Last week, on March 8, as the women went ra-ra and ga-ga over International Women’s Day – and I, as is my wont, made light of it through a PJ on my FB status, which expectedly got some of the ladies’ goats – I couldn’t help but think about a woman whom I have never had the privilege of meeting, but have only heard about her from her descendant.
What piqued my interest in writing about her was a recent article, where the author seemed to suggest in her introduction that women’s lib, or more correctly, women’s education, was something that happened not centuries back but just a couple of decades back. Not her fault – the author, as I reckon, is a 20-something who’s given to popular perception about women from a couple of generations afar.
It’s often assumed that real empowerment of women came about in the post-independence era, when women started making their own choice. That, however, is just a shallow knowledge of some of the unsung and unheralded heroines of India.
Her name, well, since I am writing without the express permission of the family, shall remain undisclosed as of now. Born in the early part of the 20th century, in an aristocratic Muslim family hailing from Lucknow, to a father who was himself among the first in the family to graduate with honours from IIT Rourkee (old timers may recall it as Thomason College of Civil Engineering, Asia’s oldest engineering institute), she went on to become a surgeon from Lady Hardinge Medical College, topping in her discipline.
If that wasn’t achievement enough, she went to enlist in the Indian Army in the medical corps where she met a dashing young cavalry officer, a Punjabi Hindu. As expected, both fell in love with each other and matrimony was the next logical step.
But what particularly stood out in their fairy-tale romance was her decision – wonderfully supported by the man she fell in love with – to retain her faith, though she did change her name to a one that was more Hindu-sounding. Not because of any pressure from her new family but more, as I suspect, to avoid any untoward attention toward the family living in a society still polarised by the trauma of partition.
The couple, who later on served in the army of independent India, had a long and fruitful life, with a distinguished progeny of their own. What amazes me is the lady’s faith and her courage and also the fact that despite the social norms of the time, she wasn’t just educated, but was a professionally qualified woman with a career.
When women today scream about choices, I wonder if they even know about predecessors like our unnamed, unsung heroine, who in her own unique way, was a trendsetter for a woman’s right to live according to her own choice, with man of her choice.
And while the families concerned may have had some reservations, they probably wilted in the face of the determination of this iron-willed, plain speaking lady who, as legend has it, knew how to put her foot down ever so gently but firmly.
It would have been really interesting, and enriching, to meet this “heroine” during her lifetime.