About the Book
In the affluent and confident capitalist society of nineteenth century Gujarat, debates on social reform, including women's reform, were conducted entirely by men, and were largely of academic interest since the historical transition to British rule had brought about little change in the existing social structure. In this context, the interventions of Sharadaben Mehta, a progressive educationist and social worker, represented a pioneering attempt by a woman in the early twentieth century at questioning, analyzing and changing the conditions of women's lives. The story of her life, as told by her in this memoir, is not that of an individual woman struggling to realize her personal aspirations, rather it is the story of an educated woman, equipped with independent views and fearless convictions, 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.
This book, made up of short pieces that she wrote at regular intervals for publication, tells the story of Sharadaben's life and times, giving us insights into Indian history, viewed from the point of view of a participant in the freedom movement, and provides rich insights into the area of women's education and the many campaigns in which they were involved. As well, it documents a life of intellectual companionship and action, one committed to women's freedom and independence.
About the Author
Purnima Bhatt is a Professor of History Anthropology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Hood College in U.S.A. where she has taught since 1977. She completed B.A. and M.A. in History from Delhi University and has a Ph.D. in African History. Purnima is the author of two books, Scholar's Guide to Washington, D.C. African Studies published by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Smithsonian Institution, and Sharadabehn Mehta: Una Mujer Exceptional en al India de su Tiempo. Her current research interests focus on the historical and contemporary roles of women in Asia and Africa, global perspectives on women, power and politics, women's leadership in peace movements, and. the impact of globalization on women.
It is the summer of 1993: I have returned to this house as I have done ever so many times during the past few years, to find among these walls with peeling paint and floors which feel cool like marble under my feet, the echoes of the past; to discover and rediscover not just a remarkable woman, but one whose voice speaks to me again and again, a reminder of the rich legacy she left me, and providing an inspiration for a life both joyful and meaningful. This is my grandmother's house; the house she built in 1927, to which I have come today. The sprawling old house sits alongside high-rise buildings in a street filled with the incessant sounds of scooter rickshaws in Ahmedabad and exudes an air of tranquility amidst chaos. It is surrounded by tall Ashoka trees, 50-60 feet high, which were planted years ago when my grandmother moved here. At one time vultures nested atop these trees, but they have now mysteriously disappeared. The garden- somewhat dry and desolate now because the rains have not come-suddenly comes alive with the first monsoon downpour and the leaves on the trees take on the green colour of the parrots who live here in large numbers, making their homes in the water spouts. In the monsoon season we often see peacocks perched on the roof or the garden wall, proudly displaying their beauty, and the children run to marvel at their colours and magnificence. There are flowers in the garden-jasmine, kamini, chandni, hibiscus, and brilliant orange flowers behind the house, these have no name as no one remembers or knows what they are called. On Sundays and holidays, monkeys come from the countryside and swing and play on the trees to the great delight of the children. I enter the house and am overwhelmed by memories-memories of my grandmother whom we all called 'Ba'. There is a photograph of her in the living room. It shows a woman with silver-grey hair in her mid-forties dressed in a handspun white sari. The face that looks at you is serene, her expression thoughtful. It is a face at once both tender and strong; a face with character, of a woman who could effortlessly straddle two worlds-the world of emotions and the world of intellect. As a child I loved her in the way that one adores a grandmother who spent many hours playing dolls with us, reading to us, teaching us songs, and giving us her unconditional love. As I grew into womanhood, I began to discover other facets of her: the writer, the educator, the champion of women's rights, the social worker, and the activist. As I struggled to find some meaning and purpose in my own life, attempting to reconcile the conflicting demands of being mother, wife, daughter, teacher, Ba's life provided inspiration and an ideal. I felt a need to know more about this remarkable woman not just for myself, but for my daughter Anuradha, my nieces Priya and Sumi, and many other young women and men growing up in post-independence India. In 1982, Ba's birth centennial was celebrated in Gujarat and elsewhere. That year suggestions were made that her autobiography, published in 19S8 in Gujarati, should be translated so as to reach a wider audience. I decided to undertake this work both as a personal journey of discovery and because I believe that women's struggle for equality and dignity will be better served by examining the lives of individual women all over the world.
Sharada Mehta was born in 1882 in Ahmedabad in Western India. Her autobiography, published in 19S8, describes in warm and rich detail the life of an Indian woman. It is a story of courage and determination, of love and friendship, of the pain and challenge of being a woman at the turn of the century. In this book she describes vividly the landscape of her childhood, her innermost feelings and emotions. However, even more significantly, the autobiography is a document on the political and social changes that were sweeping India at the time. It provides, thus, a description and critical analysis of India in a period of crisis and change. She describes the political and social worlds in which she moved. For over half a century, she and her husband had interacted and worked in close association with many of the important political leaders, social reformers, educationists, and literary figures of India. She provides portraits in words of these people and events, which are at once perceptive and compassionate.
