Kumud Shanbag’s name will forever be linked to that of her daughter Anuradha Ghandy, the Maoist who passed away suddenly in April 2008. The shock of losing her daughter so unexpectedly at the untimely age of 54 was deep, but ‘Aunty’, as she was known to Anuradha’s wide circle of friends, showed no trace of it when we visited her. She remained warm and hospitable, always proud of her daughter’s commitment and courage, expressing regret only once to this writer for having bequeathed to her daughter the arthritis that was gradually limiting her own very active life.
It was not just loyalty to a friend that made Anuradha’s friends go out of their way to visit a woman much older than them. There was something about Kumud Shanbag, who passed away on December 12 aged 91, that set her apart from other ‘friends’ mothers’. The age difference melted away with this woman who, like her daughter, laughed easily and remained curious about the world around her.
She came into her own late in life. A science graduate, she did her M.A. and M.Phil. in sociology when she was over 45, encouraged by her daughter, and won the Vice-Chancellor’s gold medal for topping her M.Phil. batch. She then joined renowned feminist Neera Desai at SNDT Women’s University, and would travel with her in overcrowded shuttle trains and buses to villages in Gujarat, where SNDT had decided to set up a rural development centre.
When she was around 65, Kumudben, as she was called, joined Vacha, the centre for adolescent girls from deprived backgrounds headed by feminist Sonal Shukla, becoming the oldest member there. Vacha co-director Nischint Hora recalls her contributing not just her administrative and fund-raising skills, designing unusual logos and health quizzes for adolescent girls, but also the generosity with which she would ply Vacha members with seasonal delicacies, from Gujarati pickles to Coorgi bamboo shoot sambar. This writer first tasted sitaphal ice-cream in the 70s, long before it became easily available, and it was made by Kumudben.
Kumudben worked at Vacha for 15 years, till arthritis stopped her. Her home became an extension of Vacha, where visitors could leave their luggage and even spend the night. More important, though, was what she came to mean to the adolescents from nearby slums who came to Vacha. One 11-year-old especially, recalls Hora, showed no interest in any other Vacha activity; he would go straight to Kumudben. Years later, after she’d retired, he returned looking for her. Despite Vacha not revealing her address, the determined boy traced her out.
To mark their silver jubilee, Vacha instituted the Kumud Shanbag Scholarship to enable girls who performed well in their board exams to continue with their education.
The seeds of this late flowering had been laid in youth. Kumud Chaudhary was one of seven children born to a father who died young. After the Razakars overran the Chaudhary home in Aurangabad, the family was forced to scatter and survive wherever they could. Kumud came to Mumbai, enrolled at Wilson College, and thanks to the influence of her elder brother, a CPI member, joined the student wing of the party. She met Ganesh Shanbag in the party’s Girni Kamgar Union. Shanbag, born to wealthy landowners in Coorg, had turned his back on his background to work for the CPI as a lawyer, though he never joined the party.
In his memoirs, Shanbag writes about how they spent their evenings seated next to each other at rallies held at the Kamgar Maidan. They married at the registrar’s office, celebrated at a nearby Irani Hotel, and then went their separate ways, she to her hostel, he to his rented room.
No wonder the Shanbags supported the unusual life choices of both their children — their son Sunil chose to spend his life in theatre. Anuradha’s decision to go underground and never have children caused her mother pain, but she never reproached her, choosing instead to pamper her on her rare visits home. After tributes poured in from all kinds of people when Anuradha died, Aunty told me: “Had I known she had done so much, I would have hugged her and told her how proud I was of her.”
Had Anuradha lived long enough, she would have returned the hug with equal pride in her mother.
The writer is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist.