It is Kamala’s centenary today. It will be celebrated in the centre that is named after her and where two of her most cherished ideals are pursued: education and women’s empowerment. It will be a low key affair, a far cry from the loud and impressive centenary celebration of her better half a few years ago. A tribute to who she was: discrete while being strong, opting for the behind the scenes role as that is where she could truly colour the whole show.
She left this world 27 years ago but has never failed to guide me in every thing I have done, just as she did when she was alive. I feel her presence around me with every breath I take.
I am often asked why I decided to set up Project Why. There are many reasons, but one is undoubtedly the lessons learnt at Kamala’s knee. These were cameos of her life that she shared candidly leaving them to seep through my heart slowly, knowing that they would reach their destination one day. The destination was Project Why.
Kamala’s education was nothing short of a saga worthy of being brought to life in a TV soap! Kamala was the eldest child of a freedom fighter and in many ways his favourite. When the first girls school opened the town she lived in, she was rearing to join. Her father indulged her thinking that a few years of schooling would be a good thing. He never knew he had opened the floodgates.
Kamala had two formidable allies in her quest for education: her mom and her paternal grand mom both women way beyond their times. To ‘tame’ the freedom fighter they would use his own weapon: hunger strikes! So when Kamala wanted to study beyond primary school and the father was reluctant out came the big guns: Kamala went on a hunger strike! The two ladies would stand with forlorn faces just as the father sat down to eat and needless to say, he would relent. Sometimes it took more than a day but Kamala was fed at night by her two supporters. Hence she studied all the way to her matriculation. I guess my grandfather thought it would stop there as there were no institutions for higher studies in her city. But he did not know his women. Up came another hunger strike, this time a little longer, but permission was given to go to BHU in Varanasi to do her BA. Then would come an MA and LLB but by that time her father had surrendered totally.
Kamala also convinced her father that she would not marry unless India became independent. She did not want to give birth to a slave child. Life as a old maid was a better option.
So what would this tiny feisty educated young woman do? The unthinkable! Women’s equality is something she believed in fiercely and she knew that was her calling. She wanted to do something meaningful. After long discussions with her freedom fighter father she decided to work for the British so that she could ensure that war widows of WW II got their pensions, a pension that was often usurped by some male member of the family. This meant that she would have to leave her home and live alone in Delhi. Kamala drove a truck into the remotest villages of Uttar Pradesh and ensured that the young widows got their due. While in the village Kamala would talk to the women on several issues life hygiene, child marriage and girl’s education. All this when women her age were already mothers of many.
Kamala knew how to make a difference. She had the courage to stand for what she felt was right and never shirked from walking the road less travelled.
That is what I try to do to honour her memory.
I miss you Mama!