#DesiBooksReview 1: Literary Lineage Essay by Meenal Shrivastava

meenal shrivastava

Meenal Shrivastava was born in Jaipur and lives in British Columbia, Canada where she is a writer and a professor of political economy and global studies at Athabasca University.

#DesiBooksReview Issue 1

Literary Lineage: Finding My Self Through My Foremothers


Amma's Daughters by Meenal Shrivastava

In 1930, my grandmother, Prakashwati Sinha—or, as we called her, Amma—was imprisoned in British India at the age of twelve for making sedition speeches. A year after my mother and Amma’s daughter, Dr. Surekha Sinha, lost her six-year-long battle with cancer, I began writing about Amma’s life to process my grief.

In her sixty-four years, my mother had published eight books and had composed more than a thousand pieces of poems and classical khyal bandishen. Despite her prolific output of prose and verse, she did not get the opportunity to write the story of her exceptional parents, Amma and Babu. After her untimely demise, her long-deferred writing project became my visceral connection, not only to my departed mother, but also to my lineage and to the history of my country. 

The book that emerged seven years later, Amma’s Daughters: A Memoir (AUP, 2018) is more than my remarkable mother’s biography or a family genealogy. Through first-person narrative in my mother’s voice and point of view, it is the story of Amma’s eventful life and audacious choices and their impact on the courses of her daughters’ lives.  Based on Amma’s sole surviving diary, a published autobiography (Smriti ki Shrinkhalayen), conversations with family members and people associated with Amma, multi-archival work, and a survey of secondary literature, this book blends a fictional form with the authentic story of a family1

The broad context of this relational narrative between women and between generations is the anticolonial movement in South Asia where historical events are often re-interpreted in ways that exclude or minimize the role of women. No surprise then that, when I began the archival research to authenticate my sources, I had assumed that Amma, who had gone to prison for her convictions, spoken in public from a young age, and lived in Gandhi’s ashram for a decade was a fairly unique woman in the Indian independence movement. Instead, my archival research unearthed the tens of thousands of Indian women whose lives paralleled Amma’s in many ways. The book thus also pays homage to the Indian women political activists whose courageous actions changed the trajectory of the independence movement but whose role has been virtually written out of the story of Indian independence. Writing it then not only gave me a better sense of who Amma and her daughters were—and who I am—but also why it is important to preserve individual narratives and enrich the complex patchwork tapestry that is human history. 

An Out-of-Print Autobiography

Closely following the one-year anniversary of my mother’s passing, an extended medical leave gave me pause from chasing deadlines and incessant traveling. My partner and I had been living on two separate continents for the past six years. My spinal surgery brought an end to our intercontinental commuting and created the space to work on emotional and physical healing. One of those tasks was to fulfil my promise to my mother to write her intended book. 

Once I had committed to writing the book, I experienced something bizarre. My head filled with voices and snatches of memories, not all of which were mine. It was terrifying, exhilarating, magical, and disorienting. It felt like a tiny crack through which I was accessing an unfamiliar plane, witnessing memories of people I barely knew. Much later, I found out that many creative writers encounter vivid experiences of ‘hearing’ the voices of the characters they create2. At the time, I did not consider myself a creative writer and was not aware of this phenomenon. And these people weren’t characters I had created. These experiences, nevertheless, filled me with a sense of urgency to write and I knew I had to seek the permission of the only surviving member of the central cast of characters, my mausi Abha—badi mummy to me and Didi in the book—to tell this story. 

My aunt’s initial enthusiastic encouragement was followed by an expression of unease about publicly sharing the intimate details of her unconventional family, which was followed by an ardent declaration of her faith in my ability to do so respectfully. In her characteristic unreservedly loving way, she was voicing my own dilemma in writing about family. Knowing that my grandmother wrote daily journals and that my mother had long wanted to write about the life of her parents were compelling reasons for me to write this book, but it was crucial for me to have my aunt’s permission, for this was her story too.  

