BELCHING CLOUDS of acrid smoke, the train for Patna puffs out of Gaya station at 5.05 pm, almost an hour late. A young Bengali couple in a second class compartment struggle to control their two excited small boys while the other passengers settle down to the pleasant ritual of introductions.
‘And what is your occupation?’ asks Mr Mishra, a retired civil servant.
‘I’m a school teacher. I teach History and Geography in a small town in South Australia,’ says Helen.
‘Achha, and how do you like our country?’
‘Well, that’s quite a question. I mean, it’s a huge country, and I’ve seen only a small part of it.’
‘Don’t worry, you can be quite frank,’ says Gangadevi, a sharp-featured woman with greying hair pulled back in a bun. ‘We have a saying that anything you say about India is true, and so is its opposite!’ she laughs, showing perfect white teeth.
‘Have you been to the villages much?’ asks Mr Mishra.
‘A fair amount,’ says Helen. ‘I’ve been teaching English at an oihram near Gaya for nearly a year, so I go to nearby villages from time to time. What about you? Do you live in a village?’
‘Oh no. I live in Patna.’
A screech of steel on steel cuts off conversation and the train shudders to an abrupt halt.
‘It’s all right,’ says Gangadevi. ‘Someone must have pulled the emergency cord. Probably their village is nearby and they want to get down here. So, they just pull the cord.’
As if confirmation were needed, the guard comes charging down the corridor, bellowing angrily in Hindi.
‘And what about you?’ asks Helen, turning to Gangadevi. ‘Do you live around here?’
No. I have just been doing some work in a few villages near Gaya.’
‘Is it relief work?’ asks Helen.
‘No, it is more organisational work.’
‘Achha, and what is it that you organise?’ asks Mr Mishra.
‘Well,’ says Gangadevi slowly, ‘I am a kind of friend or consultant of the village people. I help them organise themselves. We hold meetings where they discuss why they are poor and what to do ...‘ Noticing the suggestion of a frown on Mr Mishra’s face, she breaks oft’.
‘Please go on,’ says Helen quickly. ‘If you don’t mind, that is,’ she adds, turning to Mr Mishra, who waggles his head in agreement but looks increasingly doubtful.
‘Well you see,’ she pauses and looks out the window for a moment, ‘development is basically a matter of mobilising people, especially poor people. It means helping them get organised - in peasant movements, trade unions, women’s groups, co-operatives - whatever kind of organisation is needed…’
‘But do village people really want that?’ Helen cuts in. ‘From what I’ve seen so far, Indian villagers seem pretty much resigned to a life of poverty. There seems to be a tremendous amount of fatalism.’
‘True,’ the older woman replies, ‘people who are poor and powerless often find it difficult to imagine how they could ever change their lives, And they are so exploited ... by the landlords, the moneylenders, the government officials ... it’s hardly surprising that many become fatalistic. But once they realise their collective strength and get organised, the transformation is remarkable.’
‘How do you mean?
‘Well, they gain self-respect and confidence in themselves, and they start demanding their rights. I have seen it happen plenty of times, right here in Bihar … Of course a people’s organisation cannot be started from one day to the next. Often it is a slow process. But it always starts in the same way, with the people becoming aware of their power to achieve something together which they could never do on their own.
‘Chai, chai,’ calls a boy’s voice, and a grubby lad appears in the doorway, a battered metal teapot in one hand and a cane basket full of clay cups slung over one shoulder.
‘How about joining us in some tea?’ asks Helen, turning to Mr Mishra, who is glaring hard at the ceiling.
When I was sixteen I rebelled against the restrictions of my conservative family, left the so-called security of home and started a small printing press. A friend involved in a left’ wing political party later introduced me to Marxist literature, and of course the idea of class equality appealed very much to me. But it could not solve my more immediate problems as a woman. Exposure to the treacherous male world made me deeply conscious of woman s extreme vulnerability in our society. Talking with my left-wing friend, I hesitantly raised the question of forming a separate women’s group, but he dismissed the idea as bourgeois feminism. ‘Revolution,’ he insisted, ‘will solve your problems.’ I was very hurt, and that was the parting of our ways.
Along with other women, I have since helped to start a women’s group, the Mahila Mokti Manch, or ‘Forum for the Liberation of Women’, in Patna. We have done this because we realise that our individual weakness as women is due to our lack of collective strength.
The paths we have travelled to this realisation, however, are all different. Saroj, for example, is from an orthodox Brabmin family of very modest means. ‘I was doubly oppressed,’ she says, ‘I had to help mother with housework, attend college and in the evenings earn money by giving tuition to the neighbourhood children. But still my father lamented not having a grown-up son. The male members of the families where I worked made passes at me. Being poor as well as a woman, I was regarded as just a cheap commodity. I was burning with anger but felt helpless. I wanted to show the world my own worth and the power of women as a whole. The only way was through an independent women’s group.’
Manimala had a more political background. She was a leading activist in the non-violent ‘total revolution’ led by the veteran Gandhian Jaya Prakash Narayan in the 1970s. Her organisation, the Chatra Yuva Sangharsh Vahini, had high ideals about the equality of women. ‘Yet,’ she recalls, ‘male chauvinism was there too, but in a subtle, patronising form. To achieve genuine equality I felt we had to demonstrate our own abilities and power,’
‘We launched the Forum in January 1981 by contacting all the women in Patna we knew who were active in social, cultural, or political activities. On March 7, International Women’s Day, about 200 of us marched the streets of Patna to launch a week-long programme of meetings and cultural events on street corners and in colleges and slums throughout the city.’
The message has spread and new activists are still coming forward.
Kiran Verma, an 18-year-old undergraduate, recalls how she first overcame her inhibitions and spoke at a public meeting:
‘A few women came to our college and played a drama in which the tyranny of the dowry system was portrayed in a very impressive way. Then they asked us to speak about it. I got up, desperately wanting to say something, my legs trembling and my heart throbbing. One of the visiting women touched my shoulder lightly and I found myself speaking in front of all the other girls. When I finished my eyes were moist but I felt relieved, I do not know what I said, Perhaps I simply said that at last I had found my place. I realised I was no longer alone.’
When I asked Kunti, an illiterate street vendor and mother of three children living in a local slum, why she joined the Forum, she first hesitated and smiled. ‘Look, sister,’ she replied after a pause, ‘it is the only place where I am recognised as a human being and treated as an equal. I can share my joys and sorrows there, and draw comfort from our united strength. One day victory will be ours.
Kiran Shaheen is a journalist and community organiser in Patna.