'Prison was our second home'

The irony escaped neither father nor daughter. Eminent silk merchant and Sheriff of Bombay, Sir Shantidas Askuran stared at his dynamo of a daughter, Malati. She stood before him, fresh out of custody, for her involvement in the agitation whose cries of “Quit India” ripped the already-charged air early that morning of August 9, 70 monsoons ago. Fully aware that she had risked her father’s wrath for being jailed by the British three months after they honoured him with a knighthood in May 1942, the young collegian could barely believe she heard him say: “Do what you have to, beta. I am your pita but you can follow your Rashtrapita — Gandhiji.”

Such encouragement and, later, support from her husband, Damu Jhaveri, freedom fighter and founder of the Indian National Theatre (INT), spurred Malatiben Jhaveri on. Today, at the age of 90, she battles painful arthritis without losing an ounce of spark. And sparkling, literally, this Gandhian, is. Big bindis on a slightly crinkled forehead add to the luminosity she exudes, glinting in the light at every tilt of her head as she speaks in rapid fire sentences. It is pure privilege to listen to her story in her ancestral Hughes Road home, fittingly called Shanti Sadan.

Malatiben Jhaveri. Pic courtesy/ Deepa Balsaver

“We were blessed, born at the right time in this country led by our guru, Gandhiji,” she says. “Inspired by him, women like me referred to prison as ‘saasre’ — Gujarati for in-laws’ home, our second home.” Malatiben should know — she was jailed three times in 1942 alone. In her hall bursting with rare books and Ganesh statues, she launches into a riveting account of being struck by Quit India fever.

Growing up in an aristocratic family mansion on Nepeansea Road, Malatiben dropped Sanskrit studies at St Xavier’s College to join the Independence struggle. Waking before sunrise on August 8, she walked to attend the explosive Congress session at the Gowalia Tank green, which would later be known as August Kranti Maidan. Proudly wearing the red khadi sari handed to her the previous evening when she became a volunteer for the movement, she hoped to get closer to serve Gandhiji, Nehru, Rajaji, Sardar Patel, Sarojini Naidu and Sucheta Kripalani. “The mood was ‘Do or Die’, with one lakh people inside the maidan, and an equal number outside,” she recalls. “Rather than pandal duty at the dais, I was assigned to distribute water to the gathered crowds.”

The next morning, when Aruna Asaf Ali hoisted the Congress flag and Malatiben’s political heroes were arrested, she earned a small personal victory. Tear gas was released for the first time in India. As shells fell on her, Malatiben picked up a piece and lobbed it right back at a British soldier. Burnt but triumphant, she was whisked away with 25 women to her first jail experience of a few hours which won her even police sympathies once she broke into nationalistic songs.

On her release that afternoon, her friend Sarala, daughter of activist and educationist KM Munshi, urged Malatiben to accompany her for an exciting meeting. It was at Ghanshyam Das Birla’s residence on Ridge Road, from where Kasturba was leaving to address a Shivaji Park rally in place of her jailed husband. “That tiny lady,” said Birla, pointing to Kasturba, “is the Mother of the Republic of India.” As Malatiben says, “He used the word ‘Republic’ in 1942.” A concerned Kasturba asked Malatiben about the tear gas. “I confessed to momentarily forgetting all about non-violence and hurting that soldier. ‘No matter’ she kindly said and I resolved to put that incident down to being not fully nonviolent then!”

Her fierce rootedness extended to successfully promoting indigenous theatre and handicrafts, too. Inextricably entwined with Indian independence, the INT constitution was drawn up from prison by patriots and scholars including her husband Damu, Rohit Dave, Gautam Joshi and Mansukh Joshi. Confident the country was on the verge of liberation, they were keen to script its cultural policy. On May 5, 1944 (Iqbal Day, commemorating the poet who composed Saare jahaan se achha), the INT was launched to boost the regional performing arts.

With her sister, Prabha Shah, Malatiben set up the Sohan Sahkari Sangh. It was among the first attempts in the non-government handloom sector to create a thriving urban market for handloom and handicrafts. They ran it for over 40 years with an amazing sensitivity for textiles and design within a cooperative network. Not soft on herself, Malatiben continues to work daily, translating epics from Hindi to Gujarati with meticulous zest. She has completed 18 books in recent years, taking a break on occasional days when her classical dancer daughter Parul visits from Bengaluru.

Malatiben’s limpid, kohled eyes still flash surging defiance at the memory of the excesses of the Raj. Viewing current forms of fervour as fads, the feisty nonagenarian sees little comparison between Anna Hazare’s ongoing stir and the sacrifices of Gandhiji’s compatriots.

Stepping out of Shanti Sadan into the leafy loveliness of the lane whose corner it hugs, I sense that some serendipity makes Mani Bhavan stand a stone’s throw away. “Aavjo,” Malatiben has said warmly. I know I will return. 

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