Mahila Samakhya: some lives, many learnings

Runu Chakraborty
Gender Trainer, Feminist Singer, Activist

This story is part of a series written and curated by Runu Chakraborty, we suggest you also read The inner battle and O, what kind of a foreign land is this

Mahila Samakhya: some lives, many learnings

It must have been 1987. I was getting tired. I had run out of energy to run collective, consciousness-raising sessions. What had to be done was not being understood well. The direction had been lost. My intoxication with the women’s movement was fading. The women’s groups I was with were getting splintered. But I did not want to pause. I was in search of new lands, new skies. Just that time, Abha asked me to join her in a training organised by the Centre for Social Welfare Board. This seven-day training in Hindi was conducted for women working in rural organisations. By daring to thank Abha for this, I did not want to belittle her trust, immense affection and friendship, but yes, it was as if a fake coin had found value in the bazaar again. A rusted needle had started to shine again. 

For the next few years, both of us continued to conduct this training along with a few other colleagues. Listening to the tough struggles in the lives and work of those women gave me newfound strength. Some of the relationships I formed during those trainings are still alive. Of what we heard, the government department also had a favourable opinion about the training. On behalf of the government, Suhasini Mule and Tapan Bose made a documentary film on these trainings, an action we had opposed but the decision to film had been taken and it was difficult to change it. When the film (that I have not watched till date) was watched by officials of the training division of the government, it caught their eye. In 1988, the late Anil Bordia, then the Chief Secretary(Education), threw a challenge at Abha and myself when he said, “Let’s see if you could replicate on the ground what you do in the training…”

In our passion, we dared to accept the challenge. The pilot project comprised 25 villages in the Rameshwar area of Sewapuri where Mahila Samkhya had to be taken off paper and implemented on the ground. We hit the ground running. Till then, Ihad known villages only through films and stories.

Via the Organisation for Integrated Regional Development in Sewapuri, Benares, when we tried to actualise the idea of Mahila Samakhya, a new energy, a new mission was found. Many friends from the women’s movement called us traitors because we had started working with the government. Wish they were with us too so that this programme packed with possibilities and empowered women benefited from their strength and direction and also because the city-based, mainstream, well-known women’s movement would have gotten a substantive grassroots reach. Training was neither the beginning nor the end of this programme, but a crucial element of the process.

Those trainings used to be a gathering where emotions ruled the head, the heart throbbed quick, the mind rode a seven-horse carriage to weave a beautiful sheet of dreams. Silence met sound, the lonely got company and trust. We questioned customs, rituals, relationships, institutions that we had so far believed in. Although in the begnning every day was a special experience and each participant was special, but here I would like to mention one of them...

Maya… A Mountain of a Life

"The story of my life has become like a grinding stone… 

Whichever way its handle moves, my name is not imprinted on it

After feeding every one, when I sit to eat, there is not enough left to fill my stomach"

Maya wrote this song during the first 15-day residential training organised by Mahila Samakhya in Sewapuri, Uttar Pradesh.

Maya was a five feet and four inches tall (if not more), well-built, married woman. A class five drop-out, she was an anganwadi worker who came to the training with her eighth baby in arms to become a Mahila Samakhya sakhi (group leader). That time, the training lasted a fortnight and was residential. Maya’s personality impressed everyone. When the festival of Shivratri happened to fall in the middle of training, all women fasted that day.  Except me and Abha.  Married women were readying themselves indulgently. The night before, they had put henna on their palms. While doing the henna, they sang, giggled…laughed, teased each other, spoke candidly about sexuality and in doing so, seemed so unlike themselves. The only women who did not participate in all this were those who had lost their husbands and Maya…her husband was alive.

The next day (on the day of fasting) we asked chachi (the woman who cooked for all of us in the mess) to make paranthas for Abha and I, and we ate those while sitting in the sun and teasing others. But how could those women feel tempted! They had bathed, untied their hair and were getting ready to worship. Maya was sitting far from all of us, suckling her small child and eating her breakfast. She was trying to hide the sadness writ large on her face.

We asked Maya who was sitting isolated from the rest: “Why don’t you fast on Shivratri?” Maya’s response was cold and expressionless: “Just like that…I used to fast before marriage, but I got a Shiv in marriage, I stopped fasting…” The bitterness in her tone reached us immediately…We could not eat then…Abha and I exchanged looks and made concerted efforts to reach the depths of her life. A stinging silence enveloped us that roared inside our heads.

This story is part of a series written and curated by Runu Chakraborty, we suggest you also read The inner battle and O, what kind of a foreign land is this