Speaking Volumes: India’s suffragette-princess



For the last two decades, I’ve taken my voter’s ID card for granted: it’s just there, like the “sovereign socialist secular democratic republic” of India itself. I almost voted for Dharatipakkad in my first election, before using my franchise a little more wisely, and will vote along with much of Delhi this Saturday. Like most of my generation, I can neither imagine living in a country nor a world where women had to fight for the basic right to vote.

In my favourite photograph of Sophia Duleep Singh, the princess stands outside Hampton Court, an elegant woman whose face expresses her determination. She is selling copies of The Suffragette. Until Anita Anand wrote Sophia: Princess, Suffragette, Revolutionary (Bloomsbury India), even most feminist historians were unaware of the role played by Maharajah Duleep Singh’s daughter in the Votes for Women campaign.


Sophia Duleep Singh died a year after India gained its Independence at the age of 71, peacefully in one of the estates marked out for the former royals by Queen Victoria, who was also godmother to the princess. She had seen her father, the deposed king, fritter away a large part of his legacy after his move to England; she and her sisters had grown up without “roots, playmates or competent parents”.

The loss of the kingdom and the riches symbolized by the handing over of the Kohinoor had only been partly alleviated by the allocation of grace-and-favour houses to Sophia and her siblings. They were close; in the portrait of the three sisters taken at their Buckingham Palace debut, Bamba, Catherine and Sophia lean towards each other, comfortable in their long white debutante’s gowns. Ranjit Singh’s grand-daughters did not receive their due from the British, then or at any other time, though Sophia and Queen Victoria remained close.

Anita Anand’s liking for her subject is obvious; Sophia, who appeared to be apolitical in her teens, made strong choices all through her life. Aside from her lifelong love of animals, she had a tendency to take up causes with intensity and involvement.

She had grown up in Elveden: “The estate had an air of surreal but pleasant madness,” Anand writes. The Prince of Wales came down to shoot pheasants with Duleep Singh; the duties of footmen included chasing after parrots, jackdaws and the odd baboon. For a while, Sophia appeared in the papers as one of London’s fashionable young women, known for the elaborate dresses she wore, the Borzois she bred and for being a “first-rate cyclist”.

 Debutants, credit Peter Bance (c) www.duleepsingh.com.jpg

But in 1903, on a visit to India, Sophia explored Punjab for seven weeks, while her sisters retreated from the warm weather to Shimla. She began to understand her heritage, and to love the country that had shaped her history without ever being home. On the ship back to England, Sophia was one of the rare passengers to notice the plight of the lascars, the “ragged merchant seamen” who lived precariously on London’s docks. She changed the lives of thousands of sailors by setting up a home for able seamen; later, after the Great War, she would channel her philantrophic energies similarly towards the cause of Indian soldiers in Brighton, volunteering at a hospital for the wounded.

A separate book could be written on the number of women in that age whose relative privilege – wealth, estates, position – could not compensate for the frustrations of not being allowed to join the workplace, run industries, or participate in political life. Philantrophy was among the few acceptable outlets for their intelligence and energy.

In 1907, Sophia met the revolutionary Sarla Devi Choudhrani, and was profoundly swayed by the speeches she heard Gopal Krishna Gokhale and Lala Lajpat Rai make in Lahore. The sisters were taken aback to find themselves on stage with the nationalists: “Up we got amid cheers… oh dear we were cockatoos with a vengeance today.” By 1908, back in London, she had found the cause that would stir her almost as much as the talk of Home Rule in India: women’s rights, and the meetings of the WSPU, where Emmeline Pankhurst, Uma Dugdale and others gave animated speeches.

In the next few years, Queen Victoria’s god-daughter would become a headache for the British government. Sophia marched with Pankhurst, witnessing and being badly jostled in the many assaults on the suffragettes by London’s police; she funded the cause, and joined the hundreds of women who refused to pay their taxes until they had the vote. In a more flamboyant moment, Sophia attempted to stop the prime minister’s car as it left Downing Street; she had concealed her women’s rights poster in her fashionable furs.

