'Main Gen Zia-ul-Haq sahab ke daur main Pakistan gayi thi. Woh aisa daur tha, jab aurton ke pass koi agency nahin thi. Par tab bhi un aurton se zyada himmat waali aurtein maine nahin dekhi. Un aurton ne mujhe woh nara sikhaya jo main aaj tak gaati hoon.’
'When I went to Pakistan in the 1970s, it was ruled by dictator Gen Zia-ul-Haq. Zia’s regime was especially oppressive for women. Yet, the women there were the strongest that I have ever seen. They stood up for their rights and taught me a chant that I will keep singing forever.'
I would often listen to such stories by Kamla Bhasinji with a sense of wide-eyed amazement. The chant that she was referring to was the ‘Azaadi song’.
It is now a pop culture phenomenon thanks to movies and protest marches, but Bhasin was the first to introduce it to India.
"I brought it home with me and adapted it to the Indian context. It blended in beautifully," she added.
Kamlaji told me about this one afternoon while I was recording a video with her on a completely different topic. We were discussing how ‘children’s nursery rhymes are riddled with gender-based stereotypes and how they need to be reimagined’.
She not only helped me decode nursery rhymes beautifully, but also planted in me an idea for my next story with her: the real origins of the azaadi song.
Azaadi, I Want Freedom From...
I’d often find reasons to meet with Kamlaji, just to learn more from her. In 2018, while I was working on a private member’s bill to make stalking a non-bailable offence, I needed her opinion on it. I wanted the feminist icon to endorse it. When I approached her, she heard me patiently and said:
"Garvita bibi, I don’t believe in punishments. If punishments could solve crimes then there should be no crimes in our country. I believe in speaking to people and correcting them there and then. The perpetrators are as much a product of society as we are. Gender justice should begin at home. If we continue to put men and boys on high pedestals, we continue to live in an unequal society that allows violence to breed."
What she said stayed with me. Even one correction within our circle could lead to a series of long-term changes. I continued working on my assignment with a more clearer understanding of crimes and retribution.
Kamlaji’s teachings were such – she’d give you ‘azaadi’ from unnecessary baggage that society gives you. She taught me lessons that I will cherish for life.
Kamlaji’s pet peeve was sexist nursery rhymes. She couldn’t fathom the thought process behind singing rhymes like ‘Ring-a-Ring-a Roses’ or ‘London bridge is falling down’ mindlessly without understanding its meaning.
"I was once invited by a private school in New Delhi to be the guest of honour on their Annual Day. They had an entire evening of events planned. It sounded interesting and I accepted their invitation. Upon reaching, I saw four and five-year-old girls in unmanageable, complicated outfits rehearsing for the roles of Snowhites and Cinderellas. The same age group’s boys were, on the other hand, running around in comfortable pants and shirts. They were given the parts of the princes and the soldiers. Azaadi do humme inn stereotypes se!"
"When I discussed this with the principal, she called it “necessary coursework”, more like a “rite of passage” for every child. The messaging of it all deeply affected me and I went back to the rhymes that I’d written for my kids some 30-35 years ago," Kamlaji told me.
‘Dhamak dham bhai dhamak dham, chote chote bacche hum, ladki na ladke se kum, dhamak dham bhai dhamak dham’. This loosely translates to ‘girls are no less than boys.’
Kamlaji authored rhymes and storybooks for children and wrote them in a way so that no gender felt oppressed by anyone. She once told me how she felt demonised by the way society approached motherhood. She spoke about how she could never associate herself with the strict ‘principles of motherhood’.
"Ab main ek kaam-kaji maa thi. I wasn’t the ‘traditional’ mother that society expected me to be. I was a working mom, a mom who often travelled around the world for work. My ways were different from what society had laid for me. That troubled me, so I decided to write a book called Ulti Sulti Amma."
The book broke down regimented notions of what motherhood should look like. The protagonist of the book was Meetu’s mother Amma, who wore pyjamas on her head and made breakfast for dinner, but her love for her daughter remained unconditional and pure’, she once told me.
Lessons for a Lifetime
I’d never met with a subject who taught me life lessons that would last me a lifetime. A reporting assignment would often be quick. But assignments with Kamlaji were not just stories, they were sessions in storytelling, life advice and being awestruck by the incredible treasure that she was for our generation.
I wanted everyone whom I knew to meet her. I wanted everyone to learn her way of life, her thinking.
She often said, ‘Garvita bibi, “azaadi' naara jeevit naara hai, pathar ki lakeer nahin hai’. The “azaadi” chant is a lively chant, it is not set in stone. It evolves every day.
Kamlaji was meant to bring Azaadi to India, the chant from Pakistan. She was meant to hold the beacon of light over our shoulders so that we could collectively look in the direction that was sans societal stereotypes.
Kamlaji has empowered a generation of young women, she has mentored a generation of young leaders. There will never be anyone like her.
The last time I met her was at a press conference just before the pandemic put an end to all outdoor gatherings. Incidentally, the conference was on ‘the futility of giving capital punishments to rape convicts’. We’d often discussed this topic and I knew what her stance on the issue was. After the press conference got over, I became the devil’s advocate and asked why she opposed capital punishment in the ‘rarest of rare’ cases.
She said, "Rape isn’t rare, it happens around us every minute. Will we give death penalty to all? This country needs azaadi from ‘band-aid’ solutions like these. We need constructive, systemic solutions to the problem of gender-based violence."
As always, I couldn’t agree more with her. I offered to drop her home, but she said her red car is her best friend and she will take her home safely. And so it did.
‘Jab tak aurtein poori tarah se azaad nahin hongi, society bhi azaad nahin hongi’
‘For the society to be completely free, its women need freedom.’
Rest in power Kamlaji, I will always, always miss you. My nephew, who is now six, still recites the poems you sent for him. He too is a student, just like me, of the Kamla Bhasin school of wisdom.
(Garvita Khybri is a Strategist at the Change.org. She tweets @GarvitaKhybri. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)