October 26, 2002
Remembering Sudesh Vaid
Her death last year, from cancer, at the age of 61, was a deep political loss that left a personal void and even ended a life-world for many people. Each of us has our private and collective memories of Sudesh, and sorting through the years of friendship, political sharing, the large memories and the small memories, is not an exercise that can be easily undertaken or ever completed.
Neeraj Malik, Kumkum Sangari, Svati Joshi, Uma Chakravarti, Urvashi Butalia
Sudesh Vaid was a rare public intel-lectual who made a deliberate and conscious choice to occupy a modest place in life. In so doing Sudesh enriched and enhanced that space so hugely that her death last year, from cancer, at the age of 61, was a deep political loss that left a personal void and even ended a life-world for many people.
Despite her immense contribution to different social and political movements, and the recognition she received, despite a large following and international fame, Sudesh wore her laurels lightly, almost shrugging them off. She was surprised when people from all over the country wrote to her or came to see her when they learnt of her illness. If this innate and genuine humility prevented Sudesh from memorialising herself, it also made her much larger than herself. While attempting to put together this tribute to Sudesh, we, her friends (affectionately and collectively nicknamed 'murgis'), have found it immensely difficult to compress her rich and multilayered life, the shaping contribution she made to democratic movements and to each of our lives, into a few pages.
The space Sudesh occupied contained many overlapping worlds. The years Sudesh spent in the US working for a PhD degree in English literature were a formative time. These were the anti-Vietnam years, when campus after campus rang with political dissent and student demonstrations. The Marxism and the feminism that were to govern her life in the years to come were consolidated in this moment. After her return to India, she became a democratic rights activist and was one of the founding members of the People's Union of Democratic Rights (PUDR), an organisation that has worked vigorously for the preservation of the democratic rights of Indian peoples for over two decades. From the mid-1970s Sudesh was also a central and in some respects a pioneering figure in the women's movement. She was a key figure in the campaigns against dowry, rape, and sati as well as in the drafting of the new rape bill, and was also involved in debates on law and on sexuality. She was the first to bring the insights and demands of the democratic rights movement to feminism and vice versa, the first to forge practical, political and theoretical links between the two. The PUDR report on custodial rape, 'Inside the Family', was the first of its kind, and till today it remains an important landmark in the women's movement. Sudesh was the happiest when her perspective found its way into writing in the form of PUDR reports which, as a matter of principle, are accredited to the organisation and not to individuals.
Her work as a political activist was supplemented and supported by other academic and political writing (some in the pages of this journal), and ranged from a book on 18th century British fiction, an essay on the gendered concepts of evolution in 19th century England, a study of the genesis and ideology of the National Federation of Indian Women, an interview-based analysis of Partition violence, to editing a course on Women and Law for the Indira Gandhi International Open University. Sudesh carried her political understanding into every aspect of her work. In 1981 she co-organised the first national seminar on the relationship between women and culture in Indraprastha College. The proceedings later turned into a co-edited book (Women and Culture) published, fittingly, by the SNDT Women's University in Bombay. This venture in turn led to the commissioning of the essays for the pathbreaking book, Recasting Women, jointly edited with Kumkum Sangari. Recasting Women was a pioneering effort in more ways than one. In making a conscious decision to ask men to write on gender issues, the editors were making a political statement about the potentials of Indian feminism: it could be an inclusive rather than an exclusive political movement. Contrary to the then-prevalent positions of American radical feminists, Sudesh and Kumkum believed that women and men who worked rigorously in the 'mainstream' social sciences and humanities could be persuaded to use their knowledge in a different way. Nonetheless Recasting did not remain only an academic exercise, it was imagined as a text that would serve the needs of MA students and be used as teaching material. Later, their joint work on sati, provided equally new and important insights; it led to their being involved in the drafting of a legal case against the glorification of sati, while the essay itself was used not only by academics but also by activists and submitted as evidence in court. Both these pieces of work won Sudesh national and international acclaim.
