Pushpa Bhave was the last of the feisty and fearless political women committed to social causes. She will be missed, writes Smruti Koppikar.
The austerity of the casually draped sari, usually in shades of white or beige cotton, was heightened by the stern face and a questioning scrutiny in her eyes. Her life’s work was teaching, after all. The professorial look became her trademark but it did not define her. Pushpa Bhave, the 81-year-old professor, literary critic, translator, scholar, social and political activist, supporter and amplifier of progressive causes, Goa liberation and anti-Emergency crusader, Gandhian who embraced some Ambedkarism, and socialist who critically engaged with the ideology was more than the sum of these parts; she was the voice of our conscience — the last voice of a generation — in Mumbai and across Maharashtra.
That voice was stilled forever late night on Gandhi Jayanti. In the passing of Bhave, reverentially called Pushpabai by a legion of students and fondly called Pushpatai by one and all, there’s a silence hard to fill and a legacy even harder to live up to for those who make socio-political activism for justice and equality their life’s mission. The stern façade masked a rare courage and sensitivity, remarkable character and humility.
She was the quintessential middle-class Maharashtrian from Mumbai, raised in a progressive environment and wedded to the finest values of that tradition all her life. She routinely travelled in state transport buses; she alighted at Dadar suburban station and hailed a cab home. She helped hide anti-Emergency activists like the late Mrinal Gore and Pannalal Surana in her home, distributed anti-Emergency literature. She assisted rationalist Dr Narendra Dabholkar in drafting the anti-superstition law he championed and was later killed for, then attended his memorial too. She took on Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray at the peak of his power to call out his nephew Raj in the Ramesh Kini murder case.
There was a not a progressive, secular and rationalist cause that Pushpatai did not align with – welfare of head loaders, emancipation of Devadasis, Mumbai’s textile mill workers, support to widows of farmers who died by suicide, upholding secularism, resisting Shiv Sena’s strong-arm tactics, bolstering Indo-Pak people-to-people contact, safeguarding freedom of speech and expression, and many more. “She was associated with many movements but headed none. She brought an ideological framework and academic thought to many of these movements,” said Jatin Desai, journalist and social activist who worked with her in the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy.
The evening in January 2019, when writers, artists, painters and poets gathered at Dadar’s iconic Shivaji Mandir to protest the clumsy and fearful action of the prestigious Marathi Sahitya Sammelan and honour writer Nayantara Sehgal, was made memorable by Pushpatai’s presence. The Sammelan had invited Sehgal to its annual event, then withdrew the invitation. Sehgal had made adverse comments on freedom of speech under the BJP government. Pushpatai took the stage – in her wheelchair, her voice feeble but unafraid to call out power.
Through the decades, she steadfastly refused to direct the spotlight on herself and turned down posts offered to her. Her mere presence was validation for people who fought the good battles: her advice they sought and received, her statements against those in power were like a verbal whiplash, her courage to say ‘the Emperor has no clothes’ a rallying point for many around her. This remarkable strength of character and honesty in opinions came from the fact that she was not beholden to anyone in power for any reason, pointed out Medha Kulkarni, media professional, social activist and author of Pushpatia’s conversational profile.
Kulkarni was also among her students in Ruia College. “In her Marathi Literature classes, she would go beyond a text or poem to inspire us to think, to draw out its purpose, to link it to social context. I used this later in my work in All India Radio. She brought Dr Shriram Lagoo to the college for seminars, she supported experimental or alternative Marathi theatre and took us well beyond the syllabus,” Kulkarni recalled. Social activist Medha Patkar wrote in her tribute that despite being in the Science stream, she would look for an occasion to sit in Pushpatai’s class.
Pushpatai would not be persuaded to write about her life, not even a memoir. Amidst the multitude of books in the Dadar home she shared with her husband (professor and newscaster Anant Bhave) till they moved into a nearby nursing home, were her life stories which are an inspiration for later generations. She finally yielded to being written about and selected Kulkarni for the task. It would take six years. Ladhe ani Tidhe (Toil and Troubles – In Conversation with Pushpabai) was recently released.
Pushpatai was conscious of the progressive and reformist tradition she came from, the footprints of giants like SM Joshi and Mrinal Gore she walked upon, but her voice was all her own. She found it early in life, when she was thrust on a stage and asked to speak at a programme in which Dr BR Ambedkar participated, refined it through life, and used it with great aplomb to challenge the status quo. If not for her, the Ramesh Kini murder case which put the Thackerays on the backfoot, would not have hit the headlines in the mid-1990s. She stood by Kini’s widow Sheela despite threats to her life and Sena women barging into her house. She offered them chairs and spoke with them. “Pushpatai believed in talking to even her opponents, and this she did with humility and respect,” said Desai.
Once while campaigning in Mumbai’s far suburb Vasai, against the local don’s brother Hitendra Thakur, I heard Pushpatai take the audience through a range of subjects, ask them to stand firm against dadagiri, and then remark that “there’s only a minor difference of matras between Thakur and Thackeray (when written in Devnagari)”. The former threatened her; the latter called her “a bundle of rags” in his newspaper Saamna. Aren’t you bothered, I later asked her. With her trademark nonchalance, she replied, “I said what I had to, they will do what they do best. Even if I feel fear I don’t let it decide for me”.
It’s this courage and the ability to keep ploughing on that inspires people like journalist Alka Dhupkar, some 45-50 years her junior. “Bai was truly fearless. Equally important was that she kept her focus on issues of social justice and freedom,” said Dhupkar, “Even on her hospital bed, she was surrounded by books and kept in touch with people. ‘It’s important to keep going and be consistent; change happens,’ she would say. When I feel low or defeated, her words motivate me. I and many of my generation are indebted to her.”
Pushpatai’s life was an exemplar. She was the last of the feisty and fearless political women committed to social causes. She will be missed.
Smruti Koppikar is an independent and award-winning journalist, columnist and urban chronicler based in Mumbai.
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