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Sharadaben Mehta: A Woman of Substance

management at the local level in the states; all this is contrary to the constitutional provision that

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Sharadaben Mehta: A Woman of Substance

Veena Poonacha

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her daughters had the necessary time to study, Balaben relieved them of all household responsibilities. The unequivocal family support, however, did not mean that there was no social resistance to the idea of women’s education. Sharadaben and her sister had to face considerable social

T
his remarkable translation of Sharadaben Mehta’s memoirs from Gujarati provides us an intimate glimpse of the life and times of a woman of extraordinary courage. Set against the backdrop of the social reform and nationalist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, these reminiscences by an indomitable woman delineate the sociopolitical developments of the time. At that momentous period of history, the social and intellectual landscape of the country was in turmoil because of its colonial encounter. In response, issues of caste and gender inequities that characterised Indian society were discussed and attempts were made to initiate social change.

Sharadaben was born in 1882 into a highly educated and progressive, middle class nagar brahmin family in Ahmedabad.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 15, 2009

Reminiscences: The Memoirs of Sharadaben Mehta by Purnima Mehta Bhatt (New Delhi: Zubaan), 2008; pp 325, Rs 595.

Despite enjoying the privileges of class/ caste and social status, the family was deeply committed to progressive and egalitarian values. Sharadaben’s maternal grandfather, Bholanath Sarabhai, a First Class Subordinate Judge in Ahmedabad, was a founding member of Prarthana Samaj, an organisation aimed at challenging orthodoxy and entrenched caste hierarchies. Sharadaben and her older sister Vidyaben Gauri owe their education to their progressive family and particularly to their well educated mother Balaben, who strove to ensure that her daughters received the advantages of good education. For instance, in order to ensure that

vol xliv no 33

ridicule and criticism to graduate in 1901 as the first women graduates of Gujarat.

Her Private World

Abhorring the caste/class privilege of her background, Sharadaben’s personal life reflects her public position on women’s education and empowerment as well as the prevailing caste/class discriminations. These were commitments that she had imbibed in her home and were honed through her marriage to Sumant Mehta, a man of lofty ideals. Wedded at the greatly advanced age of 16 – at a point of time when pre-puberty marriage was the norm

– Sharadaben entered the marriage as an intellectual companion to her highly educated and sensitive husband. Her husband Sumant Mehta, belonged to an equally distinguished nagar brahmin family that had suffered social ostracism

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because his father had challenged the prevailing religious orthodoxy to travel abroad for higher education. At the time of the marriage, Sumant’s father was a doctor to the royal family of Baroda – a position that Sumant got after his return from England. Sumant’s detailed correspondence with his wife during his stay in England, indicate the enduring love that had developed between the two.

Sharadaben’s memoirs give intimate glimpses of the marriage and the intellectual companionship between Shardaben and Sumant for seven decades. It was a marriage that provided the necessary emotional support and space for both the partners to grow. Despite her worries about the education and upbringing of her six children, Sharadaben never questioned Sumant’s decisions to give up his lucrative career as a doctor to the royal family – and subsequently as a sanitation inspector – to work for various socio-political causes. Understanding his mental dilemmas and recognising his need to live by his ideals, Sharadaben shouldered the responsibilities of rearing her children and her husband’s younger brothers and sisters. A source of constant worry to her was her husband’s chronic ill-health. Her love and appreciation of her husband and her desire to shield him from any kind of stress seep through the pages of her memoirs. The memoirs also reveal that the home she created had a soothing and cultured environment, conducive for her children’s mental, emotional and physical growth. It was an open house which attracted freedom fighters, social reformers and many intellectuals.

Sharadaben and Sumant practised in their private lives the values they espoused publicly. Having given up the option of leading lives of decadent luxury, this idealistic young couple chose to live frugally, believing that the money saved could well be used for education and economic upliftment of the masses. They braved social censure in their attempts to break away from outdated customs and conservative values. Additionally, their political sympathies to people’s struggles often placed them in opposition to the power elite in Baroda. These were all difficult choices: for Sharadaben and Sumant enjoyed deep and personal friendships with the royal family as well as the other elite families in Baroda.

Stepping into Public Domain

From a position of mutual love and respect for each other, Sharadaben and Sumant were able to carve separate niches for themselves in their public lives. Sumant started a people’s organisation aimed at enabling the masses to struggle for their rights in Baroda. Sharadaben’s vocation was education. In the course of her long and illustrious career, she established educational institutions, such as the Vanita Vishram Mahavidyalaya in Ahmedabad and a college for women in Baroda. It was in recognition of her contribution to education and social work that she was elected as senate member of both Bombay University and SNDT Women’s University.

Her contribution to education went beyond her attempts to expand formal school and college educational opportunities for women to include informal education and consciousness-raising programmes. She was among the pioneers who developed institutions such as the Bhagini Samaj and Gujarat Stree Kenavani Mandal to challenge the prevailing caste, class and gender discriminations in the early 20th century. These experiences enabled her to develop a distinct philosophy of women’s education. She believed that education was the means to develop independence of thought and action and at the same time enable women to fulfil their special roles. She also recommended that the medium of instruction should be in the mother tongue. This is not to imply that she was against the teaching of English, but believed that it should be taught as a second language.

Widening Horizon

Sharadaben’s socio-political ideas were far in advance of her times. Her work with the marginalised women had not only alerted her to the complex ways in which colonial and indigenous patriarchies oppressed women, but had also increasingly drawn her into the nationalist movement. Her participation in the nationalist movement made her realise that the political freedom of the country was meaningless without socio-economic transformations. In this her views differed from those of the many nationalist leaders of the time.

