Recently, while discussing favourite poems with a friend, Palanquin-Bearers, a poem by Sarojini Naidu came to mind. We learnt it at school, the evocative, lyrical words drawing a picture of a shy bride before our eyes.
Lightly O lightly we bear her along
She sways like a flower in the wind of our song
Poetry, of course, was just one of Sarojini Naidu’s many facets. A quick Google search refreshes my memory. She was a follower of Mahatma Gandhi and an Indian independence activist who took part in the national movement. She was the president of Indian National Congress and helped establish the Women’s Indian Association in 1917, travelling to different regions in India to deliver lectures on social welfare, women’s empowerment and nationalism. She also, along with Annie Besant, president of Home Rule League, presented the case for the women’s vote to a royal committee in England.
As India celebrates its 72nd Independence Day this month, some of the freedom fighters who were pivotal to the independence movement are worshipped, some reviled, others hardly rate a mention. And yet, their vision, their words, fired a nascent nation’s imagination. The following are lines from another poem, Past and Future, by Sarojini Naidu:
The new hath come and now the old retires:
And so the past becomes a mountain-cell,
Where lone, apart, old hermit-memories dwell
In consecrated calm, forgotten yet
Of the keen heart that hastens to forget
Old longings in fulfilling new desires.
I reread the lines and wonder what she would have thought of a report on the status of women in India today. In a poll that made headlines around the world, India was ranked the world’s most dangerous country for women – with Afghanistan and Syria in second and third place. According to the article that originally appeared on the Thomson Reuters Foundation site, India is the world’s most dangerous country for women due to the high risk of sexual violence and being forced into slave labour based on the Foundation’s survey of 548 experts on women’s issues. Respondents were asked where women were most at risk of sexual violence, harassment and being coerced into sex.
Experts quoted data that shows reported cases of crimes against women in India rose by 83 per cent between 2007 and 2016, when there were four cases of rape reported every hour. The race for grabbing viewers with salacious headlines was on.
And Sarojini Naidu, the Nightingale of India who fought for women’s emancipation 70 years ago, was forgotten in the raucous cacophony of television debates.