On Thursday, September 23, I was sitting by Kamla’s side, on her bed, making silly small talk which she would occasionally acknowledge with a nod. Or not. In the middle of one such she said, “Meri ainak dena, I want to check something.” I picked up her specs from the bedside table and handed them to her, saying, “Oh! Mine are red, too.”
“Dikha,” she said, so I held them up for her to see. “Not the same,” she retorted. “Yours are square, mine are round. Harry Potter.” “Right,” I said. Then after a minute, Kammo: “JK Rowling, what she said about trans people – what do you think?” I replied that I had not read what she said, but had been reading Amia Srinivasan’s very thorough discussion of the different positions on the issue, Rowling’s included.
“Tell me what she says,” Kammo said, but I demurred – the subject is complicated and complex, and I don’t know enough. “Simple sa bata de”, she whispered, “so that I can understand”, and then drifted into sleep.
We stayed like that for several minutes, her thumb absently rubbing my hand, held in hers. Suddenly, her grip tightened, her eyes opened, and she cried, “I don’t want to die, Ritua, I don’t want to die. What should I do? Tell me what to do.”
Exactly 36 hours later, Kamla Bhasin was gone.
At its rarest, there is a kind of friendship between women that defies all conventional definitions of the relationship. Gauri Deshpande’s poem, The Female of the Species, probably comes closest to describing it. She writes:
Sometimes you want to talk
about love and despair
and the ungratefulness of children.
A man is no use whatever then.
You want then your mother
or the girl with whom you went through school
and your first love, and her
first child – a girl –
and your second.
You sit with them and talk
She sews and you sit and sip
and speak of the rate of rice
and the price of tea
and the scarcity of cheese.
You both know that you’ve spoken
of love and despair and ungrateful children.
Kamla was not the girl I went through school with (she studied in Bharatpur and Kota, I in Delhi and Bombay) or even college with, but she was certainly dearer than a sister and, funnily enough, could be quite maternal when required. Truth be told, we had little in common. She grew up in small towns, I in big cities. She came from a large, close-knit family, I from a nuclear one. We had no shared background, no experiences that were similar, no familiar frames of reference.
Yet the bond that held us was strong and sure, and what we had in common, what brought us together, was the movement. Yet, even though we inhabited it (albeit in different ways), it did not define our friendship. Kamla’s chosen and “natural” environment was in the field, so to speak, in direct contact and communication with those whom she wished to reach, and on whose behalf she spoke – and worked.
Mine is the world of books, of writers and researchers, whose focus is the same as Kamla’s – women, and other marginalised groups – but whose means and medium of communication is quite different, even though our goals are the same. This did not stop either of us from discussing what the other was doing, or from sharing our experiences. We talked about everything.
When Kamla returned from Germany where she had gone for her MA, she worked briefly with the renowned sociologist, TN Madan at the Delhi School of Economics. But the academy was not for her, and she realised very quickly that her inclinations lay elsewhere.
It was at Mohan Singh Mehta’s Sewa Mandir in Udaipur that Kamla found that this was where her calling lay – understanding the situation on the ground, seeing how best to address it, and then trying to do something about it. It was at Sewa Mandir that she began to feel the first stirrings of doubt about “development” – or, rather, about top-down development. And it was while working with local people and with water diviners that she learnt to respect their understanding of their environment, and to question the policies that were being proposed by experts far removed from the scene.
Sewa Mandir was the turning point, the women’s movement came later. But when she did enter, or rather encounter, the movement in the late 1970s, she joined in with gusto and it became her “field” as well as her forum.
We published all Kamla’s hugely influential and popular booklets on the key feminist concepts of patriarchy, gender, feminism itself, and masculinity. When she brought the manuscript of the first one to us, on the relevance of feminism in South Asia, I thought, this is a tall order. And I – thinking I knew best – said, “But Kammo, a little book of questions and answers? This may be how you talk, but it can’t be how you write.” And she, knowing exactly what she was doing, replied, “I want it to sound like I’m talking, to tu iski English theek kar de, bas.” Of course, she was right, and it was precisely this intuitive understanding of where to pitch her voice that made her the communicator she was.
But it was not just intuition that guided her; it was the ease with which she related to people, across classes and communities, the fact that she used an idiom in which they spoke, to speak to them, that struck a chord, and it was the reason they sang along with her. Her songs became theirs.
It was the same with her aphorisms, the way she understood the power of their immediacy. Ek aur ek gyarah, her most brilliant coinage in my view, turned conventional arithmetic on its head, transforming the individual into the collective. An exponential increase in a startling recalculation.
