On the west coast of India, between the Gulfs of Kutch and Khambat, the ancient country of Kathiawad lies, now incorporated into the state of Gujarat. It is in one of its towns, Bhanvad that Ba was born, in 1922. She was an only child: her father died of tuberculosis when she was just a year old. Her mother was left destitute, making blankets and duvets to get by. They had very little money, and lived for six months of the year with her mother’s brother, in the princely state of Dhrafa. Ba has spoken of the seemingly very visible princes in the past, and when the telephone connection is finally fixed I am hoping that she will elaborate. There were hundreds of princes, in fact – many in the state of Dhrafa alone, with one prince acting as leader. Our Royals are enjoying a rise in popularity at the moment, but imagine the combined excitement and dismay of the population (depending on their Royalist inclination) when informed that there would be a hundred more Wills and Harrys. There would be benefits for the princes- sharing those Royal engagements would leave more time for family and polo – but it is unlikely that Kate would have made it onto the cover of Hello, or that Prince William would have had the chance to perform Livin’ on a Prayer with Bon Jovi at a charity gala.
Ba cackles with laughter every time she is asked about her past. ‘Why is it important? You don’t need to know all of that rubbish.’ she protests, while I try to explain how fascinating her story is to everyone that hears it. Ba showed promise at an early age; she was entered straight into year 2 at school, but she lived in a time and place where education was not valued for girls. Additionally, changing schools every six months was desperately difficult; different systems, different teachers, different everything meant that Ba lagged behind, and at the age of 14 she left education altogether. She remembers one teacher who stood out (we all do, of course, remember the one that made the difference), a teacher called Maniben, who tried to persuade Ba to stay on at school. But Ba simply did not understand the importance or the relevance of school, the idea of knowledge and learning as tools of empowerment being utterly alien. Over the last seventy years, amongst Indians in India and abroad, there has been the most amazing about-turn in the perception of education as the gateway to success, for men and for women. It is often joked about, the current tendency of many Indians to pursue careers in the ‘big five’ professions: medicine, dentistry, finance, IT and engineering, but the idea is that they are stable and can provide job satisfaction and enough money to buy food (and, if you are very good at them, a big boat).
Ba starts to speak now of ‘sharam’-shame- a word that crops up many times during the retelling of her life story. She was acutely aware of her position as a young, poverty-stricken girl with no connections. She would have loved to restart school, but the thought of speaking up, of approaching an adult was overwhelming. In the mornings, over her clothes, she put on her cloak of insignificance. As Salman Rushdie put it in his novel, Shame “Shame is a short word, but one containing encyclopaedias of nuance. It was not only shame . . . but also embarrassment, discomfiture … modesty, shyness, the sense of having an ordained place in the world.” I believe Ba’s story, her sense of sharam, but to me Ba has always been a small, slightly feisty grandmother, and the two versions of Ba have great distance between them. The transformation began, very gradually, after she married Bapuji. But that is a story for another day.