As a precocious young girl, Surekha knew very little about the details of her mother Amma’s unusual past and that of Babu, her mysterious and sometimes absent father. The tense, uncertain family life created by her parents’ distant and fractious marriage and their separate ambitions informs her every action and emotion. Then one evening, in a moment of uncharacteristic transparency and vulnerability, Amma tells Surekha and her older sister Didi of the family tragedy that changed the course of her life. Finally, the daughters begin to understand the source of their mother’s deep commitment to the Indian nationalist movement and her seemingly unending willingness to sacrifice in the name of that pursuit.
In this re-memory based on the published and unpublished work of Amma and Surekha, Meenal Shrivastava, Surekha’s daughter, uncovers the history of the female foot soldiers of Gandhi’s national movement in the early twentieth century. As Meenal weaves these written accounts together with archival research and family history, she gives voice and honour to the hundreds of thousands of largely forgotten or unacknowledged women who, threatened with imprisonment for treason and sedition, relentlessly and selflessly gave toward the revolution.
“Amma’s Daughters draws a vivid portrait of a revolutionary woman who challenges the norms of her time. Drawing on diaries and oral history, Shrivastava takes us on a journey alongside her courageous grandmother as she joins the Gandhian struggle against British rule in India and, after independence, negotiates her way through a political terrain inhospitable to women while simultaneously being a wife and mother. This biography is a welcome addition to the field of women’s history as complicates the conventional dichotomy of political man/domestic woman.”
—Sikata Banerjee, professor of gender studies, University of Victoria
Babu is attacking the side of a mountain with a heavy mace. He swings the long wooden club in a wide arc and smashes it down on the rock, shattering it into large pieces the same silver-grey colour as his hair. They cascade down the jagged slope, like thunder rolling across the sky. The next swing brings the head of the mace close to my face, and on it I now see Amma’s features. I wake up with a scream stuck in my throat.
I opened my eyes to discover a high ceiling, stretching like a bone-white canopy above my mother’s single bed, so cool and soft. A brown and black cotton rug, woven by inmates of Jaipur’s central jail, where Amma taught classes in the evenings, was all that separated her overstuffed mat- tress from the sandstone floor. From where I lay I could see the stern, straight-backed wooden chair that sat before her teak writing desk, piled high as usual with papers and files. No mountain—only the two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, jammed with books, that flanked her desk, and the stout wrought-iron trunk in the corner, where Amma stored her clothes. On the window above the desk, the familiar batik curtains framed the world beyond in azure folds. But something felt different.
I craned my neck toward the open double doors, straining to hear any sound from the courtyard. Nothing—except the stillness of a summer afternoon when the breath of the earth shimmers in a hot haze. This almost eerie silence forced away the last traces of sleep, and with wakeful- ness came a vague recollection of last night—Babu’s muffled anger barely audible through the wooden panels of the door to Amma’s room, Didi and me hovering anxiously on the other side. Babu’s outbursts, especially when directed at Amma, always terrified us. Fully awake now, I wondered if my father had left us again.
I sat up, brushed the hair out of my eyes, and emerged from Amma’s cool room into the silent white heat of the courtyard. My steps took me across the courtyard and into Babu’s room at the other end. It was bigger than Amma’s but felt emptier, despite the infinitely larger number of books, overflowing more bookshelves than I could count, and his beloved harmonium. Unlike Amma, whose capacious desk always bore signs of activity, Babu wrote at a narrow wooden school desk with nothing more than an unused inkwell on it. The simple desk was paired with an equally plain wooden chair.
It was impossible to tell whether my father’s bare wooden bed had been slept in. It had only a square block of granite for a pillow and no mattress. The white khadi-cotton sheet, all that was allowed to cover the planks in the warmer months, was neatly folded at the foot. But then I noticed Babu’s indoor footwear, a pair of wooden khadau, tucked under the bed, while his shoes were missing. This was the only clue that he was not at home.
I turned away just in time to see Mangi bai hurry out of the kitchen from the other side of the courtyard. Her lined face stretched into a toothy smile as she approached, and I could tell that she had been looking for me. “You are up, my little one!” Amma’s trusty cook—or, as Amma liked to put it, our “home minister”—crouched down in front of me.
The arrested scream, the one that had lingered after my nightmare, now escaped my throat as a strangled cry, and the sound as it echoed in the empty courtyard startled me. I stumbled forward into Mangi bai’s wiry frame, almost knocking her over, but she stood up and steadied us both.