Categories
Interview Review

The Fearful Trill of Freedom & Equality

A conversation with VR Devika, author of Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights, Niyogi Books.

“Education, Freedom and Responsibility bring out the best from the individual and race. This will apply to all men and women irrespective of caste, creed or colour.”

—Dr Muthulakshmi Reddy, Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights

 Muthulakshmi Reddy: A Trailblazer in Surgery and Women’s Rights by VR Devika is a biography of a woman who shouted out to demand reforms among devdasis ( women who had been ‘married’ to lifelong service of a deity or a temple) and prostitutes in the nineteenth-twentieth century. The biographer, V R Devika, is a storyteller, educationist and Gandhi scholar.

Muthulakshmi Reddy (1886-1968) was born to a devdasi mother and transcended the system that had deteriorated from when a devadasi was considered ‘auspicious’ as she would never be widowed or married, and she could maintain her status quo, the book informs, adding a historic perspective to this ‘norm’. By Reddy’s times, these women had been reduced to become mistresses to rich men. In ancient times, before malpractices set in, a princess is said to have opted to become a devdasi. The decline started in the sixteenth century when devdasis were transferred from temple to temple.

The narrative is simple and straightforward but what stands out is the value of the content, the strength of the woman who could speak up boldly and demand reforms — even have some of them instituted. She spoke out for reforms with searing words. The author quotes from many of her speeches.

“Muthulakshmi used strong language to explain her position on the Devadasi question. ‘Of all the laws, rules and regulations which down the centuries have helped to place women in a position of inferiority, none has been so very powerful in creating in the minds of men and people a sentiment of scorn and contempt for women as the degrading idea of the double standard of morals.’

“She thundered, ‘From this double standard that has sprung that worst attack on women’s dignity, that safety valve theory that a certain number of women should exist, should sacrifice their self-respect, their honour, their comforts, their health and happiness to satisfy the lust of the other sex. At the present day, the continuance of such a doctrine and of the laws which are founded on it, is a shameful anachronism unworthy of our civilisation. Both in the past and in the present, women have disproved their inferiority, and how then can we at the present day tolerate or connive at a system which transforms a woman of whichever caste or class she may be, into a mere chattel, a piece of tainted merchandise? The inequity of the system is too deep for me to give expression, and further under that inhuman and unjust system the innocent children of a certain caste or community are trained to become proficient in all the arts of solicitation that they become captives to vice.’”

That men and women perpetrate social norms to justify the existence of the so-called ‘world’s oldest profession’ is well brought out in the book. That women forced into the sex trade are not doing this out of choice is conveyed with conviction. Names of Reddy’s associates include Sarojini Naidu (1879-1949) and the well-known singer whose mother was a devdasi too, MS Subbulakshmi (1930-1997).

Reddy was one of the first female medical graduates[1] in India, the first woman[2] to enter an Indian Legislature and the first woman in the world to preside over a Legislative Assembly. A recipient of the Padmabhushan and more accolades, she, as a doctor founded the Addyar Cancer Institute in 1952 after her sister was caught with cancer, and, as a humanitarian, started the Avvai Home in 1931 for those rescued from brothels and streets. Her spirit is well captured by the author when she writes:

“In 1942, during the World War II, soldiers of the British Royal Airforce camping in tents on the banks of Adyar river had made some derogatory remarks about the girls and harassed them. Muthulakshmi stood vigil all night with a stick in her hand and dared any soldier to come near the Home. She even went up the ranks to the commander’s house near Fort St. George to complain to him about the conduct of the soldiers and curb their behaviour.”

VR Devika has extensively shown that Reddy was a force to be reckoned with but she has not given way completely to adulation. She has objectively shown how Reddy over ruled her son’s choices for the well-being of her own institutions. It brought to mind Gandhi’s attitude towards his own family. An established cultural activist, VR Devika has been associated with the inception of Chennai’s Dakshinachitra Heritage Museum and Tamil Nadu INTACH[3], has been visiting the Avvai Home and in this exclusive she tells us the story of how the book came about and why she visited this home and its impact on her.

