, while trying to get an education. I’m all for bringing Shabri’s idea of Girl’s Education Day, outside the pages of the book and into real life.

It is sad that this book, published by Panther’s Paw (an Indian publishing house focused on Ambedkarite and anti-caste literature, that Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar describes as “a movement) hasn’t received the popularity it deserves. I do hope that many more people will read the book and spread the word about it.

Author’s note: The writer of this piece is a Savarna woman, and this piece is intended to encourage other Savarna readers to pick up the book, and is not an attempt to talk over or appropriate the views of DBA readers or reviewers. I sincerely encourage readers to look for and read reviews of this book by non-Savarna reviewers, to get a wider range of understanding about the book and the ideas explored therein.

If you are a non-Savarna reviewer, and you have reviewed the book, please let me know, and I shall link to it here.

Want a copy of this book?

If you would like to pick up a copy of Savitribai Phule and I by Sangeeta Mulay, use our affiliate links at Amazon India, and at Amazon US.

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Picture credits: Amazon and akshayapatra on pixabay

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