Jagori: A rather personal experience

Veena Shivpuri
Hindi Writer and Translator
Veena Shivpuri is a Hindi writer and translator, and the author of a collection of short stories. Veena has worked at Jagori and particularly for Sabla. She is also part of the editorial board of Hum Sabla.
In her capacity as a freelance writer and translator, she has worked on scores of books and texts associated with women's issues for various national and international organizations in the last three decades. Veena also wrote a training manual for teenage girls for the Nutrition Foundation of India. She is on the panel of Tulika books as a Hindi translator.
Born in 1944 in Jaipur, Rajasthan, Veena holds a Masters’ in Hindi literature.


A rather personal experience

I had imagined that writing about my experiences with Jagori would be easy because there is much to share, but when I sat down to write I did not know where to begin from. The memories came flooding to my mind.

At this point, I would like to make a clarification: I do not want to talk only about Jagori’s work since that can be found in books, posters and documents. I want to replay memories of the Jagori that I have known through its people, the Jagori I have received so much from.

If I were to speak of sitting and working in Jagori’s office, then perhaps I have barely spent three years doing that. Yet, in one way or another, I have been engaged with Jagori for three decades and struck a heart-felt relationship with it for life. When I moved out of Delhi in 1993, I pulled out of Jagori’s office too but stayed in touch with Jagori as a member of its executive committee and the editorial board of Sabla for the next 10-12 years. Currently, I am with Hum Sabla.

In 1983, led by old friends Kamla and Abha, I had started to translate a range of feminist English texts into Hindi for Saheli and various other women’s organisations. In the next few years, as I read, wrote and translated much, I realized that feminism is not merely yet another “ism” or a heavy-duty principle but a hope, desire, and a voice hidden in a corner of every woman’s heart.

On a cold morning in 1989, for the first time I stepped into the barsati (often a small, rooftop apartment) in a three-storeyed building in Kotla Mubarakpur (a neighbourhood of New Delhi); the ambience inside seemed rather domestic for an office. Abha was working on a mat spread out in the sun and introduced me to everyone present. If my memory is not misleading me, I also met Juhi, Vika, Sarojini, Saroj and Thulsi at Jagori that day.

Furnished with beautiful curtains, cushions and mats, this small office served as home to Abha and other visitors who occasionally stayed there. It had a small kitchen where we made tea and also cleaned the dishes. The big room with some chairs and tables is where we would read and write. If a discussion was needed, we would roll a mat anywhere on the floor and seat ourselves. I still remember how the meetings of the collective took place in the balcony. The furniture of the big room would be pushed aside to make space for meetings with different groups for campaigns, protests, marches, strategies and serious deliberations.

Among others, what drew my attention most at Jagori was the sense of fellowship in its spirit. To hug each other was a norm there. Each time a visitor dropped in to the office someone or the other would stop her work, offer a glass of water and then listen to the visitor peacefully. This was a place where everyone could bare their heart without the fear of judgement. It offered a space to laugh, cry, get angry or stay silent, with empathetic support. For the first time it made me realize the value of someone’s hands gently stroking your shoulders spontaneously on your return after a tiring day outside. Besides acting as a documentation, dissemination and resource centre, Jagori’s mission and strength was to offer women a space where they could speak freely, be heard and understood.


Above: chatty downtime during a week-long workshop in Rishikesh. In the first picture, there is Madhavi Kuckreja on the extreme left and Nandita Shah standing at the back. Cannot recall other names. I am the one in a green kurta, third from right. The second picture is from a wonderful picnic at a lovely river bend. Jaya Shrivastava on the extreme left and me next to her. Abha Bhaiya is in the far background too.  

At Jagori, the idea was to create a hierarchy-less organisation with collective decision-making among all those associated with it. Egos clashed at times, debates got triggered and the issues got resolved too. Actually, this was an experimental phase of the collective. It was hoped that each individual would fulfil her responsibility with complete earnestness. I recall how all of us – new and old, young and experienced – would speak without inhibition. Sometimes the questions asked pointed at feminism or even at our own work.

Our colleague Vika was actively working in Bihar’s villages when once she came back infected with Cerebral Malaria. She was from Holland and lived in Delhi with a friend. She had been ill with fever since a few days. Her colleagues from Jagori took turns to visit and check on her. Vika was confident about her recovery through homeopathic treatment. We too agreed with her, thinking of it as simple fever. Suddenly, she passed away. For all of us, this was a big shock. I remember that sometime after her death, at a meeting we asked that if, instead of Vika, a family member of ours had been so ill, would we not have insisted on taking her to the hospital and a doctor? Family, the institution that we critique, somehow receives the most significance in our own lives. We needed to be self-reflective. We all admitted that we had gone wrong.

