“It is impossible to think about the welfare of the world unless the condition of women is improved. It is impossible for a bird to fly on only one wing.” — Swami Vivekananda
In Breaking Through, the late Isher Judge Ahluwalia recounts in thoughtful, understated prose how her childhood — as a young girl from a conservative, middle-class Sikh family, attending a Marwari girls’ school in Calcutta — was the starting point for her feminism. In The Brass Notebook, Devaki Jain shows how her approach to economic questions was shaped by her struggle for freedom from an affluent but restrictive upbringing. Though the two women’s childhoods could not have been more different, both knew that education was their path to freedom.
Breaking Out (2012) by Padma Desai, The book describes her difficult passage from childhood in a traditional middle-class family in Surat, through a painful first marriage, to becoming a successful economist in the US.
Desai in 1931, Jain in 1933, and Ahluwalia in 1945, a year after the Presidency College first started admitting women students. Their fathers were family patriarchs. Their mothers had married young, with little or no education, which made them ensure that their daughters went to school. Those were difficult times. Children were vulnerable to infections; some did not survive. The girls grew up seeing the stoicism of women, and the helplessness of widows and unmarried women. Jain describes her aunt Andal as the “living example of unpaid family labour, and this was the pattern for all unmarried daughters and relatives — stigmatised and enslaved”.
The women discovered that academic success was only the first step; there were other hurdles. A flasher on the Delhi bus; a predator at Oxford; an offensive evening on an IMF tour; being passed over for promotion because a man needed it more. There were also moments of agonising self-doubt or the necessity of a rueful compromise. But they persisted. “Sometimes the most we can do is to learn not to be broken by our experiences, to rebuild our lives with what materials are at hand, bit by bit, slowly and patiently,” writes Jain.
Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain wrote Sultana’s Dream (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begum_Rokeya)