ANIS KIDWAI, Bina Das, Hansa Wadkar, Prabha Khaitan and Temsula Ao were all born in colonial India and actively participated in the making of an independent nation. Anis Kidwai was one of India’s first female Rajya Sabha members. Bina Das helped organise the Quit India movement in Calcutta. Hansa Wadkar was a popular actress in early Marathi cinema. Prabha Khaitan managed two companies, wrote several novels, and translated the French writer Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal feminist text, The Second Sex, into Hindi. Temsula Ao is Nagaland’s most famous living writer.
All these women were pioneers in their professions, but unlike more glamorous women memoirists of their era—Amrita Pritam, Shaukat Azmi, Leela Naidu, Vina Mazumdar, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Gayatri Devi, Durga Khote—they aren’t famous enough to have achieved immortality. They inhabit the tenuous territory between success and celebrity. They led fulfilling and trailblazing lives, but not readily accessible ones, and often their stories about themselves are the only ones we have. Luckily, they all wrote memoirs that have appeared in the original English or in translation over the last four years.
These memoirs illuminate a lifestyle often overlooked in popular representations of Indian women: that of the independent, middle-class, working woman. Some of these memoirists were single, others were married and yet profoundly alone. If the implicit bargain here is loneliness for success, how does any woman negotiate that price? Recent mainstream culture offers working women a few dubious solutions. Last year, a controversial Airtel campaign implied that however authoritative a woman might be at work, she ought to compensate for that authority by pampering her husband at home. Bollywood now takes women who work a little more seriously as well: movies like No One Killed Jessica, Page 3, and even The Dirty Picture feature women whose careers are at the forefront of their lives. A more appropriate comparison for the memoirs in this essay, however, is Satyajit Ray’s 1963 movie Mahanagar, which is about a housewife who decides to work, much to her family’s chagrin. Like Arati, the protagonist of Ray’s movie, these memoirists thought of a career more as a financial necessity than an enjoyment or entitlement, and while all these women were battered by the lives they chose, not all were shattered by them.
Anis Kidwai, the eldest of this group, was born into a genteel Muslim home in the Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh in 1906. In her unfinished Urdu autobiography, Ghubar-e-Karwaan, published in 1983, Kidwai describes the syncretic world of her youth, where Hindus and Muslims not only coexisted, but also celebrated festivals and prayed together: “Ram and Rahim, Ali and Fatima were … exquisitely yoked together in this imagination.” In 1919, at the age of thirteen, Kidwai was married to a man named Shafi, and her oldest daughter, Azadi, was born two years later. It seems to have been a happy marriage, until Shafi Kidwai was murdered in October 1947. He was the administrator of the Municipal Board of Mussoorie, and had received several death threats in the weeks before his assassination, but he refused to leave the city. Azaadi ki Chhaon Mein, Kidwai’s 1974 memoir of the Partition, begins in the weeks leading up to that fateful day. It was translated into English by her granddaughter, Ayesha Kidwai, and published as In Freedom’s Shade in 2011.
Kidwai begins the book by reminiscing about India’s first Independence Day:
I remember well that first 15th August, the designated day of liberation, rung in by the horrifying shrieks of terror resounding from Calcutta across to East and West Punjab. The day when the corpse of Delhi was being mangled underfoot, the day when women were being dishonoured. A day of freedom, yes, but a freedom slashed and streaked with blood. A day choked by smoke and fire … On that day, India took its first steps back into the past.
In Freedom’s Shade is a harrowing book, compassionate to its subjects but merciless to the reader, who is reminded that the cost of freedom was not only a brutalized population, but also the destruction of a way of life. It tells stories of women raped by their neighbours, children bartered for food, and destitute families huddled under a single blanket to protect themselves against the Delhi winter. After her husband’s death, Kidwai joined the Shanti Dal, a peacekeeping organisation that worked in the resettlement camps and helped secure food and blankets for refugees. The group also tried to prevent further outbreaks of violence by establishing dialogue between hostile communities—who had, until recently, lived together peacefully for generations. The Shanti Dal didn’t, of course, entirely succeed, but there were many small victories: a couple reunited, a school opened for orphans, a village pacified. Kidwai writes in ruthless detail about the horrors she witnessed, but highlights, always, the quiet moments of kindness and generosity between people.
