Devis like Durga, reformers like Savitri, and fighters like Jhansi ki Rani - Desi women have role models aplenty. (Image Credit: India Currents)

It is a brisk winter morning in Michigan. The powdery snow of past weeks has melted and mellow sunlight streams in through the window. Sitting down to write this piece for International Women’s Day, my desk is littered with so many things: a mug of coffee, books authored by me and others, student papers to grade, the pages of a new novel, a metal figurine of Devi Saraswati from a Nepali store nearby, some hummingbirds in stone and clay. And my mind is littered with memories, of the women role models whose journeys irrevocably shaped mine, of the songs we sang.

Our Devi worshiping family has had strong women in every generation. Women like my grandmother who fasted and prayed religiously to all the deities on her puja shelf, yet who, with her beloved husband’s support, also challenged prevailing customs like lighting her parents’ pyres herself rather than letting a distant male cousin perform the cremation last rites. Women like my mother who had careers, and who, like her mother and mother-in-law, married beyond caste, for love. Independent women of my generation who left the safety of the familiar to travel to new lands for education and work, often making bold choices in life.

My grandparents got married when my grandmother was only eighteen. My grandfather was an exceptionally caring husband, who held his wife’s hand and reminded her to take her medicines even on the day he was dying. That is perhaps why my grandmother found Savitri (a figure in vratha-kathas, who brings her husband Satyavan back from the dead) compelling, along with Devi Durga. Meanwhile, my mother was drawn to Maa Kali, and we to the allure and rebellion of Sri Radha. From Rani Jhansi and Razia Sultan, to Savitri Bai Phule, to everyday, unsung women heroes, there was never a dearth of inspiration. Or a dearth of song.

The Author’s Grandparents – Ranjit and Anuradha Gupta

Desis who come from humble beginnings remember the daily electricity outages, homes with no generators, or no homes at all, children doing their schoolwork by candlelight if not streetlight. Often we sat outside under the stars, relatives and neighbors, singing songs of hope into the dark, dark night. My grandmother taught me ragas and also rabindrasangeet, songs like nuton juger bhore, whose powerful line “jagbe totoi shakti jotoi hanbe tore maana” – the greater the challenges, the more grows your shakti, (female) power – lives inside me forever, like light, like fire.

So many women, so many songs. With my parents’ move from a modest neighborhood in Kolkata to a small town on the outskirts of New Delhi, Bengali songs were replaced by Hindi. I am still inspired by my high school principal –  a powerful, graceful woman named Dorothy Tressler who nurtured talent without prejudice. I realize now that many of my favorite teachers’ names were also synonyms of female power and victory, like Vijaya, and their deeds were just as inspirational. Our music teacher taught us more than just classical music; she taught us dedication and perseverance. Her name was Vasundhara, meaning the earth, and to us she seemed just that, in her verdant green saris and flowers in her hair.

But it was not just the high culture of classical music, or regional culture of rabindrasangeet, or folk traditions like Baul that we turned to for comfort. There was also the foot-tapping music of Bollywood. Ruk jaana nahi tu kahin haarke’ and ‘Hai agar dushman zamana, ghum nahin were my favorites from the 70s, that decade before I was born. Many books on feminism later, nothing seems to sum up women’s indomitable spirit as succinctly as Zeenat Aman’s musical line from Hum Kisise Kum Nahin: ‘husn waale hi nahi hum, dil bhi rakhte hain jigar bhi’ (we women are not just objects of beauty; we have hearts and courage.)

That courage would also be needed, in coming to terms with the world real women navigated every day – balancing their everyday wins and strides at work and home with issues like rape, abuse, and sexual harassment. (Even today, for women all over the world, going to college or work can entail everything from ignoring cat-calls to fending off groping hands.) Where domestic violence occurred behind closed doors in some “respectable” homes. Where beautiful textual and oral traditions, as well as lived experiences of independent women, throughout history notwithstanding, marriage could still be seen as so necessary to a woman’s identity even in “progressive” circles that privileged women felt socially constrained to remain married to, or to defend, high-profile serial sexual predators even while single women leading fulfilled lives were targeted. So more songs were added to the list of favorites, such as ‘Na katoongi, na jaloongi, na mitoongi, na maroongi/ main thi, main hoon, main rahoongi.’ (I will not be burned, erased, dead/ I was, I am, and will remain.)

In the years that followed, there would be a growing realization that these challenges were in no way limited only to our community but were instead a part of a worldwide struggle for justice, with the most marginalized women often bearing the biggest burdens everywhere. At an inter-school debate on women’s leadership, that I won as a teenager, the chief guest was the then-Chairperson of India’s National Commission of Women, Dr. Mohini Giri, who lovingly encouraged me to continue working on issues of gender equality. And that is how life would turn out, as I moved to the US and started working in academia. Here in the US too, there were legions of inspirational women – not just the famous Indian-American names such as our Vice President Kamala Harris,  businesswoman Indra Nooyi and writer Jhumpa Lahiri, but thousands of entrepreneurs, scholars, engineers, educators, artists, and others who make up the warp and weft of America.

A decade and a half later, I reconnected serendipitously with Dr. Giri on social media, and in her, I could see my grandmother, who never identified as a feminist but did not hesitate to tackle many barriers. And I could see a glimpse of myself again as a schoolgirl, passionate about her ideals but who was yet to learn about the complexities of the real world, the politics of academia, and that one’s strongest allies could sometimes also be the unlikeliest ones. Today, I remember these and other women who work towards a world where diversity and difference are valued and celebrated. Happy Women’s Day!

Debotri Dhar currently teaches Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. She has authored the novel ‘The Courtesans of Karim Street’; short stories such as ‘A Flute Called Radha‘; a short story collection Postcards from Oxford: Stories of Women and Travel; and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters. She has also edited a collection of essays Love is Not a Word: The Culture and Politics of Desire; and academic volumes such as Education and Gender; and The Best Asian Short Stories. Dr. Dhar is the founder of the Hummingbird Global Writers’ Circle.


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