VR Devika. Photo provided by Niyogi Books

Tell us why you felt that Muthulakshmi Reddy’s story needed to be told. What was the readership you had in mind when you wrote the biography?

The dance scholarship [donors] consisting of mainly outsiders who had a hypothesis, got a good grant, employed interpreters and cherry picked to denigrate her in a fashion that took dance academic world by storm after the 1980s. I had also bought into them when I began to learn Bharathanatyam. But when I joined INTACH Tamilnadu and Madras Craft Foundation in 1985 after having been a schoolteacher since 1974, I began a project of English language as a skilling programme and theatre as empowerment for Avvai Home. That is when I began to get the other side of the story that was really fascinating. I kept thinking I must reach this story out. Dr.V.Shanta, chairman of Cancer institute, said I must write her [Muthulakshmi Reddy’s] biography and I decided to work on it after she passed away. I had young people who were studying English but had no access to English other than their textbooks as the target audience but I am a story teller and I just began to tell the story in simple way as I always do.

You tell us in the authorial note that you went on ‘work’ to the Avvai home. Tell us about the home. Why were you there?

Geetha Dharmarajan and I lived near Avvai Home. I had no idea about the history of the home etc. But I knew very poor girls studied there. Geetha had spoken to them and I went along but Geetha relocated to New Delhi and started Katha[4] and I stayed on helping Avvai Home in many different ways. I have written a full story of Avvai Home in the book. It was volunteer work. Rajalakshmi of Avvai Home requested me to help them on a production on Dr.Muthulakshmi Reddy. I interviewed Sarojini Varadappan, Dr.Shanta, and several others to write the script for the production. I am now on their school advisory committee.

For me, the most interesting aspect was how Muthulakshmi Reddy made the transition from being born a devadasi to empowering herself enough to outlaw the custom. Did her parents ever marry?

No there was no way they could marry as a girl born in the system was barred from ritualistic marriage according to Hindu custom. She was his companion.

Your narrative is direct and eulogistic of great names and associations of/ developed by Muthulakshmi Reddy and the lady herself. The personal is largely left out, except to emphasise her achievements. Why?

I cannot [describe that] as I never met her. I had to sketch a portrait from her writings, her achievements and her son’s writing.

Would you regard the devdasi system as a social ill that has been erased or is it an ongoing battle?

There is no social evil that has been erased completely. Nostalgists for devdasi system denigrate her [Reddy]. But there is the social evil of discrimination against Dalits still, but should Ambedkar be blamed for giving a legal handle for those who wanted to come out and achieve something of their own despite the caste hierarchy? Those who benefited from the abolition of dedication are in thousands while those who bemoan the loss of culture in the way they want it are in hundreds.

The devdasi system is a generic system in a number of states in India. Did Reddy’s reforms benefit all the states? Was the Avvai Home open to all devdasis or only from her state?

Avvai Home never claimed to be only for devdasis but for girls who needed protection and access to education. No reform benefits everyone. Her law was for the Madras Presidency of the time which consisted of parts of Andhra, Orissa and Karnataka too as part of it.

Muthulakshmi Reddy started a number of things, including the second oldest cancer hospital in India. But all these were reactions borne of personal experiences. Do you think if she had been born into a regular family, and her sister would not have had cancer, would she have striven for these institutions too?

I can’t answer a hypothetical question. How do we know what she would have done?

What was the driving force behind the reforms instituted by Muthulakshmi Reddy?

Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly.

Would you justify the “emotional blackmail” on her son to fulfil her own dream by giving up his own? Do you think that it is right of a parent to impose their will in this way?

I am not justifying it. It happened that way. Just telling the story. She did not force her elder son who went into Electrical Engineering. Her second son never resented the “emotional blackmail” He went along whole heartedly.

What for you was the most endearing quality of Dr Reddy?

I have many who worked with her telling me she was very kind, but she was also a tyrant and would not bend. Her own indomitable will and the stubborn streak that sought to get it done and get others who would help her come in whole heartedly. She was a mother (Amma) was the unanimous opinion.