It is so easy to erase women’s names from history. In Indian newspapers today, the conversation centres on just a few stalwarts of the nationalist movement, almost all of them male – Gandhi, Nehru, Patel, but so rarely even a mention of Sarojini Naidu, Aruna Asaf Ali, Annie Besant and the rest.

Anita Anand mentions that Sophia’s voice would have been lost had she not kept detailed diaries, which were fortunately passed on to the British Library. Anand managed to speak to three people who knew Sophia well, including her god-daughter, Drovna. She had almost given up on tracking Drovna when she received a phone call in July 2012: “My name is Drovna – what do you want with my Princess?”

Sophia: Princess, Sufragette, Revolutionary is a painstaking biography, perhaps more thorough than brilliant. But by resurrecting Sophia Duleep Singh’s overlooked life and memory, this book is a reminder of how bitter the battle was for the women’s vote, how remarkable it was that an Indian woman would have joined that cause in London, and how the early calls for nationalism resonated in the heart of this maharajah’s daughter. The last word should be left to Drovna, who remembers Sophia often telling her: “I want a solemn promise from you. You are never, ever not to vote. You don’t realise how far we’ve come. Promise me.”

Our bodies, ourselves


For ten years, I wrote on gender issues (in the Kolkata Telegraph and then the International Herald Tribune), without feeling the need to share my story. It was bad journalism to become part of the story, in the first place, and then I’d been silent about my experiences for decades; the silence had become second nature.

But if there was one thing that came up time and time again when I met women on the gender beat, it was the importance of understanding your own history. That was the starting point, whether women were talking about inheritance or rape, about the traditions they found empowering and the ones they found demeaning, about who they were allowed to love and live with, and about the violence they had survived. I found, trying to write about consent and to explain why it was so important to Indian women today, that I couldn’t write about bodies, abuse, consent and sex without turning back to my own story. So here it is, with apologies for breaking the journalism rule about writing something so personal, and with apologies too for friends who knew me well in school and college but who didn’t know this part of my story. I’m sorry I couldn’t tell you. I didn’t have the words then; I do now.

From The Hindu:

“If this story saddens you, please think about this: my story is neither new nor rare, nor was the man who abused me a monster, or in any way out of the ordinary….

You own your own body. Everyone has the right to live without their bodies being violated. Everyone has the right to demand that you ask for permission before you touch their bodies.”


(And an uncut version over here, at the International Herald Tribune: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/08/opinion/global/saying-yes-matters-as-much-as-no.html?partner=rssnyt&emc=rss&_r=0)

Someone asked whether writing about this was hard. It wasn’t. Staying silent about this, for over 20 years, living with the necessity of concealing the truth: that was hard. Looking through my old stories, I find I wasn’t very good at shutting up, either–it found its way into the second piece of fiction I wrote. The truth of our lives has a way of leaking out, one way or another, and if the only thing this piece does is make it a little bit easier for one or two children to share their stories and move on with their lives, it’s done the job.


From Little Pig, Little Pig (2006):

She can feel its breath, rank and feral, thick with the blood of its last kill, on her shoulders. And just as she’s about to give up, there it is: the cottage. She sobs as she runs through the door. She is safe here, for now.

Little pig, says the voice in her head. It is sad and sorrowing, hopeful and despairing. Little pig, little pig, let me come in?

Notes from Raisina Hill


“We want justice! We want justice!”

I went to the protests at Raisina Hill expecting very little. Despite the anger over the recent, brutal gang-rape of a 23-year-old by a group of six men, who also beat up her male friend, protests over women’s violence in the Capital have been relatively small.

But the crowds walking up the Hill, towards the government offices of North and South Block, from India Gate are unusual. It’s a young crowd—students, young men and women in their twenties, a smattering of slightly older women there to show their solidarity, and it’s a large crowd, about a thousand strong at the Hill itself. There are two small knots representing student’s politicial organisations, but otherwise, many of the people here today are drawn together only by their anger.