A similar incident that made us question ourselves happened on the night of 8th March, 1992 at the AIIMS intersection. After a street play performance at Sarojini Nagar market, the plan was to hold a peaceful march with candles and torches. Instead this turned into a gherao at the AIIMS intersection. Traffic came to a standstill. Crowds stopped by to look at a group of enthusiastic and energetic women, shouting slogans and singing. While our introspection about this hour-long programme made us appreciate the strength of our solidarity, we also found that we were responsible for the distress this may have caused to passersby and patients at the hospital. I liked that our analysis of a rather successful event also offered the opportunity and space to raise and debate its negative aspects too.

In the Jagori of those days, a prominent table in the office had a big diary on it. Perhaps this tradition was discontinued later. Every day, all of us would write something in that diary. Sometimes it was a personal matter or a work-related issue, complaints or compliments. At times when things could not be spoken directly, they were written down, and this opened up avenues for conversations. In my opinion, this was a small but significant channel to examine one’s own self and reach out to the other.

It is said that in a decade, a whole new generation comes about and, now, many decades have gone by. That was neither the era of computers or mobile phones, nor perhaps of high efficiency and professionalism. Yet, there was ample togetherness which I am sure is still a part of Jagori’s culture.

I want to share a very personal experience. When Sarojini’s first child was born, the only people present in the hospital were Jagori’s women. I was holding her hand during her labour. Jagori gave me close-knit relationships for life, confidence, a direction to my working life and a sense that lakhs of women in the world think like me.

I was an over-40 years old, middle-class woman and writer who wanted to be associated with documentation. I had no experience of activism. I reached here because of some friends, my Hindi writing skills and feminist thought. I had imagined myself sitting in an office from ten to five. Yet, I did not realize when and how Jagori’s inspiring environment coloured me in its own shades. Sitting in Jagori’s office all night to make posters, banners and write slogans; holding adhesive and scissors, paste posters in the streets of Chandni Chowk at midnight; perform street plays at street corners and in bazaars; march from India Gate to the Red Fort while singing and sloganeering, loud and full-throated; and spending the night at Shanti’s house in Dakshinpuri are all alive in my memory.

A major intervention by Jagori that I recall is on violence against women. It used to be a prominent part of our work and concerns. In 1992, in the aftermath of the gang rape of Bhanwari Devi, a saathin (literally, a “friend”; a grassroots worker employed by the government for women’s development projects) from the Bhateri village, Jagori was one of the most active women’s groups vis-à-vis the issue. To draw the attention of the Rajasthan government and its people towards this case, to pressurise the government for urgent action, many women’s groups from Delhi decided to leave for Jaipur. They wanted to organise protest marches, distribute flyers and hand a memorandum to the Chief Minister. A bus packed with women left for Jaipur early in the morning. After a six-hour journey, we hit Jaipur’s streets with slogans and distributing pamphlets and concluded it at the state assembly. We were accompanied by women from Rajasthan’s numerous civil society groups and hundreds of saathins. The police stopped us from marching ahead and erected barricades which the women climbed. Their clash with the police involved pushing and fisticuffs. Finally, a women’s group met the Chief Minister to hand over the memorandum. Once again, after a six hour long journey we reached Delhi past midnight. Exhausted but jubilant.

At this point, I would especially like to mention that during this journey, march and protest, Jagori’s Sarojini was with us while carrying her little son tied to her back. These small recollections are the soul of my experiences at Jagori.

Kamla Bhasin, Sharda Jain and Jagori’s support made it possible for Sabla to be published from 1987 onwards. Aimed at the empowerment of neo-literate girls and women from urban ghettos and Hindi-speaking states, Sabla was an effective attempt that still continues as Hum Sabla. Since I was a member of Jagori and an experienced Hindi writer, I was asked to join Sabla’s editorial team. I started to regularly write and report for Sabla from 1991 onwards and continued to be associated with it for the next 12 years. I wrote essays and stories on all major issues that Jagori worked on. I would write at least 2-3 articles for each issue.

The reach and popularity of Sabla struck me after a unique experience. While living in Ahmedabad, I had the opportunity to visit the coastal town of Okha. There, I met a few families from the Indian Navy who, when they heard my name, asked me, “Are you not associated with Sabla?” “We all really like Sabla”.

The biggest challenge for me was to write with simplicity and lucidity on serious issues and theory of feminism so that neo-literate and semi-literate women could grasp those. To articulate via colloquial words, short sentences and ordinary expression is a skill I picked up at Sabla;. This has helped me in the last thirty years of my work as a translator. Another interesting fact is that Sabla also has many male readers. Besides topics associated with women’s lives and feminist values, it tries to share information on ongoing campaigns, struggles, programmes in a basic but interesting format. Sabla and Hum Sabla are indeed milestones in the journey of Jagori.

Like I stated right in the beginning, my goal was not to enlist my achievements or even Jagori’s, but to explore the sensitivities behind those. It is to repeat those memorable moments that have not been recorded anywhere yet.

My three years at Jagori or the thirty year old bonds are a vital part of my identity.