An angel of mercy (1935-2015)

My mother, Pravinaben Natubai Patel was a highly gifted and courageous lady with a tremendous sense of humour and great will power. Her life guided me to see a spark in every ‘ordinary’ human being that I met. Her wish for personal growth remained unfulfilled due to early marriage and motherhood, but she helped so many people who aspired to achieve their dreams. She always stood by young couples ostracised by the community for their inter-caste and inter-religious ‘love marriage’, and came forward in providing moral and material support exhibiting great personal courage. My father had 18 transfers in Western, Northern, Eastern and North Eastern parts of India, burden of which she singularly shouldered. My mom had to manage her life by herself as my father was a civil engineer and had erratic and demanding work-schedule.

She would always confront anyone who made sexual innuendoes in the street, bus, train and in public places. In those days, common ways of sexual harassment of a woman walking or travelling unescorted was, “Want to come with me?” Without getting embarrassed she would look straight in the eyes of the harasser and say, “Yes, I want to come with you along with my three children!”

In 1977, Amar and I had a court marriage (interreligious) in Vadodara. She was extremely sensitive to my Muslim husband, who was looked at with suspicion by many of my relatives. She neutralised them by discussing his work for the poor, workers and public health.

When Amar was arrested as a convener of Textile Workers Solidarity Committee, I remember, we reached the Dahisar police station. The police officer made several phone calls and finally found out that Amar was in Jacob Circle police custody. We rushed home, made theplas, muthia, sukhadi etc. Armed with food, we left home to meet Amar and his comrades.

During the National Conference on Perspective for Women’s Movement in India, in 1980 and 1985, she cooked rice-based food – Pongal, masala rice, mixed vegetable rice for delegates from southern states and brought it to the conference venue. Her logic was, “Women from rural areas of South India must be feeling home-sick and craving for rice.” During the 1980s, she would send food packets for women from rural and tribal areas visiting Mumbai to press for their demands such as employment guarantee, land rights etc. Any activist who came to her home, tired, famished, would not only get food and rest, but also care and emotional solace from her. When they thanked her for her selfless action, she would quote a Gujarati proverb, “Educated like you prepare the balance-sheet, while less educated like me stand by with a lamp.” Pravinaben was known as a ‘giver’. She taught ‘juvenile delinquents’ at remand homes to cook, embroider, write and read.

At the time of any calamity (flood, femine, riots), her home would be the centre for collection of food, medicine and clothes. In her daily life, vegetable vendors, milk man, raddiwala, fruit seller, postman, gardener, rickshaw drivers, needy neighbours received timely support from my mom in terms of school fees, financial aid for medical treatment, textbooks, uniform, ration.

In 2007, she made up her mind to donate her body after her death to the medical college. She also convinced her peers for body donation. In November 2014, a road was getting constructed in front of her residential society. Around 15 tribal families were working in cold weather. She gave them shelter in the basement of her house. She inhaled a lot of carbon monoxide as the workers cooked on firewood, and developed pneumonia. After a month long hospitalisation, she passed away on 1January 2015. All of us were with her. As per her wish, no 13th day rituals were observed; instead, my brother instituted a Gold Medal for University First student in M.A. in Economics at SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel

The writer is Professor and Head, Department of Economics, SNDT Women’s University, Mumbai.