Many say it is their first protest, but “this time was too much”. The women spill over with articulate indignation about how tired they are of being targets of violence—not free in the streets, not free at home, says one. The men talk about how they don’t want to be seen in the same light as rapists; one young student talks about how helpless he feels when his women friends/ relatives are targetted. As more and more join the crowds, I realise that many of the students come from Faridabad, Ghaziabad, outside the insulated circle of South Delhi colleges. Almost all of them heard about the protest on Facebook and Twitter, or from friends—not through the mainstream media.


“Hang the rapists!” “Castrate Men Who Rape!”

Many of the protestors are volubly, enthusiastically for the death penalty, some demanding mob justice. “Give us those six men, and we’ll show them what pain is like,” says one lovely young girl, holding up a “Death To All Rapists” sign. Her friend breaks down when she talks about how she’s followed the progress of the survivor of the recent gang-rape in Delhi: the brutality of the rape (the rapists savaged the woman so badly with an iron rod that her intestines are permanently damaged) has become a kind of uber-nightmare for many. None of them have thought the implications of capital punishment through: this is a from-the-gut, emotional response.

Along with the “Death To The Rapist” chants,  the “We Want Justice” refrain that runs through this morning’s protests, there’s also a swell of anger against the government and against politicians. Sheela Dikshit, Sonia Gandhi, the Home Minister—the crowd calls, again, and again, for them to come out and address people. They may not know exactly what they want—safer roads? An end to violence against women? Death to rapists?—but they really want someone to talk to them, anyway. “Come out from your safe offices, your safe cars, come out and see how we live,” says one woman. It’s picked up by many others.


“Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”

The police attempts to disperse protestors thrice in the morning. I miss the first lathi-charge/ tear gassing, but the next two happen shortly afterwards—on what seems like scant provocation. Right at the front, holding the protestors back, a line of young boys and girls reminds everyone to keep it peaceful, to keep it down. “Say whatever you want to say, abuse as much as you want, but no violence,” says a student who’s as much of a leader as this spontaneous, leaderless protest has had. Earlier that morning, some members of the crowd smashed the window of a Delhi Police bus, and apparently that led to the first lathicharge and teargassing.

When four boys start pushing out another of the Delhi Police buses, other protestors immediately stop them. “Don’t give them an excuse!” one calls, but it’s too late. The bus has been rolled back into place. But the water cannon starts up and the teargas shells start bursting, as the police decide that’s the best thing to do with a bunch of young protestors who’re clearly trying to keep it peaceful. We cover our faces with shawls, hankies, and run for it, shells bursting around us. When one of the boys lobs a shell back, he’s yelled at: “Don’t kick it back! Don’t let them blame us!”

The third tear-gassing is equally unwarranted: the police open up the barricades, leaving a tempting gap, and when protestors start to move in (and therefore technically towards Rashtrapati Bhavan), out come the cannons again and the teargas shells. But though the crowds disperse, they keep coming back. The mood has changed slightly. There are more calls of “Delhi Police Hai Hai!” and in a silent shift of tactics, the crowd does its best to bait the police. “Stones are being thrown at the police,” one over-excited reporter says, and he has it wrong. What some of the protestors were throwing were coins, taunting the police: you don’t do your job well enough to keep us safe, perhaps you will if we bribe you. Every so often, obeying some unspoken signal among themselves, the protestors amiably give the cops the finger.

Some boys climb up the lamp posts, holding up their slogans: Hang Rapists, Stop Violence, Respect Women. They’re received with loud cheers, and then an even bigger cheer goes up when one young woman scales a lamppost. Soon, all five of the ornate iron lamp-posts in the park near Raisina Hill have been taken over by young women, sending out sincere if mixed messages. One of them, a fiery shouter of slogans, holds up bangles in the direction of the police, sending out a message that may be singularly unfeminist, but that is also very clear: you should wear these, like weak women, because you can’t do your job, which makes you weak, like women. Seekers of metaphor and symbol would have a field day with this.