Sudesh Vaid was also a dearly loved and admired (and no doubt sometimes feared) teacher and colleague. She taught for over 25 years at Indraprastha College for Women in Delhi University and her commitment to teaching was such that even during her illness she continued to meet her students for classes at home as long as she could do so. Neeraj remembers that it was Sudesh who initiated weekly seminars and joint teaching sessions in the honours courses and she was the one who took charge of the students of B and C streams whose levels of proficiency in English were low. Helping these students to overcome their difficulty with the language almost became a mission, and she was often seen beaming with joy when they passed their examinations. She organised special tea-parties for these students every year, drawing all friends into animated discussions of possible menus! Kumkum remembers Sudesh's role in introducing class and gender issues in the literature classroom, and her intense participation in setting up and running first the IP College Womenís Cell, and later the IP College Relief Committee comprising students and staff in 1984 who carried food and clothing to the relief camps for several months.
Each of us has our private and collective memories of Sudesh, and sorting through these years of friendship, political sharing, the large memories and the small memories, is not an exercise that can be easily undertaken or ever completed. Neeraj remembers the many campaigns in which they were together in college and outside of it. "Our lives were so intertwined that it is difficult for me to pinpoint a moment when Sudesh became part of my thinking", she says. ìIt seems to me that we have always been together in political work, with Sudesh leading and I followingî. For Kumkum, Sudesh was a dearly loved friend and comrade with whom she worked on a number of issues, organising seminars, travelling in Rajasthan, producing books and essays, typing through the summer, and rushing across the city in buses or autos late at night just to check out on an editorial change or a political formulation. Uma Chakravarti remembers her first meeting with Sudesh in the mid-sixties, and as they got to know each other, Uma heard many stories about Sudesh being an unconventional woman with a sense of fun and an unusual courage. On one occasion when Sudesh was looking for the house of a friend and could not find it, she persuaded a peanut seller to put her on his bicycle and take her to the place rather than simply point her in the right direction! Swati remembers meeting her in the seventies and being immediately enveloped in her warmth and hospitality. For Urvashi, Sudesh provided much-needed support in her research on Partition, and shared the burden of listening to the grief-laden and anguished stories of refugees.
Sudesh consciously chose to live a simple and uncluttered life. She was a rare person who encompassed much more than just an individual life. She built and sustained a whole web of relationships and wove them effortlessly into her daily life. Her home at Indraprastha College staff quarters, known as D-2, held together a crowd of feminists, democratic rights activists, students, teachers and other academics, all of whom came together in a practice that was not compartmentalised or segregated, so that each oneís work and thinking began to seep into, and enrich the other, singly and collectively. The political, academic, professional, domestic and personal intertwined and flowed together. It was a place where one could find political purpose, excitement, stimulation as well as warmth and care. Svati remembers it as being a home you could always go to and be confident of being welcomed. "Whenever there was a domestic problem or worry", she says, "one simply went to D-2 and collapsed. Sudesh would then take over and look after every single detail, from cooking your favourite food to making the bed."
Sudesh was, above all, a political person and valued both passionate argument and the complexity and labour of building a political perspective. For her the process of arriving at such an understanding was research, sharing, and a collective learning. She would spend weeks reading and researching areas relevant to either her teaching or her political work (and as such could range from Renaissance poetry to Freud to the illicit liquor trade in Himachal to the history of Punjab in a single year) in libraries and archives, yet once these were 'understood' she would seldom feel impelled to write and publish them. Rather in the time-honoured tradition of the oral intellectual, they would be shared, often around that familiar-to-all-friends dining table, over many cups of tea, canteen-samosas and smoke. We valued these, often heated and sometimes furiously embattled, discussions as much as Sudesh did, and some of us 'grew up' on them. Through and beyond these discussions, Sudesh managed to maintain an individual and caring relationship with each person, as well as a collective equation with overlapping groups made up of people with different preoccupations.
