Shanti's story in Shanti's voice
(Photographs shared by Shanti)
In these two photographs above that seem to have been clicked on the same day in Jagori’s office (then located in New Delhi’s South Extension Part II), I am with Abha Bhaiya in one and with two visitors and Abha in the other. Although I cannot recall who these women are, I do remember that Jagori often had visitors from within the country and outside. It had a name and a clout, thanks to its ideologies. Its identity was tremendous. When Jagori started, it was called a “research” centre but then with all our work in the field, it became an “action research” centre.
Then, it was a great time for me at the organisation. I used to visit scores of villages for trainings, from Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and other states. Although I would accompany Abha and others, eventually and much after my Jagori stint, I started conducting trainings independently. I learnt much from Abha. She spotted the potential in me. The training skill in me is her gift. In fact, I received full support from women in the basti (working class settlement) as well as middle-class activists who did not let me fall socially or financially. Particularly, Abha didi, Kamlaji, Maya didi, Meeta, Runu Chakravarti helped me a lot. I take their name with pride today.
Not only did feminism develop my understanding around “women’s issues” but it also brought me into contact with a whole, new world. It brought me towards socio-political struggles. The photo above shows me at a meeting meant to draw the attention of our political parties towards issues raised by people’s movements.
As a feminist activist, I was invited by different civil society organisations and movements. The photo (below) is froma training session at theHind Mazdoor Sabha (roughly, the Indian Workers’ Assembly), a national trade union body.After Maya (Mehta) quit Jagori, she worked for this union. So I too acted as a trainer. I even went to Lonavalafor a training once, and this photo could be from that session. This was a training session on gender and the unions often had more male members than females.
This is an old picture of the women’s sangathan (collective) initiated by Jagori (STARTED IN YEAR?) in Subhash Camp (a south-Delhi squatter settlement comprising largely of migrants) near Dakshinpuri, the area where I have lived and worked for a number of years. At that time, feminist activists and organisations such as Jagori, Saheli, Action India etc. were all part of a thick and seamless collective. It made no difference where you belonged, but the work was done together. Right from the eighties, they have all been working here and in other slum colonies across Delhi such as Nandnagri, Seemapuri, Jahangirpuri and so on. When I was with Jagori, we had weekly visits to these places, and we would even spend the nights there.
The group met every Tuesday evening in a rented room to discuss issues of public infrastructure water, electricity and address cases of women’s rights, violence and so on. The girls in this picture have grown-up. I see them from to time in the area with their children. The picture shows themwatching a film; we would screen filmsto make them think and talk about issues.
Among all the conversations we had, I distinctly remember the one about women and bicycles. We raised the question about why women, all of us, cannot ride bicycles. What is wrong with riding a bicycle? The issue was especially relevant to this group because they had to walk to buy vegetables and ration, walk to go to school, walk for errands etc. whereas boys and men could simply ride away on bicycles. In fact, these girls used to walk a long distance to reach us at our Subhash Camp room. They came all the way from Tigri (another working class neighbourhood in South Delhi).It is a very long walk. Since they never rode bicycles, their hearts, minds and bodies did not get a chance to open up fully.
So we decided to take them to the vacant land behind the settlements that we called “jungle” to teach them how to ride a bicycle. There were 12-13 girls in the cycling group including women from Subhash Camp. Many times, all of us – the collective’s members – would go to the “jungle” with packed lunch: rotis tied up, onions and pickles separately and neatly packed. It was such an amazing experience. We spread rugs on the ground, ate together, wrote our reports, sang and danced. In the spring time, we would even hang a swing by tall trees. In the evening, on our way back from the jungle, we would even pick some firewood. It was great fun.
It was a very strong collective that time, and even women from Mahila Samakhya used to attend it. Evenings were the only time when women could spare some time. They would come to the collective’s office around 8 PM after they had cooked food for the night. If ever there was an emergency, like if we had to handle a case or something, then we would devise ways to support each other with childcare. For example, I would send my child to your house, and you would send your child and mine to someone else’s for a few hours, so that we could both reach the collective’s space for work, even at night. We had tremendous energy and motivation!
I remember the sight of a woman who would attend the meeting but would constantly crane her neck towards the adjoining terrace where her husband would be asleep. He had forbidden her from being part of the women’s collective, but she would slip out of the house to be with us all!
The Jagori I remember had a tradition then. We would easily break into song and dance from the movement, especially when we all collected for meetings. These were songs about freedom, partners or love. This photograph is from a dance session at the earlier office of Jagori. We may have started dancing after a meeting. On the left, in blue, is Maya didi (Maya Mehta) and the one on the extreme right is me. Maya and I did some trainings together. She had been a good friend and had supported me much, although we also had our share of fights.
People used to refer to Jagori as “home”. We felt the warmth. At meal times, we all would keep our respective lunch boxes in the centre so that others could reach out to it. Food was shared and eating was a collective experience, like our other struggles. There was strength in this.
This is a training session in what seems like a baraatghar (community marriage hall) in Dakshinpuri.Sitting next to me(I am in a kurta, with a hand raised) is Vidya (in blue sari) from Action India. She is holding a phad (a cloth/canvass scroll with illustrations) about discrimination between the male and female child.
The phadwas usedby community trainersas an educational tool to address women from the basti. Those days, making the phad itself was a collective learning exercise between the trainers and the trainees. After discussions on issues that were close to women’s lives, we would draw up lists of what we need to focus on, what material to create, what to draw, which songs to use and so on. Some women were good at sketching while others could sing. So we would share responsibilities as per our skills.
(In the photograph, the sleeping child is a beautiful reminder of the many and simultaneous roles that women play all the time. His/her mother must be part of the training).