Kamla broke the mould, and then she broke the silence. When she put her thumb and index finger in her mouth and cracked a whistle, that staple of all Roadside Romeos, a gasp went up among her spectators. In one stroke she had appropriated the gesture as well as punctured the male sense of entitlement. Audiences loved her for doing what they dared not do, and she loved them. She needed them. People were her inspiration, as well as her affirmation. She needed an audience to validate the relevance of what she was trying to communicate. She needed a public.
Not everyone was on her side. Her detractors remarked on her tendency to self-promotion, and on the fundamental contradiction between her life of privilege and affluence and that of those whose cause she espoused – the dispossessed and discriminated against. She denied neither. Her response was to place her considerable resources and her enormous accumulation of goodwill at the disposal of whoever needed it most. I hardly ever saw her turn away anyone who asked for her help.
Scrabble evenings – or afternoons – were guaranteed to see Kammo at her competitive best. “You may be better in English,” she would tell me, “par luck bhi koi cheez hoti hai. Tiles acche hone chahiye.” Luck is also a thing. You need to get good tiles. Yes, I’d reply, but you need a vocabulary, too.
“Why isn’t prison-y a word,” she demanded, “like a prison”, because she wanted to attach her “y” to it on the board in order to make a seven-letter word. Or she would put down a word like “dost” and say, “Isn’t it in the dictionary? It should be.” We cheated, or rather bent the rules, all the time. “Dekh,” she said, one day, “yeh jo vowels hain na, let’s decide that if we have three of them on the rack we can return two and keep one only.” Sounded like a good idea, who wants three “i”s or “o”s, so we did that.
Then she said, these blanks – they should circulate, “agar mere pas ya tere pas blank wala letter ho, then we should be able to replace it and use the blank for some other word.” That made sense, too. When the three of us – Kammo, her sister Guddi, and I – played together the Official Scrabble Words Dictionary became our bible, and the number of improbable words we made was truly astonishing. Kamla’s Travel Scrabble travelled with us wherever she and I went and we have played in airports, on trains and planes, and even on the road.
It was during one such game in June this year that she told me she had had a pain in her side for over two months.
It was with Kamla that I visited Pakistan for the first time, in 1987, and then many more times after that. With her that I first went to Dhaka and Colombo, and experienced the excitement of being South Asian, of acquiring an additional identity; a far more expansive identity that enabled me not only to forge very many new friendships and publish many more books by so many wonderful women from all three countries, but allowed me to transcend territorial boundaries and discover shared histories, at first hand.
When, in 1985 or thereabouts, I suggested to Kammo that we think about a cross-border oral history of women’s experience of the Partition of India, that we work together with women in Pakistan, Bangladesh and India on the question of religion as the basis of nationhood, she caught on immediately. What could be more South Asian, more feminist, than such a collaboration, and such a challenge?
Unfortunately, the Bangladesh and Pakistan components of that project did not materialise for a variety of good reasons, but our interviews with women in many towns of Haryana and Punjab –Karnal, Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Chandigarh, even Kota in Rajasthan – yielded an absolute treasure trove of first-hand accounts, which may not have been the case had Kammo not done the interviewing.
As with a crowd, her ability to connect, even at an individual level, totally disarmed the women we met. She thought nothing of walking into the kitchen with one of them and rolling chapatis with her, as she recounted her experience. Or of sitting cross-legged on the charpoy and pressing another’s legs as she spoke. After our book was written, I said, please read it, just to see that it’s okay, but she replied, “Mera kaam bolna aur bolne dena hai, likhna tera kaam hai. My work is to speak and to let people speak, writing is your work. I don’t need to see what you have written.”
As the years passed I began to write books more regularly, she wrote increasingly for children, and during the enforced immobility of the last two years, her online activity was positively hectic. “I’m on 37 WhatsApp groups,” she told me one day, “and every day I play Polygon with Guddi and Bharat Bhaisahib.” “That should improve your Scrabble skills,” I responded.
Gradually, our priorities changed, we disagreed and had our differences, some deep enough to have remained unresolved. She thought I was becoming distant from the movement, I thought she was stretching herself too thin, that One Billion Rising was a fairly meaningless gesture – that annoyed her considerably.
But in July, after her diagnosis was confirmed, she said to me, “Ritua, if I survive the chemo, take me with you to Goa, next time.”
Ritu Menon is the founder of Women Unlimited, a feminist publishing house.