Recollections and reflections

Reminiscences, Rafi Ahmad Kidwai

I first came in contact with Subhas Bose in 1923 at Delhi when the Congress was divided into two groups over the question of what was known as 'Council Entry.'...Subhas Babu, as the favourite lieutenant of Deshabandhu, was playing a prominent part in the controversy. more>>

A STUDY OF LIFE

KALYANI BHATTACHARJEE

Translated from the original Bengali JEEBON ADHYAYAN, by Dhira Dhar. Reproduced with permission of Jay Bhattacharjee (son of Kalyani Bhattacharjee)

Portraits of some women

I was working for a month in a Corporation school. The teachers gave me a warm welcome , and the head mistress, Supritidi, was specially happy to have me. There was a small open space in front of our building, where a pile of garbage was dumped, and the slightest breeze wafted into our rooms its malodorous content. Supritidi told me that for almost a year all the rubbish of the locality was being heaped there. The Councilor of the locality also lived near by but he never raised his voice in protest. She said they would remain ever grateful if I could do something.

With my father's advice I wrote a letter to the district health officer. It was a Saturday. When I went to school on Monday all the students and teachers came running to tell me, that the garbage dump had been cleared! Was it not wonderful? A little later a gentleman came and told us that he was coming from the local councilor. We welcomed him. He told me that the councilor was annoyed with me for having complained to the district health officer. It was wrong on my part to act in this manner. The councilor was always there to take proper action. In future I was not to worry about such things. To this I retorted angrily, "I have every right to take any action for the welfare of the students. No one should try to stop me." Supritidi and others were delighted at my rejoinder. I was shocked at the Councillor's behaviour. Certainly it was his duty to take timely action to clean up the place for the health of the children and students of the locality.

Supritidi was always late for school... With a two month old baby in her arms,and holding on to another , and two more following her , she would come to school tired and worn out. She would beg me to mark her attendance. It was impossible for her to come in time ,for she had to finish all her chores at home, shopping, cooking, cleaning and feeding her ailing husband..... Then she walked all the way to school , with all her children in tow.. The first period was over by the time she was ready after putting down her sleeping baby. I feared for the fate of the students.

In the salary register I found that Supritidi's salary was mostly spent in repaying debts she had incurred for her husband's treatment in hospital. So every month she had to take more loans. One day after school she took me to her home. It was a dingy two roomed apartment. I met her bed-ridden husband, who lay in one room with a tired worn-out look. I was specially annoyed with him for having burdened Supritidi with so many children , when he could do nothing for them.

Supritidi took me into her kitchen where she offered me tea. There was just a cupful of milk in an utensil. She filled it up with water. Most probably I was looking at her with wonder, for she explained, "You must be shocked. My children will be back from school soon, and I must finish this work of dilution before they arrive. They love milk ; I will give a cupful to each of them." After a pause she continued , "You must be thinking how being a mother I can cheat my children." I had nothing to say and I left after a short good-bye.

One day I learned that a friend had seen Urmila working in a nursing home. Urmila had lived a life of oppression at the hands of men..... I recalled many incidents from the past. A few days after she came to jail , news came that her husband had married again just to punish her. According to Hindu rules a husband can easily forsake his wife and marry again. Though morally wrong , his offence was not punishable according to Hindu law. Many women deserted by their husbands were staying at my mother's Ashram.. There they were learning to survive on their own. My mind revolted against this oppressive nature of men, but I was helpless to do anything about it.

Sumati was deserted by her husband. I searched for him and finally when I found him ,I wanted to know why he had left her. I was shocked to learn that he had left her for she had a problem with her nose, most probably adenoids. I asked him , "Did you take her to the doctor? If you had tuberculosis or leprosy do you think your wife would have deserted you ? If she did wouldn't she be branded as a faithless wife?"

In Bhowanipur a rich doctor's wife was turned out from her palatial home for no other offence but that she had a dark complexion. In this land of injustice Urmila's husband can hardly be blamed for deserting his wife for having courted jail in the quest of nation's freedom. After coming out of jail Urmila was again duped by another man who promised her marriage and children, but she was again deserted by him after she became pregnant. We tried our best to force the man to marry her, but when we failed we could do nothing more to Chhaya help her. As political workers we had to be careful about our image in society. I still blame myself for having failed her in her crisis.

I was relieved to learn that she was now she was working as a trained nurse. I wanted to know how she had survived , but I felt too embarrassed to face her, so I never came to know how she had saved herself. I felt I did not have the right to know. "Oh you cowardly soul, life moves on in spite of you,
 

"The Creator at the helm of life , helps us all "

I have lost Chhaya in this vast world. I have no hope of ever finding her. When we entered our newly built house my mother said., "God will not bless my new home unless I find a home for the many helpless and oppressed young widows of Bengal." Soon she gave shelter to a number of poor widowed girls in a part of our home.