Sharada Mehta grew up in an age and at a time when Indian women enjoyed few rights and were denied opportunities for education, self-expression, and self-fulfilment. Segregation and subordination of women was a part of the ethos of the East, and their seclusion represented an ethos of modesty.
Today's generation will find it difficult to imagine the social constraints and rigid practices that controlled the lives of women. Indian women, particularly those from the upper classes, were married when still young, at the age of 10 and 12, and hardly ever stepped out of their houses. Education was non-existent for them, and interactions with the outside world were minimal. In addition to child marriage, women suffered other humiliations in the institution of dowry and society's treatment of widows who were prohibited from remarrying and viewed as a burden. Notwithstanding considerable opposition from society, Sharadaben and her sister enrolled in college, and in 1902 they had the distinction of becoming two of the foremost women graduates in Gujarat, blazing the trail not only of women's education but also of co-education in Gujarat. This marked the beginning of her lifelong commitment to the cause of women's education. She played a major role in the establishment of numerous educational institutions for women, both schools and what later became a women's university, and also served for many years on the Senate of Bombay University and S.N.D.T. Women's University.
The early years of her marriage were spent in Baroda, regarded as being among the more progressive of the princely states, ruled by Gaekwad Sayajirao, one of the richest Maharajas in India. The autobiography, in describing this phase of her life, gives us a glimpse of an India that has now all but vanished: the age of Maharajas, many of them appearing larger than life and commanding incalculable riches; a colourful set with their charming eccentricities, chivalries, ostentatious lifestyles and decadence. Sharadaben's husband served as doctor to the royal family and became a close friend and confidant of theirs. They lived within the grounds of the famed Lakshmi Vilas Palace, its magnificent buildings of white stone and marble decorated with gold. As trusted members of the inner circle they attended lavish parties, banquets and functions where the Maharaja entertained heads of state and kings with games of polo and hunts. Notwithstanding their personal happiness, Sharadaben and her husband felt a growing sense of disillusionment and disenchantment with this life of affiuence, leading to a process of questioning and soul-searching. India after two centuries of British rule, was slowly awakening to a sense of itself, and they too were swept by this wave of political and social consciousness.
Gandhi's return to India from South Africa in 1915 affected and shaped the political climate in the country. As an educated, progressive, and respected couple, Sharadaben and her husband had the opportunity to meet Gandhi and this marked the beginning of a long association and an active involvement in the political arena. They plunged into the struggle for India's independence, suffering many hardships and long periods of separation. These manifold activities are vividly described in her book: from mobilizing women for the freedom struggle to picketing foreign shops, organizing opposition meetings, boycotting foreign cloth, and addressing women's groups.
The autobiography also provides fascinating insights into her marriage, which at the same time offers a sharp and vivid contrast to the existing institution of marriage in India. Despite the great differences in their backgrounds and temperaments, she and her husband shared similar ideals and values, drawing inspiration, strength, and support from one another. The reader will get fascinating glimpses into this relationship and partnership which lasted nearly three quarters of a century.
Although the autobiography stops at 1935, Sharadaben lived an active, rich and fulfilling life for another thirty-five years until her death in 1970. A brief description of that phase of her life is provided in the epilogue. I hope that this book will interest the reader not just because it allows us to experience the life of a remarkable woman but also because it deals with a period in India's history when an entire nation was striving to assert its independence and unique identity. Caught up in an age which was both tumultuous and exciting, her autobiography mirrors the social and political changes taking place in India, thus presenting the reader with vivid social history.
In the affiuent and confident capitalist society of nineteenth century Gujarat where debates on social reform, including women's reform, were conducted entirely by men, and were largely of academic interest since the historical transition to British rule had brought about little change in the existing social structure, Sharadaben Mehta's public intervention into these debates was a pioneering attempt by a woman in the early twentieth century at questioning, analysing and changing women's condition. The story of her life, however, is not that of an individual woman struggling to realize her personal aspirations; it is rather the story of an educated woman, equipped with independent views and fearless convictions, 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. What is more important, Sharadaben devoted her entire active life, single-mindedly, to devising a form of education that would be relevant for women; that would equip them with a freedom of thought and action, and which would enable them to carve out their own independent space and live as equal citizens with men. By the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century, Sharadaben had succeeded, in no small measure, in changing the lives of Gujarati women. Her contribution to women's development at the turn of the century thus remains vastly significant.
