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Saris, Courtrooms and Prison: Reinventing Indian Womanhood

Surina Diddi, Wellesley College '12, Madeleine Albright Fellow '11, B.A. Economics

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. ― Milan Kundera 

I felt so moved by Professor Montoya’s article Mascaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse,[1] because her words captured so much of what my grandmother experienced, though they lived worlds apart. My grandmother, Sheila Didi, was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. Born and raised in segregated Kenya, she was one of the first Indian women to graduate with a law degree from England. As a young woman, she helped defend the infamous Mau-Mau trials in Kenya. In the wake of India’s independence from British rule, my grandmother moved to India, where she spent her life serving the poor as a human rights lawyer and a grass-roots activist. Like Professor Montoya, my grandmother adopted a variety of social and political masks throughout her life to be accepted by her peers. However, usually no mask was sufficient. My grandmother often radically defied societal norms, pioneering a new identity, like so many progressive minorities in her generation. The stories of countless minorities such as my grandmother remain untold and unrecorded.

My grandmother was seen as an outsider for much of her life—as an Indian girl raised in segregated Kenya; as one of the first minority law students in England; as a young Indian Kenyan woman in the Kenyan Independence struggle; as a highly-educated Hindu Brahmin woman involved in grass-roots activism in provincial India; as a politically active wife and mother in Indian leftist circles; and as one of the only female lawyers in the Indian High Court. She masked various aspects of her identity to be accepted by the mainstream community as a student in Kenya and England as well as a young activist in the Kenyan Independence struggle. When she began practicing law and became politically active in India, male lawyers and grass-root activists were at first very suspicious and unwelcoming. However, her elite legal education made her an indispensable asset, often giving her the license to defy gender and cultural norms. As my grandmother gained prominence in legal and political circles, she didn’t need to mask her identity as much. People began accepting her for her true self and saw her as a role model. However, her harshest critics reprimanded her for letting her family life suffer as a result of her legal and political activism.

I was assigned to read Professor Montoya’s article as a junior at Wellesley College.  This article, as well as the support from my advisors, Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis and Professor Christopher Candland, inspired me to write a hundred and ten page memoir about my grandmother, which remains unpublished in my personal archive. I wrote this memoir not only to honor my grandmother’s legacy, but to examine the forces that have shaped and defined me. I was born in India and raised in the suburbs of New Jersey. I feel like I have always lived on the fringe of the “real” America and never been fully accepted by the mainstream. In the United States, I have a shallow identity. I am an Indian-American girl, whose family immigrated to the United States in the late nineties. However, in India and Kenya, I am known by a myriad of familial, social and political relationships dating over a century. Learning about my grandmother’s life has been extremely empowering. Whenever I find myself feeling miserable or wallowing in self-pity, simply remembering my grandmother’s struggles and triumphs, gives me immense strength to move forward.

I first visited my grandmother’s childhood home in Kenya when I was sixteen. My great-grandfather was one of 32,000 young Indian men, recruited by the British Empire to build the Kenyan-Ugandan Railway at the turn of the 20st century. My grandmother, who was born in Nairobi in 1928, always spoke of her childhood in Kenya with nostalgia twinkling from her eyes. Her childhood home stood along an unpaved road bustling with mutatto vans, aggressive street vendors, cars and bicycles. The outer rooms had been converted into a local bar with red, plastic chairs, while the interior rooms were a small slaughterhouse. The stench of dead animals was unbearable. It was hard to imagine that this house, which consisted of five rooms and a veranda, was once shared by twenty-two people – my great-grandparents, five siblings and the families of three of my grandmother’s uncles.

