Do you remember that evening when you had asked about the women of my family? Proud to have a story worth telling, I had talked about Sita, my mother’s mother, a freedom fighter and a trade unionist, loving mother to five children, and a thrifty homemaker. Sita when she died in 1974 was “Mata-ji”, respected Mother, to all in her town.
"Why are some women chosen to become mothers to many, and not others," you had asked. "Is there a price that they have to pay in return?" Your questions had made me think some more. Someone once said that memories contain the map of identity. In this marble temple, the fractured memory of Sita, yet subsumed in the son-bearing, nurturing, and virtuous body of Bharat Mata—Mother India, the Hindu mother of Hindu sons. She is Sanskrit, and she is Hindi. She is the source, chaste and pure.
Erased from her body are all markers of desire, passion, and longing that as a mortal woman Sita must have felt. Covered over are the wounds inflicted upon her for being born woman in an upper-caste Hindu family.
Turning to you I had asked curiously about your own grandmother. You had replied, “My grandmother was also called Mata-ji by some, yet she would find no place in this great temple.”
That same evening I had talked about my grandmother’s struggles to attend high school, the first for any girl in her family. The main hurdle was that the road to school led through the tawaifs’ quarters. Interrupting me with a sudden bitter tone in your voice, you had said, “How could the daughter of a respectable Hindu family be allowed to walk through an area where women wallowed in depravity, obscenity, and disease?”
Always on the margins of respectable society, the tawaif, now seen through the filters of Victorian morality, becomes a prostitute; bearer of everything foreign, including the Urdu language. The regeneration of Hindu society demanded that the tawaif be removed, physically from the proximity of respectable areas, and culturally from music itself.
You tell me a story of a time and place far away, where a mission was launched to rescue music from the baneful influence of Muslim musicians and tawaifs. The respectable men of town began a very successful mission to put a stop to the practice of inviting courtesans on festive and other occasions to perform in Hindu homes. From the uncharacteristic sharpness of your tone, I had a sense there is more to this tale than what you have just shared. But I am almost hesitant to ask. The history that has made me the woman I am, stands confronted by the histories you relentlessly unravel now.
You talk about you grandmother, the once powerful Chaudrahin or leader of the now beleaguered tawaif community in Benaras. Attracted by Gandhi’s inclusive call to Hindus and Muslims, men and women, to join the national movement, she had organized a very unusual meeting of courtesans in 1921. Presided by a framed photograph of Gandhi, the meeting passed a resolution to weed out obscenity in music and to promote nationalism by singing patriotic songs at all occasions.
The irony of this meeting is not lost to you. You are aware of Gandhi’s outburst against what he termed ‘the obscene manifesto of a group of tawaifs in Barisal’. Their crime: they had organized to help the poor, nurse the sick, and support the cause of Gandhi’s Satyagraha. Gandhi declined to recognize them as Congress workers, or even accept their donations unless they gave up their unworthy profession which made them worse than thieves. While thieves merely stole material possessions, these women stole virtue.
Worst however was yet to come. Barred from performing on the radio till Nehru intervened, many tawaifs like your grandmother immersed their instruments into the Ganga and stopped singing altogether. Others got married in a desperate bid for social acceptance.
And so, as a nation marched towards freedom, a group of women whose private lives became public scandal, fell off the map. You tell me about the day your grandmother was summoned to the local police station when a zealous young Indian state decided to suppress immoral trafficking by cleansing entire localities of their original inhabitants: prostitutes and tawaifs.
That day, your grandmother decided to leave forever, the city that had been home.