Reading through her memoirs it is possible to discern the changing trajectories of her ideas. Her work began in the early 20th century with a distinct social reform agenda. Her aim was to expand educational opportunities for women and at the same time, through the formal and informal systems, develop a curriculum that would challenge the prevailing caste and gender inequalities.

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It was aimed at equipping women to fulfil their multiple roles and, at the same time, enabling them to become self-reliant.

By the late 1920s she was increasingly drawn into the wider political arena. Understanding the complex intersections between patriarchy and colonialism, Sharadaben realised that these two forms of oppression were inextricably linked. In 1927, she became one of the founding members of the All India Women’s Conference, which sought to combine the women’s struggle for equality along with the nationalist goals of self-rule. Her critique of colonial patriarchy however did not blind her to the shortcomings of indigenous patriarchy. She argued that the establishment of women’s equality was possible only if men were willing to change.

Her participation in the freedom struggle has many important milestones. She participated in both the Bardoli Satyagraha and later the Dandi march. Recognising her leadership potential during the Bardoli Satyagraha, Gandhiji and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel asked her to be part of a deputation to the government of Bombay for the resolution of the crisis. Emerging as one of the important leaders of the freedom struggle, she was the president of the Boycott Committee formulated to oppose British rule in India. Consequently, she was the first signatory to the letter sent to the viceroy to protest British exploitation and injustice. Since the colonial economic policies were harming the Indian economy, she established a swadeshi shop in Ahmedabad to promote khadi and other indigenous goods. Her leadership and capacity to motivate others was fully in use during the preparations for the Dandi march. Gandhiji asked her to accompany him on his tour from Baroda to Jabalpore to awaken the nationalist consciousness among women and to organise their resistance movement. Her closeness to Gandhiji, however, did not blind her to his faults. She criticised him for his part in the Ahmedabad Textile strike in 1917 as she felt that he had undermined the revolutionary potential of the first labour movement in the county by bringing about a compromise with the workers and the millowners.

Working within the broad framework of the social reform and nationalist agenda

Economic & Political Weekly

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august 15, 2009

of the first half of the 20th century,

Sharadaben’s contribution epitomises the

struggles of pioneering women to ques

tion, analyse and challenge the status quo.

As Svati Joshi writes in her very compre

hensive introduction:

the story of her life however is not that of an individual woman struggling to realise her personal aspirations; it is rather the story of an educated woman equipped with independent views and fearless conviction determined to open up a space for other women to enable them to experience the freedom and joy denied to them in their daily lives in a patriarchal society (p 1).

Lovingly compiled and translated by

her granddaughter, Purnima Mehta Bhatt,

from the many short pieces that Sharadaben

wrote around 1938, the memoirs portray a

woman of courage and fortitude. The story

that unfolds reveals strength and determi

nation of a woman who carved a path for

herself, so that others may find it easier to

find their places in society. Sharadaben

was undoubtedly conscious of the special

significance of her life; her lucid reminis

cences were aimed at inspiring other

women to step beyond the confines of

their lives. As she explains in her introduc

tion, the purpose of writing the memoirs

is to record “certain unusual events and

experiences of [her] life” so that it would

be “easier for other women who may be

undergoing similar experiences”. She also

felt the need to write down the events of the

past that would be useful for her in future

and to document her life with her husband

whom she obviously idealised (p 36).

With consummate skill Purnima Bhatt

portrays this dramatic life of Sharadaben

through her translation and her reminis

cences of her grandmother in her prologue

and epilogue. Apart from describing the

subsequent trajectories of Sharadaben’s

life, these essays along with Svati Joshi’s

comprehensive introduction provide a de

tailed historical picture of the times. In es

sence, the volume reveals the complex

inter sections between autobiography and

history. It indicates how the macro socio

economic realities shape people’s lives at a

given moment in history and at the same

time how individual choices mould the

shape of history. Undoubtedly, Sharadaben’s

personal choices and work in the public

domain were determined and shaped by

the dominant ideological debates of the

vol xliv no 33

time; yet her own unique ideas and experiences creatively helped to transform the dominant discourse.

The memoirs make evident this complex interplay between individual and collective consciousness: In the first two decades of the 20th century, when nationalism found expression through ideas of social reform, Sharadaben’s principal contribution was aimed at challenging caste, class and gender inequalities. Her work aimed at promoting women’s education. As these ideas became more radical and took on political hues, Sharadaben’s ideas also broadened to recognise that the political freedom of the country was an essential prerequisite to initiating social change. Socio-economic justice could only be realised if the country could cast off the colonial yoke.

Unique Understanding

Sharadaben’s political ideas, however, were coloured by her unique understanding of Indian society. She believed that political independence would be meaningless without concomitantly addressing the socio-economic evils that assailed the country. Therefore, the struggle for the political freedom of the country must go hand in hand with socio-economic transformation in the lives of the common people. Her politics also reveal her feminist consciousness. Recognising that there was very little difference between colonial patriarchy and indigenous patriarchy, she argues that gender equality could only be realised if men gave up their privileges. In short, the importance of this volume lies in that it portrays the life and times of a woman who sought to make a difference to the lives of other women and at the same time her reminiscences deepen our understanding of a momentous period of Indian history.

Email: veena_poonacha@yahoo.co.uk

available at

Altermedia-Bookshop Ecoshop

M G Road Thrissur 680 001, Kerala Ph: 2422974

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