Thank you for giving us your time.


[1] Anandi Gopal Joshi(1865-1867) and Kadambini Bose Ganguly (1861 –1923) graduated and practiced as doctors in other parts of India.

[2]  Muthulakshmi Reddy joined the Madras Legislative assembly in 1930.

[3] Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage 

[4] Katha is a non-profit and non-governmental organisation that has established itself in the field of community development, child welfare, education and literature.

(This review and interview is by Mitali Chakravarty.)

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Categories
pandies' corner

Children of the Nithari: Dhaani

Written in Hindustani and translated to English by Kiran Mishra

Kiran Mishra is 22 years old. She was just 7 when she started coming for pandies’ workshops immediately after the Nithari pogrom. A fabulous performer in all senses of the word she has been in all Saksham productions with pandies’, including a lead role in the performance at The American Center, Delhi. She has done her MA in political science. Aspiring to be a teacher, she is currently doing her B.Ed. She also has a senior diploma in Bharatnatyam dance. Central to the teaching programme at Saksham, she started teaching there after high school and currently she is both a teacher and the Co-ordinator at Saksham. She says, “I love to teach these kids specially those who want to get educated but are unable to because of different reasons. I think when we teach one kid, we teach one whole generation.”

Dhaani

I had come to Kota, Rajasthan for some company work but suddenly I had to leave for Delhi for an urgent meeting in office. Train tickets were not available and so I decided to take the inter-state bus to Delhi.

A small box like ticket house had been constructed at the bus stand from where I bought the ticket and boarded the bus to Delhi. The bus was full, people had left their belongings on the seats and not even one seat was without something on it. The next bus was at 4 am, too late. So, I knew there was no choice but to take this one, the last one that night. I entered the driver’s cabin thinking I will ask him where the earliest seat would get vacant. I was surprised that the seat next to the conductor was empty, nobody had noticed it. I quickly occupied that seat.

Settling I realised that the condition of the bus was bad, really bad. But well, I had no choice. Soon the driver started blowing the horn to indicate the bus was ready to leave. Hearing that people rushed to occupy their seats. The bus started moving. It sounded like a bronchitis patient. A girl aged 24-25 came and stood beside me. I started to ignore her, thinking I might be asked to give my seat to her as she was a woman. And as a man, it was only courteous to offer my seat. Without looking at her I could feel her staring at me, she kept doing that for a while and slowly she said, “This seat is mine.” I finally turned to her and raised my head and saw that her face was covered with a dupatta. She repeated, “This seat is mine.”

The bus was moving at a hesitant speed. I kept looking at her, the dupatta slipped a bit and half her face became visible. I could see she was beautiful. Though only her nose and lips were visible, I could estimate her beauty. I was still staring trying to estimate her face when she repeated that that was her seat.

“Now I can’t see how it is your seat when I am sitting in it”? I retorted finally. She continued in a very polite and sweet voice, “Yes this seat is mine since I kept a handkerchief on it and went to the washroom.”

I looked carefully at the seat, and yes there was a hanky, a white hanky, lurking in the corner. Irritated but conceding her point, I took a long breath and stood up to give her the seat. It felt like she grabbed my arm and then she said, “Hey, why are you getting up? Just shift a little and we can both sit together, any way there is no vacant seat in the bus.” And with that, she sat down next to me. I felt slightly embarrassed at the closeness, but she was seated quite comfortably.

The bus was moving slowly, as if protecting itself from the big potholes on the road.

It was November, and the chilly wind was blowing through the broken glass window. But the touch of her body started to thrill me to the core of my being. We sat on the single seat, clinging together lest we fall off the seat. I felt we were merging together. Her dupatta was raised more now, and I could see her whole face. This is what they call an “apsara[1]”. She was unbelievably beautiful, her nose, her eyes and her lips were like rose petals and the teeth like pearls between. Travel with such a beautiful girl was double fun and there I had been cursing the ride and the bus.

