“To describe my mother would be to write about a hurricane in its perfect power. Or the climbing, falling colors of a rainbow” —Maya Angelou
By Vibhuti Patel
My mother, Pravinaben Patel passed away on January 1 in Vadodara. She was 79.
She was a highly gifted and courageous lady with tremendous sense of humour and great will power. She was dignified, hardworking, compassionate, helpful person who found something good in every human being. Her life guided me to see a spark in every ‘ordinary’ human being that I met.
She assumed the role of renegade predecessor in our extended family due to her quest for independence and enchanted the younger generation with her free spirited adventures. She cultivated our interest in music, literature, art and craft, language learning, and most important, to respect all religions, cultures and lifestyles. She played major role in shaping my daughter’s sense of ethics.
She always stood by young couples ostracized by the community for their inter-caste and inter-religious ‘love marriage’ and came forward in providing moral and material support exhibiting great personal courage. Her demand for personal growth remained unfulfilled due to early marriage and motherhood, but she built so many people who aspired to achieve their dreams. She celebrated educational achievements of women.
My father had 18 transfers in Western, Northern, Eastern and North Eastern parts of India, burden of which she singularly shouldered. My mom had to manage her life by herself – my father was a civil engineer and had erratic and demanding work-schedule.
Response to sexual harassment
She would always confront anyone who made sexual innuendoes in the street, bus, train and in public places. She would loudly respond, “What is wrong with your hands? Why are they moving in a wrong direction?” Those days common way of sexual harassment of a woman walking or travelling unescorted by man was, “Want to come with me?” Without getting embarrassed she would look straight in the eyes of harasser and say, “Yes, I want to come with you along with my 3 children!!” And she would laugh loudly.
Unique bond with her Son-in-law
In 1977, I and Amar (Jesani) had court marriage (inter-religious) in Vadodara. She was extremely sensitive to my Muslim husband, who was looked at with suspicion by many of my relatives. She neutralized them by discussing his work for the toiling poor, workers and public health. She prevented violence by talking to all those who were instigating my young brother. Some highly educated uncles and aunties recommended conversion of my husband under Arya Samaj. My mother retorted, “How would you feel if you were robbed of your identity?” It is a different matter that both of us were atheist and would not indulge in religious conversion and our social life was robust with social movement community-activists from workers, women, tribal and Dalit movement.
When Amar was arrested as a convener of Textile Workers Solidarity Committee in Bombay, she lambasted me for not finding out in which police custody he was kept. I told her, “Hundreds of activists are arrested, he is not alone.” She said, “How can we sit at home? Let us begin our hunt from the nearest police station.” We both reached Dahisar police station. My mom started howling at the police officer and told him, “My son in law is a doctor, fighting for justice and workers’ rights for which he has been arrested. You should feel ashamed of your act that you are treating such a gentleman as a criminal. Now, find out for us, in which police lock up he and his comrades are.” The police officer made several phone calls and finally found out that Amar was in Jacob Circle police custody. Now, her agenda was to cook for Amar and his comrades. We rushed home, made Thepalas, muthia, sukhadi etc. Armed with food, we left home to meet Amar. Once we reached the police station, she gave a big lecture to the police officer on her son-in-law’s good work and lambasted them for taking away his spectacles. She demanded that we be allowed to give home cooked food to Amar and his comrades.
Support to Women’s groups
During National Conference on Perspective for Women’s Movement in India, 1980 and 1985, she cooked rice-based food-Pongal, masala rice, mixed vegetable rice for delegates from Southern states and brought at the conference venue with the help of my papa in huge vessels without anybody telling her to do so. Her logic was, “Women from rural areas of South India must be feeling home-sick and craving for rice.”
During 1980s, she would send food packets for women from rural and tribal areas who were in Mumbai to press for their demands such as employment guarantee, land rights, draconian forest laws, violence against women, and state support to single women.
Any activist who came to her home, tired, famished, hungry would not only get food and rest, but also care, nurturance and emotional solace from her. She knitted sweaters for several of my comrades in social movement. When they thank her for her selfless action, she would jocularly reply by quoting Gujarati proverb, “Educated like you prepare the balance-sheet while less educated like me stand by them with a lamp.”
She unconditionally supported Neeraben Desai, Sonal Shukla, Nimisha Desai and Trupti Shah. In Vadodara, she was a sympathizer of feminist organizations, Sahiyar and Olakh.
Always a giver
Pravinaben was known as ‘giver’. When my father had to go to site, she would give food for both, himself and his driver. During monsoon, postman came to her asking for umbrella, if their footwear gave way, my mom would give him chappals or shoes. Whenever, a poor woman in the vicinity delivered a baby, she would make baby’s clothes, quilt and go to meet her even without knowing her personally. She taught ‘juvenile delinquents’ at remand home to cook, embroider, write and read. In spite of being in an extremely hierarchical eco-system of public sector, she treated everybody equally in terms of hospitality-officers, administrative staff and support staff. She stood by them in their difficult moments. She proactively broke caste barriers in her daily life that was covertly resented by her high caste friends. At the time of illness among her friends, papa’s colleagues, neighbours and domestic help, she would regularly send food she had cooked.
At the time of any calamity (flood, femine, riots), her home would be the centre for collection of food, medicine and clothes. In her daily life, vegetable vendors, milk man, raddiwala, fruit seller, postman, gardener, rickshaw drivers and needy neighbours received timely support from my mom in terms of school fees, financial aid for medical treatment, textbooks, uniform and ration. All of them had access to her kitchen. They would take water, snacks, and chocolate-ice-cream and make tea from kitchen when she would be grounded due to arthritis or asthama. This was strongly resented by her neighbours as they felt that she was spoiling them. They would complain to me, “Your mom does not lock the door, anybody enters the house, and one day your parents will be murdered!” I would say, “Even when anybody comes home to murder them, my mom would say, first you eat and relax, then you can kill us!”
In my upwardly mobile clan, she was the only one who had meaningful relationships with relatives and friends who were poorer, who were ‘country folks’, who lacked ‘sophistication’.
During last five years, each time I visited her, I noticed so many things missing from the house. Whenever I would ask for an explanation for missing clothes, utensils, equipments for exercise, wheelchairs, walker, walking sticks, etc; instead, in a Sufiana style, she would question me, “Have we become poor?” I would say, “No”. And matter would end there. She was a friend in need to her neighbours, acquaintances and like true Vaishnav believed in secret donation.
Body donation: Don’t wait for anyone
In 2007, she had made up her mind to donate her body after her death to the medical college. She also convinced her peers for body-donation. I prepared the document for my mom, my papa and my aunt, gave original to the hospital and carbon copy was give to them. In last seven years, they kept their papers in the drawing room, showed them to their neighbours and close relatives with an instruction that in case of death, they must immediately inform the hospital so that cornea donation can be done within 2 hours and body donation should also happen as fast as possible so that someone’s life can be saved with organ transplant.
In November 2014, road was getting constructed in their society. Around 15 tribal families were working in cold weather. She gave them shelter in the basement of her house, allowed them to bathe, cook and relax in the premises. She inhaled lot of carbon monoxide as a result of cooking on firewood by the workers, developed pneumonia and after a month long hospitalization, passed away on 1st January 2015. All of us were with her.
She will live in the hearts of all those who knew her as an example who did great service to the community even in her death by donating her body and eyes. As per her wish, no rituals for 13 days were observed; instead my brother instituted a Gold Medal for University First student in MA in Economics at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.
Vibhuti Patel is active in the women’s movement in India since 1972. Currently she is teaching at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai