One afternoon, a young girl arrived at Yashoda’s home. Yashoda herself was not an old-fashioned woman, but this girl was absolutely of the new type. At the very first sight of her, Yashoda felt both curious and attracted towards her.

The girl’s sari was made of khadi, but she wore it in an entirely new manner. The sleeves of her sweater ended just at the shoulder. She carried a large purse in her hand, such as European women carry.

After some brief, initial talk, the girl asked, “Are you a member of the Congress?”

Shaking her head Yashoda said, “He is a member.”

“Well, why don’t you too become a member of the Congress? Do men have a monopoly on all good actions? After all, educated women like yourself should also do something!” Saying this, the girl took out a receipt-book from her purse and with it two other books. Opening the receipt-book she said, “You must become a member of the Congress.”

Yashoda knew that many women worked in the Congress party; they went to marches and meetings, but she was not acquainted with them. Nor had she ever felt it necessary to make such acquaintances. Inwardly sympathetic towards them, she remained silent. She looked at the books lying in front of her – one was titled Women of the World and the other A Life of Captivity.

Yashoda said, “I find no respite from my household work.” The girl responded with some intensity: “If you remain imprisoned at home, how will you find respite? Apart from the kitchen and children, one should also have one’s own life!” Yashoda liked the girl’s words and her liveliness. Without further ado she gave four annas and took a receipt for membership in the Congress.

Seeing that she was quiet, the girl said, “Why do you remain totally enclosed at home in this way? You should meet others sometimes. Work among other women. Today is Monday...will you have some time on Friday? Please come to my home that day. You will meet some women...I will come at this time and take you.”

The prospect of going to other people’s homes is not as simple for women as it is for men. They are aware of considerable responsibility in this regard. At this invitation from an unfamiliar young girl, Yashoda looked at her intently. The softness and inexperience of youth was evident in her clear wheat-coloured and rather long face, but there was also an eagerness suggesting intimacy in her manner of speech and gesture.

Self-confidence gleamed in her large eyes. In her, one saw not the beauty that provokes torment but an attraction that abides in memory. Compared to men, women understand better where lack of shyness means fearlessness and where it becomes shamelessness. A man usually reasons, but a woman reaches her own conclusion by intuitive perception.

Yashoda did not feel the need to ask anything. The girl introduced herself on her own. “My name is Shailbala. My house is on Nisbat Road. I am studying for my MA. My father’s name – you might have heard of him – Lala Dhyanchandji. I want that we, women, should also do something.”

Pointing towards the two books, she asked, “Will you read these?” On Yashoda’s expressing assent by nodding her head, Shailbala gave her the books, gathered her bag and prepared to go, as though her task was over. And now, just like a working man, she should leave.

In that half hour, without having said anything significant verbally, Yashoda began to feel a sense of closeness with that young girl – as though she had found some old friend from her natal home whom she had been long awaiting. Taking Shailbala by the hand, Yashoda led her upstairs and with loving insistence invited her to eat something. Yashoda came down to the door to bid Shailbala farewell.

Just then Amarnath Babu returned home. Until Shailbala started her car and drove away, Yashoda kept looking at her fondly. When she had gone, Amarnath asked, “What brought her here?”

“It’s Shail,” answered Yashoda matter-of-factly, as though there was nothing new about Shailbala visiting her. Why didn’t her husband recognise her? Amarnath asked again, “Yes, but how do you know her?” Calmly arranging her aanchal on her head, Yashoda said, “She is very nice. Why don’t you come upstairs?” With that, Yashoda went upstairs.

Yashoda read both the books in solitude, and with great attentiveness. She did not mention them to her husband. It was not that she thought of hiding anything from him. She simply assumed that this was her own affair – just as in the daily routine of a woman’s life there are several matters that have no connection with the husband or with other men.

On reading these books, a new feeling began to rise in her mind. She experienced the desire and enthusiasm to do something, but there was no path for her. She had never spoken much. While sewing, knitting or doing housework, if she ever thought about anything, it had to do with the unexciting burden of the household.

Now her sensibility was different. Forgetting that burden, she now realised the attraction of movement and progress. Her vision was no longer limited to the narrow enclosure created by Amarnath Babu, Uday, the kitchen and the pantry. She began to see: beyond the four walls of the house, there is another world where Shail lives. There are so many important tasks in that world.

She waited impatiently for Shailbala. She was her only intimate friend who knew what occupied her. In her invisible life, in deep shadow was that youth – the one who had spent the night in the dark little room, had worn the servant’s clothes and then walked down the street, drumming on an empty canister.

On Friday when Shailbala seated her beside herself in the car, and driving the car herself, took her to her own home, Yashoda felt as though she were going to a new world, just as she had felt after her marriage when she departed for her husband’s home. At that time, because of the overwhelming intensity of the event and the occasion, her consciousness and awareness had been largely numbed; today, she was amply attentive. She was aware of a light thrill of joy. She was going towards a more complex world.

Even after reaching Shailbala’s house, her glance did not go towards the form and grandeur of the house. She was looking only at Shailbala’s unabashed agility. In the drawing room a young man was waiting. Taking both the books from Yashoda, Shailbala gave them to him. Then, leading him to a corner of the room, she said something to him in a low voice, and then addressing Yashoda, she asked her to follow her towards an inner door.

Crossing a veranda, she took her inside a room. Here another youth, sitting on an armchair, with several papers placed in front of him on a small tripod table, was quickly writing something. Hearing the sound of their steps, his pen paused; he looked intently towards the door, and taking out the cigarette from his mouth, he stood up and said, “Please come!” Pulling up the other armchair close, he invited Yashoda to sit.

There had never been an occasion for Yashoda to sit close to an unknown man, but she did not think of that now. She was watching in astonishment: was this not the same man! Yashoda could not recognise him, but she suspected it. The hair on his head was uncut and he had a light beard and moustache. He was entirely a Sahib – complete with suit, collar and necktie.

Not paying attention to Yashoda, the youth placed his hand on Shailbala’s shoulder and said, “Listen!” He led her out to the veranda, and returned within half a minute. This time, gathering the papers scattered on the table, he smiled and asked in a courteous tone, “How are you?”

Yashoda no longer had any doubt. Sighing in relief she asked in response: “There is no fear now, is there?”

“There is always fear. When you invite fear yourself, how can you complain? But yes, not like that night. That was not fear, that was gave me refuge and saved me,” the youth answered with a smile. Yashoda’s heart melted. The scene from that night awoke in her memory. She kept looking silently at the floor.

Dada Comrade

Excerpted with permission from Dada Comrade, Yashpal, translated from the Hindi by Simona Sawhney, Penguin Books India.