Uma Chakravarti, historian, author and social activist, taught history at Miranda House, University of Delhi, for four decades. She is now an independent researcher and a women’s rights and democratic rights activist, based in Delhi. A life-long engagement with history has led her to write several important books and to make her first film, ‘A Quiet Little Entry’. In this excerpt from ‘Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India’ (Edited by Ritu Menon; Women Unlimited), she recalls a tumultuous period in the life of the country just after India got its independence.
I was put into school at age five, and a year later was witness to the end of colonial rule – and also the trauma of Partition. I have no strong memories of childhood, but I clearly recall an occasion in 1946, when riots broke out in Old Delhi and a group of rioters told us children to return home since there was going to be trouble in our area. By August 1947, there was mayhem in the streets. My brother and sister literally ‘witnessed’ a killing as a group of three Muslim men ran towards a police station for shelter. Two got there, the third didn’t; the terror of that killing changed my sister from a devil-may-care child to a fearful, always-looking-over-her-shoulder kind of girl who never recovered from the shock of that murder. A routine illness with high fever had me crying, “Why are the Hindus and Muslims killing each other?” in my delirium. We locked ourselves inside the house in the curfew-bound city as it burnt, our days interspersed with stories of trains full of bodies going across the Punjab, both ways, leaving behind a terrifying memory that resurfaced in the 1984 anti-Sikh carnage inDelhi. When schools reopened, the new girl in my class, who became my ‘best’ friend, had walked across the ‘border’ with her family, so one got a first-hand account of the enormous human misery that accompanied the birth of the nation-state. One unhinged and broken-down maths teacher who had come from Lahore strayed into our school, borderless and gateless as it was, intermittently solving maths problems in the air muttering to himself, weeping at the same time, exclaiming, “Ma, main kadi na Pindi javan” (Mother, I’ll never go to [Rawalpindi).
That sense of living through tumultuous times was dramatically heightened with the assassination of Gandhiji. At six-and-a-half years, my only memories are of every single person in our neighbourhood instinctively rushing out of the house and standing in shocked little clusters as they tried to register the meaning of the news; and next morning everyone going to Kingsway – renamed Rajpath later to suit the new republic of India – to ‘see’ the funeral procession of the man whom all his political compatriots had, in a sense, betrayed. Then, when he was broken in spirit but still fighting to hold on to a vision of the subcontinent with easily crossable borders and rights for the minorities in the new nation-states, gunned down by a Hindu fanatic. With people in the hundreds milling about the India Gate lawns, I could see nothing till my father placed me on top of a parked car so that I, too, could partake of the collective grief of the people.
Perhaps it was all this that led me inexorably towards history, the only subject I had ever wanted to ‘study’ in my life. My school was in tents and shifted from being housed in a church building to tents onNorth Avenue, aptly calledNaveenBharatHigh School, located finally onMathura Roadas theDelhiPublic School. The grounds around us were dotted with derelict monuments, graves and mausoleums, not for from the beautiful Humayun’s Tomb. One of these fairly well-preserved tombs on our premises became the school dispensary! History was so all around me, so much a part of the bicycle rides to school and back, so much a part of the bicycle rides to school and back, so much a part of our everyday wanderings that it became the centre of my being, the anchor of my childhood, propelling me to study it later in life even though it seemed so difficult to pursue. It was not offered as a main subject in my undergrad course in Bangalore (where we had moved after my father retired), and not taught at all the MA level as all humanities and social science subjects were allocated to Mysore in the crazy distribution of departments between Bangalore and Mysore in the early 1960s. Mysore was just ninety miles away, but too expensive to go to as a residential student, so I settled down to a law course in Bangalore and a simultaneous MA in history at Banaras Hindu University as a ‘private’ student, studying from a syllabus sent to me by bookshops in Banaras, plus those borrowed from sundry libraries in Bangalore, including that of the famous Mythic Society. The entire family was pressed into service to help me with my double load – older members, including my parents, making notes; younger ones accompanying me on our bikes to the libraries in search of books.
I got through somehow, though the course was as dull as hell, with no social history and, of course, no gender; yet it was all worth it when I got a job inDelhias a teacher at Miranda House. This was where I had desperately wanted to do the history honours course, but had not been able to. Miranda House, where I taught history for some forty-odd years, was the anchor of my adult life: it was here that I really learnt my history, teaching it to others, sometimes only barely ahead of them in the early years; and it was here that I learnt my politics from irreverent and unruly teachers famous for throwing out principals, and challenged in turn by irrepressible students.
(Excerpted from Making A Difference: Memoirs From The Women’s Movement In India, Edited by Ritu Menon; Published by Women Unlimited; Pp: 386 Price: Rs 350(Softback)
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