The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Tarakeshwari Sinha’s treasures were her friendliness and dignity

In snooty circles, Bihar continues to be at the receiving end of derisive comments. The phenomenon of Lalu Prasad is naturally referred to as illustrative of what awaits the nation if Bihar’s caste fixation and rustic ways are allowed their head. But be fair, Bihar is only part of the whole; political culture has declined precipitously all over the country, period.

To forget Bihar’s role in the freedom struggle will be an essay in ingratitude. Jayaprakash Narayan will always stand out for his high moral principles and as an innovator of ideas; his civilization too was in a class by itself. Sahajanand Saraswati is now a forgotten figure; but it is his legacy which the communist party came to enjoy while it was entrenching itself in the Bihar countryside in the middle decades of the last century. Or consider, among the state’s chief ministers, the case of Karpoori Thakur, a person of extraordinary integrity. And whatever one’s views on Rajendra Prasad, the country’s first president, the Dalit, Jagjivan Ram, was surely one of the shrewdest and ablest cabinet ministers at the national level. Should we pass over either the impact, in the sphere of culture and literature, of the eminent savant from Bihar, Rahul Sankrityayan'

If on a different plane, it is equally relevant to remember the euphoric times between the end of World War II and the nation’s independence in 1947. The country was in ferment; students were on the march everywhere, either protesting against the trial of the Indian National Army heroes or extolling the romantic mutiny of the naval ratings at Ballard Pier in Bombay. Two college girls from Bihar, still in their teens, burst onto the national scene during that phase. One of them, Ramdulari Sinha, did not stay the stretch. The other one, Tarakeshwari Sinha, went on though to win laurels after laurels.

Graduating from the Students’ Congress to the faction-ridden precincts of Bihar politics, she demonstrated, in the process, both stamina and grit. Scion of landed aristocracy extracting surplus with merciless efficiency from Bihar’s countryside, she as a child had been groomed in a convent and, on entering college, tasted the excitement of the turmoil of 1942 and the following years. Self-assured to a fault, she was fluent in both English and Hindi, possessed ambition, and plenty of glamour to go with it. She fitted snugly into the turbulence of politics. Her beauty apart, she loved to dress well, and had a weakness for make-up. It would however be silly to assume that these were her only capital assets. Her major attribute was raw courage, which some people chose to describe as brashness. Women’s lib was during those days an unencountered concept; the epidemic of women’s studies was yet to spread out from across American campuses for global conquest. Tarakeshwari did not know of such tides-in-waiting. She constituted a one-woman army, fighting the battle for women’s emancipation on her own. While she fought it within the ambit of the superstructure, her heroism can scarcely be underrated. After all, most of the subsequent mobilization, too, is confined within the contours of the middle class; the women who really need massive protection at the base of the society against the ravages wrought by both mass poverty and gender inequity continue to be left out.

Tarakeshwari must therefore be judged in the context of her era and milieu. Defying the manoeuvres of machine politicians, she got herself elected to the first Lok Sabha. She was young, brave and uninhibited. She would harry ministers with piles of questions, interpellations and endless supplimentaries, and would also chip in with points of order on the slightest of protest. Presiding officers as stern as Mavlankar and Ananthasayanam Aayangar found it difficult to control her ebullience. A bemused Jawaharlal Nehru thought he had a solution. He made her a deputy minister and, with a sense of puckish humour, attached her to Morarji Desai in the ministry of finance. That did no good. Opposites attract each other; Morarji, the arch reactionary and conservative, enjoyed the cheekiness of the brash young damsel; she in her turn found in him an indulgent sugar daddy, of course of the puritan genre.

Ordinarily, a deputy ministerial slot is assumed to be sinecure. Tarakeshwari would not put up with the idea. Inveigling Morarji into giving her a specific area of responsibility, she was determined to prove her competence. She would, without standing on ceremony, barge into the rooms of officers irrespective of their positions. She would demand to know the difference between balance of trade and balance of payments, she had to be taught the mystique of the relationship between growth, investment and incremental capital-output ratio, she had to be helped to understand what Keynes meant by disguised unemployment.

She was the only deputy minister at the time to break out of the dark chamber of anonymity. Not that the calumny-mongers decided to take a rest, they sneeringly referred to her hair-do and the heavy French perfume she wore. The same crowd however had not a word to say about the attar exuding from the frame of Satya Narayan Sinha, also from Bihar, Union minister for parliamentary affairs for a long time.

The Sixties turned the scales against Tarakeshwari. Indira Gandhi believed in keeping at arm’s length women politicians; in this matter she made no distinction between her own aunt and the sassy upstart of a woman from the Bihar plains. It was thus inevitable that when the Congress party split, she kept the company of Morarji Desai in the camp of the old fogies, who began to experience a lean time. The post-Emergency triumph of the Janata Party revived Tarakeshwari’s spirit for a while. But the party soon split, and fissures have a way of multiplying themselves in the North Indian climate. Even though she maintained her links with one faction of what emerged as the Janata Dal, it was not quite the same again. At a certain juncture, she disappeared from the political rostrum.

Glamour is an ephemeral happenstance; it is also skin-deep. So forget about it. In addition to her courage, Tarakeshwari’s real treasure was her natural friendliness and a measure of dignity accompanying it. A particular recollection haunts the mind. In July 1984, Farooq Abdullah had invited all opposition parties to a conference to chalk out a detailed programme of action for realigning the Centre-state relations in the country. EMS Namboodiripad, then general secretary of the party, led the Communist Party of India (Marxist) delegation. Though it was summer time, Srinagar could be quite chilly in the mornings and the evenings. All EMS had as protection against the cold was a faded knitted sweater already coming apart at the neck and along the sleeves. Tarakeshwari persuaded EMS to take off the sweater; she wrapped her own shawl round him, commissioned a pair of knitting needles and some matching wool, mended the sweater and handed it back to EMS with a charming smile. It was a performance which expressed, at one go, respect for a great leader, affection and womanly grace.

That was the point of the matter. Tarakeshwari fought and won the gender battle much ahead of the Jennys who now choke the boulevard. She also proved something else; an emancipated woman need not discard either feminine grace or domesticity.

Tarakeshwari Sinha made the point and withdrew from the scene. She died last week. Till they themselves drop off, those of her friends who are still around will keep remembering her as an ethereally lovely human being.

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