Every road bump would propel us in the air and then we would land almost on top of each other. A couple of times we almost fell off but in a second, she would be sitting, fully composed as if nothing had happened. Looking at me, she enquired, “Are you uncomfortable? Are you experiencing any trouble?”

“No, no, not at all,” I said reassuring. She started looking straight into my eyes and asked: “I think you have not recognised me”.

Now it was my turn to be surprised. I looked at her carefully. Her face clicked somewhere. And I was wondering where I had seen this face. She said in a very soft tone, “You have forgotten me.”

She said this in a way that I felt heartbroken and kept staring at her and thinking for some time but could not remember her. Avoiding her, I looked at my wristwatch. It was 10 pm, an hour since we started. She had turned the other way. Angry and upset at my not giving an answer? She was looking outside, and my mind was all in a mess.

Suddenly a word jumped into my mind: “Dhaani.”

I suddenly blurted out: “Dhaani?”

As soon as I said that the glow returned to her face, her eyes were happy, and a beautiful smile floated on her lips. “Too late,” she said, “But at least you have recognised me.”

“Hey, how are you here Dhaani?” I asked.

“Just understand,” she said, “I have come here to this bus only to meet you.”

“So, you have learnt how to joke too,” I remarked. “I still remember how you would get irritated over small things.” She looked at me with imploring eyes. Her eyes were raising questions and the four years she was in my life came across me.

This is about the time I was staying in Delhi to study. I needed money. So, along with studying, I wanted to give tuitions. A friend, who did tuitions, gave me her address and asked me to go to her home. I met Dhaani the first time there. I was giving tuitions to her younger brother in the 8th grade. Both her parents were working and she had done her graduation and was preparing to study further. There was a servant, but he was usually missing. Three of us would be in the house and Dhaani would give me tea and sometimes some breakfast. We became friends and I advised her with her preparations too. I did not realise when Dhaani fell in love with me. Dhaani was not her real name but she wanted me to call her that. Things were going fine but then something happened, and we could not meet again.

Dhaani was from a Rajasthani family. And one day, her maternal uncle arranged a marriage proposal for her and I too reached at the same time. Her family members were talking among themselves, so I went to another room and started teaching her brother. After a while, I was feeling thirsty. As usual I called out to Dhaani by name, and asked her for a glass of water. This created the trouble. Dhaani’s uncle came and glared at me. I could not understand. He roared, “Who did you call Dhaani?”

I pointed at her.

“Do you know the meaning?” he asked.

“No”, I said, “Maybe a nickname.”

Realising I was innocent, her uncle backed off, and the elders explained to me that the word meant “wife” and is used as an intimate address for one’s spouse. I could only stare at Dhaani who had tears in her eyes. Her father told me firmly that my services were not required anymore.

Four years later, I had never thought I would ever meet Dhaani in this rickety old bus in the middle of the dark night. Dhaani was shaking my shoulders, “Where are you lost?”

I blurted a series of questions: “Just remembering the old times. You got married, didn’t you? What does your husband do? Why are you travelling alone?”

She asked me “Did you get married?”

“No,”I answered.

“Why? You should have,” she responded.

We had left the town behind. We were in the jungle. Trees and sand. It was dark, the lights of the bus were weak and the visibility was poor. People were asleep in the bus. Maybe to keep awake, the driver started singing aloud a film song. His voice broke the silence.

I asked her again, “Why are you travelling alone?”

She said with a heavy heart, “I am on a journey that never ends, just one wish to see you and meet you once.”

“What nonsense!” I said, “Please answer my question.”

“You want to know where is my husband? Husband is one a girl like me falls in love with once, I am his Dhaani and never again will anyone settle in my heart. But you will not understand these things.” She took my hand in both her hands, “Swear to me that you will get married and have a family and a home.” With that she got up to leave.

I said, “Where are you going to go in this forest?”

“It’s a forest for you,”she said in a low voice, “For us it is our new home, we’ll never meet again but keep your promise.”

Saying this she got off the moving bus. I was stunned and stopped the driver, “A girl just got off the moving bus and you did not stop for her?”

