My Grandmother Was a Freedom Fighter

My Grandmother Was a Freedom Fighter

My grandmother was a freedom fighter. No—my grandmother is a freedom fighter. Her name is Nirmala Desai, but everyone simply calls her “Behen” or “sister.”

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Behen’s life has been deeply intertwined with the Gandhian struggle for azaadi, svatantrata, freedom. Yet her work as a freedom fighter did not begin or end there. Rather, Behen’s ability to fight for the nation was fundamentally linked to her ability to fight for herself and for the freedom of all Indian women.

The oldest daughter in a wealthy judge’s family in Surat, Behen dropped out of school soon after she started because the teachers would hit the children. At such a young age, she was already guided by a strong sense of right and wrong, with a healthy dose of stubbornness to back it up! When she was nine, Behen heard of a new kind of institution—a Gandhian school where the teachers followed a very different kind of philosophy. Coming home after the first day of school, Behen took off her earrings and put them in her mother’s hand.

“I told my mother, I will not wear these,” she chuckles, “and I never wore ornaments again.” Looking at her white homespun sari with the simple border, she adds, “And I began to wear only these clothes of khadi.”

Behen’s self confidence and presence attracted plenty of suitors. When she was a teenager, a respected family approached hers to arrange an engagement. Although Behen did not care much for the young man—a cricketer who just couldn’t understand her commitment to a Gandhian lifestyle—the two families fixed an engagement. After some time, Behen’s family came to know that mental illness ran in the family of her honewala pati and that the young man himself was at risk of “going mad” (in the parlance of the time).

While Behen’s father was conflicted, her mother was clear on what needed to happen: The engagement needed to be broken, despite the very strong social censure that they would face. Donning full pardah, her mother went to the caste elders to present her case. In response, the elders threatened to kick the family out of the caste. But Behen’s mother held her ground, and eventually they relented and agreed that the engagement could be broken.

Yet, Behen’s ex-fiancé would not leave her alone. He bullied her with questions. He demanded to know why she broke off the engagement.

As luck would have it, Behen came to know of a new college in Ahmedabad, specifically for women. Keen on further studies, she was excited to go. Although it was highly unusual for families to send their daughters away then (and now!), her parents agreed because the move would put some distance between her and her former suitor. Meanwhile, after the trauma of the engagement, Behen had taken an unusual decision: She would live out her life as a spinster activist.

Laughing at her youthful pride, she recalls, “I said, I will not marry—I will do good things for the people!”

It was at Karve Women’s College in Ahmedabad that Behen became involved in the burgeoning Independence movement. Part of the nationalist strategy was to promote education and more independence for women, so that they could “come out of the home” and participate in the fight for freedom. Although there was plenty of patriarchy and sexism in his thinking, Gandhiji also recognized that the well-being of men, families, and society as a whole rested on the strength and well-being of women.

Behen took this idea to heart. She recognized a space where she could make a difference and began working with Jyoti Sangh, an organization founded by Mridula Sarabhai in Ahmedabad. Jyoti Sangh empowers women through skills training—literacy, financial skills, sewing, and more—and encourages them to generate a small income by preparing and selling domestic goods.

One summer, Behen attended a national camp in which women were trained to become active participants and leaders in the freedom struggle. There, Kamaladevi Chottapadhyay, Gandhi’s close associate and one of the most prominent figures in the nationalist movement, noticed Behen’s sharp intelligence and told Sarabhai that she wanted Behen to work on her national campaigns. Sarabhai refused, protesting that she needed Behen for the effort in Gujarat.

By the late 1930s, the Independence movement was in full swing and Behen participated in protest marches every morning, singing Gandhian songs and walking in company with others in blatant disregard of the British law that forbade public assembly. On several occasions, she was sent to jail for her public disobedience. Meanwhile, she acted as one of the Ahmedabad sector coordinators for the women’s wing of the Independence movement. Although the British had forbidden large public gatherings, small groups of fewer than three people could meet. Since women were less likely to be targeted or searched by the officials, they would walk together, traversing their assigned neighborhoods to pass on letters carried in the folds of their skirts or saris and to convey messages about upcoming strategies and actions. Behen oversaw and coordinated these crucial acts of resistance and stealthy networks of communication.

Behen addresses a group.

Behen addresses a group.

Alongside the responsibilities and dangers of political activity, the Independence movement brought Behen something else—romance. During college, she became acquainted with Nirubhai Desai, a young man who was similarly committed to the Gandhian movement. Over the course of a seven-year (!) courtship, they fought together for India’s freedom. The two maintained an intimate intellectual and romantic connection, even during Nirubhai’s long periods in jail by writing long letters back and forth.

Nirubhai managed to persuade Behen to marry him by invoking their shared passion for activism and desire for social change. Together, he convinced her, they could do even more to change the world. Behen agreed, but on one condition: She would not marry until the nation was free. They married in a simple ceremony in 1945 when it was clear that the Independence struggle had been a success, although it was two more years before India officially received independence. Behen was thirty-one years old.

Behen’s work as a freedom fighter did not end with India’s Independence. The nation was free, yet there was still so much to be done in society—and, in particular, for women. While she stayed home to raise her children (my mother was the oldest of her seven children), she continued to work for Jyoti Sangh by receiving women in her home several afternoons a week. She taught them how to read and write and provided advice and guidance on their domestic affairs. Behen also continued to promote and practice the importance of conducting oneself with discipline, compassion, and morality in the world.

I can hear her voice now, “We must always do things in a proper way! If we act properly, then it will be good for the world.”

Today we’re celebrating 67 years of India’s independence from British rule, the result of so much sacrifice and struggle by so many. I’m in awe when I think of all the women who, despite the great barriers they faced in speaking up and leaving the house, were so instrumental in the freedom movement.

Behen at her 100th birthday.

Behen at her 100th birthday.

My grandmother is a freedom fighter—a fierce revolutionary with a will ahead of her time. She lived according to what she believed was right, not what society told her, and this passion still burns inside her, keeping her alive. At 100 years old, Behen still keenly follows the affairs of the world, devouring what news she can get from her bed. She is eager to engage any and all who come to meet her in conversations about what we can—and must—do to make the world a better place.

“I want to go out and meet the people, talk with them, help them, but—.” She sighs, smiling and gesturing at her legs, her frail form, “I cannot.”

That’s okay: Behen has done her part and set a formidable example in the process. Now it’s our turn.