by Mehru Jaffer
What does 80 year old Prakashi Tomar from village Johar have in common with writer Begum Masroor Jahan of Lucknow, and historian Rana Safvi with 93 year old widow Manu Ghosh?
First and foremost all these gorgeous women are from different parts of Uttar Pradesh (UP). They met in Lucknow recently as winners of this year’s Hindustan Times Woman Award.
In fact over a hundred women from around UP were nominated for the same award in nine different categories including authors and poets, contributors to women rights and dignity, animal care, innovative contribution to society, and for crusading for a more green and clean environment.
The octogenarian Begum Masroor Jahan was celebrated for having torn through all patriarchal attempts to imprison women like her within thechador (the veil) and chaardiwaari (the wall). The Begum wrote her first novel in Urdu in 1962. She has been a best seller since 1970 and the numerous novels (65) and short stories (more than 500) written by her have earned her the title of Lucknow’s Barbara Cartland, the English author of romance novels who was one of the most prolific and commercially successful writers worldwide in the 20th century.
Manu Ghosh, 93 came from Vrindavan to receive her award in the midst of thunderous applause for having inspired widows to live life the way it should be lived. Till recently Manu was one of thousands of widows in Vrindavan with shaved head, white clothes and spend all her time praying for release from the suffering of birth and re birth.
She too was marginalised like thousands of widows some of whom are forced to beg on the streets of the holy city of Vrindavan where Lord Krishna spent his childhood. Another name for Vrindavan is the City of Widows where widows from different parts of the country huddle together after the death of their respective husband to become devotees of Lord Krishna. Shunned by society the widows live in extreme poverty. After death, a widow is not cremated here but the corpse carved into pieces, filled into a bag and dumped into the river.
This is till Sulabh, the country’s largest NGO intervened. In 2012 Sulabh started its work amongst the widows by distributing Rs 1000 to them in Vrindavan. After a pathbreaking judgement by the Supreme Court to help widows to live a life of dignity, Manu emerged out of decades of isolation to participate in festivals like Holi, Diwali and Rakhi. She welcomed Sulabh volunteers in the midst of widows who learnt tailoring and to make marketable goods like incense sticks.
India is home to crores of widows, who are about 4.6 percent of the country’s total population. While men are permitted to remarry after the death of the wife, some communities forbid widows, even the very young ones to lead normal lives. In these communities, a widow is considered a bad omen. She has suffered centuries of humiliation and is forbidden even to smile or to laugh. But with the help of Sulabh, Manu took the lead in breaking down prejudices and to help many younger lives to realise the joy of being alive.
In another part of UP, a young village girl was determined to become a professional shooter. Seema Tomar decided to take up the gun in 2004 but she was forbidden to practice shooting by village elders. Then her mother stepped forward to set a glowing example of walking the talk.
Prakashi Tomar was about 60 years old at that time. When she realised her daughter’s passion for shooting, she decided to learn to shoot herself. Watching the mother daughter duo practice daily their sport with gun in hand eventually silenced the wagging tongues of neighbours. Now Prakashi is more than 80 years old and is the pride of her village. Daughter Seema has won numerous medals and awards and is a Commonwealth Games participant. She is famous worldwide as a double trap shooter. Both Prakashi and Seema have emerged as role models in the sprawling heartland of the largest populated province in the country where a majority of women continue to be discouraged to follow their heart.
Then there is Rana Safvi who is visible everywhere today. She is a prolific writer and participant in almost every television debate on issues that are of concern to Muslim women in particular. She is the queen of social media, being a top one percent social media influencer today with more than 11000 followers on Twitter alone.
However till recently Rana was just a housewife. It is her deep love for Urdu verse thatmade her take to social media. Overwhelmed at the response she received, Rana decided to brush up her Urdu further and to make a permanent home in Delhi around 2012 after having lived in different parts of the world with her professional husband. Since then she has published three books and continues to write and lead walks through the historic lanes and by lanes of Delhi. Her talks focus mainly on all the advantages of living together despite the different religion and social background of Indians. Her undying love for the syncretic culture and heritage of the Indian sub continent, won her the Chishti Harmony Award in 2016.
Rana’s latest book is a translation of Zahir Dehlvi’s famous memoir Dastan-e-Ghadar which is a rare eye witness account of the 1857 revolt against the British by Indians. Rana was attracted to this work of translation after she read that Indian society in the 19th century was a supreme example of communal harmony. For example after Bahadur Shah Zafar II, the last Mughal ruler of Delhi was exiled by the British in 1858, Hindus and Muslims alike felt a deep sense of loss.
Writes Zahir Dehlvi in Dastan-e-Ghadar:
Once, some Hindus, along with officers of the British government, hatched a plot to throw all butchers slaughtering cows out of the city. When the butchers realized that they had no choice but to obey the order they got together with their wives, children and possessions, and camped on the riverbank under the jharokha, or window of the king.
From there, they appealed to the king, asking him where should they go and how can they leave the city? The Emperor loved his subjects and he heard their petition. Then he ordered that his tent be pitched alongside theirs on the riverbank.
“Whatever is the state of my subjects is my state,” the Emperor said.
When the British Resident heard the news, he came running to the Emperor and respectfully asked what his majesty was doing? As all the people of the city would soon collect around him on the riverbank.
The Emperor replied that he always wanted to be where his subjects were.
The elderly Emperor had treated his subjects like his children and never wanted to be separated from them. The Emperor’s argument was can flesh ever be separated from the fingernail?
If butchers are asked to leave the city today, tomorrow it will be some other community till the entire city was emptied out by the British. If the intention of the British government is to empty the city, then the Emperor should be told that in so many words so that he can take his people and live elsewhere as the city of Shahjahanabad was taken over by the British.
On hearing this from the Emperor, the Resident was taken aback.
“Huzoor, don’t even think of such an action. I will redress the complaints of these people immediately and settle them in the city. Huzoor, please have your camp removed from here,” the Resident pleaded and also gave orders for the butchers to return to their home and to their trade.
It was only after the butchers were first settled back into the city that the tent of the Emperor was also removed from the banks of the River Yamuna that day.