By MITRA PHUKAN
As we move around our daily chores, we remain engrossed in the moment. We don’t usually think of the past as we rush to meet deadlines, to catch a bus, or to whip the
saucepan off the fire before the milk boils over. We take the freedoms we enjoy today for granted. True, in our conservative, traditional society, there are still many restrictions on us all, men as well as women. It’s these that we grumble about and chafe against, even as we push the envelope, a teeny bit at a time, hoping that at least some of the restrictions and taboos will go away before our children grow up and are forced to deal with them, themselves.
For a moment, though, let’s remember those people, men and women, through whose work and sacrifices, we, the present generations, have got these freedoms. There is political freedom, of course, without which the very air that we breathe can become stifling. Those of us who are born after 1947 have no conception, we are told by our elders, of the kinds of repressions that hindered and held back people, the tyrannies, little and large, that made us a subjugated nation, the dominations that we, born free, cannot even begin to imagine.
And there is, in this context, Kanaklata, only seventeen when she was shot and killed for being the flag bearer of a procession of unarmed villagers, whose aim was to raise the national flag atop the local police station at Gohpur, in 1942. Undeterred by warnings that they would be fired upon if they continued, she led the procession, demanding that the British Quit India till her last breath.
There were also the repressions that had nothing to do with colonial domination. In a society that was deeply patriarchal, being born a woman in pre-Independence Assam was probably a double whammy. And yet, even at that time, there were spirited, strong minded people, men and women both, whose sense of justice and values could not tolerate the gender discriminations that they saw all around them. Instead of submitting meekly to them like the majority of women at the time, they pushed the boundaries of the “possible” and the “allowed”. Through the example of their own lives, and their works, through grit and great toil, they became symbols of what was possible, and what changes in society it was possible to bring about.
The lives of some of these women are so very unusual that one can only gasp with wonder at their achievements. These are humungous, even by today’s standards. But when we take into account the milieu and times in which they lived, the restrictions of the societies, the many taboos which bound and gagged, one can only wonder at their raw courage, and their convictions.
One such woman, who lived generations before her time, was Chandraprabha Saikiani, born in 1901, in Doisingori in rural Assam. In those days of extremely limited opportunities, hers was a battle to get even a basic education. And yet, through sheer dint of will power, perseverance and unbelievable hard work, she managed to gain an education that made her a teacher and a Headmistress. She studied in a boys’ school for a while, since there were no schools for girls in her area. An excellent student always, she was spotted by the School Inspector, who arranged for her to continue her education in the Nowgong Mission School. Even at that young age, she was alert to discrimination. At the age of 15, she protested fearlessly against a schoolmate’s being locked up in a dank room, for resisting religious conversion. At that tender age, she organized resistance, and persevered till the authorities relented.
In both her personal and public life, she was unconventional. An unwed mother, she refused the path of Victimhood, and chose that of Responsibility, instead. In a strongly patriarchal, traditional society, Chandraprabha did the unthinkable. She brought up her son as a single mother, for the “Gandharva” marriage between her and the child’s father was not acknowledged. One marvels at the young girl’s grit, her unflinching commitment to ignore social strictures. She rose above circumstances in the most impressive manner. And most marvellous of all, was the fact that the experience of being abandoned did not embitter her in any way. She never spoke ill of the man, never blamed him, though his name was public knowledge. She raised her son to be a responsible, caring, well adjusted citizen, who, in due course contributed to society in significant ways. She rose above her circumstances, to sublimate her emotions, her very life, into working for the downtrodden, men as well as women.
There must have been many others even at that time that had been in similar situations. There still are. It was Chandraprabha’s strength, her integrity, her compassion and single minded-focus which won the day in the end. That, and her honesty, which made her shun the path of hypocrisy in order to be “accepted” into a society which she anyway wished to change.
No doubt adversity had given her strength. Yet it was her own innate qualities that burnished her organizational capabilities, which she honed through hard work. In those days, Gandhiji’s call to free the land spoke equally to all, without considerations of caste, creed or gender. It was in this invigorating air that many oppressive customs of the patriarchal society could be questioned. Chandraprabha, though living in a remote area, had ideas and thoughts that were, truly, much ahead of her time. Instead of quiescently accepting such demeaning customs as “celebrating” the onset of a girl’s first period, she protested, and wrote against them.
