Born in 1927 in a village called “Mundra” in Kutch, Madhuri Asher was the first name given to her. She was soon called “Shanta” (means Serenity or calm in Sanskrit) as this name reflected her persona. She is my naani (my mother’s mother) and my favorite person in the world! There is so much about her that inspires me. She just turned 86 this march. And today I want to share an astonishing journey of her life as a Freedom Fighter from the very young age of 9 till 20, which is 1936 to1947; a significant period in the history of India and as a result India got its freedom from the British rule.
Image on left: starting from left – Anar(me), Nishtha(my cousin sister), Shanta -my grandma)
Soon after she is born, her father, Lt Mathuradas Ashar joins congress of the Freedom era. He had met Gandhiji in Kochi during his survey of India. As Gandhi did not know the language “Malyalam”, a translator helped him convey his message to the people. Mathuradas knew both Malyalam and English very well while he noticed the translator not doing his job very well…he asked Gandhi if he could help in and this is how he started working with Gandhiji. He was soon offered to be with Gandhiji on his trips to more places across India as Gandhiji saw a potential in this young man and liked to make him part of his team for the fight against the British rule. In few years Gandhiji assigned him to take over the control of a very backward village of Motihari in Bihar- north east of India.
She spends first few years of her childhood in Gandhi Ashram, learning the unique ways of simple living. (The Sabarmati ashram was found in 1917 in an open land on the banks of the river Sabarmati, in city of Ahmedabad as Gandhiji wanted to do some experiments in living ; e.g. farming, animal husbandry, cow breeding, khadi and related constructive activities for which he was in search of this kind of barren land. )
At the age of 3 she survives the deadly disease of Mata, but the spots became part of her face for the rest of her life. One of her three brothers out of six died due to the same. Her father’s elder brother – who was a wealthy businessman involved in Rice farming, petrol pumps, and Kathi business – decided to support her family; so that her father could give in his 100% in the development of rural India- following Gandhi’s footsteps during the independence movement. She remembers the 5 o’ clock bell ringing for group prayers early mornings, and after that everyone started their day with their assigned works; be it helping in the kitchen or cleaning. Here each and every person learnt to make cloth for himself; spinning the wheel called charkha, the cotton was handspun and hand woven. It was called Khadi meaning cotton. (Charkha -The Gandhian concept of the charkha was a symbol of self-entrepreneurship, which alone can help the nation protect its bio-diversity and provide sustenance to the poorest of the poor. Khadi is not just a cloth, it is a whole movement started by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.The Khadi movement aimed at boycotting foreign goods and promoting Indian goods, thereby improving India’s economy. It provided jobs to millions of rural poor especially women.)
Āyurveda, “the knowledge for long life”; Ayurveda medicine – a system of traditional medicine native to India was taught and practiced here.
A Baal Vidhwa (child widdow)– we know her as Bhagwan dadi was just 17 while her husband died in Karachi, Pakistan and afterwards she became a part of Asher family in Kochi, devoting her whole life for helping people around her and she lived with a murti of Krishna in her room as I remember during my trip to Kochi in 2001. She had spent 6 months in Gandhi Ahram and naani was sent to Kochi with her to begin her schooling. She studied in Gujarati community school in Kochi very close to her uncle’shaveli. (“Haveli” is the term used for a private mansion in India)
She became fond of languages here, living with her uncle Jamnadas who happened to know Sanskrit and Hindi very well. She was 9 when she joined her father in Champaran district helping in the development of the rural area. Here she got involved in educating the villagers. Social studies, geography and math were few of the subjects taught by her father. (As she speaks of her father; he was really good in math; at the age of 17 when he went to South Africa for work, in his job interview a British gave him a math problem with other candidates sitting with him; and he happened to solve the problem in seconds without putting the pencil on paper, leaving the interviewer amazed by his quick response)
In rural masses of India in that time, the landlords misused their power over the poor and the illiterate; they rode elephants while they made the laborers work for ridiculously low wages at their farms. This was known as “begaari” or “majoori” in hindi. They could not even afford to live in a decent hut. They used grass – “puwar” (food for cattle) as a blanket for the wintery nights. One could see Himalayan range from this village as Naani describes the place.
Gandhi’s revolutionary ideas for upliftment of rural masses; and the innovative and technocratic programs helped in the education, social and rural development implicated by him and his supporters all overIndia. Naani’s father was one of those dedicated men who worked solely for this and could possibly make some visible changes in the poorest and backward district of Bihar. (“Man becomes great exactly in the degree in which he works for the welfare of his fellowmen.” – Gandhi)
He helped in to teach the poor and illiterates the basics so to make the villages self-sufficient, promote small industries, improve agriculture, human resources, education and health; improve sanitation leading to better living condition and better life – a sustainable society aiming at working in partnership with nature and conserve resources and energy, reduce wastes and avoid degradation of renewable; promote goods that are easy to recycle, reuse and repair after use.
(The society should largely be a solar/wind/bio-mass based society together with a whole range of environment friendly technologies mainly based on renewable resources. Hence, resources should be utilized prudently and the basic need of people is to be met without any serious detriment to the environment.)
Gandhiji’s thought, shall always remain relevant for the smooth global development.
S. Rajendra Babu was the 34th chief Justice of India, and he also served as the chairperson of National Human Rights Commission of India, came to visit this village; and to appraise the efforts and hard works put into it; an example of a developed village of the modern era was right here. An elephant was sent to receive him, to be able to cross the river as they had no mode of transportation in such underdeveloped area. As Naani describes it took the villagers more than 9 hours of travel time on a cattle cart to pick him up from Motihari and bring him to Champaran village. His statue is still standing tall in the village.
Here the Hath Shal was operated, meaning a Handicraft workshop and “Khadhi nu Resham” (Khadi Silk) was discovered. Silk is made from the cocoons of silkworms. Silk worms transform themselves, inside the cocoon, into a chrysalis and then into a butterfly…in a usual process they are put in the boiling water before they can break out of their cocoons to gain smooth threads, causing the death of the worms. While at this village, an environmentaly friendly process was practised which would wait for the worms to break out of their shells and become butterfly. This was later known as Khadi Silk, a hard-earned fabric.
Like this, many other crafts were taught to the rural part of India to boost up the Swadeshi movement – part of Indian independence movement – an economic strategy aimed at removing the British Empire from power and improving economic conditions, which had some success.
All this time naani served as “Swayam Sevika” (volunteer) , where she fulfilled roles of many, all to help the people around her. Amazingly her little wishes were taken care of by her dearest uncle living in Kerala – once she mentioned her passion to learn to play Harmonium and her uncle shipped the instrument from Kerala to this tiny village in north east part of India…. through plenty modes of transportations the instrument finally arrived passing the cities, hills, rivers and many farmlands. Sadly her uncle died at the very young age of 46 due to tubercle bacillus known as TB. At that time naani moved back to Kerala for a year, she was only13 then. Here English tuitions were arranged for her, and she learned a new language.
At the age of 14 she moved to Ahmedabad. At Gujarat Vidyapith, she continued her higher studies. This institute was founded by Mohandas Gandhi in 1920, who would serve throughout his life as the Kula-pati, or chancellor. (The purpose of its establishment was to promote educational institutions run by Indians for Indians and outside the financial and governing control of British authorities. The university helped Indian nationalists establish a system of education for all Indians, thus proving the country’s independence from British-run institutions, and so de-legitimizing British Raj in India. The foundation of the university was one of the first most important events in the initiative of satyagraha launched by Gandhi as a means to peacefully terminate British rule in India.)
She learned music here with concentration on sanskrit and hindi languages.
Soon the congress called for Swayam Sevak meaning volunteers for the independence movement against British power. Even though she was under 18, her built was such that she looked more matured than her age and was allowed to become part of the procession. Together they sang patriotic songs early morning passing through the city,(called Prabhat ferri) awakening people for the nonviolent fight for India’s independence… they went through lathi-charge by the police under British power (lathi-charge also known as a baton charge is a coordinated tactic for dispersing crowds of people usually used by police or military during public order situations) one lathi hit her head too. Britishers were closing the schools as to take over the government. She travelled to Viram Gaam with the rest in the procession; while police stopped the train and put all of them behind the bars. She spent few nights inside the custody with people like Indumati Ben ( who was Education minister later, of the new India). Naani was the youngest among all…she remembers how they were sent food from different residences outside the jail showing their support but they rejected it and accepted the simple food offered in jail. Here in her 19 day stay she taught Sanskrit poetries from Geeta.
Soon after her release she passes SSC exam at passing grades, and she moved to join Karve college and then to city of Bhavnagar to finish her Masters in Arts while she lived in Montessori. Afterwards she started teaching in Bal Ghar School in Ahmedabad, helping the mentally challenged kids. This was already the year of 1947 when India got its independence at last.
The happy part of her life started when she met my grandfather who was also a teacher at the same institute teaching music. His name was Ram Kumar Rajpriya. At the age of 30 she got married and followed to wear Khadi for rest of her life till date. She often shares her stories with us and the letters from Gandhi which he wrote from his days in jail; opening significant pages of history of India which is now free from the British rule…it teaches us the importance of nonviolent resistance – an effort not to systematize wisdom but to transform society, based on an undying faith in the goodness of human nature.