In high school, my grandmother realized that as an Indian girl in segregated Kenya, she was severely disadvantaged.[2] She went to the Arya Girls’ school, which was run by European nuns. Kenya was a segregated, rogue state, where Indians and Africans often faced brutal forms of racism. She worked hard to be an excellent student. However, she quickly realized regardless of how hard she worked, as an Indian girl, her teachers would always deem her inferior to the white students. “We would sometimes encounter our teachers on segregated buses and on the streets outside of school,” my grandmother vividly recalled, “but they refused to acknowledge us! Such racial arrogance was dehumanizing!” History was taught from a British-centric perspective. Her history teacher, a short, fat Irish woman often told them, “Girls, you should be grateful to Henry the VIII. Why? Had he not created the British navy, India would not have been discovered!” These teachers also often openly insulted famous Indian revolutionaries such as Subhash Chandra Bose. This was the ultimate insult for my grandmother and her classmates, who saw these leaders as superheroes. Soon they began revolting by organizing protests in school.

Her social activism helped give her a license to defy gender norms from an early age. While many Indian girls remained in purdah,[3] wearing veils and spending the majority of their lives within high-walled enclosures at home, my grandmother was permitted to stay late at school and listen to lectures by the leaders of the independence struggle. Her mother, Shanti Devi Sharma, led Indian women to organize fundraisers, food drives, and protests for the Indian Independence movement.[4] She was a leader in the Arya Samaj temple[5] in Nairobi, which would regularly receive letters from Mahatma Gandhi.[6] Like Indian students across Kenya and South Africa, my grandmother and her classmates performed important milestones of the Indian freedom struggle in front of large audiences. These performances were a way of educating youth and their families about the struggle. At one such performance, my grandmother recounted with great excitement that “people came in the thousands to see us! When the performance ended, there was a standing ovation, and the audience began chanting Inquilab Zindabad! [Long live the revolution!] Jai Hind! [Long Live India!]. Our parents then realized that we could achieve something great for India!” her parents then decided to send her to the best possible education in England.  My grandmother soon set sail to attain a law degree in England in 1947, a year when over ninety-two percent of Indian women were illiterate.[7]

In England, my grandmother tried her best to assimilate into British society, even at the expense of abandoning certain Indian traditions. According to Professor Montoya, this is common among minorities trying to succeed.[8] My grandmother was one of the first two Indian women to attend Cardiff University. She wore Indian saris every day—sticking out like a sore thumb on campus. Her mother had hand-woven many of these saris, in allegiance with Mahatma Gandhi’s mandate to protest British fabric. My grandmother’s attire proclaimed her politics, just like Professor Montoya’s clothing at Harvard Law School. It made her acutely aware of how Indians were perceived in England. Kapila Hingorani, the other Indian student at Cardiff at the time told me that Indians and Africans were often perceived as savages by most British. British students would often ask them if they had swung from branches like monkeys to get to school in Kenya and India. Due to stereotype threat, just like Professor Montoya, my grandmother made the extra effort to seem clean, polished and well bred. Every day she carefully and tightly braided her long black hair and pressed her saris until no wrinkle was in sight.[9] Like many Indian students in England, she refrained from eating with her hands and learned the dining etiquette for traditional European five-course meals. She also tried to learn ballroom dancing, which was perhaps most shocking of all: “I remember after the College balls, outside our all-girls dormitory, there would be a line of girls and boys hugging and kissing. We walked past quickly, but sometimes we couldn’t help but catch a glance. We had never seen anything like it before. They didn’t feel at all embarrassed” My grandmother even went as far as legally changing her Indian name “Susheila,”[10] to the British name “Sheila.” Despite her efforts to fit in, like Professor Montoya and other minorities who were the first to enroll in western universities, my grandmother felt isolated. In the words of Professor Montoya, her private self was suffocating.[11]

Associating with international students offered her a new window for acceptance and empowerment. She spent all her vacations at an international youth hostel in London, where she became friends with many students from India and other European colonies. As youth from colonies rampant with poverty and racism, these students shared a deep camaraderie. Like the majority of students in England from colonial states, they became attracted to socialism.[12] World War II had recently ended and India as well as other colonies had just won their independence from colonial rule. As the educated elite of these developing nations, they were brimming with idealism and felt a heady responsibility for leading social reform. Many of the students my grandmother met later became famous pioneers of the leftist movements in their native homelands.