One wonders, indeed, how this slip of a girl, who had seen practically nothing of the world beyond, could have such visionary ideas. Today, with the vast power of the Net at our fingertips, we take the exchange of ideas for granted. But in those days, even men in the semi-rural areas where she lived were hardly exposed to new thoughts. The old order was rigidly enforced. With the Freedom Movement, though, there came great change. Perhaps it was Gandhiji’s ideas which influenced her and gave her strength. Perhaps it was her proximity, as Headmistress of the Tezpur Girls’ ME School to stalwarts such as Omeo Kumar Das, Jyotiprasad Agarwala, and others, which exposed her to progressive ideas. But it is also true that without her own qualities of compassion and a strong sense of justice, she could not have taken up with such commitment the path that she did.
Her life was a seamless blend of the personal and the public. Her unique character shaped both. Fiery in the cause of equality and gender justice, she protested strongly against the regressive practice of having bamboo barricades separating the women’s enclosure from the men, at the Annual Conference of the Asom Sahitya Sabha in 1925. It was her impassioned plea which brought this down. At a time when women were rarely seen outside the four walls of the house, she spoke from public platforms against social evils such as the smoking of opium. And it wasn’t just gender injustice. Chandraprabha worked tirelessly against injustice against humans, in general. It was largely due to her efforts that the Hayagriva Madhav Temple at Hajo finally opened its doors to all.
Her great contribution to Assam was the work she did in establishing the Mahila Samiti, an organization which continues its work vibrantly till present times. It was inaugurated by Gandhiji himself during his visit to Tezpur in 1921. Dressed in khadi mekhela sador, she would cycle from village to village, in pursuit of the work. She was, at that time, known as the leader of the women’s movement in Assam, and was indefatigable in her zeal in establishing centres of the Assam Pradeshik Mahila Samitis at village and zilla levels.
And amazingly, as though all this was not enough, the lady was also a writer. Her poems are the outpourings of youth, and are intensely personal in nature. The beauty and emotive expression is often moving. But there is compassion, too, which comes to the fore in spite of despair.
You have forgotten
The marks of a thousand kisses on my cheeks
They are preserved in my heart inscribed in gold
Even though for the world outside, I have lost my share.
She wrote fiction, and novels, which embody her ideals and her intense sense of justice. Her protagonists, unlike the quiescent fictional women of the past, fight prejudices and social inequalities. In a foreshadowing of Indira Goswami’s Giribala, her widowed young heroine Devi demands to be served meat, which she then takes to the assembly of Brahmins, to eat in full view of their scandalized gaze. Later, her reasoned arguments persuade her father to arrange her remarriage. In another story, “Daibagyar Duhita”, issues such as widowhood, child marriage, unwed motherhood and social ostracization are dealt with. The blazing intensity and searing passion of these works are proof that it is a writer’s life which informs her writing, and gives it meaning and significance.
Chandraprabha Saikiani’s was a relentless battle. She fought, not just for her own generation, but for women of the future as well. It is because of people like her that we can take the freedoms we enjoy today, so casually. Towards the end of her life, her battles were recognized, and awards were showered on her. Even so, the hardships and sufferings she had undergone could not be wished away, after all.
Today, there are many within our communities who carry forward the torch. For our society continues to be plagued with ills. There is Birubala Rabha, for instance, whose fearless fight against the horror of witch hunting in our State amazes as well as inspires. Without caring for her own safety, with hardly any resources to her name, she has shown that it takes raw courage, and determination, nothing more, but nothing less either, to fight against the entrenched injustices of our times. There are others, doctors, journalists, social workers, who try their best to lighten the load of their sisters and brothers, often putting their own lives at jeopardy. And in the neighbouring State of Manipur, there is Irom Sharmila, who has spent fourteen years of her youth fasting, protesting against the draconian AFSPA law.
But the rest of us, are we worthy? What have we done, how have we, Chandraprabha’s daughters and granddaughters, utilized what she, and others like her, gained, so painfully, for us? On this day that celebrates women, it is a question that each one of the Sisterhood must answer, honestly, after searching the depths of her soul.