Badi mummy’s gracious support never faltered in the years it took to write and publish the book. She patiently answered innumerable questions and was exceedingly proud to eventually receive a copy of the book, just a few months before her passing. Most importantly, after our first conversation about my intention to write the book, she had sent me a photocopied version of the only surviving copy of my grandmother’s autobiography, Smriti ki Shrinkhalayen, an invaluable starting point for further research for the writing of Amma’s Daughters

My grandmother had written her autobiography during the Indo-China war in 1962 to raise charitable funds for war relief. The book had garnered little circulation and was never reprinted. The photocopied version was bound in a blue plastic cover and some pages were copied onto used printed paper. I remembered the cover of the book from my childhood, which showed an intense-looking Amma at her desk, writing in a journal. This hastily written assortment of short personal narratives in 161 pages did not follow any logical trajectory or chronology. The reader was provided with little context for or adequate detail of the incredible vignettes of the short and consequential life of the author. It was my belief that, without contextualizing Amma’s life and the times she lived in, a straightforward translation of this autobiography would have served no purpose.

Oral Histories and Stories 

  Aside from this recent acquisition of Amma’s autobiography, I was also the custodian of a vast treasure trove of family history supplied by my mother, my aunt, and the many family visitors who had known Amma, some of whom had maintained a connection with Babu until his death in 1990. Additionally, I had my mother’s own writings—her diaries and her letters to me, as well as references to her family in some of her published works. These written and oral accounts filled in some of the missing details and events in Amma’s autobiography, but they still left too many gaps to help form a coherent narrative. 

Above all, I was as suspicious of the veracity of these written and oral accounts as I was of the insistent flashes of memories that prevented me from sleeping for more than a couple of hours, for days on end. The historian in me wanted to corroborate every story before including it in the book. Nevertheless, I gave in to the sense of urgency that drove me in those first few months of frantic writing in the midst of contending deadlines and a painfully slow recovery from my surgery. Reassuring friends and colleagues cheered me on with encouraging feedback and my ever-supportive partner kept me going with inventive contraptions to work on whenever I was away from my standing desk.

By the end of 2012, I had a working draft of seven chapters. In 2013, I had the opportunity to conduct archival research in London, New Delhi, and Patna. While I was in India, I also interviewed people who had known Amma or Babu in some capacity or other. These were key steps in verifying the stories in the autobiography and in illuminating the wider context in which they unfolded.

Archival Surveys and Searches

My archival survey focused on the period of the civil disobedience movement (1930–33), during which my grandmother, then in her early teens, had served three jail terms. I pored over microfilm copies of newspapers, All India Congress Committee bulletins, and confidential reports written by the governing officials in the British provinces of Ajmer-Merwara, the United Provinces, and Bihar, and Orissa. In one of the surveillance reports from the province of Ajmer-Merwara, dating to the first half of August 1930, I found mention of my grandmother, whose public speeches were described as “intemperate.” From her autobiography, I knew that she was then known by the name Shanti, and had been sentenced to six months in jail on August 13, 1930 for sedition. Born in 1918, she would have turned twelve that year. 

In the gigantic Asian & African Studies Reading Room of the British Library, teeming with researchers consumed in studying the thousands of catalogs of the archives of the East India Company and the India Office, I lowered my head on my desk and sobbed for several minutes. I cried for the brave little girl who could never return home and who never got a chance to heal from her traumas. I cried for my young mother whose regret at the incompleteness of her dutiful life was profoundly palpable to me in that moment. I gave in to feeling like a homeless orphan until I was crying out of relief for having found the means to tell their stories with more authenticity and clarity.  Their personal stories were a larger history now.

Using the dates and places mentioned in Amma’s autobiography, and help from dedicated archivists, I narrowed down my searches and found more evidence that corroborated the events in the autobiography. This research was supplemented by a secondary literature survey, which provided the broader context for the oral and written accounts, both enlivening and endorsing them. Equally importantly, these sources revealed the significant role of women in the largest non-violent political movement in the world.  

I learned that, in the first year of the Salt Satyagraha alone (1930-31), of the 80, 000 people imprisoned for acts of civil disobedience, 17,000 were women and children. Despite incontrovertible evidence of the substantial scale of women’s involvement, we find little acknowledgment of their role in South Asian historiography, including Indian subaltern traditions, and even in the global feminist narratives. Instead, the stories of a handful of women with famous male relatives continue to be retold repeatedly from a variety of perspectives, while we know little about the ordinary women political activists whose lives were fundamentally transformed by their political involvement and who transformed the very nature of the independence movement in South Asia. Based on Amma’s autobiography and other sources, it was clear that the selective focus on a few household names also obscures the diverse nature and the significant scale of women’s participation in sociopolitical change. For one, the cost of participating in the struggle for independence was often starkly different for the masses of ordinary women who endured various types of violence for their political activism, in public and private spaces, before and after decolonization. 

