My initial months at TISS were full of discoveries of various sorts .. Ranging from the meaning of the word NGO that everyone was vehemently pronouncing in each discussion, debate, lectures to the projection of those 'chosen few souls' to impose how they are the ones who are going to bring in the revolution. Coming from a charity run disciplined hostel for rural pupils in pune, TISS hostel life appeared to me kind of anarchist. For few weeks, I was absolutely quite, not due to the fright or awe of this change but purely due to not knowing enough phrases in English and in modern social work professional terminology to throw in the conversations. I resorted to interactions with similar lost humble creatures who were largely termed as from SC ST background or from regional medium schools. The faculty members of TISS was another amusing lot for me which no where fitted into my concept (then) and the experience so far of various teachers in my life. Institutes' approach to teaching and being a post graduate student may have also contributed to this slightly disenchanted feeling but inspite of having very close relations with many faculty members , I still find it difficult to call them teachers!
Among this lot was a tall , well built lady wearing saree and somewhat serious look on her face. Popularly known as Chitale mam among the students , she was the designated faculty to teach case work, one of the key social work method subject . After few weeks, I was also told in that famous room no 4 amidst loud cheering , some sighs and some indifferent faces who had assembled to know their fieldwork placements, that she was my field work supervisor. Thus began our association and in that first year of placement, we often travelled together to Swadhar office in Chembur. I was at ease , as she spoke Marathi and discussions were held in jargon free terminology. I owe my learning about women's issues, movement and support services largely to my first year placement, discussions with Mam and her encouragement to see various initiatives in Mumbai and Maharashtra. She was part of founding initiatives of Stree Mukti Sanghatana and had first hand experiences of working with women requiring support in dealing with abusive relations and overall their empowerment. Her calm voice, patience listening and association with what is known as 'grass roots' helped me to distinguish from cacophonous radical feminist voices on the campus often borrowed from western academic books to the ground realities and initiatives to address them. The calmness in her personality was not as a result of omniscience in her field of work but often a reflection of her inadequacy - in knowledge, skills, information that led to her speaking slowly often stopping in between as she was lost for words or at times lost the track. Her age then was a factor too. But this inadequacy never turned into any complexes rather enabled joint thinking and finding solutions together. At times it was like she starting a sentence and after a pause, lost look on both our faces- we moved on completing it together or supporting each other to build on what was said. The humility was her strength and willingness to accept viewpoints of 20 year old novice made these at times boring sessions attractive to me.
There was another big pull that led me often to her room on the second floor of the academic building - books , Marathi books. She knew almost all books available in the Marathi section of the library with their isles, rack and Pin numbers. She searched and at times bought some books and magazines to read and share with me. This passion for sharing reading continued beyond TISS years . There are so many lived experiences that have been firmly set in my memories ranging from crying while reading Zadazadti ( well known Marathi novel on displacement issues) to giggling like two thirteen year olds reading translated version of Sheroshayari in Vikram Seth's suitable boy. In the second year , placement changed, I had not opted for any course that she was teaching but our interactions although reduced , continued with the same warmth.
My first job was with DFID project in Jalgaon that continued to bring me back to the campus for workshops, meetings etc. One such afternoon in between workshops, we met for Anna's Tea at TISS quadrangle. Disappointed with the experience at DFID project, I was explaining to her , how it was far from what I wanted to do. She told me about We Need YOu society, a small NGO by a group of socialists running education activities where she was a trustee. Next week, I was invited for the trust meeting and was offered a job. Navi Mumbai then was an emerging city and many TISS staff had bought properties in the subarbs of Navi Mumbai due to the proximity to the institute. We happened to find accommodation easily in one of the staff members flat in Airoli- few roads away from Mam's home.
Next three years, we not only worked together but partially lived together with my then husband being away on various project tours. Ours was an inter religious marriage and the doors of our families were closed to us. It did not matter to us then having that bravado of rebellion, gyan about life and bright dreamy eyes- looking back I have realised that I fared through those years of being in a relationship, setting up a home, managing work, home, pregnancy, childbirth so easily and happily because I had Mam and my other friends in my life. Others were friends but Mam played many roles- she was a maternal figure giving advice on relationship, family, food, child care , supporting me through many Harmonol phases - it all came so easy for her. She was a mentor at work, friend on many occasions - calling on a rainy evening to make and eat Bhaji together, going for a Marathi theatre or generally just come over why are you sleeping alone in your flat- lets watch some tele together. She has a maid Ratna who was the third person to join us in our giggles and foodie ventures. Mam was the one to arrange my baby shower(ओटीभरण ) and then reach within an hour with गरम वरण भात in the hospital after Manu's birth. Manu's first picture was taken by her and after the birth parents she was the one to hold Manu- the image of her talking to that tiny infant is engraved in my mind!
And then life happened , some upheavals in life that led us to change home, work taking me to different parts of Maharashtra. Sporadic meetings and telephone calls continued until one day when I reached her home, she opened the door and told me off - shaking in anger, her eyes full of tears - she told me- "I am not happy with what you have done and I do not know what to say to you. I do not wish to talk to you". Shocked but not surprised, I returned from the stairs - by then many people had reacted to the news of my divorce from absolutely 'ideal campus Hindu Muslim' marriage. With the profound sadness , I passed through that subarb for many years whenever in Mumbai , remembering fondly the time that we had spent together. Her reaction was raw but so was her previous expressions in happy times , without any filters, pretensions and having her own moral parameters!
Our contact was abruptly terminated but the connection remained and was reignited through facebook invite and message from her few years ago - followed by the first query about Manu and agreement to visit her when I was in Mumbai. It took few years for us to coordinate a visit as she spent most of her time in Uganda with her son's family. Four years ago, I went to see her , she opened the door and in that warm embrace everything was communicated- no questions asked, no explanations given just tears of missing each other for so many years . Ratna was there and my favourite steaming poha with accompnying garam masala chai-- giggles and laughs had to follow. We spent the whole afternoon, looking at her grandchildren's photos, talking about the changed navi mumbai, her work at TISS as Mahalakshmi Chair professor, working on two of her books and dynamics at the institute. She had grown old , her movements slower , speech was interrupted with constant cough but there was same enthusiam, same twinkle in her eye when she spoke about her work, the same innocence when she described about her grandson to my son who was with me , and same amusement when describing the politics in general and at TISS -- reflecting her guileless nature and naivety.
Wanting to stay over , I had to leave to catch up on my NRI -रात्र थोडी सोंगे फार -- visits. We promised to meet again during the next India visit and she reminded me again and again to come with Manu. This year, as soon as I booked the flight, I sent her message, there was no response . Knowing that she was not regular and at times not familiar with tehnical stuff, I decided to call her when in Mumbai. None of the calls responded, so I went to her home. The home was locked. I sent her message on Facebook again which was responded to after few weeks telling me that she was in Kampala . We chatted on FB , she inviting us to Kampala. On my birthday , I received further message and that was it...
Last week, woke up to the news of her passing away . My routine activities are on but feel that big loss within me that has led to so many tears , smiles, thinking about our relationship and wondering -- yes she has gone but part of her remains in me- the love, compassion, smiles, food, books discussions, theatre and movies that we shared together , her anger and our reunion has shaped me in so many ways, all this has become inseparable part of me -and that will always remain.
There are no words to capture the gratitude I feel for having met you and spend part of my life with you, Mam. Perhaps this line states some of the feelings --मुझमे जो कुछ अच्छा हैं , सब उसका हैं ....
अलविदा .....My dear teacher 11th January, 2017