The dadis of Shaheen Bagh,” my friend announces to the entire bar after his fourth drink, “should come as no surprise to you.” His words, though officially directed at me, are meant to grab the attention of a woman on the next table, someone with whom he has been trying to strike up a conversation for the better part of the evening. He goes on to regale them with tales (hearsay) of Kalpana Joshi née Dutta, who was part of the 1930 Chittagong Uprising (she made bombs), was sent to prison by the British, became a communist and then married one, had two sons and then grandchildren. His Bengali point-of-focus for the night is impressed, a conversation begins. But the opening line wasn’t quite on the mark.
I never knew either of my grandfathers. But Thakuma lived with us for the first few years of my life, till Alzheimer’s struck and she needed full-time care and moved to Calcutta. Shipra Chatterjee, Dida, my mother’s mother, lived in Delhi — alone — after her naval officer husband passed away quite young. She died less than two years ago. She was a housewife, a woman quite typical of her time and place — too often subject to circumstance rather than the author of it.
Even as a child, it was clear to me that Thakuma meant something to people, both within the family and outside, in a way that wasn’t ordinary. In the neighbourhood Independence Day celebrations, she was asked to hoist the flag; senior history teachers at my school would ask me about her after they found she was mentioned in the CBSE textbook and she was not averse, to put it mildly, to telling stories. She was born to relative privilege in colonial India and got swept up in the revolutionary, anti-colonial fervour that suffused Bengali society from the first decade of the 20th century till Independence. Her peak, the “uprising”, took place when she was a teenager. Her friend, Pritilata Waddedar, died in a blast of her own making, and like my grandmother, was labelled a terrorist.
What would she say, if she were alive today? Thakuma was very much East Bengali in her origins and her speech (she spoke Chatgaiya, a dialect of Bengali that sounds more like Burmese and is incomprehensible even to other Bengalis). She supported, in more ways than one, the creation of Bangladesh. When she was underground during the uprising, it was because of the people of Chittagong, Muslims most of them, that she managed to evade capture. Would she be indulgent, this hero of the nation that was torn asunder, about her people being called “termites” and “infiltrators”? Despite her political career, she was not cynical. Perhaps, she would try and understand the roots of the bigotry, accepting the fact that if her sons had been named Shafiq and Changez instead of Suraj and Chand, her descendants would be panicking about kagoj at the moment. Or, perhaps, they would be spared, thanks to the accident of the last name of the man she married — we are Joshis now. And, most importantly, what would she think of all the thakumas in Shaheen Bagh, not armed and dangerous like she was, but “misled” at best and “anti-national” at worst, standing up as they are?
But these questions are unfair. Both in her time and mine, Thakuma was an aberration. Educated in communist theory and practice, well-travelled, she was unique, a historical figure, a person with a political consciousness. She would be at the frontline of protests, perhaps, even addressing crowds. She would be against what is going on in Delhi and India today.
With Dida, I have a harder time. Perhaps, because I knew her better and longer. Perhaps, because the difficulties and challenges of her life were, in some ways, cliched. She was the only non-English speaker among her children and husband, conscious of every word she uttered in an alien language. She was tight-fisted, like anyone who has lived a middle-class life, stretching a budget to make sure her children were fed. She doted on her grandson, me, who took all the stories, gifts and affection she had to offer, and gradually pulled away from her as adolescence set in.
Dida was religious, but not to the point of being fanatical. She would have liked conventional marriages for her children. She would certainly have had a problem if one of them married a Muslim. She did not work, her independence only came after her husband died, from the widow’s pension provided by the government of India. She had no choice but to accept her family’s decisions and their faults.
In the last few years of her life, dementia set in and I never found out what she thought of New India. Then again, I never did listen to her enough. I would make fun of her superstitions and taboos. I remember haranguing her for refusing to eat beef along with my mama — what’s the difference, really, between a goat and a cow? It couldn’t have felt good, to be embarrassed for your religion by a grandson who likes words and arguments precisely because of all the things you read to him through his childhood.
I can see the appeal of hatred to her, initially towards a deracinated pomposity and how that can fuse with age-old prejudices of caste and othering that form the bedrock of saffron bigotry. But I know — in that irrational way people know god — that my Dida would not have succumbed. I know this because of the didas and thakumas out on the street today.
The grandmothers at Shaheen Bagh are braving more than just the possible and likely repression of the state — like Thakuma had. They are doing something, perhaps, even more difficult and courageous. They are constructing a politics on their own terms, outside the home, outside of all that has told them their role is limited. They are fusing roza and satyagraha, a feat so simple and ingenious, that it is certain to be the subject of annoying theorising by upper-caste men.
But they do not surprise me. Because my Dida managed to construct a life for herself as a widow that was no less impressive than what my Thakuma did as a teenager. And, after she did, she began accepting so much in people that would have been difficult otherwise. Both Dida and Thakuma were pushed to be great women, in different ways — the former by the political context of colonialism, the latter by fate. Today, the women at Shaheen Bagh face, in some ways, as grim a political circumstance that Thakuma did. But they are heroes also because they are, each of them, an incarnation of my Dida.
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