Lessons from my mother: The need to celebrate womanhood, be 'self-centered' in a challenging world

I take immense pride in being a strong woman. 15 years ago, I incorporated my media company, Live Media & Publishers Pvt Ltd, to publish monthly news magazines, TelecomLive, InfraLive and web-based news of core sectors. I am an autism mom. I have waged many battles in my professional life and as a parent to shape my son’s destiny. My mother always held my hand. That cover is now no more, but her lessons of strength ignite my every breath. Krishna Das, Ma to me and my sister Ankhi, ​​passed away on 24 May. Ma’s foremost lesson was: Be self-centred, it is a virtue.

Growing up, I thought everyone’s mothers must be like mine. While speaking, they would quote Sanskrit verses, were strict grammarians and read classics. Retrospectively, now I think that a generation ago, Ma had unique independence of thought and extraordinary unconventionality in many of her choices. "Adhaara Bhootaa jagatastvamekaa," a line from the verse of Devi Mahatmyam was Ma’s favourite. It means, Shakti, a term for the feminine power, drives all manifestation in this world. For centuries, Ma said, this line has been used to describe women as substratum and ply them with responsibilities. Women should now use it to stake their claim to power in the temporal world, since it is the feminine principle that makes the world potent. Ma said an excess of extolling and instilling of self-sacrifice in women had led to the dissolution of women’s rights and well-being. She believed that while it is important to have subliminal intelligence to adapt to cultural contexts and cues, repressive notions of adjustment led to personality distortion.

Representational image

Representational image

A young and beautiful Sanskrit scholar, Ma possessed a contemporary outlook. After her completing her post graduate studies in 1965, she went on to teach higher secondary Sanskrit at the Kalna Hindu Girls High School, stayed alone and had her independent establishment. This was a young, independent India experimenting with modernity, and Ma enjoyed it. After her marriage, she moved to Jamshedpur, and taught at Lady Indra Singh. She always combined the traditional with the modern in equal measure, and saw no contradiction between the two. She used classical learning to push liberal values and said the sisterhood of the feminist literature existed since the days of Shakuntala. She went to Moulin Rouge in Calcutta, loved watching Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn, and shared a great relationship with Bimal Ranjan Das, her husband. Ma gave up her career to raise us. She gave it all and never regretted it, but she continued to champion the cause of working women in communities that she engaged in. Ma was committed to what she called ‘Narir nijesho satta,’ or women’s sovereign power.

She grew up in a household committed to women’s education, was married to man who was the greatest admirer of her academic qualities and she talked of women’s liberation. Ma never used the term women’s empowerment. She disliked men holding forth on what women should or should not do. Equally, she disliked chaotic feminism, because she felt it was unruly, indisciplined and led not to liberation but self-harm. Imbued with the spirit of the Bengal Renaissance, Ma echoed Swami Vivekananda in saying that society should provision for women’s education only, and leave it to the women to sculpt their own destinies. Her formulation of selfhood and self-centredness grew out of this. She believed economic power was the basis of self-identity for women, and the key to this was a sound education.

She wanted women to celebrate themselves. She would instruct the women in the household staff to spend time in self-care. She even taught them how to make French plaits and other hairstyles. These women from unprivileged backgrounds enjoyed the lessons but confided in Ma that this would make their husbands suspicious, jealous and they would then give them utter grief. Ma instructed them to stand their ground and assert their right to fashion and grooming. There was no need to deglamourise the self, when stepping out for work. On numerous occasions, Ma told me, that Indian society, particularly its men, needed a heavy emancipation dose.

Don’t allow yourself to be lectured by dogmatic men and women, she told me when my son Suhrid was diagnosed with autism and a wide array of people seized that as an opportunity to say a million unpalatable things. Some who were uneducated blamed me for my son’s autism, saying that since I wrote for long hours on the computer, I had an autistic son. Some who were educated flung the discredited theories of Bruno Bettleheim at me.

The prevalence of autism globally is high. One out of 68 children, according to CDC estimates, and one in 160 children, according to WHO estimate, are diagnosed with some form of autism. The US government spends huge amounts of money in medical care, special education and behavioural interventions for school-age autistic children. Universities work in close collaboration with schools and research foundations on new methods. In the US, the IDEA Act makes high-quality facilities, individualised education plans and speech and language therapy a requirement for public schools. The UK’s strategy for autism has a similar profile. It makes NHS responsible for speech and language therapy delivery to schools. That is the extent of the preparedness of those societies.

In India, we do not even have accurate data on autism because it is mostly undiagnosed due to irrational beliefs. India does not have a separate autism act or a separate legal framework for the education of those who are autistic. The Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016 included the categories of ASD, learning disability, speech and language disability for the first time, yet this does not create the infrastructure in terms of funding and access. Barring a few mainstream schools that run magnificent autism facilities like the Vasant Valley School, where Suhrid studies, most special education needs departments are wretched hovels.

I went through high levels of stress, years of sleep deprivation due to Suhrid’s sleep imbalances, and struggled hard to pick myself up and help my son. It was at this moment that Ma shone the light. Ma taught me two things. First, in moments of crisis, one has to be a laser beam, not a badly working torchlight. In order to become a laser beam, you have to filter out everything that does not lead you to your goal. In one word, become self-centred. Second, she told me, get rid of the circumstances and the people who are making you miserable. With a troubled mind, you cannot do anything for your son. These teachings led to a spectacular awakening and strength, and made me the fierce mother that I am today. If anyone calls my son abnormal, I stare back and say, he is neither disabled nor abnormal, he is autistic — a child with special needs who sees and thinks differently than you do. If the inquisitor is educated enough to comprehend, I explain about alternate sensory realities and neuro-diversity. Suhrid is growing up to be a fine boy with a distinct personality. And I have reclaimed my name and the gotra of my ancestors for my prayer rituals; it is what I used for performing Ma’s last rites. Ma liberated me from all stereotypes. I have become self-centred to the power of infinity.

File image of Krishna Das. Image courtesy Rashmi Das

File image of Krishna Das. Image courtesy Rashmi Das

Ma loved to sing Tagore songs to Suhrid. Both would spend hours in the winter sun engaged in this activity. If someone interrupted her asking whether Suhrid understood her songs, pat would come the reply, “Of course he does. Suhrid has auditory perception and he uses rhythms for cognition.” Ma left this world merged in her prayers for Suhrid. “No one will ever be able to take her place,” wrote Sushmita Mitra, Head of the Special Education Needs (SEN) department of Vasant Valley School, to me. “You can grant her eternal peace by carrying on with your work and grooming of Suhrid,” she added. To all those moms who had children with special needs, Ma said, enjoy your work, persist with your child and seek your happiness.

How did her other grandchildren experience her? Arpan, my nephew, who studies Economics in UMASS and with whom she conversed about religion and philosophy recalled, “She told me to be mentally independent instead of following what everyone else was doing. She instilled self-confidence in me and never wanted me to be a member of the flock.” As for the granddaughters in the larger family, Ma told them to be ambitious. Pallavi, who is specialising in autism at Strathclyde told me that Ma taught her to chase her career dreams, to learn from mistakes, grow from failures and treat everyone with the respect that we wish for ourselves.

Ma was truly a Renaissance person and believed in The Awakening. That is how she lived, that is what she implemented and taught.

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Updated Date: Jun 11, 2018 20:38:00 IST

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