Kidwai offers us rare insight into a woman’s experience of Partition. Her memoir ends in 1949, and in one of her final chapters she describes her involvement with what she calls the “recovery of abducted girls.” It’s a theme touched upon across the narrative, but in this chapter the degradation experienced by such women becomes evident. The “abducted girls” range from those who crossed the border with their lovers to women who were sold into slavery (often to government officials) or forced into prostitution. Kidwai’s despair is eloquent: “These adolescent girls whose essence is now only carnal hunger, these deranged young women whose whole being is a fervent appeal—as long as they live they will remember those malignant times.” Unlike scholarly history, In Freedom’s Shade is an intimate account of a terrible time in Indian history, and Kidwai invites us to not only understand, but to also share her trauma.
Kidwai was, in many ways, as bewildered as she was horrified by Partition. Bina Das, in contrast, was enraged by it. In A Memoir, she calls it “a cruel game of Holi being played with blood,” and claims that “Indians should be boycotted from civilised society.” She has a right to her rage: she was a revolutionary who spent her youth in prison, and this was not the country she fought to free. She first went to jail in 1932 for attempting to shoot the governor of Bengal, Stanley Jackson, during her convocation ceremony at Calcutta University. It was the second time in her life she had held a gun. She was twenty-one years old.
Released from prison in 1939, Das began working with MN Roy, one of the founders of the Communist Party of India. By the late 1930s, however, Roy believed that the cause of Indian freedom was better served by working inside the nationalist fold of the Congress, and he began organising a workers’ movement within the party. Das writes that Roy was a major influence on her, and she joined the Congress under his guidance. Unlike Roy, she was also impressed by Gandhi, which was why she continued working for the Congress even after Roy’s break with the party. She was one of the chief organisers of the Quit India protests in Calcutta and was imprisoned again in 1942. In jail she grew extremely depressed by the lack of solidarity between political prisoners and criminals, and began to hallucinate about Lenin, who confronted her: “You cannot forget your superior position; you cannot forego the privileges and comforts of your class. Your idea of mass uprising is mostly academic; you accept it with your intellect, but do not feel it with your heart.”
Released again in 1945, Das was further disheartened by the growing corruption of the Congress. The book ends as Indian independence becomes a reality—a reality drenched in blood—and while Das continued working to protect vulnerable communities in Bengal from the violence, her disgust and her disappointment are evident. She is astonished that freedom from the British didn’t necessarily mean freedom from their administrative apparatus. How is it, she wonders, that government officials and civil servants, the “same people who insulted and humiliated the flag during the struggle” were now hoisting that national flag in triumph? Increasingly isolated within the Congress, Das retired from active politics, though she remained a social worker and a progressive thinker. It was then, and only then, that she married.
KIDWAI AND DAS were not only unusual in that they wrote frank, perceptive and unsentimental memoirs about a pivotal moment in Indian history. They were also unusual in their freedom from domesticity. Kidwai was a widow with adult children at the time of Partition, Das was a spinster. Their time and their priorities were their own: a luxury few women have ever been allowed. Consider, for instance, Prabha Khaitan, who was born in Calcutta about thirty years after Das. Khaitan’s A Life Apart, unlike Kidwai and Das’s memoirs, wasn’t inspired by the fight for national freedom, but it is also the story of a woman struggling to liberate herself.
A Life Apart begins with an invocation to Sati, “the embodiment of a woman who dedicated her whole life to a single man, and to him alone.” Khaitan’s choice of words—a woman, not a wife—hints at her own troubled personal life. Khaitan was devoted to one man, the Padma Shri-winning ophthalmologist Gopal Krishna Saraf, but she was his mistress. As the memoir starts, Khaitan is in New York with Saraf, who is seeking medical treatment. He treats her with the callous intimacy born of a long relationship: he reprimands her for buying an expensive bag and questions her fidelity. The point of her autobiography, which is structured in a series of flashbacks, is to explain how and why she found herself stuck in a foreign country with a horrible man who wasn’t even her husband.
Khaitan grew up in a large, rich Marwari family. Her childhood, however, was far from idyllic. She was sexually abused by an older brother at the age of nine. Her father died young, and her illiterate mother struggled to support the family. It was this experience, Khaitan claims, that transformed her mother from a conservative Marwari lady into a fierce advocate of female self-sufficiency. Her older sisters were married in their teens, while their father was still alive, but the two younger girls, Geeta and Prabha, were educated instead. (Khaitan eventually earned a doctorate in philosophy.)
