I first met Kamla Bhasin at the office of a women’s organisation in Delhi – Jagori or Sakhi, I cannot recall. What I remember is that it was a room full of feisty women, of all ages. Though the feistiest, loudest and the most joyous of them all, was Kamla. I was 18 and she was almost 25 years older than me. But she was simply Kamla to all.
Fresh out of college, doing street theatre, I truly believed that she was changing the world. And she was. Inspiring women to speak up, instilling a sense of purpose in her fellow activists and shaking the status quo around her with joy and an unwavering focus. That was the free-spirited Kamla and she didn’t change till her last breath on Saturday, September 25.
Today I am glad that the foundation of my social commitment was nurtured by Kamla, whose activism wasn’t angry or didactic. She taught me, and many others, that the world could be in a better place with poetry, stories, songs and laughter.
Over the years, our paths crossed every now and then, at morchas, rallies, meetings and gatherings. She formed Sangat, a feminist network and brought people together. She connected me with so many amazing women from around the world. All those who were deeply committed to the cause of gender equality and justice.
Around the same time, both of us were part of an initiative called the South Asians for Human Rights. Many of the idealists that led it are now gone – Kuldip Nayar, Asma Jahangir, IK Gujral, Nirmala Deshpande, IA Rehman and now Kamla Bhasin. She spearheaded many other initiatives, including One Billion Rising. But she was equally comfortable being a footsoldier, cheering from the sidelines. Her slogan shouting would fill us with josh, the kind of enthusiasm that makes you fearless.
When things got grim and we would shrink into helplessness, Kamla, with her indomitable courage and incorrigible wit, would infuse everyone with hope. She would start singing, laughing and energising people around her. It was contagious. No one could ever forget her if they met her even once. She would always call, message or email, if she saw anything about me. And invariably it started with: “Meri pyari dost”, or my dear friend.
I often wondered what strength she accessed deep within her to be such a relentless crusader, even as she faced so many personal and health crises, which she openly spoke about, whether it was suffering childhood abuse, a traumatic marriage and separation, her son’s complete dependency on her due to his cerebral palsy, her cancer gnawing at her. But the worst was when her only daughter Meeto, whom she loved madly, died by suicide at the young age of 27.
My son and I, like scores of other children and child-like adults, had enjoyed the stories and poems Kamla wrote for her. She came home, when my son was about five, to give me her children’s books. Meeto was often the main character in them. I remember having a long call with her soon after the devastating tragedy. Kamla broke down, but only momentarily. She renewed her pledge to work for all the Meetos in the world. Only she could do this.
I just checked, her last message to me was on March 29: “Dear N, your conversation with Azra (Raza, the oncologist and author) was amazing. Lots of love on Holi and every other day. Love, Kamla.”
Even if we had long spells of not speaking or writing to each other, it was comforting to know that she existed. She would stand up for anyone who needed her, bring sanity and grace to every conversation, and inspire, at all cost. There was no room for cynicism or pessimism in her world. I owe her my feminist ideology, my faith in optimism, and the belief that a revolution with love is the only one worth being part of.
I had to write this today, despite the pain. I have hardly been writing in the last few years, except for a few obituaries about people I loved and admired. The last ones were for Om Puri, Mrinal Sen and Kuldip Nayar. They are all gone, leaving behind a great legacy of their work. But what about the conversations, the laughter, the warm affectionate hugs?
Today, I write about Kamla, in a stream of consciousness, not only to share my pain, but also to mark my gratitude to her for giving me so much unconditional love and instilling a deep sense of purpose in what I do.
Kamla will live on. Through her work, books, initiatives. Through her smile and that mischievous twinkle in her eyes. As if she was saying, “I am shaking their orthodoxy, their bigotry, and they don’t even know it!” Her voice still rings in my ears, when she would sing,
Tu bolegi, moonh kholegi, tab hi toh zamana badlega
Dariya ki qasam, maujon ki qasam, ye tana-bana badlega
Speak up, only then will the world change
I swear by the river and its tide.