Every interaction, every discussion at D-2 grew out of an involvement, a practice where ideas were constantly being hammered out and tested repeatedly on an ever-changing ground, be it the teacherís movement or a PUDR fact-finding investigation on widowed Partition refugees eking out a meagre livelihood in Delhi. We, along with her other friends and political colleagues, respected and honoured Sudesh for the quality of her political understanding as well as the importance she gave to disseminating her learning, to the open sharing of both her doubts and her convictions. This profoundly democratic interaction involving an arduous process of argument, disagreement and persuasion, this constant questioning, this reluctance to settle into a formulaic politics, this willingness to start from scratch on each issue rather than rely on a banal accumulation of individual ëwisdomí or on an egotistical self-aggrandising sense of 'achievement', this unrelenting attempt to place the political issue above the tangle of personalities or the greed of professional investments, was perhaps related to a lived feminism as much as to an egalitarian and enquiring Marxism, and it marked her as unique. The more so since it was combined with a political grit that enabled her, and her colleagues in PUDR, to singlemindedly pursue a particular campaign or report. Sudesh carried this style of work, a style of total immersion, into all her involvements. Kumkum remembers that when they worked together on sati, she was untiring in following the trail of widow-immolations from one village in Rajasthan to the next. "Although she was older than me", says Kumkum, "she just never gave up and would be willing to go back to things again and again to clarify an idea or confirm a fact. For her there were no half measures, no giving up halfway."
Sudesh was a person of immense integrity. Fiercely honest, she did her best to minimise compromise and contradiction in her life. Her open criticism sometimes won her opponents but it also made her free from guile. She was, for example, deeply disappointed when a good friend of hers, a lawyer, defended two rapists in a case of custodial rape and she did not hesitate to tell him so. Her anger, however, quickly dissipated when the friend apologised and admitted to having made a mistake.
Indeed, for such a political person, Sudesh was never dismissive of emotion. She did not fear the vulnerability that came with making either her intellectual dilemmas or her personal needs transparent to those around her. The last years of her life were marked by the loss of dear ones and serious illnesses, the one following on the heels of the other. She was hit particularly hard by the death of her companion, C V Subbarao. She dealt with grief in paradoxical ways: completing a degree in law, and launching herself on 'projects' which comprised first collecting then giving away diverse objects ranging from Rajasthani quilts to plants to dupattas. Her genuine pleasure in sharing was not confined to knowledge and ideas but extended to all her possessions. Nothing was to be hoarded, the political practice and the personal life were linked in the deepest sense and at many levels. Her friends still treasure the blossoming plants, the dupattas, the kitchen gadgets, the remembered birthdays.
On her first encounter with cancer she won and maintained a certain poise and even said, startlingly, that she had 'domesticated' cancer for us. When the cancer struck a second time, Sudesh refused to go through another round of arduous chemotherapy. Bombarded with pleas from friends, she decided that if this was the love and caring that she could depend on in her life, she owed it to her extended 'family' and herself to fight the disease. Having once decided to do so, she addressed herself to this battle as she did to everything else, with gusto and determination. She raged against the injustice of this fate, but she also fought it valiantly till the last continuing to work for her beloved PUDR and the newly-set up Forum for Democracy in Delhi University. A few weeks before the end, she returned from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and said that she had "good news", the doctor had ruled out brain cancer and told her it was bone cancer - "At least", she told us, "my brain won't go".
Just as in life Sudesh had many families, so also in death. Her friends, comrades, colleagues, brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces came together to mourn her. Her relatives, in keeping with Sudeshís wishes, generously allowed PUDR and her other friends to perform the last rites, not with prayer and incense but with poems, songs, slogans and tributes. And fittingly, she was draped in red cloth and in purple cloth, and while her PUDR comrades held the bier aloft as she left her home in Indraprastha College for the last time, it was her old and young women friends and her niece who carried it to her final destination. In this we maintained the tradition that Sudesh herself had established: it was she who had taught us how to break the barriers and hierarchies of age, erase the line between precept and practice, and dissolve the borders between friendship and kinship. Sudesh, our friend, sister, colleague, comrade, mentor, guide, died as she had lived, with courage, dignity and grace.
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