“She wasn’t boring you know…most people today are boring. But she…. no, she wasn’t boring.”
Dr. Mithu Alur speaks in that lilting manner that some Bengalis possess; her words are spoken with a slightly musical intonation. It has been a few weeks since Dr. Lotika Sarkar’s demise and I am hoping that Dr. Alur, Sarka’s niece can tell me more about this great lady. Her description of Lotika Sarkar seems a bit odd; it is certainly unexpected. Yet, later on I would realize that it was an apt description, an honest one. Every once in a while, Dr. Alur glances towards the window and becomes silent, her eyes filling up with memories. At those times, all you can hear is the quiet hum of the air conditioner. Suddenly, Dr. Alur breaks away from the memories and looks at me once more, partly telling me and partly telling herself, “No, she wasn’t boring.”
Born in 1923, Sarkar was raised in one of the leading aristocratic families of West Bengal. Her father, Sir Dhiren Mitra, was one of the most reputable lawyers in the country. Growing up, Lotika Sarkar must have had access to all the privileges of the wealthy and yet, her upbringing did not give her a false sense of entitlement. As Usha Ramanathan writes, Sarkar’s personality was characterized by the “unacceptance of nonsense, and a deep sense of fairness. No pre-judgment, no prejudice.” Sarkar went on to study at Cambridge, becoming the first woman to complete a Ph.D. from Cambridge. It would be one of many “firsts”.
It was in the 1960’s that Sarkar married her life-long partner, journalist Dr. Chanchal, the two settling down in Delhi’s Hauz Khas area. Sarkar was the first woman lecturer in the Faculty of Law, Delhi University. At the Faculty of Law (and later, the Indian Law Institute), Sarkar would take courses in criminal law.
Sarkar created quite a sensation as a lecturer.“She was a total non-conformist,” remembers Professor Archana Parashar, “yet [she] had this aura of authority and propriety around her.” Parashar, currently teaching at Macquarie Law School, first met Sarkar during her undergraduate days. She pursued an LL.M. purely because she wanted to study under Sarkar, an influence that was to continue when Parashar was working on her Ph.D. “I can unhesitatingly say that she was my mentor.” Prof. Amita Dandha, currently at NALSAR University, echoes similar thoughts. She says, “[To] meet with a woman professor who dialogued on vital questions of crime causation not by standing behind the lectern but by sitting on the table was more liberating than I then realized.”
And it was not only because Sarkar was one of the first to discuss the offence of rape in class, but also the manner in which she taught. Prof Ved Kumari who took Sarkar’s course on Juvenile Delinquency writes, “With her cigarette in hand, legs folded in her chair, having black coffee,” Professor Sarkar would discuss, “the humanity of law relating to children, offering tea to all the students.” It is so easy to imagine a prim and proper Lotika Sarkar, cigarette dangling from her hands, asking questions in clipped tones, really wanting to know what you thought. “Her big eyes would almost see through you,” writes Kumari, “[she was] very polite but firm.”
And it was not only Sarkar’s students who found out how “firm” Sarkar could be. Parashar remembers the time when some classes were scheduled to be held at ten in the night. “I told [Prof. Sakar”] that I would have to withdraw from the course as it was simply unsafe to travel by public transport after 10 pm. She stormed into the then Dean’s office and told that if he is scheduling classes at such times, he will have to personally go and drop every woman student to her home. Needless to say, the timetable was quickly modified.”
“We were Ma’ams bacchas”, smiles Prof. Dhanda, “and just like children, we would all vie for her attention.” Prof. Dhanda, Kumari, and Parashar were just three of Sarkar’s students who would later on work under and with Professor Sarkar. The relation would change from that of a teacher and a student, to that of a colleague, a relationship based on mutual trust, respect and openness. In the years that followed, Lotika Sarkar co-founded the Indian Association for Women Studies, the Centre for Women’s Development Studies, her work constituting some of the most influential writings in the field of women’s studies.
The Report of the Committee on the Status of Women, was probably one of the most exhaustive pieces of research conducted in the country. Constituted in 1971, the Committee was to study a host of topics including the changing “status of women as housewives and mothers” in Indian society. It is unclear what the government of India expected from the Committee; what ˆ clear is that the Committee took its mandate extremely seriously. Amongst other things, the Report included opinions on education and the problems of having different curricula on the basis of sex, the participation of women in the political process, and even the influence of popular media on women. Four decades down, it remains a remarkable and relevant document.
Sarkar would also receive much admiration after co-authoring an open-letter to the then Chief Justice of India, following the Supreme Court’s judgment in the Mathura gangrape. And even then, despite all the media attention, Sarkar remained endearingly down-to-earth. Remembers activist, lawyer and founder of Majlis law, Flavia Agnes. “When I met her just after the open letter in the Mathura rape case”, says Agnes, “She took my elbow and told me, ‘You know, I merely signed the letter without knowing any better. And now all these people are asking me to speak about rape. What do I tell them?’” Agnes breaks into a broad smile before continuing, “And I actually believed her!”
In the decades that followed, Sarkar would become one of the most popular figures in the feminist movement; her writings shaping an entire generation of women’s studies, deeply affecting public perception, and leading to a series of concrete changes in existing legislations. This paper, on the changing landscape of the women’s movement is just one example of the kind of literature and research that Sarkar produced. Yet, even with all the adulation, the research, and the writing, there was so much more to this woman. Much more.
On a balmy evening in Bombay, a small group of people met to share their memories of Dr. Sarkar. Some of them had worked with Sarkar, others had been inspired, others yet simply want to share their memories. One by one, these men and women spoke in smiles, anecdotes and barely hidden tears, re-telling their memories of a person who led them to believe, to fight, to think. Most of all, the words described a person they loved.
Ram Reddy first met Lotika Sarkar and Chanchal Sarkar in the late ‘70’s when his family moved to Delhi; they were neighbors. Reddy speaks in short, concise sentences. The Editor of Economic & Political Weekly, his words are measured and to the point. . Yet, when he speaks about Lotika Sarkar (“my first and last Bengali aunt”), his composure seems to leave him for a few moments; emotion triumphs rationale.
“She had time for everybody,” he recollects, “and she simply loved talking with young people. Their house was always open for us youngsters.” He describes a house that was open to all, a house that not only welcomed and supported individual thought but one where you were treated as an equal. Over four decades, Reddy kept in touch with Sarkar, and her husband Chancal. Towards the end, he visited Sarkar for a specific reason. “I wanted my son to meet her, I wanted him to meet this woman who was so important to me,” he says, “I guess it was my way of paying respect.”
Respect. It is a word that crops up often enough when discussing Sarkar. Along with respect though, there is also love. I am back in Dr. Alur’s office and she has a mischievous smile on her face. She is recounting her days as a student. A sixteen-year old Alur and her friend had Lotika Sarkar as their local guardian when the two were studying at Miranda House. Alur recollects how Dr. Sarkar (or “Monu-pishi” as Alur called her) would anxiously wait for the two of them to come home from hostel, and if they were even late by a few minutes, they would be peppered with questions. And yet, the very same Monu-pishi would take a bus to Miranda House when Alur fell sick, carrying homemade chicken soup to nurse Alur back to health.
It is clear that Lotika Sarkar left behind different memories for different people; she was a teacher, a guru, and an inspiration to many. More importantly, she embodied the celebration of a life filled with laughter and joy, a life truly lived, a life that inspires even in its end.
(The author would like to thank Dr. Mithu Alur and Prof. Amita Dhanda for all their help and patience. Images of Dr. Sarkar provided by Dr. Mithu Alur)