Khaitan was twenty-two years old when she met Saraf, who was then forty and a married father of five children. He proved his reputation as a notorious womaniser within minutes of their first encounter: “Dr Saraf peered into my eyes ... and remarked, ‘I don’t think I have examined a more beautiful pair of eyes till now.’” A little later, he is repentant: “Some people say I have a bestial streak in me.” Khaitan, however, remains undeterred. “For you,” she says at one point in that surreal first conversation, “I am prepared to suffer anything.” Their relationship then proceeds with the bizarre logic of a Bollywood film: a whirlwind courtship of clandestine meetings by the Hooghly, stormy confrontations, and fantasies of an eternal and unique love.
Her lifelong affair with Saraf defined Khaitan. It ensured that however successful she became, she would always remain primarily a mistress, in her imagination as much as the world’s. This didn’t, however, free her from the responsibilities of a wife. Saraf was a suspicious, possessive man, who policed her finances and her friendships with equal fervour. He expected her to support not only herself, but often also his family with his first wife. Khaitan was, at various points, his cook, travel agent, secretary, and, finally, his primary caregiver.
Meanwhile, she also built two businesses. In 1966, after an abortion and an ugly fight with Saraf’s wife and her friends, Khaitan left Calcutta to do a diploma in beauty therapy in Los Angeles. Upon her return the next year, she founded a health club called Figurette, which she calls her sanctuary. Once Figurette grew into a franchise, Khaitan went seeking fresh adventures and started a leather export business. “My business,” she writes, “became my solace.” As the years rolled on, Khaitan gradually grew more feminist. She expounds on the invisibility of household work, on the male gaze in the workplace, and on the double standards implicit in patriarchy. Yet she remains convinced that “Love, a happy married life with loving children is what every woman desires above all.”
The narrative in A Life Apart ends with Saraf’s death, though the memoir was published fifteen years afterwards. Khaitan was, at fifty, finally free to live her life rather than defend it. How, she wonders in retrospect, did she justify her “complete and abject surrender to another person?” It’s a question that has perhaps no answer. Khaitan’s own tentative and vague one—“hope that one day all this would change”—only convinces her readers that otherwise pragmatic people are capable of staggering levels of emotional delusion. Later, however, she offers a more convincing answer: “My love for him gradually receded but not my fear of him.”
If fear steered Khaitan into a stable but unhappy existence with a man who devalued and resented her, it led Hansa Wadkar into a life of constant flight. Born in 1923 into a family of courtesans and performers in Bombay, Wadkar (born Ratan Salgaokar) started acting in Marathi movies at the age of ten. At fifteen she married her childhood neighbour, already three months pregnant with their first child. She eventually had a miscarriage—the first of many—and settled into the grueling schedule expected of an actress in her era.
Wadkar’s 1970 Marathi memoir, Sangtye Aika, inspired Shyam Benegal’s 1977 film Bhumika, which focuses on the life of a famous actress with challenging family circumstances. Sangtye Aika, which was culled from extensive interviews first published in the magazine Manoos, recently appeared in English as You Ask, I Tell. In it, Wadkar explains that she resisted returning to acting once she was married. All she wanted, she says repeatedly, was a happy married life. But she quickly discovered this was impossible: her husband, Bandarkar, couldn’t support the family, and eventually turned paranoid and violent. He cheated on Wadkar, and began beating her for perceived transgressions of her wifely duties: coming home late, maintaining friendships with male co-stars, refusing to hand over her entire salary. And so Wadkar, still a teenager, became an alcoholic, like both her parents had been before her. “I turned to the bottle” she says. “It was an easy way of forgetting the whiplashes of the world.”
Despite her deteriorating personal life, Wadkar insists she was rarely intoxicated while filming. She was a devoted and respected actress in Marathi cinema, until she suddenly ran away from home and went to live in a village as the de facto third wife of a man she barely knew. She abandoned both her husband and her child, Rekha, for three years. The decision was taken in a drunken haze: she had a bad fight with Bandarkar, fled to Pune, was offered a drink in the middle of the night by a man, and woke up a few days later to find herself living in his village. She resigned herself to an entirely different and strictly regimented existence, until she finally wrote to Bandarkar and he rescued her. But her road back home wasn’t easy. Along the way she was raped by a magistrate, and she returned to a daughter who barely recognised her and an industry that had forgotten her. “All my dreams” she says about this time in her life, “were shattered. Once again I was filled with rage against the whole world.” She went back to work, though with less success than earlier. Her differences with Bandarkar persisted, and she found herself in Pune again. This time, however, the man she fled to—Rajan Javle, a fellow actor—was kinder and more supportive than the other men in her life. He helped her find her feet again, both personally and professionally. At the close of You Ask, I Tell, Hansa Wadkar is forty-two years old and still living with him.
