Kamla Bhasin…knowing her from the fringes

by Urmila Bendre

I first met Kamla Di (KB) when I attended a gender sensitization workshop conducted in some rural spot of north India. I had recently joined a feminist organization of which she was one of the founders – though at that time she had already moved on to her work in South Asia, and perse was not a part of the day-to-day running of the organization by then.

Though events and life took me further away thereafter, I still remember that workshop more than 18 years back. Sitting among a circle of women, it was my first encounter with direct simple understanding of what gender is. I remember the naïve question of mine – but someone has to do the housework right? She smiled and answered yes, but there has to be a choice.

That answer was the crux of the matter that made me (over a period of time), open my eyes to my own life, those of other women, and how every time I thought I understood gender, a new aspect got revealed through the basic principles enumerated by her.

The impression even those in the NGO sector carried was of ‘Gender is a difficult topic’, (sometimes) particularly after attending a gender sensitization workshop. In contrast, this was KB’s strength – she made it direct, simple and understandable, and very Indian. Her connecting of the macro (Feminist ideology) to the micro (daily lives of women), sans the elitist obscure language. Her several books explore the multi-various aspects – including later on masculinities. My favourite book remains “What is Patriarchy?” It spells out the structures, the institutions and the way both men and women are trapped in the socially defined roles. It is a clear-cut way to gender truths.

Had she been a male, I am sure her work would have been eulogised by many in power – the politicians, the political parties and the international press (this negation in itself is a compliment to her). We have to be satisfied with a couple of left leaning Indian newspapers and those who speak of the marginalized, did take cognizance of her work and her death – and what it meant to the South-Asian feminist movement. Major women influencers – especially those influencing millions of women (no exaggeration here) cannot and do not receive what is due to them. But history will not forget her work, songs, the love that made the humblest of the NGO worker call her Kamla di. Some people change your life. The identity as a woman – an individual – is a difficult fight within the Indian tradition, culture and religion. She influenced the lowest common denominator – like myself, and millions of other women in this challenge.

After that workshop, there was an invitation to her place for dinner. It must have been winter, and hence I could make out only an outline of an old sprawling home with gardens. We sat on floor with a sangmarmari squat rectangular table on which arrived home cooked food. Kamla Di enquired about our lives – what we were doing, what mattered to us. I was on the beginning of my own spiritual journey. She looked at us and said iski to paar ho gayi, what about you? to the other colleague present. She was completely with us, while we sat and talked about ourselves. She asked us about our community, our caste. I know you young people do not care or think of such things. Her work in broadening of the feminist space was due to a multi-layered understanding of how entrenched we were in the caste, class, gender, community, and race; and what burdens women carried due to this. She embraced all matters of humanity – in the current political scenario and much before that.

This warmth and love, the ability to connect with each person she met – was the foundation of the networking of creating SANGAT and the cohesion among feminists, researchers, academicians, peace and development workers in South-Asia. The sisterhood. The doing away of othering between feminists.

I continued to see her at occasional meetings, dharnas, and other NGO gatherings. These were matters of joy, full of laughter, a time and place of solidarity- exact opposite of how feminists are fondly portrayed. One example of her earthy witticism doing rounds currently on social media:

“Oh Lord, Mary conceived without sinning. Let me sin without conceiving.”

The third meeting happened when we both were waiting at the airport due to a delayed flight for a visit to a city and specifically to an organization with meditative practices and spiritual teachings. She had many a question, inquisitive and probing (she was visiting for the first time). I was happy to see her and I just smiled – I was so sure that her being in that space and the presence of the main person would automatically answer all her questions.

She did not take to the place or its ways. I was disappointed and felt that she had missed something. I was wrong. Kamla Di with her innate understanding of Patriarchy and its structures saw through the game too well, as was proved by the fatal years that followed in Indian democracy. (My disillusionment came much later as the organisation urged its followers to vote for the Hindu Nationalist Party, etc.). KB’s feminist secularism knew the truth of any spiritual path is in equality, of all being One – in practice of day-to-day life and not just in esoteric knowledge.

Kamla Di in her life faced the turmoil a strong woman challenging Patriarchy encounters – in personal life, work life, within the feminist movement itself, and spoke of it. A catalyst for other women to speak up, to sing and dance; and embodied ‘personal is political’. Of silences broken.

Two of the minor incidences of the later that I recall: A male colleague stated that KB’s gender politics was old fashioned and not up to the new ways. The laugh that accompanied this remark was more derogatory than the words. He progressed fast on the international mode as organizations were looking for male leaders who spoke of gender equality. (Many years later, there was gossip of unsavoury sexual predatory behaviour and resultant career downfall). In another instance, in a Gender workshop on Globalization I heard a famous facilitator laughingly say she did not abide by the fashion of singing songs in gender sensitization programmes.

These were just the tip of the iceberg.

She made me appreciate older women as I had not done before. I suddenly became more aware of what it meant to live the life that a typical Indian woman did – what she dealt with in her day to day life and how she provided the care and the love that made me want to hold her pallu – no matter I was now middle aged myself.

Her poetry of Azadi, words of wisdom – gave courage, during the campaigns of VAW, CAA. Beti dil mein hai to will mein bhi. Many speak of her impact for who they are today – not only leaders of organizations and feminist movement but ordinary women handling their personal life struggles with grace. She moved minds. As one person shared, “she gave me her book of nursery rhymes. She didn’t want gender stereotypes in the way my boys would grow”. We continue to hold her pallu – as we cross the boundaries and take on challenges we never thought we could. My hero. There is a lovely khayal in raag Sarang that starts with the beauty of rains and ends with:

…Sab sakhiyan mil gayeein

We sang with you Kamla, as you brought us together.

And if this is emotional and sentimental – I am glad I feel so – as do millions who grieve at her passing away. And yet as we remember we smile, we are happy. That love was and is her power.

Urmila is a Gender Consultant and holds a degree of Masters in Law. Her work brings her closer to the issues women face. She recently started exploring her creative world through writing, among other things. She is a tri-lingual poet, writing in Hindi, English and Marathi. Her work has been published at The Kali Project and The EKL Review.

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