The driver looked amused, a bit irritated, “Which girl?” he asked.

“The one sitting next to me, the one who I was talking to,” I was almost shouting.

He chuckled, “Near you. You were sitting all by yourself and yes you have been talking loudly to yourself but we get people like you, it doesn’t bother me.”

I craned my neck out of the bus and saw a smiling Dhaani waving to me. I was sweating despite the chill. “Dhaani, why did you do this?” I looked at the handkerchief in the corner, picked it, it had Dhaani written in the corner. Squeezing it tight, I cried. The bumpy potholes could not measure up to the pits in my heart.


[1] nymph

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Categories
Lockdown Stories

The Arangetram or the Debut

By Sheefa V. Mathews

Pavithra skipped into the apartment wearing a mask of blue denim. Everything about her was quick and she seemed to be float on a restless bubble of energy. 

Amma! The dress rehearsal went very well! I can’t wait for tomorrow.”

Savitri looked at her daughter and could not help but feel a surge of maternal pride. Pavithra had worked so hard. During the lockdown she had continued working on Zoom with her teacher all for the arangetram which was to be the next evening. They had been through a trying two months of lockdown due to the pandemic, but restrictions had eased a month ago and she had resumed classes with social distancing. It was two weeks since all restrictions had been eased, and she had booked a big hall near their home. The tailor had made the beautiful peacock blue and orange costume with shimmering gold borders. All the jewelry had been bought and decorations and food had been arranged. What had seemed impossible two months ago was suddenly possible.

“How many of your friends are returning home with us for dinner?” asked Savitri smiling at her daughter preening in her golden nose ring studded with deep red stones. “Pavi you look ridiculous wearing a nath with your jeans!”

“Only five, Amma,” said Pavithra giggling happily as she removed the nath. “The others have not got permission. With school going at breakneck speed their parents are not happy to send them, but they will all come to the hall.”

“Now go shower and change. I’ve made your favourite roti for dinner.”

“Ma, you are the best!” said Pavithra as she rushed to her room to shower. 

Savitri heard her husband come into the sitting room and sit ponderously on the armchair. The next minute the television came on and the news reader was updating everyone on the latest about the nation.  Pavithra fresh from her shower dressed in light blue pajamas came and perched on the arm of the chair telling him about her day. Vishwanathan partly listened but most of his attention was on the news.

“We interrupt the news bulletin to bring a special announcement from Delhi,” said the news reader. The Prime minister came on the screen and said that as they had seen an unprecedented spike in the number of cases, lockdown has again been instituted barring only essential services.

The moment seemed frozen in time as the reporter took over and droned on reading a list of essential services.  A heartrending sob escaped Pavithra, and she rushed blindly to her room, eyes thick with tears. She lay face down on the bed and hot, angry tears flowed down her cheeks.

“It’s not fair,” she sobbed. “I’ve worked so hard! Just one more day just to do my arangetram that’s all I want. I hate this world!” Her mother and father sat beside her trying to calm her, make her feel better.

“Come and eat your dinner you will feel better,” said her Amma.

Amma, Apu, I need to be alone. I don’t want dinner. Just leave me alone. I’m okay now,” said Pavithra. “Please I need some space. Take that with you please,” she added, pointing to the shimmering peacock blue outfit.

All her friends tried calling but they were met with mechanical recording that the device had been switched off.

In the morning Pavithra came in for breakfast looking pale and a little shamefaced. She hugged her parents and talked a bit too cheerfully and loudly, but she was not fooling anyone. The doorbell rang and the mother went out to find a large packet of fresh jasmine garlands and some roses that had been delivered as arranged by the milkman. She had forgotten to cancel the flowers for Pavithra’s hair. She quickly wrapped them up and took them to the kitchen. She would cut it up and send it to the neighbours after Pavithra went to her room. The fragrance of jasmine hung guiltily in the air around her as she bustled into the kitchen.

The crisp ghee masala dosas were her favourite and Pavithra pretended to enjoy them as she knew that it was her Amma’s way of consoling her. It took all of her courage and strength to swallow down the second. “I’ve got to catch up on some project work,” she said and slipped into her room.

