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excerpt from What the Bird Tattoo Hides:  The Vijaynagar Notebooks

We met her a number of years ago.  Others arranged it.  She knew Dev Raj long before we did, and also Durgatai.  Plus, she knows Apte, the labor lawyer.  Consequently, our get-together in her 3-room home on a dead-end street at the edge of an industrial area began with a certain level of trust.  Still, she was wary.  Being so was part of who she was, a form of political self-protection that was by then habitual.  She'd already been involved in too many underground activities to speak freely to new acquaintances about her various political projects.   Nonetheless she was forthcoming about the general contours of her vision, discussing at one point how from a young age onward she had been pushed forward by "the hunger for a better life that fills India's hutment colonies and tenant-farmer districts." 

Growing up, she spent her first 8 or 9 years in small village east of Sangli in Maharashtra.  She remembered going with her mother to scavenge for firewood in fields and forests and also sneaking into fruit tree groves and stealing whatever fruits were in season, then carrying them home by pulling up her dress hem and making the garment into a type of sack into which she piled her trove.  This thievery wasn’t an act of childish playfulness but rather a job, one of the ways she contributed economically to the family’s survival.  She also gathered cow dung patties for fuel, begged for money and/or food morsels in a nearby town, and when her mother worked as a rock-carrier at road construction sites, she accompanied her, then, while her mother worked, gathered trash from nearby fields to sell to the junk buyer.  There was also school, which she attended sporadically, but, as it turned out, productively.  She learned to read quickly and thereafter tried to read anything she could get her hands on, mostly school texts and sometimes secondhand comic books that featured stories about Hindu gods and goddesses.  By the time she was 10, however, rural life was behind her.

Not long after her father died of a heart attack one night during the sugarcane harvesting season, her mother relocated to a Kohlapur slum with her 4 children in tow.  Although life wasn’t easy there, Nilima’s mother was happier because she had a sister who lived in the same colony.  The location also turned out to embody a lucky turn of events for Nilima,  since within 10 minutes of their home was the campus of Rajarshi Chhatrapati Shahu College, which had been established at the beginning of the 1960s for the specific purpose of serving the educational needs of dalits and other low (scheduled) castes.   Although it was years before Nilima took classes there, the fact of the college’s presence nearby as she grew older made her ambition to get more education seem a real possibility, not a fantasy.  Driven by a thirst for knowledge and a desire "to show dalit-haters my intelligence," she completed her elementary education a year early at age 13, finished her primary education (high school) by 17, then a few months later began college.  

But before all that happened there was much debate within the family.  Not between her and her mother or with her brothers and sisters, but between her mother and her aunt, Sanika Maushi, who loved Nilima dearly but held a very traditional view of what girls should and shouldn’t do in life.  The fights began when Nilima was 13 and Sanika Maushi decided the time had come for her niece to stop school and find work, preferably as a house servant, until she got married.  At first Nilima’s Ai ignored her sister’s incessant harping about the subject, until one day, too exasperated by her sister’s strident tone to hold her tongue any longer, she angrily retorted, "Leave me alone, Sanika!  Any child of mine who wants school will get it.  I didn’t birth them so they could grow up to be as stupid as you and me!"

That started a row.  Sanika Maushi leapt at her sister, yanked her hair with one hand while shoving her against the wall with the other.  The children watched in awe as the 2 women fell to the floor, hitting and screaming at each other.  Soon, however, the fight ended.  The battlers each had a glass of hatbhatti,  a type of rotgut whiskey brewed illegally in the slum, to calm down and let their usual mutual warmness reassert itself.  But although they seemed on good terms when Sanika Maushi finally left, she didn’t return for 2 days, which was unusual for her.  Still, things went smoothly after that — for a while.  About 10 months later a similar argument broke out.  Again Sanika Maushi was adamant that Nilima must get a job and her sister was adamant that her daughter wouldn’t.  This time Sanika Maushi hit no one, she just threw a rag against the wall as she stormed out the door.  Such arguments happened periodically until Nilima went to college. 

Oddly, in spite of these fights, Nilima loved both women, her Ai for fiercely defending her and her Maushi for being so theatrical and physical. 

"If it wasn’t for my mother I never would have had time to read books, go to school and eventually become a physician.  But  Sanika Maushi also influenced me.  Although she was very conservative in some of her social views, she was nonetheless the one who nudged me, psychologically at least, toward organizing.  It was from her I learned the power of presence, of inserting yourself into situations and fighting for what you believed.  People still talk about how once while sweeping the ground in front of her hut, she saw a loutish fish-peddler push my little cousin Bantu into a nearby sewage ditch for the fun of it.  Immediately, she scooped up a small rock from the ground, charged the unaware man from behind and slammed him on the back of the neck with it before he knew what was going on.  As he turned around to fight Sanika Maushi, she smashed him in the temple with the rock and he fell down, after which she sat on him, pounding his arms and shoulders with her weapon.  Finally some neighbors pulled her off.  Although she made no attempt to hit the man again after being yanked off him, she did keep yelling that she would kill him if he ever touched one of her kids again.  As it turned out the man wasn’t too badly hurt, although he had to walk around for a week with some gauze on his face to cover the gashes left there by Sanika Maushi’s rock.  One of his shoulders was also sprained.  From that time on the slum-dwellers laughed at him, called him chutiyah (cunt) and said, "When Sanika banged him on the head, his balls fell off."

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