Quickly my grandmother plunged deep into the international Marxist movement. Under the guidance of the renowned Fabian Society in London, my grandmother began intensely studying socialist texts, which encouraged women and men alike to spearhead the transition to a socialist world. Just as Professor Montoya was empowered by her activism in the Chicano student movement, similarly my grandmother’s new Marxist identity gave her an “ideological” mask. Through this prism she experienced many new worlds, traveling to Budapest, Warsaw and Berlin for international socialist youth festivals that attracted tens of thousands of young people from around the world. My grandmother loved to talk about these youth festivals ad nauseam.

When we went to Budapest, fifty of us traveled from London in a truck! We sang songs, played games, cooked food, and drank alcohol along the way. We would spend the night at youth hostels in various countries. We would even occasionally sleep in barns! In Venice, we slept under trees near the Lagoon. In Budapest, we were greeted by a sea of Red flags, as well as portraits of famous Communist leaders worldwide such as Lenin, Marx, Stalin and Mao Zedong. There were so many events on all sorts of political and cultural issues from around the world. I remember attending ballets about evil landlords and harvest dances performed by Hungarian peasants.

My grandmother soon fell in love with Indian boys, who would serenade her with Tagore love songs and talk dreamily about the coming of the socialist revolution.[13] They were leaders in the London Majlis, an extension of the All India Students Federation, which strove to bring socialism to India.[14] She soon rose to become the General Secretary, making her acutely aware of injustice in India and beyond. She also worked closely with the World Peace Council, participating in large protests against the atomic bomb in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.[15]

When my grandmother returned to Kenya in 1954, after finishing several years of law school, she felt doubly estranged not only from her ancestral roots as an Indian Kenyan, but also from her law classes in England. Professor Montoya wrote that this is common among minorities who were the first to attain higher education.[16] Equipped with legal knowledge and a more global perspective, my grandmother was awestruck by the poverty and discrimination. Learning about the intricacies and minutia of English law seemed futile, when back home in Kenya, there was virtually no rule of law. Even decades later, when she recalled those days, you could hear the fury in her voice: “The British had a double standard! They had fought against fascism, Aryan superiority and what not in Europe, but they treated us Indians and Kenyans like slaves!” she said. She explained the curfew system in place under the reign of Kenyan Martial Law:

Africans could only roam the streets until five pm. Sometimes, if we missed the curfew we would actually hide the Africans in the boots of cars. Can you believe it? The British would often just lay down barbed wire around an area and demand Africans to show their Kipande as they say in Swahili, or their identity card. All those without Kipande were immediately sent to jail. I will never forget, one time I was standing outside my father’s shop, and I saw an old African man with a wooden basket buying vegetables for his white master. The police came and demanded to see his Kipande. The old man began apologizing profusely because he didn’t have this identification. But the police gave him several lashes and threw him into their van! It shook me. I saw the plight of this old man. Tears were just rolling down my cheeks!

My grandmother joined the Kenyan Independence struggle. This was the first time she immersed herself in Black Kenya. After making Black friends in England, in Kenya, she was eager to transcend racial boundaries and “know Africans as persons.” Initially she did not tell her family that she was meeting them. Interactions among the Indians and Africans were often frowned upon. Like many Indian families, her servants had been her only contact with Black Kenya. As a young Indian Kenyan activist, not all of the African activists were friendly and welcoming to her. “I was totally shocked and ashamed when I found out that there were Indians who were acting as home guards, and helping the British suppress the Africans.”[17]

Her English legal training made her immensely valuable to Kenyan activists. She began working for prominent Indian lawyers in the East African Indian National Congress, who were fighting for those in the infamous Mau Mau struggle. [18] She worked for Fitz D’Souza and Achroo Kapila, who defended Jomo Kenyatta, a revolutionary who later became Kenya’s first Prime Minister, and countless others in the Mau Mau trials.[19] “Under Martial law, the death sentence was often pronounced on flimsy evidence after holding a sham trial. It was common to see young African women crying outside the courtrooms because their husbands or some other relative was pronounced to be hanged,” my grandmother recalled. When she returned to England, she worked for Peter Mbiyu Koinange, who was defending thousands of poor Kenyans whose land had been evicted by the British.  He later became the Vice President of Kenya.