If Wadkar, tossed by every nasty current in her life, is the most tragic of these five memoirists, then Temsula Ao, who also lived through traumatic times, is the most triumphant. Born in 1945, she is the youngest of the group, and her Once Upon a Life: Burnt Curry and Bloody Rags is the only one of these memoirs originally written in English. It presents a frightened and insecure girl who grows into a confident, self-sufficient woman. Ao was orphaned as a child, and lived in poverty and hunger until she was sent to a boarding school in Assam. She returned to her ancestral village in Nagaland upon graduating tenth grade and was married a few months later. She quickly grew disenchanted with domesticity and her prescribed role as a politician’s wife.
In 1963, Ao’s husband was elected to the legislative assembly of the newly formed state of Nagaland. The years that followed were the most unstable of her marriage, and her home was invaded by political agents and petitioners. She calls elections a “surreal scramble for the vote,” and it was only three elections later, when her husband finally lost his seat, that her family was freed of “the great fraud” of politics. By this time, Ao had established an independent identity as a schoolteacher, and she began to dream of a world beyond her “stifling, limited and uninspiring” circumstances.
Ao convinced her husband to allow her to study further, and she eventually became a teacher at the university in Kohima, where her family was then living. A year later, she was offered a job in Shillong, which she accepted without consulting her husband. She moved there with her children, but her marriage didn’t make it. She describes her separation as a process of slow estrangement; her husband wasn’t vengeful or abusive, but he wanted a wife he could control. After her divorce, Ao began to write, first poetry and then short stories. She explains that her writing is, in part, cathartic: “Venturing out of the security of conventionality and having to cope with divergent pressures in a wholly alien environment, I seemed to turn more and more to poetry to seek refuge from the contradictions of the life I had opted for.”
Reading Ao after the other memoirs is like coming up for a gasp of fresh air. Her book isn’t as exciting as Wadkar’s or Das’s, but of all the five Ao and Kidwai alone present themselves like the women they must have appeared to be to the people in their lives. Their memoirs reflect the women they became, not the women they were during the challenging times they recall. Their authorial voices are serene, majestic and inspiring. Kidwai’s book, however, is so embroiled in the misery of her times that it’s not in the least comforting. Ao, on the other hand, restores hope. Not all women, her reader is reassured, spend their entire lives flailing.
IT IS STRIKING how alike the authors of these memoirs are, separated though they might be by generations and geography. They are all extremely successful in their public lives and desperately lonely in their private ones. They take fierce pride in their work, but those who have men in their lives always point out that they also keep an excellent home and take care of their partners. They don’t deserve, they argue, the way they are treated—not because no one deserves that, but because they are modest women who fulfill their conjugal obligations. They are worthy. They are not, I mean to say, feminists: they don’t argue that the way traditional marriages subjugate women is flawed, merely that their marriage or relationship is flawed, and rarely for any fault of their own.Reading their memoirs, one feels empathy—why did they have to suffer so much? But these memoirs also raise a more urgent question: If such accomplished women could feel so defeated by their lives, how do ordinary women cope under similar circumstances?
Unfortunately, none of the memoirs delve into why their authors made the decisions they did. They have, remarkably for a genre as solipsistic as memoir, almost no interest in their own motivations. They describe the how—the process of their suffering—in meticulous detail, but rarely the reasoning behind it. Das never quite explains why she tried to commit murder beyond offering a few platitudes about revolutionary fervor. Wadkar describes her escalating misadventures with detachment, as if they simply happened to her and she played no conscious role at all. All five women rely on their circumstances to explain their choices: family expectations, political demands, children, fear of vengeance and social censure. The closest one gets to grasping their motives is the persistent hint that fear and what Ao calls “romantic notions” guided their decisions. But if they did, as Das claims, have “romantic natures,” and if that means something beyond being wildly impulsive, it is a nature that they learnt to ruthlessly suppress. Thus, the question becomes, to quote Jasbir Jain in her translator’s introduction to Wadkar’s You Ask, I Tell, “how does one live with a subdued self?”