What is perhaps equally significant is Sharadaben's progressive political thinking, remarkable for a young woman in a region that has had no history of a people's movement. For her, political and social issues were intertwined. Social reform was ineffective unless accompanied by the political will to eradicate class discrimination. Political freedom, on the other hand, was inconceivable, or at least incomplete, without the emancipation of all sections of society. She believed firmly that for an emancipatory national project, the inclusion of disadvantaged sections of society - peasants, workers, dalits and women was essential. It was this broad understanding of the need to bring marginalized groups into the main social stream that informed her views on women's issues.
Sharadaben was born in a middle-class Nagar brahmin family in Ahmedabad. Her maternal grandfather, Bholanath Sarabhai, the only son of a scholarly father who instructed him in Persian and English, grew up in affluence. He became a first class subordinate judge, the highest position an Indian could attain under British rule. Bholanath founded the Prarthana Samaj, modelled on the Brahmo Samaj of Bengal, with an educationist reformer Mahipatram Neelkanth, in Ahmedabad. Though primarily a religious reformer, he took interest in social issues and was a member of the association against child marriage and of one that encouraged widow remarriage. He was against the institution of caste and supported Mahipatram who was excommunicated by the caste for having visited a foreign country. Sharadaben spent most of her childhood at her grandfather's haveli as her father worked outside Ahmedabad. She thus grew up in a family where the women, her mother and widowed aunt, were educated, extremely intelligent, courageous in their views and involved in social activities; where rigid caste customs were criticized and rejected; and where intellectuals, not only of Ahmedabad but also from other parts of India, gathered and discussed issues of social reform.
Sharadaben had her primary education at Maganlal Karamchand's Girls' School, the oldest girls' school in Ahmedabad, founded in 1849; and secondary education at the Mahalakshmi Female Training College, established in 1874 to train women teachers, but which also ran classes in English and other subjects for girls. She was tutored at home by her father, and Ramanbhai Neelkanth, her sister Vidyaben's husband, with whose help she passed matriculation. However, it was her mother, Balaben, herself an educated woman, who was the main force backing her and her sister Vidyaben's education. She not only relieved her daughters of all responsibilities but also insisted that they received the best available education. Vidyaben was married to Ramanbhai Neelkanth, a social reformer and writer. She continued her studies at college after marriage with the support of Ramanbhai, and was the first woman to join a college in Gujarat. However, because she was married and had children, her studies were disrupted several times.
For Sharadaben college education was a real ordeal. There was already considerable pressure from orthodox caste relatives to get her married. Her family stood firm, however, determined that they would marry her only to a man worthy of her. They were even prepared to keep her unmarried if a suitable husband could not be found. To have an unmarried daughter of fifteen in the family was a revolutionary step in those days and therefore a time of tremendous trial for the family. When she decided to join college, it was considered a blasphemy for an unmarried girl to go to a boys' college. Boys also never ceased to harass her while she was there. She, however, braved both the criticism of orthodox society and the insults of male students. Both Vidyaben and Sharadaben became the first women graduates of Gujarat in 1901. This was a historic moment for the women of Gujarat.
Sharadaben was married to Sumant Mehta in 1898 while she was studying at college. Sumant Mehta, known as Dr Sumant to the people or simply as Doctor to the family and friends, also came from a leading Nagar brahmin family. His father was doctor to Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad of the native state of Baroda. He had visited foreign countries in his time and was therefore excommunicated by the caste for having crossed the ocean. He, however, cared little for the caste criticism. Doctor's maternal grandfather, Nandshankar Tulajashankar Mehta was an able administrator in various native states and the author of Karan Ghelo, the first Gujarati novel. His social activities on the reform of the native states were carried out within the framework of the British ideology of 'improvement' of the anarchical and uncivilized political and social order of the native states. His daughter, Doctor's mother, had received an English education. It is a significant fact of social history that in the 1870s a young girl could continue her studies in high school till she was sixteen and also remain unmarried. At the same time, she also represented Nagar women who were distinguished from other women for their education and knowledge.
Sharadaben and Doctor had never met prior to their marriage but their education was the common ground for their willingness to marry each other. As Doctor recounts in his Autobiography, they seized the opportunity to get to know each other at their wedding and talked for an hour and a half in English while seated in the car during the wedding procession, arousing the ire of the orthodox Nagar brahmans of Ahmedabad! Immediately afterwards, Doctor left for England to take up further studies in medicine. He however maintained a long correspondence with Sharadaben from there for four and a half years that mainly took the form of a diary. This was an excellent opportunity for them to get to know each other's views. On Doctor's return both settled in Baroda. He became, like his father, doctor to the royal family, though he later served in various other capacities in the medical and health departments of Baroda state.
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