Upon graduating from law school in 1956, my grandmother left the splendors of London and moved to India to a tiny, industrial town named Ludhiana to serve the poor. She was perceived as an exotic outsider due to her elite education in England.  Grass-roots activists were often deeply suspicious of her. Her friend told me:

Most activists were men from the working class and lower castes. It was extremely rare to see a young Hindu Brahmin woman, that too a law graduate from England, with a keen desire to work in the slums, villages and labor colonies. It was a strange sight—Sheila would often wear her fur coat to outreach sessions in villagers and sometimes go door to door to raise awareness for various causes.

There were also very few women in the field. My grandmother also organized countless protests and rallies where she and the other women would sing songs to protest. Perhaps, as women in the 1950s, singing was considered a more acceptable way of unmasking their radical intentions and communicating them to the masses.[20] With much time and effort, my grandmother gained acceptance, running for State Legislature in 1962 and later for Parliament in 1977 on a leftist ticket.[21] During Parliamentary elections, my grandmother recalled:

People came in thousands to see us in the final debate! This was the first time I had addressed so many people from all walks of life. In the beginning, thousands of people began chanting my name along with my party’s name. I felt so elated. I thought, are all these people really chanting my name— Sheila Didi? Who is this Sheila Didi? Do I know her?

As one of the first three women lawyers out of two hundred men in the Punjab and Haryana High Court, my grandmother staunchly defied traditional gender norms and faced many hardships as a woman. “Often times, male clients would not take me seriously. They would smirk— how could a woman be powerful and convincing in court? I often had to work harder than the men to prove that I was an excellent lawyer.” Though men hesitated to accept her, she was extremely valuable to the courts. After independence, the Indian courts continued to utilize the English criminal code. With a law degree from England, my grandmother was one of the privileged few who could interpret British law. And yet, after my grandmother passed away, I discovered that some senior advocates would ask her for sexual favors long after she was married with three children. She never told me, perhaps because she wanted to shield me from this ugliness.

My grandmother handled human rights cases involving worker rights, sexual harassment, corruption, domestic violence and dowry. She often defended the poor, who had little means to pay her. As a prominent member of well-established grass-roots women’s organizations—the National Federation of Indian Women and the Punjab Istri Saba, my grandmother was acutely connected to problems at the slum and village level.  Through these organizations, she provided pro bono legal counsel to women on a host of issues every week. These women often did not have the knowledge, resources or familial support to take legal action. In 1962, with the help of the National Federation of Indian Women, she fought one of the most prominent dowry cases,[22] which went up till the Supreme Court. A poor woman named Kamla Dhamda was murdered by her in-laws, because they claimed her family had given insufficient dowry.  My grandmother recalled “her father would come and visit me daily at our house.” My grandmother won the case, as Dhamda’s in-laws were sentenced to life in prison.[23]

During the brutal Khalistan militancy[24] in the 1980s, my grandmother witnessed many atrocities while traveling across Punjab to the hotbeds of terrorist activities with the Punjab Istri Saba. At times there were over seventy cases in my grandmother’s files in just one month. In order to maintain order, the state became draconian. My grandmother recounted a chilling example, where two young men, who were accused of being part of a criminal tribe, were imprisoned without a trial. These men were innocent and had no idea why they were in prison. Their sixteen-year old wives, Phoolmati and Santra, stood in front of the prison for days. The girls were sexually harassed by the police. One of them was even hung naked from the ceiling of a prison ward for days. Such cases were unfortunately common during this era of utter lawlessness. The case continued for months before the police officers were fortunately arrested and convicted with seven years in prison.