Chhaya also found a safe home in this Ashram, which was later named Sarala Punnyashram. I was the only one who knew about Chhaya's past life. I told mother that she was just a poor Bengali girl who needed a place to stay and wanted to live in the Ashram as a student. Chhaya was a quiet and gentle girl. She was eager to learn and attended school with the other students. At times she helped me with my political work. She attended meetings with me , and ran errands for me in a most responsible manner.

One day I found an advertisement in the papers about an exhibition wanting young girls to work as guides. I met the secretary and was soon employed with a batch of fifteen girls. We would have to work from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. every evening. The girls would be paid one rupee each day , and I as their leader would get 50 paise more. For quite some time our political party was in great need of money. People who helped us in the past were now afraid to come forward. Most of our leaders were in jail ,and we had no money to help the absconding workers. Our only source of income was by private tuition. So we thought this was an wonderful opportunity to earn some money.

At the exhibition we were allotted separate stalls to work in. Emily had done her Masters in Science, and Suhashini was a M. A. in Mathematics. There were other girls like Chhaya working with us. Banidi was a widow with three small ones , and for three days she had no money for food. I helped her with our earnings. Suddenly hearing Chhaya's scream we rushed to her stall.. She clung to me in fear , and we saw two or three rough looking men running away from her stall. She whispered that one of the men was the person to whom her mother had sold her as a child for money. She had escaped from the clutches of this man , and with the help of a kind-hearted neighbour had come to my mother's Ashram, where she had found shelter.

A gentleman , recognizing me came and scolded me for coming to this disreputable place. This exhibition was just a facade for a gambling den. "Does your father know about this ?" he asked. My father had full trust in our innocence, and believed that we will never do any wrong knowingly.

Hurriedly I left that place with all my girls. When we came to the Ashram to drop Chhaya and others , we found the 'goondas' had followed us in a taxi. I shuddered in fear thinking of Chhaya's fate. Soon after this I was taken to jail for quite some time.. When I came out I learned that Chhaya's mother had come to the Ashram and had taken her away ,saying that her husband wanted her back. Chhaya had wept profusely but the Ashram authorities were helpless. They could not keep her away from her husband. I often remember her beautiful sad face. She had such a sweet smile. If I had been there she would have begged me to save her from her 'husband'.

I am filled with wonder when I think of Sumanadi. She came of a well-to-do family, and her husband was quite highly educated. But in spite of his education he did not want to set up his own family, and wanted to stay in his father-in-law's house. Sumanadi did not like this , and one day she walked out of her father's home with her little children and husband. This was the beginning of her life's struggle. But through all her hardship she still heard the Nation's call for freedom. She attended meetings held in open parks , with her children in tow. Sushila mashima of our locality was a volunteer. Sumanadi wanted to accompany her in all her activities. In 1938 when I came out of prison , Sumanadi approached me with an introductory letter from a common friend. Arter talking with her I put her in charge of the Student's physical training group. She was almost fifty and a mother of eight children, but with much enthusiasm she took up her responsibility. Finding her interested in studies , I got her admitted in a training school. Early every morning she would go out to learn how to cycle, and soon became quite adept at it. Local boys jeered at her , and some would even pelt stones at her. But she paid them no attention.

Every morning after performing all her household chores ,feeding her children and sending them off to school, she would go to attend school. From the 'Vidya Mandir ' school of my mother's Ashram , she passed her Class six examination and secured a certificate. Then she took admission at the 'Sarojnalini Institute". She regularly attended the physical fitness centre for students. She taught many of the young girls how to cycle. She ran errands for me and helped me in all sorts of ways. After finishing all her duties at home she would study till midnight. I would ask her in wonder, "Where do you get the strength for all your work?" She would laugh and say , "If I had proper food I would bend iron rods! I would show the world what a Bengali girl can do !"

Her husband never treated her well. She took a job in school and brought up her children. She always appeared happy, and would often put flowers in her hair. For this she was criticized by people around her and I also advised her not to do so when people around her did not approve of it. Her rejoinder was , "When I am not hurting anybody , why should I care for meaningless criticism? I love flowers and want them near me." I never had any respect for 'Ram Chandra' for being unjust to Sita , by paying heed to false public sentiment. I respected Sumanadi for her strength of mind.

Later when I came to live in Bombay I saw almost all the women of the place with beautiful flowers in their hair. I , too often went to festivals with garlands of flowers in my braids. No one looked askance at us!

To-day Sumanadi has found her reward. Her husband has corrected himself and has returned to her. Her sons are educated and respected by all. They are full of gratitude towards their mother. Her dark poverty-stricken home now shines in the glow of success. "You follow your star , and at the path lies bright success. After all adversities you find peace."

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