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This month’s Sunday short is an excerpt from Chapter 2 of Amma’s Daughters, in which Meenal Shrivastava weaves together archival research, interviews, and her mother and grandmother’s writings to tell the stories of some of the many remarkable women who fought for the freedom of their people but were let down by the society as well as the nationalist movement, their contributions forgotten.
It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, Athabasca University Press.
We lived like nomads for over a year, spending every available school holiday with Amma, travelling all over the vast state of Uttar Pradesh to the welfare centres she now supervised. In all that year we saw nothing of Babu, despite the vacations that came with his new job. However, Amma knew people everywhere we went, and their homes opened to us as though we were long-lost limbs of an extended family tree.
As we kept meeting new family in new homes, we also kept discovering new stories about Amma’s life—and Babu’s too. This was how we learned that, at the age of only fifteen, Amma had stabbed a man.
We were in Agra, staying with two of Amma’s old friends, Suman mami and her husband, Hari mama. An exacting man, with an angular jaw and a commanding presence, Hari mama had recently retired from teaching at the local college. As a follower of the Arya Samaj—a reform movement, founded in the 1870s, that blended Hindu nationalism with opposition to the hierarchies of caste—he began each day with ritual oblations to ancient Vedic deities, accompanied by the sonorous recitation of verses from the Rigveda, privileges ordinarily reserved for Brahmans. Although short in stature, he stood tall, his starched kurta hanging stiffly over his wide pajama pants and his broad shiny forehead, crowned by short-cropped hair, glistening from daily applications of coconut oil. He lowered his voice for no one—particularly not for his wife, whom he frequently scolded. The moment her husband entered a room, Suman mami’s usual animated manner, punctuated by bouts of giggling, would abruptly dissolve into diffident mumbles.
We were seated on the back veranda, where Amma was helping Suman mami shell a large pile of peas, her face bent toward the big steel bowl that was filling rapidly from their joint effort. For no particular reason, Suman mami launched into an account of the time that Amma was accosted on her way back from a Congress Party meeting there in Agra. The man was drunk. Clad in an army uniform, he towered in her path, her head barely reaching his chest. Amma waited until his hands reached out to grab her and then, in an instant, pulled out the knife she carried in her shoulder belt and plunged it into his torso. His screams brought people running, some of whom rushed Amma to a safe house, while others took the blood-covered man to the military hospital. Hari mama was one of those who had helped Amma to escape arrest, Suman mami told us proudly. A few years later, when Amma was once again in Agra, a senior Congress Party leader, Revati Sharanji, had presented her with a beautiful kataar, or push-dagger, to replace the long Gurkha knife that she had left in the chest cavity of her assailant.
Didi and I listened incredulously to this story. I looked over at Amma—a strict vegetarian who refused to eat eggs because they are “seeds of life” and wouldn’t even let us kill a cockroach. She was capable of pushing a blade through someone’s flesh? My jaw was nearly in my lap. “My Amma killed a man?” I exclaimed.
At this, Amma looked up for the first time since Suman mami began telling the story. Her grim voice stood in stark contrast to Suman mami’s lively tone. “No, he did not die. I did not aim for a kill.” After a pause, she added, “When a woman is nobody’s daughter, wife, or mother, she is absolutely alone. She’s considered fair game.”
“How dare you call yourself alone? Am I no longer your elder brother?” Hari mama, who had appeared on the veranda without our realizing it, interrupted our conversation in his familiar bombastic manner. As usual, Suman mami visibly shrank when she heard her husband’s voice. But Amma only smiled at Hari mama’s chiding.
Suman mami picked up the steel bowl and retreated toward the kitchen, Hari mama barking at her as she left, demanding his afternoon tea. Amma admonished Hari mama for the terror he invoked in his wife, but the rebuke flowed over him like water.
Returning her attention to Didi and me, Amma pointed to the small fenced garden at the back of the house and told us that it used to be a large orchard with an outhouse on its edge, before Hari mama’s son renovated the property. Hari mama and his wife had saved not only her life, Amma said, but also our father’s. Long before Amma knew Babu, he had hidden in their outhouse for three days to evade the police.
“But Babu wasn’t afraid of being jailed,” Didi protested. “I still remember him showing us the whipping marks on his back from his many trips to jail. And didn’t he also lose the hearing in his left ear after he was beaten by guards?”
“Prison tortures, bomb blasts, and who knows what else his strong body had been through,” Hari mama confirmed. “But you’re right. Your Babu never avoided jail out of fear. He was badly hurt when he arrived here and needed to stay out of prison to carry on his work.”
“How did he get hurt?” Didi asked.
“Some bomb that exploded at the wrong time. He didn’t like to talk about it.” Hari mama sounded more irritated than usual.
Amma continued the story. Babu was convalescing in this very house when a nosey neighbour tipped off the police that Hari mama might be sheltering a revolutionary. The police, who had long suspected this Arya Samaji of harbouring nationalist sympathies, arrived at the house, demanding to search the premises. But, as Hari mama argued loudly with the armed policemen at their door, Suman mami quickly led Babu into the little outhouse to hide.
Having finished with the house, the police began inspecting the grounds, moving toward the outhouse. At that point, Suman mami rushed into it ahead of them, pretending to be in great pain from diarrhea, letting out a barrage of curses that she kept up until the policemen left. For the next three days, Suman mami—who continued to pretend to be suffering from the runs—brought food to Babu several times a day, along with a small brass water pitcher of water infused with medicinal herbs. She was very brave, Amma said. Her foresight and courage kept Babu safely out of sight until he was finally able to escape under cover of darkness.
Hari mama did not conceal his pride at this reminder of his wife’s actions, although he mocked Amma’s use of the word “brave” to describe them.
I looked out at the yard. Where the outhouse had once stood there was now a neat little garden dominated by a velvety green drumstick tree, some showy coral trees, and a majestic jamun tree laden with ripening fruit. Beyond the garden, the rest of the orchard had been swallowed up by new construction, buildings sprouting as far as the eye could see. But, for a fleeting moment, my mind conjured up the image of a dense orchard with a narrow wooden outhouse sitting in a small clearing. I could see the door opening just enough to allow Babu’s large frame to emerge silently and then slip into the thicket near the fence.
Born in Jaipur, Meenal Shrivastava now lives in North Saanich, where she is a writer and a professor of political economy and global studies at Athabasca University. Shrivastava regularly speaks on the erasure of women in historical narratives and issues in the global political economy.