When the late Vinod Mehta launched the weekly newspaper, Sunday Observer, he was often asked who his target reader was. “The man from Matunga,” he said, explaining later that he wanted to reach out to readers beyond SoBo, as South Bombay is now known. Mehta would not have meant to exclude women, but the reader he sought out to reach was the so-called common man who was intelligent and curious, well-read and knowledgeable, who watched cricket on the maidans and experimental plays at Chhabildas School in Dadar, and was decent, tolerant, progressive, and not swayed by rhetoricians.

This was the city’s original middle class, the category now usurped by marketing managers who see that class only in its economic potential, to whom they want to hawk consumer goods, real estate, and other aspirations. The “man from Matunga” was part of the “real” Mumbai, beyond Haji Ali, and not part of an undifferentiated mass; the cosmopolitan virtues that the Cuffe Parade and Malabar Hill class believed it alone possessed, were spread far more widely and found in greater abundance in the parts of the city few in the wealthy parts could recognise.

To those fuzzy and warm liberal values add fierce commitment towards equality, genuine compassion for those denied justice, and firm conviction to change the world, and you got a formidable woman who lived in that area: Pushpa Bhave, the cultural critic and social activist who died last weekend at 81.

Pushpa atya

Her passing marks the end of an era, of a particular ethos. Tributes are pouring in remembering her indefatigable work fighting for the ones who did not have much and always got less. Several tributes have mentioned how she was called tai, an affectionate term for an older woman in Marathi, an aunt. Tai she was to many, understandably, but for me, she was Pushpa atya, an aunt in real life. My late wife Karuna Sirkar was her niece. Karuna was an engineer who studied at VJTI and later at IIT in Powai, and during those VJTI years in particular, she spent a considerable amount of time between classes and after school at the home of her father’s sister, Pushpa atya.

They were close to each other, and it was my fortune to have come to know her not only by her remarkable public work, her scholarship in literature, and her acute understanding of society, but as a warm and affectionate friend in private who discussed cricket, curry, culture, and communalism with profound knowledge and wit.

With steely determination and steadfast devotion, she spoke out against injustice, campaigned against inequality, and outraged over unfairness. Shunning religious fundamentalism, she spoke out for dissidents taking on orthodoxy in politics or religion.

From a young age she was exposed to progressive thinkers and activists in Maharashtra, her home always a hub of conversations, with books sprawling in her rooms. Like all bibliophiles, she knew exactly where each book was.

In her teens she joined the struggles that led to creation of Maharashtra state and for the liberation of Goa from the Portuguese. She understood intersectionality before the word became fashionable, focusing on the rights of Dalit women. She taught literature at Ramnarain Ruia College, barely a few minutes’ walk from her home on a quiet tree-lined road (at the other end of which cricketer Sunil Gavaskar grew up) in Dadar.

Even as she continued to teach (she retired in the late 1990s), she immersed herself in progressive causes: to rename Marathwada University after Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar; to support the late Narendra Dabholkar and the fight against charlatans and blind faith; to oppose the devadasi system and sexual exploitation; educate Dalit schoolgirls about literature and about their rights; to challenge, with the late Kumud Mehta and others, the censorship of Vijay Tendulkar’s plays like Sakharam Binder and Ghashiram Kotwal; to promote experimental theatre in Maharashtra; to join citizens’ delegations visiting Pakistan to establish people-to-people contact; to organise bidi workers in Nippani so that they received fairer terms; to print and distribute anti-government literature during the Emergency; and to live a life in courage, without fear.

Fighting power

If the college where she taught was a few minutes away in one direction, about 20 minutes away by foot in the other direction was the Sena Bhavan. She lived in the heart of the Shiv Sena territory, and yet she stood up to and stared back at Bal Thackeray during the time when the city shivered each time Thackeray roared.

Her quarrel was with those who had the power and misused it, which meant, in effect, almost all governments. The politics she espoused rarely won elections, but that did not matter. She was a socialist but never stood for elections, although veteran socialist leaders like Pramila and Madhu Dandavate, Sadanand Varde, and others were friends of hers. (I met Dandavate at their home).