About 10-12 years back in Dakshinpuri, it was commonplace to find 100 to 150 people queueing up at one public tap. The water works department of the government refused to supply water in this area because this was an “illegal” colony. So women living here tried to get water from neighbouring colonies that have regular water supply, but they were often shooed away, humiliated or even threatened by those residents. Women also sat on a dharna(sit-in protest) outside the offices of the water works department in different parts of the city but to no avail. Now even though the government did not consider people living here as worthy of something as basic as water, the several thousand who lived here needed water to survive.
So the residents got together and decided to pool in our labour and money to create a network of pipes and connect these to the main pipe of water. Some of us knew how to dig, others knew some plumbing. Women joined in too. We got pipes, dragged and carried them and also trained women in this kind of work. Finally, we managed to get access to water. The photo above shows me looking at the pipe-work being done.
Again, women, men and boys got together, dug deep and laid down pipes that they carried themselves. It was all collective work, and women were at the forefront of these local achivements.
The women’s collective in Dakshinpurihad an identity. The policemen of the area were wary of us. We even ran a campaign to end extortion by policemen. We formed a group comprising four men and four women to track and confront policemen.
We also discovered that young girls from Assam were being bought as brides by some families in the area. When we came to know of a girl who had been bought for ten thousand rupees, we immediately called for a meeting of the women’s collective. Meeta and Maya, who were with Jagori then, reached Dakshinpuriand we strategized. Nourati and Sheela were all there, along with other women from the collective.
That night, about twenty women tip-toed to the jhuggi where the bride was being held.It was pitch dark that night as there was an electricity failure. Outside the jhuggi, we spotted a broom and lit that up with a matchstick that one of us was carrying. A few of us went inside and the others stood guard outside. We had to physically carry the “agent” as well as a young Assamese girl.It was such a dramatic escape! Such experiences taught us much, refined our own thoughts and ideas and gave us more confidence and strength.
In these struggles, I personally confronted many men and bashed many more. Yet, it is amazing that many of these men supported me in my good and bad times. This has been a positive outcome of the women’s collective.
I must add that the achievements made by women from the basti can sometimes outdo those by middle-class activists. For example, I personally know of women from the collective who gave no dowry whatsoever on their daughter’s wedding as also of upper-class women have indulged their son-in-laws with dowries. My salaams to women from the basti for their commitment to the cause!
This personal picture shows my two daughters, Anita and Sunita, as well as their daughters along with my younger son.
As I look back over the years, I realize that my children were raised like orphans. I was hardly home when they were young. I was obsessed with my activism and work. Maybe if I gave them time, they would have been educated. It was not as if I was always travelling. Even when I was in town, I was not home. Night or day, I was going to attend to some case, protest (see the picture to the right) or to Abha’s house, Maya’s house or to a meeting. Now I go to some park sometimes and break down. I left them when they were very young. How could they cook for themselves? I put the movement ahead of the children. Really, I did not think about this then but I do now. My kids even lost their father early, especially the two youngest ones. I feel as if their love for me is different from the other children’s affection for me. I neglected them. It is a big sin on my part that stays with me all the time. I will die with this guilt.
My youngest son got addicted to alcohol many years back. He started keeping company with boys who gambled. I was so distressed that I sold the house in Delhi, took him with me to Rajasthan to spend time with him and made him quit drinking. Since the last ten years, he has also helped me with my gender trainings. I am happy that I could transform him to this extent. Otherwise, it would have been so tragic that while I could help the world outside my family, within my own home, the scene is something else.
These three pictures are from the times when lottery tickets were sold on carts. The venue is B block in Dakshinpuri. At a certain spot in this small bazaar, there was a tap that supplied water to about 100-200 people. A shopkeeper from that area got the tap pulled out to make way for a lottery counter. This led to a big fight as it affected the lives of many in the area.
The women’s collective played a big role in this local struggle against goondas(goons). We called for a meeting; there were men, women and children as well. What a vibrant struggle that was! Together, we got the tap re-installed.
The men we were fighting against sent goons to abuse and humiliate us. Many men who had supported us in this struggle decided to address the situation. They asked the goons: “Will the men on whose orders you have come here to threaten us, drink water at your home? Since we have no such qualms, we will eat and drink water at your place but the men you are supporting people think of you as untouchables and inferior.” We changed their perspective with such thoughts and interactions. They too supported us. When the police arrived, men and women from the collective and even school-going children helped re-construct the public tap.
Thrilled at our victory, we pooled in five rupees each and Jagori contributed rupees three hundred so we could distribute laddoos. And guess who inaugurated the public tap? A single woman from the minority community! Life has been so thrilling.
This photograph is about yet another special struggle from Dakshinpuri. Some men used to sell liquor to anyone who asked for it, including young children. We tried dissuading the vender a few couple of times but he did not pay heed. In fact, there was another family that acted as bootleggers. Since liquor was freely available in the area that time, it would attract men from outside the neighbourhood who often had drunken brawls. We informed the police and called for a big meeting, a janbaithak (community meeting). With the police’s help, this practice was stopped.
By the way, we used to organise many janbaithaks. One of us would go around with a dhol (drum) announcing the time and venue of the meeting. That was enough! People would rush out from their homes.
I am the fourth woman (standing) from the right-hand side.
My association with Mahila Samakhya continued for many years, even after I quit the organisations that put me in touch with them. They continued to invite me for many of their programmes. The photograph above is from a protest in Lucknow. If my memory serves me right, this may have been an 8th March rally. The participants are Mahila Samakhya workers from different districts in Uttar Pradesh. (I am the fifth woman from the left side; back row).