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Rolling stone who anchored the women’s movement

Urvashi Butalia
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PHOTO: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT
PHOTO: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Three years ago, almost to the day, when we launched Vina Mazumdar’s memoir, Memories of a Rolling Stone , the room at the Habitat Centre in Delhi was packed to overflowing. Resplendent in her beautiful silk, Vina di , as she was known to everyone around her, smiled her way through the evening as bureaucrats, academics, politicians, educationists, feminists and others sought her out to congratulate her and greet her on a day that also happened to be her birthday. “ Arre bhai ,” she said in her trademark twinkly way, “ itna fuss kyoon ? It’s only a record of a life well lived.”

Vina di ’s life, which ended in the early hours of the morning on May 30, 2013, was of course much more than that: teacher, educationist, administrator, researcher, institution builder, thinker, speaker, mother, wife, fighter, rebel, feminist, iconoclast, student…. How is it possible, those who knew her often asked, to pack in so much in a single lifetime?

For Vina di all of this was possible, and had she been able to, she would have packed in more. Born into a middle-class Bengali household, she was taught to read by the family driver, Nagen. Supported in her desire to study and travel by her mother (who persuaded her father), Vina di ’s life journey led her from the Diocesian Girls’ School in Calcutta to Banaras, Patna, Delhi, Shimla, Behrampur and Oxford where, on her second trip, she took along her two young daughters, and managed to live a life combining the pressures of intense study and intense mothering.

The most important turning points in her life came in the early 1970s when she was persuaded by her friend and mentor, J.P. Naik, to join the Committee on the Status of Women in India (CSWI) which was then “in great difficulty” because both its Member Secretary, and its Chairperson had, in Vinadi’s words, “no knowledge of the subject.”

Path-breaking

With her customary grit and energy, Vina di took on the task, and with the support of her good friend and colleague, Lotika Sarkar (who passed away only a few months ago), they produced what was to become one of the most important documents about women to come out of independent India — Towards Equality: The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in India (1974-5). Unlike many reports, this one actually saw the light of day — thanks to a clever sleight of hand by J.P. Naik and Nurul Hasan, the then Education Minister who realised that if the government saw it before it was tabled in Parliament, the report would very likely be shelved. And to this day, the findings of that Report remain grim reminders of the need to change the realities of women’s lives in India, a cause that remained close to Vina di ’s heart all her life.

With this kind of commitment, it was only natural that Vina di became a key figure in the women’s movement in India. The activist years of the 1980s and 1990s often saw her in the forefront of demonstrations against dowry, rape and violence against women. But there was another, less talked about aspect to her and that was the support and encouragement she gave to new ideas, young activists, indeed anyone who sought her out. I remember well how it was Vina di who, in the early days of the setting up of Manushi, provided space and support within the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) for the founding collective to meet, and then guided the collective through its painful split. This wasn’t the only group to receive such support: since the news of her death, emails have been pouring in from women all over the country, each one with a personal story of how much she learnt from Vina di .

Scholarship and activism apart, Vina di was also an institution builder. Five years after the CSWI report was published, she founded the Centre for Women’s Development Studies (CWDS), an autonomous research centre under the ICSSR, to which she remained connected for the rest of her life, and to which she lent her energy and expertise, making space for new scholars and researchers.

As close to her heart as CWDS was the work she initiated in Bankura and Medinipur with rural women whose wisdom and maturity she valued all her life. She never forgot the first encounter with the women, one of whom told her they had no time to think of the future because “thinking about problems we cannot solve will lead to insanity. And what will happen to our children if we lose our minds?”

With Vina di ’s passing, a whole era of activism seems to have gone. Old world feminists like her and Lotika Sarkar and others, led lives in which their politics informed every aspect: they balanced work and home, husbands and children, friends and relatives, comrades and fellow travellers, with the ease and good humour that came so naturally to them.

They never sought the limelight of fame and fortune — for what sustained them was their commitment to the world of women, a world at the heart of which lay a belief in human dignity. They loved the institutions they set up, and were loved by them. In what is perhaps the most fitting tribute to Vina di ’s passing her last journey will take her first to her much-loved CWDS, and then to the cremation ground.

(Urvashi Butalia is a feminist writer and founder of Zubaan, an independent non-profit publishing house.)

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