When Indira Gandhi was to visit Bombay during the Emergency, the police had her under house arrest. During the Emergency, unknown to the authorities, she would get literature critical of the government printed at a press and leave it surreptitiously in libraries and even at a police station. I remember seeing some of the material which she had kept carefully in her home. Socialist leaders Pannalal Surana and Mrinal Gore lived under cover in her home during the Emergency for some time.

She would hold meetings at home with other women activists, and ask her husband Ananta to leave and lock the door, so that nobody would know the revolution being plotted inside. Ananta has written charming books for children, his face familiar to people in Bombay as one of the readers of batamya, or news in Marathi, on Doordarshan from its earliest days in Mumbai. I met him before I met Pushpa atya, and much before I met Karuna; he and I shared the make-up room at the TV Centre in Worli in the late 1970s and early 1980s; he would often be in the chair next to mine, getting ready before facing the camera: after batamya would come Santakukdi, the Gujarati programme for children that I hosted in television’s black-and-white days.

I first meet Pushpa atya when I was a student campaigner for Janata Party when the post-Emergency elections were announced, not knowing then that in less than a decade we would be family.

Bhave was usually in an off-white sari, using public transport, reading a book or a newspaper, until she got off the bus or train, and reached the hall or maidan where she was to speak. And she would speak rationally, logically, cogently, and passionately, setting out in clear terms the case for fairness, justice, and equality.

When I saw Anand Patwardhan’s film, Jai Bhim Comrade in Delhi a few years ago, I was delighted to see her in the film, addressing a gathering. On my way to my friends’ home after the film, I called her (she was at her home in Mumbai) and said, “I didn’t know you were also movie star.” She immediately guessed what it was about and said, “Chal re, gap bas” (Enough prattling) and added, “You must have seen Anand’s film. I hope you are going to write about it and tell others to see it.” (I did write an essay for the Caravan.)

She genuinely disregarded fear. Taking on Thackeray in those days took guts, and guts she had in plenty. When others asked her if she wasn’t worried, she would laugh with some disdain. “They will do what they will do; I have to do what I must do,” she often said. She was part of many battles, but the one she is most known for was taking on the Shiv Sena in the mid-1990s over the inexplicable death of Ramesh Kini.

At that time, the Shiv Sena was in power in Maharashtra in an alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party. The Sena wanted to expand its reach beyond Mumbai; the BJP saw an opportunistic alliance with a party with street strength in India’s richest city. Economic reforms was transforming the country. The middle class ceased to mean much in a sociological sense and began to take an economic dimension. Old textile mills, mothballed since Datta Samant’s strike of early 1980s, offered prime real estate to be turned into malls; old residential colonies of the kind the Bhaves lived in lured builders who dreamt of high rise apartments and profits.

Many residential colonies were torn apart between those who wanted to continue living as they did, and those who wanted to capitalise on their asset. Amrita Mahale’s 2018 novel, Milk Teeth vividly captures the inner ferment simmering below the outward calm.

Asking questions

Bhave was stunned and livid when Kini, who lived in her neighbourhood and had been her mother’s student, was found dead in a cinema auditorium in Pune on a day of heavy rains. His body was brought back to the city, and another postmortem was conducted which revealed that Kini’s brain was missing.

Bhave went with Mrinal Gore to meet Kini’s widow Sheela, who sought her help to find out what had really happened to her husband. Bhave began asking questions, seeking answers and justice, even as many warned her not to pursue the case. But she ignored the well-meaning friends and persisted. She received threatening phone calls, but she remained unrelenting.

On another occasion, angry Shiv Sena activists turned up at her home to challenge her. They had come prepared with black colour to smear her, which she found out much later, but she patiently argued with them and they went back, like truant students taught life lessons

The case dragged on, railroading Raj Thackeray’s career within the Shiv Sena (although the Central Bureau of Investigation did not pursue the case against him) and Kini’s landlord too was acquitted later. But as Arun Shourie wrote once (though she wouldn’t necessarily approve of me citing him in defending her), there are some causes worth failing for.

She was aware that failures were temporary; like Martin Luther King, she believed that the arc of moral universe is long but bends towards justice; she disagreed with Gandhi on many issues, but would agree with him when he said that “when I despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they can seem invincible, but in the end, they always fall. Think of it, always.”

She was right; it is for us, the ones she left behind, to bend the arc of moral universe towards justice. Pushpa atya, we shall overcome some day.

Salil Tripathi is the author of The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy.