It was 2001. I was making a film about feminism, a daunting task. It would mean interviewing older women who had some seriously historic stuff in their CVs — they had helped change laws, started publishing houses for women’s writing and created pioneering university departments. I felt rather inadequate in the face of this.
But I also felt defiant. I wasn’t cowed by their legacy, boss! Like all young people, I was dying to express my disagreements and criticisms, to prove I was smart and new and to be taken seriously. Swinging between this nervousness and bravado, I began work.
One of the first people I interviewed was Sonal Shukla co-founder of the Vacha Library. We spoke about the Mathura rape case. In March 1972, Mathura, a 16 year-old tribal girl, was raped by two policemen. The Sessions Judge held she could not be raped as she was previously “habituated to sex”. The High Court reversed the judgment. In 1979, the Supreme Court again reversed the High Court order.
History will tell you this judgment galvanised the women’s movement. But as Shukla told the story — four people sent a letter to 50 other people suggesting they meet to talk about this. Forty nine of the 50 turned up — she was among them - and from this grew the many different things that changed the laws around rape. She pulled out a squished up campaign poster they had made and I exclaimed, “Oh! I’ve been looking desperately for this poster!”
At which point, she declared with characteristic flamboyance, “Always keep friendship with old women, you never know what you might find.”
A few days later, I interviewed an older woman with whom I had indeed kept friendship for quite some years, the trade unionist, Meena Menon, who told me about how people had thrown stones when she and her friends formed a feminist group at Hyderabad University! But also about a huge party of a nationwide meeting of women’s groups in Calicut, where there was music and talks and sharing of work and building of community.
Other older women, who had filmed these exuberant gatherings generously shared their material with me, while making mild, if affectionate, fun of my seriousness.
In these encounters, my nervousness and defiance began to dissolve into exhilaration. Where was the time to prove points! I was having conversations where I could think out loud, and, when I made an ass of myself (the right of the young) forced me to educate myself to make a better argument.
I was hearing stories of people who had chosen something the mainstream did not offer, stuck to their choices, fought with and made things work with friends, and enjoyed themselves doing it.
Their example helped me to feel I was not alone in my seemingly odd choices, and gave me something to be equal to. Equality is all these things — a gift, a right, a membership you keep renewing.
I was free to learn from their achievements — as well as their mistakes. In “keeping friendship with old(er) women”, I’d found something quite necessary for a good life. I had found my own voice and also, how to grow from listening. Because if I listened only to the sound of my voice, I would be convinced the world was a lonely and hopeless place.
Right now, there are several young people, many of them women, searching for a way to shape their response to things around us. For them, I would rephrase Shukla’s advice to me — the year is young, help yourself to friendships with older women, you will always keep what you find.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevi.com.
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.