On a personal front, my grandmother was hardly the stereotypical Hindu Brahmin wife and mother.[25] Her roles as a human rights lawyer, a political activist and mother of three often combatted with each other. Her family life suffered because she focused so intensely on her social activism. Her harshest critics have chastised her for spending limited time at home with her three children and for not knowing how to cook as an Indian woman. She did not marry until she was twenty-seven, which was considered dinosaur age for Indian brides in the 1950s. When her family urged her to get married, she declared that she would only marry a Marxist, who would be permissive of her social activism. She married my grandfather, Madan lal Didi, a trade-union leader. Like most Indian public servants, he often received a meager salary. Often times, my grandmother became the sole bread-winner. The day after her wedding, my grandmother began canvassing for my grandfather’s political campaign in the sweepers’ slums. This was extremely taboo for a bride, as Brahmins deeply pride themselves with their cleanliness. After marriage, often times, my grandmother’s political protests would become violent, concluding in her arrest. My grandmother was once imprisoned for about a month shortly after giving birth to my father. The warden allowed my father to spend a few nights with her in prison. There was also often no division between the personal and political in the house. Many times the villagers she was defending in court would visit the city for their court cases. They were often too poor to afford housing so my grandmother would house them in her living room. There were over seven people sharing a modest apartment. Family members sometimes complained that the house was a guesthouse for anyone with political or charitable ties.

After writing much of my grandmother’s narrative, what was equally eye-opening was the way various people and groups reacted to my writing. When I began writing this memoir, little did I know I would be challenging a variety of power structures. Though my grandmother was one of the 1000 women nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005,[26] she did not think she was extraordinary by any means. When I told her I wanted to write a book about her life, she and many family members were appalled. Could this be a worthy pursuit as an Economics major at Wellesley College? In her old age, many knew little about her accomplishments. They simply saw her as just another little old lady, who lived in a second-floor apartment on Ring Road in New Delhi, India. As an 83 year old, she was frail— wearing a neck and hip brace and limping with a walking stick.

Some felt threatened by my writing, which recorded my grandmother’s accomplishments. Some have consistently dismissed her achievements. Perhaps this is a way of justifying their lackluster lives. One person told me “child, you are forgetting that your grandmother was a woman. As a woman you are responsible for taking care of the household, which she did not do well.” Many also felt threatened by me. As I interviewed family and my grandmother’s colleagues for this project, I was also no longer a sweet, young girl who sang Indian Classical music melodiously, but a foreign American judging them through a starkly different perspective. I constantly questioned the validity of my perspective due to my age, gender and Indian-American identity.

Perhaps this is a testament to Professor Montoya’s words about how the stories of outsiders, of minorities and of women are often silenced. Speaking out and discovering the validity of your perspective requires a great degree of confidence, as Professor Montoya says. As I began to research further, I realized that what I was experiencing was a systemic problem. Though much has been written about elite Indian political families such as the Nehru-Gandhi family, little has been written about reform at the grass-roots level, and particularly about the women in this movement. My grandmother’s stories and those of thousands of women in the Indian women’s movement remain largely untold and unrecorded. Perhaps for this reason, many of my grandmother’s colleagues felt their lives were insignificant and unworthy of publication; they didn’t seem to realize how their public contributions were important forces in broader reform.

The winners of history often write history books. Personal narratives, as Professor Montoya writes, can often challenge the dominant power structure. Individual stories remind us that our generalizations about places, movements, and ideology erase diversity and difference, which is why recording personal stories is crucial on a personal and political level. The more I poured hours into researching my grandmother’s life, the more empowered I became. Sometimes a sentence embodying her idealism, her sacrifice, her courage struck me and my eyes brimmed with tears. I hope my writing inspires others to write their personal narratives.


The above article is a revised excerpt of my 110 page memoir about my grandmother, which remains unpublished and part of my personal archive. My grandmother’s quotes in my article stem from this work. I conducted my research by interviewing her over Skype and many scholars in the US over several months. I also spent a month interviewing prominent scholars, lawyers and social activists in India, with the help of a grant from the Wellesley College Dean’s Office.

