New Delhi, July 23: Mrinal Gore passed away a day before Rajesh Khanna did. She at her daughter’s home in Mumbai’s middle-class Vasai and the superstar in his mansion on Carter Road, Bollywood’s equivalent of Beverly Hills.
Predictably enough, her death merited only a passing mention in the media, barring exceptions.
Mrinal — Mrinaltai to many captivated by her as rookie reporters in the eighties —possibly touched people’s lives more tangibly than Rajesh Khanna, who spent his out-of-stardom years in seclusion, bonding with fans through his song and movie telecasts.
Decades before feminist politics became fodder for thought and trigger for action, Bombay’s tais (elder sisters) had left their imprint on its streets, tenements and slums without contextualising their engagements with its people as a gender conflict.
Mrinal, Ahilya Rangnekar and Pramila Dandavate were contemporaries. They were born in well-off, intellectually inclined, Marathi-speaking homes that did not discriminate between female and male siblings.
Ahilya was a brilliant student and a sportsperson. Mrinal won scholarships in school and later for medical education. None of them used the succession route or the family net to enter politics.
When the young Mrinal, then studying medicine, wanted to attend an AICC meeting, her father was upset. She used her mother to get her way. She eventually abandoned medicine to plunge full time into the Congress’s Seva Dal under Gandhi’s influence.
Pramila, too, was drawn to the Seva Dal when she was studying at the JJ School of Art.
Ahilya’s political involvement began with the arrest of Gandhi and the death of his secretary, Mahadev Desai.
Yet none of the tais stayed with the Congress for long.
Ahilya was influenced by her elder brother, B.T. Ranadive, a communist leader and working-class mobiliser, and joined the communist party after graduation.
Her training ground was Bombay’s Girni Kamgar Union, under which she participated in a general strike in support of the naval mutiny of 1946. She set up the Parel Mahila Sangh that became the hub of progressive women’s movements in a Maharashtra that had begun to industrialise rapidly.
In 1948, Mrinal joined the Socialist Party and used the birth control issue to fan out among women in Bombay’s Goregaon that ultimately became her karma bhoomi.
“We believed right from the beginning that if women are to progress socially or politically, they must have fewer children,” she had said in an interview, long before works like Our Bodies, Ourselves became mandatory reading for feminists.
Without being an elected member, Mrinal yanked the levers of her work to get the local panchayat to create space for her to help women.
Also without sounding doctrinaire or irreligious, Mrinal worked on Goregaon women, questioning the relevance of some Hindu rituals they adhered to — such as vowing to abstain from food and water. She felt such practices adversely impacted the health of pregnant, lactating and even working women.
“The rules were too old-fashioned for our times, they were useless. Instead of the usual practices, we should take a new vow. We should go to Dalit slums, and in four months we should teach at least one woman to read and write. How many of you are prepared to take this new vow? We got 15 women. So that’s how we gave a new twist to the old chatur maas vrat (the fast observed during four months on the Hindu calendar),” she said in the same interview.
The first issue that brought Mrinal, Ahilya and Pramila together was their support for the Hindu Code Bill of 1950 that prohibited bigamy. The conservative sections of Hindus, mainly the upper castes, and the RSS, including sarsanghachalak M.S. Golwalkar, opposed the bill.
Ahilya once recalled that they conducted their campaign “from room to room, floor to floor” in Bombay’s chawls. A group of women even burst into an RSS shakha (gathering), pounced on swayamsevaks and pulled off their khaki knickers.
The tais got into mainstream politics via the Bombay Municipal Corporation, Maharashtra Assembly and later Parliament.
The other plank that drew them together was the inflation of 1972, preceding the imposition of Emergency.
“You have to devise novel methods to suit your needs. We had launched massive rallies earlier and paid heavy costs. So we chalked out a plan to slip into the (Bombay) secretariat through different doors. Our sisters had become smarter by then. Men would not have known how to handle this but the women did,” said Mrinal, when she later revealed the tactics that the anti-price rise committee used.
As an MLA, Mrinal would walk in unhindered through the main gate with three or four women, each bearing an empty tiffin carrier and a rolling pin. The rest would sneak in through the side entrances and use the stairs instead of an elevator.
The “rolling pin marches”, spearheaded by Mrinal, Pramila and Ahilya, forced at least one Congress minister in Maharashtra to promise that the ration cards that were held back would be issued to the poor.
The tais were imprisoned during Emergency.
They later became the object of the Shiv Sena’s ire, particularly Mrinal who protested against H.D. Deve Gowda’s call on Bal Thackeray when Gowda headed the United Front government. Thackeray used expletives against her.
Pramila was the first of the tais to pass away in 2002. Ahilya departed in 2009. Mrinal lived the longest but died as a member of a splinter faction of the Janata Dal few remember. It was called the Dal (Left).
“They were remarkable women, born out of the socialist movement and trade union struggles. They were part of a political environment little of which exists today,” said political scientist and academic Sudha Pai.
Mumbai-based academic Vibhuti Patel, who has worked closely with the trio, wrote that for them the concerns of the Dalits, women, workers, farmers and disempowered communities were “indivisible” and demanded a “holistic” approach.