On March 12, 1930, Gandhi began his most celebrated march. A 386-kilometre trek from his ashram in Ahmedabad to the Arabian Sea. The plan was to scoop up a handful of salty sand and thus break the government’s monopoly on the production of salt. At first, 27-year-old Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was baffled by the very idea of the salt satyagraha. This concept occurred to her as rather “hazy”. How could a simple act of picking up a handful of salt spark a revolution against the British Raj?

“Is that all our Great Leader could devise?” she asked Jawaharlal Nehru. The 60-year-old Mahatma strode forward, walking stick in hand, accompanied by 78 carefully selected satyagrahis who were diverse in nearly all ways except for one glaring exception. They were all men. This rattled Kamaladevi even further. She was to learn that women were not allowed to participate in this satyagraha. “I had built up a whole edifice of hopes involving women in this great adventure”, she later recalled. “This was to be their breakthrough”.

A thorough feminist

Kamladevi rushed to Gujarat to speak with Gandhi directly. She caught up with him on 22 March between the small towns of Jambusar and Amod. Walking at his side, she challenged him to recognise that women could and should contribute to every facet of the struggle. She was not afraid to question his decisions. “The significance of a non-violent struggle,” she told Gandhi, “is that the weakest can take an equal part with the strongest and share in the triumph as you have yourself said”. Gandhi finally relented, and the women got going with the decisive Salt Satyagraha.

In light of her courageous efforts in championing women’s causes, one could consider Kamaladevi as a feminist today; however, this is a label she firmly rejected. Kamladevi consistently advocated virtually everything with which the term “feminism” is currently associated: independent women’s organisations, equal political rights, equal pay for equal work, reform in marriage, divorce and inheritance laws, even birth control and “sex freedom”. Yet the term “feminism” would remain anathema to her. She saw it as an essentially Western tradition, inappropriate to the conditions and challenges of the women of India and Asia at large. In this new and definitive biography of Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, which is also part of the Indian Lives Series edited by Ramchandra Guha, Nico Slate vividly delves into the multifaceted life of his subject with engaging and clear prose.

A writer and a thinker

Kamladevi’s main form of artistic expression was through writing. While often acknowledged primarily as a social reformer, she saw herself as both a writer and a thinker. Always carrying a typewriter with her on almost all her journeys, she would sit down writing in crowded third-class railway compartments, typing articles directly on the machine instead of first writing them by hand. “No matter how great the depression or tension”, she explained in her autobiography, “writing melts it away”. She deemed writing “the only profession I can lay claim to in the constant turmoil I keep going through”, and added, “Moments of deepest distress or depression are lightened when I start writing”.

Kamaladevi’s mother Girijabai got her married at the age of eleven to a boy a few years older than her. Child marriages were not atypical at the time but what unfolded after Kamaladevi’s wedding was rare. Just over a year later, her husband died. She was now a “child widow” – a derogative term. Her experiences as a child widow would be one of several major episodes in her life that Kamaladevi chose not to talk about publicly.

Kamaladevi later married Sarojini Naidu’s brother Harindranath in 1919. They had a son together and named him Rama. This decision of hers would cost heavily on her mental health later in her life. She explained that “…As if he could not stay in the same happy state of mind for long. Often it used to happen that now we are reciting poetry with laughter, but in the next moment absentmindedly he starts getting angry”. Despite her many attempts to salvage her marriage, Harindranath’s extramarital affairs and instability led her to pursue a divorce and ultimately end the marriage.

As for herself, she was determined to build a country in which no woman would need to fear her husband. She witnessed the multifaceted brutality of sexism and patriarchy and in the years to come, she would develop a keen understanding of the interconnected nature of gender-based discrimination, and link the struggles of Indian women to global movements against sexism, colonialism and class inequality.

Kamaladevi played a central role in the creation of many of India’s most impactful organisations; the All India Women’s Conference, the Congress Socialist Party, the Indian Cooperative Union, the Sangeet Natak Akademi, the All India Handicrafts Board, the Crafts Council of India, the India International Centre. Her belief in the indivisibility of freedom shaped her radical vision for what would come to be called the Third World or the Global South. She grounded both her nationalism and her transnationalism in grassroots social and political struggles against a range of oppressions. Her entire life was a continuous dialogue with either questions of justice or creativity. It was in the connection between justice and creativity, in the art of freedom that Kamaladevi made her most enduring contributions.

In this thoroughly written biography by Nico Slate, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay shines as a champion of women’s rights, ahead of her era. Throughout her extensive career, she stood shoulder to shoulder with stalwarts like Gandhi and Nehru, who encompassed freedom for each individual as well as collective growth and evolution.

Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay: The Art of Freedom, Nico Slate, HarperCollins India.