Over the last two years, so many people have helped me immensely. I want to thank Professor Margaret Montoya for recognizing my work as worthy of publication. I am also eternally grateful first and foremost to Dr. Rangita de Silva de Alwis and Professor Christopher Candland for their inspiration and support. I also would have never read Professor Montoya’s article if it wasn’t for Professor Tom Burke. Professor James Oles, Professor Marilyn Sides, Professor Nikhil Rao, Professor Gyan Prakash, and so many other distinguished scholars also offered me critical guidance. My family, friends and my grandmother’s colleagues offered immense support and personal insights. The following list certainly does not do justice to all those who have helped me. I have listed them alphabetically and not by any means in order of importance: Ms. Kanta Advani, Mr. Pawan K. Bansal, Ms. Rani Balbir, Mr. Bant S. Brar, Mr. Amarjit Chandan, Mr. Devi Dayal, Mr. Jogender Dayal, Mr. Rahul Diddi, Ms. Shumita Didi, Mr. Amit Ghosh, Mr. Anupam Gupta, Ms. Sumitra Gupta, Ms. Pushpa Hingorani, Ms. Khoja, Mr. Jaswinder S. Mand, Mr. Inder Mehta, Ms. Oshima Reikhy, Ms. Rita Sharma, Dr. Visho Sharma, Ms. Poonam Singh and Mr. Debi S. Tewatia.

I had many sleepless nights while writing this article. As a twenty-two year old girl in an Indian family, I was commanded to not write about many of my grandmother’s experiences— ones that could harm our family’s honor. I apologize to my family and family friends. After much thought, I decided to breach the silence and write an honest account about my grandmother’s life, one voicing her struggles and triumphs.



Photo outside of my grandmother’s school in Nairobi, Kenya in the 1930s. My grandmother is in the middle, holding the two babies.


My grandmother at the age of 18 in Kenya (on the right) with a friend, Sheel Chabra

  My grandmother in the top row in the middle. This photo was taken on a Polish ship called the Batory, while going to the Berlin Socialist Youth Festival in 1953.


My grandmother on the left sitting by student tents at an international socialist youth festival in Budapest in 1953.


My grandmother on the left performing an Indian dance for a group of European students at an international socialist youth festival

 My grandmother in Nairobi, Kenya in  1955. Peter Mbiyu Koinange, pictured next to her, later began Vice President of Kenya


My grandparents in the late fifties, after their marriage, at Okhla Barrage by the Yamuna river  in Delhi.  The photo was taken by poet Krishan Adeeb.


My grandparents’ wedding in 1956


[1] Margaret E. Montoya, Mascaras, Trenzas, y Greñas: Un/Masking the Self While Un/Braiding Latina Stories and Legal Discourse, 17 Harv. Women's L.J. 185, 202 (1994).

[2] Prior to high school, she attended primary and middle school in an Indian gurukul, which were run by the Arya Samaj, a reformist sect of Hindus who were leaders in the Indian Independence movement. Instead of learning nursery rhymes, she learned revolutionary slogans.  “Jail chaloege? [Will you go to jail?] hahn bhai hahn! [Yes oh yes!]” “Mil jayegi, [What will you get?] Kya bhaee Kya? [What oh what?] Azadi! [Freedom!] Wah bhaee wah! [Wonderful oh wonderful!]”

[3] Purdah Definition, Encyclopædia Britanica, (last visited Mar. 6, 2013). During the Independence movement, countless Indian women were encouraged to leave their traditional domestic roles and participate in the struggle by adopting public roles for the first time.

[4] In the sixties, her mother helped to mobilize Indian women for Kenya’s independence struggle. For her efforts, President Arap Moi gave her the Freedom Fighter award— the highest national honor for the independence struggle.

[5] Her father was one of the cofounders of the Arya Samaj temple in Nairobi.

[6] Bipan Chandra, India's Struggle for Independence 169–175 (1989).

[7] G. Balatchandirane, Gender Discrimination in Education and Economic Development: A Study of Asia 20 (Mar. 2007), available at

[8] Montoya, supra note 1.

[9] She followed the advice of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, who advised Indians to remain at their best for their actions will help shape British perception of India. She heard him speak several times to a small group of students in London and was elated to shake his hand.

[10] Susheila means beautiful girl in Sanskrit.

[11] Montoya, supra note 1, at 14.

[12] Nicholas Owen, The British Left and India: Metropolitan Anti-Imperialism 1885-1947 (2007).