The story of my grandmother’s life was indeed unique for running away from her privileged family home at the age of eight following a personal trauma. For joining a revolutionary group in the late 1920s and working ‘underground’ for about eighteen months. For being jailed for sedition at the age of twelve in Ajmer. For being imprisoned twice more before she turned fifteen years old. For finding refuge in Gandhi’s ashram in Wardha at the age of sixteen to reinvent her life under yet another name. For being briefly and intensely courted by Pandit Parmanand, the longest serving political prisoner in colonial India, but then marrying another disenchanted revolutionary, Rajeshwer Narayan Sinha. For not giving up on the ideals of social justice even after the botched and violent processes of independence-with-partition and surviving four difficult years as one of the few women bureaucrats in the newly created UP Social Welfare Department. For finding relative stability as the founder-Principal of Veer Balika Girl’s High School in Jaipur. For raising her two daughters in the largely feudalistic environs of Jaipur after independence, far from her family and without much help from her rather unconventional spouse. Nevertheless, my grandmother was not among a handful of women political activists as I had believed, but one among the many hundreds of thousands of women without a famous last name who made up the cadre of the freedom movement in South Asia.

Many primary and secondary sources have recorded stories of overt political activism by ordinary women who often paid a high personal price for their audacity. Rejected by their families, many of these women formed close-knit relationships across castes, regions, religions, and classes for self-preservation. These courageous women were also indispensable pieces of the scaffolding, which created the massive edifice connecting the great nationalist leaders to the far reaches of the subcontinent. Once independence was achieved, this scaffolding was dismantled and its pieces retreated into the relative safety of public oblivion, receiving little acknowledgement for the role they had played in the freedom of their country. Their stories are languishing in personal diaries, private letters, photographic chronicles, oral traditions, and other records that are yet to be fully utilized as historical material.

The Lost Diary

Early in 2014, just as I was finishing the first draft of Amma’s Daughters, my brother Peeyush located Amma’s sole surviving diary. He scanned all 252 pages. The first entry was dated August 24, 1926 but, just like the autobiography, the diary did not proceed in neat chronological order. The jumble of entries spanned more than three decades and an entry from 1936 was followed by one dated 1958, followed by another from 1960, and then another from 1941. We knew that Amma wrote in multiple journaling notebooks in her restless, busy life. All but one of these had been lost to the inadequate protection of the library on the terrace of our family home. This diary showed that she wrote in whichever notebook was at hand at the time. She was clearly writing entirely for herself and not for the convenience of a biographer. That she wrote regularly and saved those diaries meant to me that she wanted those stories to be known, even if not in her lifetime. 

Some of the diary entries contained quite detailed accounts of specific incidents in her day-to-day life; others described her emotions, but with little explanation of what prompted them. The hasty handwriting on worn paper was sometimes shaping the words of a grown woman absorbed in the events and cares of her day, the freedom fighter whose struggle continued long after her country’s independence. Sometimes though, it was the anguish of the traumatized child, the survivor intent on rejoining her sisters in the unforgiving river. 

While the discovery of my grandmother’s diary added deeper layers to the personalities of my grandmother and grandfather, Babu, it was also my first real test of how much of the private should be made public. I spent a long time with the diary, making summaries and using the copious notes from my archival research to organize the haphazard entries of the diary. In comparing the stories in the diary to the ones in the autobiography, I found them mostly complementing one another, although with one significant difference. While my grandmother’s published autobiography contained, what I could now understand, sanitized accounts of her experience as a woman freedom fighter, the entries in her personal diary contained harrowing details of various encounters with physical and emotional violence. There were new names and events in the diary that I had been unaware of and had no means to verify. There were also descriptions of places and people, which had mysteriously flashed before my mind’s eye long before the appearance of this elusive diary and provided more nuances to my understanding of Amma and her life choices.

Bringing the Histories, Stories, and Characters Together

Writing this book was an immersive experience in many ways. Learning about the details of my grandparents’ eventful life and the larger hidden histories was remarkably instructive for me, personally and academically. Trying to imagine the world through my mother’s eyes and allowing her consciousness to merge with my own offered a strange solidity to the closeness we shared when she was alive. I felt like I was both letting go of her and absorbing her. 

Surprisingly, it was a lot more challenging for me to depict my mother’s sister, Didi. I had to not only suppress my own knowledge of and feelings for my badi mummy, but also imagine her as a daughter whose experiences were filtered through her sister’s perceptions and voice. As sisters, they were deeply loyal to each other, but their very closeness served to highlight their differences. I had to work hard to separate my mother’s sister, Didi, from my aunt, Abha Choudhary, and to capture the complex mix of devotion and tension that characterized both Didi’s relationship to her parents and my mother’s relationship to her. 

Despite his many absences, Babu’s figure looms large in these stories. I remember him clearly as he lived with us while I was growing up. My own memories of him dovetailed well with my mother’s and aunt’s stories about the father who intermittently presided over their childhood. Even as an old man, he remained somehow larger than life, ascetic and reclusive, stubbornly guarding his mysterious past. 

Given the revelations of my research, however, I wanted to paint a broader canvas than just a family history. I wanted the book to be a tribute to the women who had played a major, although largely undocumented, role in the anticolonial movement in South Asia. The portrait of women that emerged from these sources, burdened with oppressive patriarchal traditions and attitudes but deeply committed to the struggle for freedom, corroborated the stories I had heard from my mother about a number of Amma’s friends and confidants. While I knew only bits and pieces of their individual stories, they did seem to overlap, revealing the role of caste and class privileges in enabling the intersecting orbits of their lives. The heroines of most of these stories had middle-class upbringing, at least some degree of education, and shared the quality of strong-mindedness. Many had been widowed at an early age, and tended to be cast within their extended families in the role of a willful relative who had lived a lonely life. 

As my writing progressed, I found these women coalescing spontaneously into the figure of Kamala mausi. Growing up, I had met only one of my grandmother’s women friends in person. I found the memory of this woman elbowing into the narrative, and becoming the source of my description of Kamala mausi’s physical appearance and family history. Merging the fragmentary stories into the only fictitious person in the book allowed me to highlight some of the social mechanisms whereby women were routinely rendered faceless. I did not recognize it as a literary device at the time, but Kamala mausi’s character also enabled an imaginative witnessing. It connected me as the author to events before my time such that I emerged from the creative process with a deeper understanding about them.

Paying My Debt to My Literary Lineage

My creative nonfiction writing journey started as a deeply personal quest to deal with the loss of my mother. During the initial phase of writing, I did not think about genres, devices, audience, or any of the logistical considerations that writers must spend as much time working on as the writing itself. After two decades of perfecting deliberately distant and intentionally impersonal academic prose, this first serious foray into creative nonfiction allowed me to tell simple stories about complex concepts employing the tools of critical inquiry.

I returned to the precious photocopy of Amma’s autobiography often, especially every time I felt stuck. Like an indulgent grandmother, it always gave me more than I had asked for.

During that same time, I had read Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes, based on historical documents and individual narratives. It had inspired me to conduct archival and secondary research to verify my sources and to situate the stories in my grandmother’s autobiography in a wider historical context. The revelations of the research complemented my grandmother’s autobiography and expanded the scope of the narrative into the realm of historical nonfiction.

With Smriti ki Shrinkhalayen as a starting point, the story evolved beyond a powerful affirmation of the lives of Amma and her daughters into an important, research-driven historical narrative.

In the end, writing this book has brought me closer to Amma and her daughters—not only the ones I am related to by blood, but also the numerous unnamed daughters whose exceptional stories are still waiting to be discovered, written, read, and celebrated.

1 See http://ammasdaughters.com/site/gallery/
2 See https://writersinnervoices.com/

Back to #DesiBooksReview Issue 1

meenal shrivastava

Meenal Shrivastava was born in Jaipur and lives in British Columbia, Canada where she is a writer and a professor of political economy and global studies at Athabasca University.

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