When I met Nighat M Gandhi at Svaraj Vidyapith, Allahabad, I knew nothing of her. And that was a great misfortune. Discussing mental health in women, the taboos and troubles associated with it, Nighat’s discussion along with other members of Stree Mukti Sangathan and participants of the discussion group Prabodhan, opened our minds to look at this struggle of women’s azadi (freedom), mispronounced by many, including the government as empowerment, in a context that remains unmentioned. The hysterias, depressions, anxieties, PTSDs, eating disorders that women develop are pushed under the rug rather than being acknowledged.
There is more chance of a woman in India suffering from mental illness to be beaten or tortured by a tantrik as compared to men. Mental illness in women is seen as advent of the Goddess and this Goddess needs to be subdued. She is dragged by her hairs, tied in chains and beaten. Men, on the other hand, get to see a doctor and if the people around him are extremely superstitious, he is worshipped, never beaten or tortured.
Coming back to Nighat, she is the citizen of a nation, divided by colonialism and united by its mutual struggle for liberty. Nighat was born in pre-independent Bangladesh (East Pakistan), her parents moved to Pakistan in 1971 and later she moved to India. As a woman, a mental health counsellor in a smallish town like Allahabad, a Muslim and a Pakistani Muslim* at that, married to a Hindu in India, the questions she might be facing, the suspicious looks and stares and glares she might be getting and the things she might be hearing, and more so in these trying times of nationalistic jingoism would be enough to drive her to become a reluctant fundamentalist or an angry cynic at the least. But she remains a humble and jovial figure, hospitable, considerate and willing to fight for herself and women around her.
But why am I talking about Nighat when I should be discussing her book? You are here to read the review of course not a character analysis. I understand and respect that. This conversational book, both figuratively and literally, has elements of Nighat’s ponderings on her identity, her place in society, her responsibilities as a feminist and an activist and place of spiritualism in her life. And thus it becomes quite important to look at the narrator’s life in respect to her characters. As a privileged woman, compared to those whom Nighat interviews, what are the challenges she faces? And are they same as those of the interviewed? Do they share a spectrum where they both could stand equally as women challenging patriarchy or there are certain subtle differences between them?
What does it mean to be a woman? The question is persistently present throughout the book. It is asked again and again through its eight main characters and other subsidiary characters, through its narrator and writer, who happen to be same, and through the reader who becomes a witness to the lives of nine women, eight interviewed and one interviewing. The question is many-layered and each layer is deeper and more potent than the one before it. With its flexible ideas of womanhood and motherhood, the stories of lives of eight women progress to a culminating point from where they look back upon the journey they took. The milestones that came across their path, the trees that sheltered them and the thorns that pierced their skin, all are laid bare. Do the women smile or regret their decisions? You need to read What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow to find that out.
A woman is not born but made, said so that great sassy feminist Simone de Beauvoir to whom all of us look with reverence when we discuss the feminist issues. Who do we look to in the Indian context? The Indian feminist movement is very different from that going around in the west. The thing to note here is that, by India we mean Indian subcontinent. The struggle of freedom of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh was same, same was their oppression and same is their continued struggle of azadi. Indian women did not have to fight for the right to vote like the women in west. It was granted to them. They did fight for independence, no doubt. But like most Indians they were told that they have achieved what they were fighting for. And they believed.
What’s interesting about What I Am Today, I Won’t Remain Tomorrow is that despite being research based it has no academic jargon. It is a collection of wonderful tales of courage, resilience, bravery and strong will wonderfully and simply told. The will to strive, to seek and not to yield these women show once they leave their abusive marriages is inspiring and though not everything these women do is to challenge patriarchy, their struggles against it do define those of women who suffer silently. It gives them hope and a little affirmation that the quest of women’s azadi is not in vain.
This feminist tale of eight women and their struggles to forge a path for themselves is a must read.
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- After Nighat read this piece she mentioned that she considers herself more of a South Asian than a Pakistani. In her own words, “I would still assert that I am a South Asian…..but if you insist on using Pakistani……you place limits on who I want to be.
“[P]ersonally, I’ve never been subjected to hatred in all the years I’ve lived in India. [T]he subject of curiosity and questioning [I] may be, but hatred, never.”
I agree with her completely.