Savithri’s phone rang, and it was Angela, Pavithra’s best friend and neighbor.

“How is Pavi aunty? She won’t pick up her phone!”

“Give her time Angela. She is trying to be good about it, but the poor thing is devastated. Infact the flowers for her hair came just now and I have moved the package to the balcony as the fragrance will surely make her weep again”

“Okay auntie! Take care! Will try calling her again after lunch.”

When Pavithra came in for lunch she seemed better.  She brushed aside her Appu’s question with “I’m a big girl Appu. I got this!”

Her father knew that he could say no more on the subject. His heart was breaking seeing his daughter’s disappointment and pain, but he was also immensely proud that she knew how to pick her battles and accept hurdles and setbacks in her stride. He was dreading 6pm which was the auspicious time they had fixed for her arangetram. He wanted to discuss it with Savitri, but her phone had been ringing nonstop from the morning – all their relatives and well-wishers wanted to know how Pavi was.

While he was dozing in his favourite chair Savitri was busy with her phone. At 4pm, she went to her daughter’s room and knocked on the door. “It’s Amma,” she called out on hearing no response.

“Please leave me alone Amma, I’m alright — just need to be alone.”

“Open the door Pavi I want to ask you something.”

Pavithra opened the door. She looked miserable and was bravely holding back her tears. Savithri felt a rush of love for her brave child.

“Pavi put on the costume and flowers and dance for Appa and me. We will hold your arangetram at the auspicious time.”

Amma our little apartment has no room, and I will be bumping into things. “

“With the curfew there will be no one in the quadrangle stage of our building. You can dance there and Appa and I will watch you.”

“What about the music? I don’t have all of it recorded.”

“Your teacher has agreed to send it all. She will bless you through Zoom and sing the first half herself.”

Pavi’s eyes started gleaming. Yes, it could be done even if it was just her parents watching. With a smile her mother started braiding her hair carefully attaching the piece that would make the braid reach her hips. Row upon row of jasmine flowers interspersed with a few roses were carefully attached to her hair. Then the golden ornaments were fixed at regular intervals. Her hair was ready.

“Love you Amma,” said Pavi as her mother started lining her eyes with black eye liner. After the make-up, she got into her beautiful costume and leant down to tie her ghunghoroos. The time was 5.45 pm. She bent down and touched the feet of her mother and father seeking their blessing. Vishwanathan could not hold back the tears of pride and joy as he looked at his beautiful, brave girl.

From the lift they walked to the quadrangle. Savi set up the cordless speakers and the laptop. Dot on six Pavi’s teacher came on the screen. Pavi received her guru’s blessing with her head bowed low.

Tha, they, thith, they…  her teacher called out the opening notes and Pavi started moving her feet in the dark quadrangle. Suddenly a strobe of white light hit her hand, then another lit her face, yet another followed her feet. All around the residents stood in their balconies and at their windows aiming their bright, white phone torches at the dancing girl.

Pavi danced as she had never danced before. Her mother turned up the volume of the speakers and every pose was received with cheers and claps. When she finished Pavi bowed to her teacher, then her parents and finally did a twirling bow to all the people who were her audience. Plomp something hit her cheek. It was a rose, a zinnia landed near her feet, a Cadbury chocolate hit her ear, it was raining flowers and chocolates. “Love you all,” screamed Pavi as she blew kisses in all directions and collected her gifts. She had her arangetram and it was more special than she ever thought it would be.

Appu, Amma and Pavi walked silently back home, arms laden with gifts only to find many more gifts of food left at their doorstep. It is love that makes everything special said wise little Pavi as she hugged her parents.

Glossary

Amma – mother   

Arangetram – First debut public performance for Bharatnatyam dancers.

Roti — flatbread

Apa/Appu – father

Dosas – South Indian salty pancake with stuffing

Ghungroos – Bells

Guru — teacher

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Sheefa V. Mathews is a professor of English Literature and enjoys writing. She is currently working on her first novel. 

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