Two correspondents could not be more different. One a young girl, the other the grand old lady of India’s freedom struggle. One the child of a single mother who works as a maid. The other to the manor born; child to a poetess mother and a doctorate in science father. One alive and the other dead. A steady stream of letters begin to flow from Sarojini, the young girl from Bengaluru in 2015 to Sarojini Naidu who passed away in 1949.
What is common though is a fire that one finds in fighters who challenge the status quo. Sarojini Devi questioned them before 1947 against the British colonists. Sarojini the government school student seeks to question and change the status quo in a time where money rather than merit seems to dictate the access to quality education.
Dear Mrs.Naidu, written by Mathangi Subramanian is a powerful book which drives home the point that solutions are always at hand, no matter how desperate the situation or conditions that prevail.
The book opens with Sarojini Naidu’s powerful words:
Do not think of yourselves as small girls. You are the powerful Durga in disguise…Forget about the earth. You shall move the skies.
Sarojini Naidu was an Indian freedom fighter, who worked alongside Mahatma Gandhi, Rabindranath Tagore, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Annie Besant, Jawaharlal Nehru and Gopal Krishna Gokhale. A key member of the Civil Disobedience Movement in 1942, Sarojini believed in the ‘collective identity’ of women in shaping a new India. She thought of her country as a mother and often felt that women had to fight for their rights in addition to being key participants in their nation’s struggle for freedom.
In Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers In London, 1890-1945 Anna Snaith cites one of Naidu’s poems.
‘In 1904 Naidu read her ‘Ode to India’ at the 18th session of The Indian National Congress in Bombay, a large portion of which was dedicated to women’s issues: purdah, child marriage, education. This poem appears in her collection as ‘To India’ and centres around the nation as sleeping mother: “The nations that in fettered darkness weep,/ Crave thee to lead them where great mornings break…/ Mother, O Mother, wherefore dost thou sleep?/ Arise and answer for thy children’s sake!’
It is this brave outspoken thinker and poetess that the young twelve-year-old Sarojini writes to. In her letters to Mrs.Naidu, we see the beginning of a thought that she turns to action. Sarojini is a happy sixth grader though she may be living in conditions that are not optimal. She wishes for better conditions in her life.
Just Like you love your home, I love mine.
This may sound funny because most people see my home and hold their noses or shake their heads or get really angry for a second.
Well, not most people. Most people don’t notice my home, even when they stand right in front of it.
My home is a coconut grove that’s squished between a brand new hospital and a shopping mall full of western stores. Amma says that if it wasn’t for all the trees, someone whould have come and bulldozed it a long time ago and built another shopping mall. When I said it doesn’t make sense to build a new shopping mall next to an old one, she said that in Bangalore, you can never have too many shopping malls.
Most of the time, I love my home and I love my neighbourhood. But the rest of the time, I wish I could run away to a house like yours, a house so comfortable and humongous and posh that you called it the Golden Threshold, which is also the name of your first book of poems.
Here are some of the reasons why I sometimes don’t love my neighbourhood. For one thing, most of us don’t have proper roofs. We cover our houses with pieces of blue plastic, or sheets of tin, or whatever else we can find. Hema aunty’s roof, for example, is a hoarding with a photo of a woman politician with a round, fair face. Hema Aunty says that the politician with a round, fair face. Hema aunty says that the politician promised everyone new roofs when she ran for election, so it was only fair to take the hoarding and help her keep the promise.
The author of Dear Mrs. Naidu Mathangi Subramanian, holds the mirror up to a society where access to education is unequal. She highlights the story of Sarojini an ‘Invisible’ . Sarojini has aspirations and dreams that she seeks to fulfill. Sarojini understands that if she is educated she has a better chance to achieve her dreams of a better life for Amma (mother) and her into action. This she supposes lies in the walls of a premier school. She and her mother cross the school gates with the understanding that with the right certificates, Sarojini would be eligible to study for free, thanks to the Right to Education act.
This crossing they realize is a chasm. Sarojini’s mother is humiliated for even thinking about it; a school employee uses a sanitizer when Sarojini’s mother touches her hand. Poverty, Sarojini realises is not an economic condition alone but a social one as well.The government may have stipulated 25% reservation for students below the poverty line but this school clearly had found ways to subvert them, contrary to the principles of equality taught in them. Normally any other child would be crushed, but not Sarojini who starts to look at ways to counter this.
Other characters in the book are Sarojini’s best friend Amir a Muslim, Deepti (child of a construction labourer), Vimala Madam (Amma’s employer and advocate), Annie Miss (Sarojini’s teacher)
As a member of her Government School’s, ‘Child Rights Club’ Sarojini goes to meet one of her amma’s employers Vimala madam. Her probing questions help Sarojini get focussed and look at her purpose from new perspectives.
The book is replete with civic battles. Corrupt civic authorities, unwilling school officials, surely businessmen are all met with and spoken to. Sarojini and her friends give the adults around them the courage to ask and demand to be heard.
Thirty-seven letters to the illustrious Sarojini Devi, with no responses, cover the distance -no less historic than a moon walk – between Sarojini the twelve-year-old who ‘adjusts’ with her situation to becoming an active player in school reform.
The book has a wonderful ending, in which Sarojini turns the problem on its head. I leave you with Sarojini’s parting words and hope that this post has made you curious enough to get your own copy of the thought provoking, Dear Mrs.Naidu.
Do you know what that feels like, Mrs. Naidu?
It feels like forgetting the earth.
It feels like moving the skies.