[Reader-list] memories of a naxalite friend

Sanjay Kak kaksanjay at gmail.com
Mon Apr 28 19:31:26 IST 2008

Apologies for cross-posting: and in respect.
Sanjay Kak


Memories of a Naxalite Friend

Times of India, Mumbai Sunday 20 Apr 2008

by Jyoti Punwani

Cerebral malaria can be fatal, but people have been known to recover from
it. Anuradha Ghandy, however, didn't stand a chance. Already weakened by the
sclerosis when she walked into the hospital, it was too late. Within 24
hours, she was gone. By the time her vast circle of friends was informed on
the evening of April 12, the 54-year-old had already been cremated. Better
this than death by 'encounter', after prolonged torture. For that was the
fate we feared this Naxalite could not escape.

That Anu managed to evade arrest for so long, was an indicator of the
ruthlessness with which she effaced her identity. This, of course, meant
isolating herself from all those who would have given up everything to nurse
her. There was another way she could have recovered, even while underground.
Anu could have followed medical advice and given herself the break her body
so badly needed. For someone so important to the Party (CPI-Maoist), it
might well have allowed it. But that wasn't her style.

Just climbing stairs had become an ordeal five years ago. Yet, days before
her death, she was in some jungle where malaria was probably an
inevitability. Anuradha Ghandy, I learnt after her death, was a senior
Maoist leader. Her political career spans the first radical student outfit
in Mumbai (PROYOM) in the '70s, and the armed dalams of Adivasi women in
Bastar. Certain that like her comrades in Chandrapur, she too would be
implicated in false cases and arrested, Anu went underground some years ago.

When I first met her in 1970, Anuradha Shanbag was the belle of the ball in
Mumbai's Elphinstone College. A petite bundle of energy, bright eyes
sparkling behind square glasses, her ready laughter, near-backless cholis
and coquettish ways had everyone eating out of her hands, professors
included. Elphinstone then was an intellectual hub. The Bangladesh war was
just over, drought and famine stalked Maharashtra. Naxalism had come to
Mumbai, at that time the industrial capital of the country. Anu, majoring in
Sociology, was everywhere—inviting Mumbai's leading radicals to talk about
the reasons for the drought, putting up posters that proclaimed 'Beyond
Pity' and urging students to get involved with the crisis in the
countryside, defending this stand against those who felt a student's role
must be limited to academics and at the most, 'social work'.

Anu was also the one to question celebrity guest speakers such as Girish
Karnad, whose path-breaking plays had just hit the stage, on the link
between theatre and society. And it was Anu who introduced us to that
feminist bible, Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch. Those were the days of
'parallel' cinema. Marathi amateur theatre was blossoming at Dadar's
Chhabildas Hall. The Dalit Panthers had exploded into the Marathi literary
scene. Adil Jussawala's New Writing In India was still making waves. Forum
Against Rape, Mumbai's first feminist group, had just been founded. Anu, by
then a lecturer at Wilson College, was immersed in all this. With her wide
range of interests, she succeeded in linking the human rights organisation
she and few others founded after Emergency with the city's intellectual
ferment. Among other things, the Committee for the Protection of Democratic
Rights (CPDR), demanded that the State stop acting lawlessly with Naxalites
even though they rejected its laws.

Thanks to Anu's ability to talk as intelligently with George Fernandes as
with Satyadev Dubey, her brother Sunil Shanbag's mentor, the cream of
Mumbai's intellectuals supported this demand. Playwright Vijay Tendulkar and
reformist Asghar Ali Engineer were CPDR's president and vice-president.

It was time for Anu to grow into a successful academic, the type who writes
books and attends international seminars. Instead, in 1982, she left the
life she loved to work in Nagpur. The wretched conditions of contract
workers in the new industrial areas near Nagpur and of Adivasis in the
forests of Chandrapur had to be challenged. Committed cadres were needed. In
her subsequent trips to Mumbai, Anu never complained about the drastic
change in her life: cycling to work under the relentless Nagpur sun; living
in the city's Dalit area, the mention of which drew shudders from Nagpur's
elite; then moving to backward Chandrapur. In Marxist study circles,
'declassing oneself' is quite a buzzword. From Mumbai's Leftists, only Anu
and her husband Kobad, both lovers of the good life, actually did so.

Kobad's family home had been a sprawling Worli Sea Face flat; he was a Doon
School product. Anu's lawyer-father may have left his family estate in Coorg
to defend communists in court in the '50s, but she had never seen
deprivation. Despite her own rough life, neither did Anu make us feel guilty
for our bourgeois luxuries nor did she patronise us. On the few occasions
she would suddenly land up over these 25 years, it was as if she had never
left. She had the same capacity to laugh, even at herself, the same ability
to connect, even with management types, the same readiness to indulge in
women's talk. But with those closest to her, she seemed unnaturally
detached. Her parents doted on her, yet she didn't take every opportunity
she could to meet them. I realise why now.

Rushing to meet them whenever she came to Mumbai would have been worse than
an indulgence. It would not only have eaten into the time she had for Party
work, it would have also made it impossible for her family to have accepted
what she saw as inevitable—an underground future. In order not to endanger
her family, Anu simply disappeared from their horizon. When her father died,
she couldn't go home. That was also the reason for her harsh decision never
to have children, though her parents would have willingly brought them up.
That was one bond she knew would draw her away from the life she had chosen.

The 'Naxalite menace', says Manmohan Singh, is the biggest threat to the
country. But I remember a girl who was always laughing, and who gave up a
life rich in every way to change the lives of others.

jyoti.punwani at gmail.com

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