[13] These boys later became leaders in the leftist movement. Mr. M. B. Naidoo became a prominent human rights lawyer in South Africa. Twenty years after college, when my grandmother visited Zimbabwe, she discovered that he had become famous. “In the early sixties, he was jailed along with sixty other people on Robben Island for his human rights activism,” my grandmother said. The other boy, Prabhov Banerjee became active in the Communist movement in Bengal.

[14] The All India Students Federation also worked closely with the Independence for India League, which was founded in 1928 by Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose. (Chandra 298)

[15] My grandmother collected signatures for a peace petition, which had almost three million signatures worldwide. This included the entire adult population of the Soviet Union as well as celebrities such as Duke Ellington, Pablo Nerudo and Pablo Picasso. (

[16] Montoya, supra note 1, at 6.

[17] My grandmother admitted that it was sometimes necessary for Indians to use violence against the Africans “there was anarchy in many areas. Africans were killing in a brutal manner.”

[18] Loomba, Ania. The Crooked Line: Memory, Communism and Feminism in India. Forthcoming book. “In 1952 the Mau Mau began advocating violence against the colonial government and white settlers. Kenyatta did not advocate violence but the colonial authorities arrested him and five other KAU leaders in October 1952 for allegedly being part of Mau Mau.”

[19] My grandmother translated desperate letters from the Mau Mau prisoners from Swahili to English. The British had often evicted their land and imprisoned them. They would plea to the Indian lawyers to defend them in court.

[20] Ania Loomba, The Crooked Line: Memory, Communism and Feminism in India 29–30 (forthcoming) (on file with author).

[21] When she ran for Parliament, one of her opponents was Krishen Kant, who later became the Vice President of India.

[22] In 1961, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru enacted the Dowry Prohibition Act. However, dowry-harassment persisted throughout out the country. See Mohammad Umar, Bride Burning: A Socio Legal Study 15 (1998). Until 1978, dowry murders were commonly reported as suicides due to causes unrelated to dowry-harassment. These ‘suicides’ were deemed private affairs and rarely investigated by the state. Radha Kuhmar, The History of Doing, An Illustrated Account of Movements for Women's Rights and Feminism in India, 1800-1990 119 (1993).

[23] “Kamla Dhanda’s clothes were shown in the court as evidence of the murder. When the clothes were shown in court, the girl’s father fainted, my grandmother said.  Concurrently, as one of the leaders of the National Federation of Indian Women, she organized a demonstration to raise awareness for dowry abuse and over 6,000 women attended.

[24] From approximately 1980 to 1992, the Indian state of Punjab was a hotbed of separatist terrorism. About 25,000 people were massacred in the name of establishing a Sikh state of Khalistan, independent from Hindu-majority India. See Virginia Van Dyke, The Khalistan Movement in Punjab, India, and the Post-Militancy Era: Structural Change and New Political Compulsions, 49:6 Asian Surv. 975 (Nov/Dec 2009), available at Among those killed by the militants was my aunt’s husband or my grandmother’s son-in-law, Sumeet Singh. He was the editor of Preetlahri magazine, one of the oldest, most renown Punjabi publications. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister at the time, offered her condolences to our family in person and the incident received national coverage.

[25] Brahmins are the highest castes in the Indian caste system.

[26] She was nominated as part of the “1000 women for Nobel Peace Prize 2005” initiative, which sought to recognize 1000 women fighting for peace and justice at the grass-roots level around the world. See PeaceWomen Across the Globe, (last visited Mar. 24, 2013).

4 thoughts on “Saris, Courtrooms and Prison: Reinventing Indian Womanhood

  1. Amazing writing, great tribute to a women we respected. Your grandma spent many of her lunch hours during High Court Chandigarh years discussing Law, politics and women issues on our dining table. Only if my dad was alive to tell you what Shielaji meant to his circle of friends.

    Hope to meet you in person one day.


    1. Of course, just a wee bit more work was needed here and there,but it could be called minor. Especially at your young age. More success and power to you!

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