The protest stays calm and peaceful, settling down into a kind of rhythm, with separate knots performing their versions of homely street theatre, till about 2:30 pm. By that time, the sting of the teargas has left most of us, and I am recognising, with some surprise, just how safe I feel in this crowd, safer than I have ever felt in any public place in Delhi in decades.

Afternoon: a different crowd

But the crowd is changing, fast, and in unpleasant ways. The students, and their spontaneous protest, form a small wedge at the top of Raisina Hill, flanked by long lines of police and media. Behind them, swirling in eddies through the body of the protestors, are packs of activists, beginning to catch up to the televised, pulsing energy of this particular protest. I see cadres from all kinds of political parties, many of them, like the Shiv Sena, not known for their interest in women’s rights or women’s issues, here just to barrack the government and soak up some TV time. Loose knots of gawkers are beginning to stroll in, attracted by the tamasha—TV crews, out at India Gate on Saturday—and the composition begins to change, radically. If there were as many women as men during the first part of the day, now the back end of the protest, near India Gate, seems to have mostly men—few students, by the look of it.

However confused the protest of the morning was, it was also impressive in its own way—and moving, to see so many young people come out for a cause they felt strongly about, even more moving to see how caring they were of each other. “Do you need water?” the boys had asked, their own eyes streaming. “We have a little extra water,” women had said, sharing what they had with the other girls who’d been teargassed. “Here, take my scarf, take my handkerchief, cover your face.” All through the morning, there’d been that little ripple through the crowd: Is everyone all right? Is everyone safe?

By afternoon, that has changed. I’m at India Gate when the crump of the teargas shells starts up again. The cries of “We want justice!” still echo up Rajpath, but now groups of activists are performing for the TV cameras; the political cadres mug for their audiences; and back at the Hill, what started as a spontaneous gesture of solidarity from a bunch of unrelated young people with no agenda of their own has become yet another mixed, messy business. Not one politician, not one government official, came out on the ramparts of North or South Block to talk to them this morning; and if anyone does, later this evening, they’ll be talking to a completely different crowd. I hope the curiosity of the idle won’t last, and that other protestors from Delhi, who care about the issue more than about being on TV, will join this young, impassioned group.

In one of my favourite moments from the day: just after the first teargassing, as we tried to help a girl who was retching from the gas, her friend stood up and said, “So yeh hai Dilli Police ka motto, With You For You Gas You Always!” “Yaar,” said another girl, “what a bunch of losers they are. Total losers.” The refrain got picked up by the crowd. It may have been the first time in Indian history that a group of protestors responded to being teargassed by giving the police the bird, and chanting: “Losers, losers, tussi loser-log hai!”

It’s a pity, because this bunch of protestors had something interesting about them. Their messages were mixed, and lacked the coherence you’d get from the average activist group, but their energy and will to at least try and make a change was unmistakeable. They have a lot to say for themselves, and though I hadn’t planned to spend my Saturday morning on Raisina Hill, I’m glad I went.


More pictures from the December 22 protests:



Teargassed; this was a slightly watery-eyed shot :)

Teargassed; this was a slightly watery-eyed shot:)

Flag-raising ceremony, lamp-post version.
Flag-raising ceremony, lamp-post version.

The women took over lamp-post duty from the men in short order.
The women took over lamp-post duty from the men in short order.
This sign said it all.
This sign said it all.

More posts:

A blocked protest: Notes on my city

On the Dec 23 protests: At the heart of Delhi, no space for you; Dec 23 photos

On survivors and victims, the language of rape: Talking Rape

On the death penalty and rape statistics: Executing The Neighbour



The BS Column: Sacco’s wars

(Published in the Business Standard, November 20, 2012)

The @IDFSpokesperson account on Twitter has over 179,091 followers, and is credited with having brought war to social media. Over last week, thousands watched the war unfold in Gaza, tweet by tweet.

