Image and Narrative points contributed by Amrita Motwani, Bhopal, MP
IMP Research Intern : Yash R. Gupta, Flame University, Pune
Photographed in December of 1957, this is my mother Kaushalya Lakhani. She was adoringly known as Dadi Lakhani in the homes of Bhopal. Clad in gorgeous theatrical costume for a play, this portrait, one of the oldest in our family, is of a dynamic lady who had a lasting impact on hundreds of lives and destinies in Madhya Pradesh. The picture was taken by her husband, my father Vasudev Lakhani, an amateur yet ardent photographer.
Born in 1933, in Hyderabad, Sindh, (now in Pakistan) my mother was raised in a family of four sisters and three brothers. Her father (my grandfather) Hari Sundar Tharaney was a well-known social activist (education, economic and jail reforms), a political figure (Hyderabad’s political council) and a freedom fighter. Since the age of 11, she was encouraged by him to stand up for what is right, including participation in freedom marches against the British, chanting slogans in patriotic crowds. But freedom for our family came at the cost of their homeland.
Days after the announcement of India-Pakistan partition, violence in the subcontinent percolated across several regions, and Sindh was no exception. Homes were rapidly abandoned, and re-occupied by incoming migrants from new India. In September of 1947, my mother, Kaushalya, was only 14 years old when the situation at home came to a head. My grandmother pleaded with my grandfather for them to leave for India. But he instead felt that his duty lay in helping people fleeing from, and arriving into the newly formed Pakistan – and refused to leave. With her appeals cast aside, my grandmother made a bold choice – she was going to leave with or without him. The very next morning, with her kids in tow, she left her home and her husband for India. My grandfather promised to join them as soon as he could.
With the family now split in two, my grandmother and children travelled via trains that were stuffed with humans, and barely room to breathe. Skirmishes with passengers, theft and harassment were recurrent. One of the things my mother would often mourn the most was the loss of a silk scarf, a parting gift from a dear friend that was lost to thievery during the journey. She along with several other young girls and adult women were harassed by men on the train – incidents that she braved through in lieu of a new future.
After a few months, her father Hari Sundar reached India leaving their home in Hyderabad, now in a new country, to a Muslim family from old India. Reunited, the family decided to live in Ajmer in Rajasthan, and natural to their skills, purpose and experience established an institution called Sudhar Sabha – helping those affected by partition. The institution continues to be funded by our family and provides vocational education to people from all walks of life. Ajmer is where my mother’s quest for education blossomed. My mother who was for some time in care of her grandmother, insisted on being sent to school; but overwhelmed by the upheaval of partition her grandmother did not pay much heed to her requests, and my mother went on a hunger strike. That is until her uncle arrived to diffuse the situation promising her an education only if she ate. Fortunately for Kaushalya, her uncle kept his word.
My mother grew up to be an energetic, motivated woman and rather progressive for her time. After graduating from college she became a telephone switch board operator, and when time came to marry, she opted to choose her own partner. She met her husband, my father, Vasudev Lakhani, in the late 1950s, on a picnic. Vasudev was an assistant controller in a government-run printing press, and was also a photography hobbyist. At the picnic, he photographed my mother and after developing the prints himself, sent her a few along with a romantically inclined letter. Pleased and flattered with her beautiful photographs, my mother agreed with his attentions, and that led to a trail of intimate correspondence, and then to their marriage. Soon after their wedding, when my father got a better offer at another government run press, the couple moved to Madhya Pradesh. My parents were extremely supportive of each other, and made for a good team.
A year after her marriage, and with spare time on her hands, my restless mother decided to continue her education and graduated with a Masters in English at Hamidia College, Bhopal. During her studies, she served as an NCC officer, and also joined the college theatre group. In 1957, when an opportunity to participate in a play for the Fourth Inter-University Youth Festival (New Delhi) via Vikram University arrived, she was hesitant – considering the mores of her time. The play demanded that she not only travel across the country sans her husband, but as a lead female actor she also had to share scenes with other male actors. Nonetheless, it was too exciting an opportunity to let go and she chose to be a part of the adventure. It was at this performance while she was getting ready, that this photograph was taken by my father, who had arrived a day later to cheer her on. Quite ironically, the play was called ‘A Dumb Wife’.
In 1971, my parents adopted their only daughter, me, Amrita, from my father’s younger brother. Nine years later, in 1980, my father a high ranking official at the press was diagnosed with Jaundice, but continued to work through winter because he was responsible for the printing of extremely confidential ballot papers for the upcoming national elections in January of that year. Under stress his health fell apart, and only a month after the elections, he passed away. My mother held on to her new job in education, and began to raise me by herself. There were many who undermined her choices but my mother did what was necessary, straddling both a single parenthood and working in the educational sector.
Eventually her confidence and experience made her a principal at a government school, where she relentlessly evangelised for women’s education. At the age of 53, while considering a voluntary retirement, the Mayor of Bhopal, Thadaram Gyanchandani offered her a challenge to head and develop a girls’ school in Bairagarh, a suburb in Bhopal and my mother agreed. Her arrival however would cause a stir in the system and the locals were not ready for it. She would personally visit families and try to convince them to send their daughters to school. Education for many at the time was a rare undertaking, even for boys. Unfounded fears persisted – such as – ‘educated women would surpass men’, or ‘it would create a demand for ‘educated’ men’, an achievement they felt was hardly necessary. However, she managed to motivate several families to make new choices and many girls from her school grew up to become first generation engineers, bank officials, and doctors. And they all remember my mother’s powerful impact on their lives.
My mother’s ambition to build a great school was also met with sheer governmental apathy, and a lack of safe infrastructure. The school had no boundary walls, nor any halls, allowing groups of men to hang about in close proximity to the school. When complaints to authorities went ignored, my mother decided to take matters into her own hands. She approached an eminent man-of-religion in the Sindhi community, Sant Hirdaram Sahib. Normally, he would not meet women, but my mother’s passion for women’s welfare impressed him and he agreed to help – but on a condition – that if she was able to raise Rs. 20,000 by the end of the day, he would add Rs. Two lakhs to that fund. Thus, began a day-long adventure. She approached wealthy Sindhi families – two of whom were owners of movie theatres such as Lily Talkies and Raj Studios. My mother was not to be underestimated because bit by bit she was able to collect Rs. 18,000 by the last hour – two thousand short. Nonetheless, in awe of her resilience, Sant Hirdaram Sahib kept his word. He undertook the construction that helped elevate the school’s infrastructure, and my mother’s standing.
My mother had for years suffered from bouts of kidney issues but regardless of her illness, she remained a lady of ideal and firm work ethics; serving not only as a principal, but later also as the chairman of Shaheed Hemu Kalani Educational Society, as founder of Vidyasagar school in Bhopal, and as Deputy Director of Education in DPI. In 2010 my mother, Kaushalya Lakhani succumbed to organ failure, but her incredible life remains preserved in her autobiography, Meri Jeevan Yaatra: Madhur Yaadien.
Today, my daughter Anshika and I continue my mother’s legacy. Following Kaushalya Lakhani’s empowered and inspiring footsteps, I too serve as the Principal of Navnidh Hassomal Lakhani School and organise educational events for our local communities. I remember my daughter, Anshika, would often as a child hide in her Dadi’s blanket and say “Amma, maine aapki jagah le li ” (Grandmother, I have taken your place) – words that I know will turn into reality, as she has become the bearer of our family’s lineage of strong and exemplary women.
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