Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The secular Sanghi

On this day in 1997, Vishnu Shahani died. His widow, Rita Shahani, would write:
He had not been ill. There was no warning. No intimation. There was no goodbye. When I woke up that morning, he was gone. 
Years later, I worked with Rita to bring out an English translation of the (Sindhi) book she wrote after Vishnu’s death. As we got the book ready for press, Rita died. It was a shock. Her daughter, my dear friend Madhavi Kapur, launched the book a few days later on 23 November 2013, a tribute to both her parents Rita and Vishnu.
Tragically, less than six months ago, we lost Madhavi too. For many of us, the pain of that loss will always remain.  
Madhavi resembled her father Vishnu in many ways, specifically in her strong principles and commitment to social welfare. At the core of Vishnu’s identity was his commitment to Hinduism. Today the Rashtriya Seva Sangh (RSS) is perceived as a fundamentalist organization: inflexible, chauvinistic and with a capacity for violence. Vishnu, a dedicated Sanghi, was open, caring and devoted only to truth and the betterment of humankind. 
While Madhavi’s biggest contribution is in education and she is remembered with love and gratitude by her thousands of pupils, she is also well known for her unwavering stand towards secularism in India. On one occasion, she took a Pune housing society to court because they refused to accept a Muslim neighbour. She won the case, the Muslim family moved in to the building - and very soon they were accepted by their neighbours and integrated.
Thinking about Madhavi today, I wanted to do something that would have made her happy. So I uploaded Rita's book and you can click on Tales from Yerwada Jail to read it if you want. 

Tales from Yerwada Jail
At bedtime every night, Vishnu Shahani’s two young children refuse to sleep until he tells them a story from his time in jail. Vishnu’s stories embody a spirit of adventure, and the youthful excitement of overcoming a powerful and oppressive enemy. He speaks of personal involvement in the Indian freedom struggle, without a trace of complaint against the hardship he faced.
After Vishnu’s death, his widow, Rita, interviews others to get a fuller picture. She finds that the perception of each participant in the family’s history varies slightly. She pieces the versions together, allowing the differing interpretations to coexist.
Time has moved on, and while Indian democracy has survived, memories of the movement for freedom against Imperial rule have receded. The names of Gandhi, Nehru and just a few others, are remembered. Through the story of the Shahani family, this book honours the struggle and sacrifice of thousands of ordinary families in the 1940s.
Tales from Yerwada Jail also tells of the little-known contribution of the Sindhis to Independence, and their struggle to find livelihood and new homes after Partition.

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