This is the question that animates all these books, if in very different ways. Das and Kidwai efface themselves so completely from their narratives that it seems their turbulent era not only overshadowed their inner lives, it rendered them redundant. It must have felt indulgent to ponder individual grief when so many people were suffering, and so they simply describe the things that happened and the sights they saw. The later memoirs accord more space to their authors’ private lives, and leave the reader with the impression that the women in them are being slowly stifled. Four of the five memoirists, for instance, use metaphors of flight. Khaitan calls herself a “storm-tossed bird,” while Kidwai says she felt like “a bird whose wings had been clipped.” Ao refers to the African-American poet Maya Angelou’s autobiography I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Das’s description of her imprisonment is the most poignant instance: “We were like birds in a cage, diffident about soaring into the boundless sky.” As the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish said about another kind of dispossession, “where should the birds fly after the last sky?” The horizon, that last and eternal sky, limits everyone equally. How the horizon is defined, however, remains an open question.
The horizons of Indian women have long been defined by the peculiar demands of Indian sovereignty. Scholars such as Tanika Sarkar and Partha Chatterjee have argued that the female body—especially the Hindu female body—was crucial to the shaping of nationalism in the nineteenth century. Nationalist thinkers, eager to find a space “free” from colonialism within which they could locate an essential Indian culture that had to be liberated, settled upon the “Hindu home.” Hindu wives, who presided over those homes, thus became inextricably linked to patriotism. These wives—pure, virtuous, spiritual, submissive—were the soul of the motherland. They had to be saved from the depredations of modernity and colonialism, even when this meant they had to be saved from themselves. This ideology, that women are repositories of a cultural legacy, is as prevalent today as it was two hundred years ago—consider the violent policing of inter-caste marriages by khap panchayats, or the hysterical conversation about “love jihad” that presents Muslim men as existential threats to the Hindu family. This ideology, moreover, is also why most Indian women who survive outside the conventions of marriage must resign themselves to living with a submerged self.
The more interesting question remains, however, how women are to navigate such circumstances. One way would be through the discourse of empowerment, which suggests that women make choices that benefit them as individuals rather than those that benefit them as members of collectives such as the family or society. It demands that independent, self-respecting women defy the social strictures that hold them to home and hearth, and thus replace their pain with pleasure. It’s a seductive argument: with the awareness that society demeans women ought to come the courage to break with society. But, strikingly, none of these memoirists do so; they remain trapped in the prevailing narrative of the idealised woman. Even Ao, who comes closest to a self-assertive independence, leaves her husband only in stages. These women chose to suffer, chose to continue down a path that they knew could only lead to despair and humiliation. But this isn’t to say that they were disempowered, or that they were, against all the evidence, victims. Das willingly went to prison. Khaitan made millions and travelled the world. The suffering of these women wasn’t submissive; they embraced their suffering, and they taught themselves to function within it.
One way to resolve this contradiction is to reject the binary between empowerment and suffering, as the anthropologist Talal Asad suggests in his essay ‘Thinking about Agency and Pain.’ Pain, he explains, is often assumed to be a passive reaction, and is linked with victimhood because victims are bodies consumed by suffering. Asad believes, however, that this is a reductive perspective. Suffering can be proactive. It is, he argues, “sometimes the body’s punishment of itself for desiring what it ought not to desire.” Our thinking about pain is, moreover, confused by its association with victimhood: we believe that people need to be liberated from suffering so that they might be truly free agents who are responsible for their own desires and destinies. But who among us, however introspective and privileged, can claim to manipulate our own desires? In place of one myth—the ideal wife—we are substituting another: the free agent. Instead of agency, Asad proposes sanity—which he defines as “knowing the world practically and being known practically by it”—as a better guide to human behavior. This allows us to approach others in the same spirit we approach ourselves: as creatures lost in habits, routines, and a vast maze of competing desires.
The five memoirists discussed in this essay don’t represent all Indian women, but they are valuable examples of women from the last century who might not have been feminists but were indisputably modern. They led rich, accomplished lives that were marked by both suffering and success. To read them either as victims or as exceptions is to do them an injustice. Accepting that suffering is a part, rather than a perversion, of human agency offers us a much deeper perspective into the lives inscribed in these five memoirs. Once we consider pain to be an ethical conundrum rather than a metaphysical one—something to be experienced rather than endured—suffering becomes indicative of a person’s tenacity, not their transgressions. The women in these memoirs accept pain not because they had to suffer, but because they could suffer and still remain, as it were, sane.