Many were horrified at the cold-blooded way in which the Israeli Defence Forces laid out their defence: “Thanks to our followers worldwide for sharing our infographics. Let’s see how many RTs you can get for this one…pic.twitter.com/s50rb1fI.” One tweet, “Our goal is one: improving the reality of life for Israeli civilians#IsraelUnderFire”, came out the day after photographs were published of a Palestinian family, three children and their mother, killed by Israeli fire.

Both fiction and journalism will attempt, at some point, to make sense of what is playing out in Gaza today, just as novelists and journalists have attempted to make sense of Bosnia, or the Chechen Wars, or a score of other contemporary conflicts. But if there is one contemporary author who has the most useful perspective, the sharpest pen, it would be Joe Sacco.

I was reading his new collection, Journalism, just before Israel began its offensive. Sacco’s early graphic novel, Palestine, was the first in a series of unconventional journalism, where the Maltese-American cartoonist used his pen to capture the stories of those he met, travelling from Gaza to Sarajevo, from Bosnia to Iraq. In the 1990s and most of the 2000s, Sacco’s voice grew stronger as he explored the landscape of conflict, always asking the big, human questions, lingering where a conventional reporter would have got his or her story and left. His graphic novels rank among the greatest literary achievements of the last two decades.

Interviewed by The Believer in 2011, Sacco said: “When you draw, you can always capture… that exact, precise moment when someone’s got the club raised, when someone’s going down. I realize now there’s a lot of power in that… You have to put yourself in everyone’s shoes that you draw, whether it’s a soldier or a civilian.”

As @idfSpokesperson updates their Twitter feed with today’s “game score”, I’m reading Sacco’s Gaza portfolio; bulldozers taking down houses in the Palestinian refugee camp of Rafah, the IDF justifying its home-demolition campaign. His drawings provides the background that is so often missing from the quick news clip, the news journalist’s objective story, and indeed, Sacco questions “objectivity”, in the Manifesto that opens Journalism. “I’ve picked the stories I wanted to tell, and by those selections, my sympathies should be clear,” he writes. “I chiefly concern myself with those who don’t get a hearing, and I don’t feel it is incumbent on me to balance their voices with the well-crafted apologetics of the powerful.”

In story after story, what Sacco brings back to the frame is the humanity of the people he meets. Women in Chechnya, pawns in a game of Hide-the-Refugee, living in disused cowsheds, in still-operating cement plants; the confusion among Iraqis who have signed on to be guardsmen with the Americans, but who can’t understand them; the steady dehumanization of migrants in his native Malta.

When he writes about the Dalits who live in Kushinagar, the Musahars who are “hanging on to the planet by their fingernails”, his outsider’s eyes see everything that Indian insiders have been trained to skip over, the empty chairs that the Dalits won’t sit on in the presence of upper caste visitors or a white man.

Kushinagar ends, like so much of Sacco’s compassionate, self-aware and never self-indulgent journalism, with no resolution. By the end of his time in Kushinagar, he knows as much about the apathy or corruption of the officials of the state and the deeply entrenched divisions of caste in smooth operation, as any journalist or insider to the area could tell you.

In every panel that he draws, Sacco pays particular attention to the faces of the people he speaks to, the people who trust him with their stories, from the displaced refugees simmering in the rage and hopelessness of those for whom there is no place in Malta or in Chechnya.

The Dalits of Kushinagar emerge in his drawings as individuals, not as faceless representations of poverty, and though he never completes his interviews—they are interrupted, he is asked to leave—he attempts to have a conversation that is not an interrogation. In all of his stories, he is there, not intrusive, but not edited out either. “I mean to signal to the reader that journalism is a process with seams and imperfections practiced by a human being—it is not a cold science carried out behind Plexiglas by a robot,” Sacco writes.

In a slightly different context, Janet Malcolm writes of one of the experiences that came her way through her journalism: “ It took me out of a sheltered place and threw me into bracingly icy water. What more could a writer want?” Sacco’s journalism does that for readers, removing them from shelter, and allowing them to take that plunge through his powerful, humane words and images.