Going against the grain

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As the Alumni Association of Miranda House chose to honour three of its former students, new generations continue to graduate as indomitable women with minds of their own, unshackled from the stereotype of ‘Indian womanhood’ that the founder sought to mould

Last week the Alumni Association of Miranda House chose to award three of its former students, resurrecting two of them from the 1960s and one from the 1970s. This article recapitulates a few earthy gems that shone before a hall packed with faculty, students and alumni of Miranda House.

But first a little background about Miranda House. This college for women was the dream-child of Sir Maurice Gwyer, Delhi University’s first Vice Chancellor. The then principal recalled three reasons Sir Maurice gave for naming the college Miranda: First, Carmen Miranda was his favourite actress; second, his daughter’s name was Miranda; third, Shakespeare’s Miranda would be a good example for the young women passing out from the college. Miranda is the lone female character in Shakespeare’s play The Tempest the very embodiment of purity and goodness, undefiled by the (male) world outside.

This year the youngest recipient of the Alumnae Award was Anita Pratap the first Indian woman to become a television journalist with CNN and an intrepid war reporter. Dressed in a closely fitted silk jacket in flaming red she dazzled onlookers — as far removed from pictures of the virtuous Miranda as was conceivable.

Anita began by describing hostel life in Miranda House where she roomed in close vicinity to the feisty film director (to be) — Mira Nair whom she described as a compelling senior, her flashing eyes commandeering complete obeisance from the hoi polloi of female undergraduates. The intensity of a single look made her targets cower and scamper from sight, so overpowering was her personality even then. Recounted Anita Pratap, “One night Mira sent for me. I was scared stiff” she continued, “but there being no alternative I lugged myself to the drama queen’s room not knowing what to expect. Mira was reclining on the bed in Begum like splendour as she beckoned me with two raised fingers to come and sit by her.”

Mira leaned over and asked, “Do you like boys?”

“I don’t know,” the 16-year-old Anita replied. She recalled then what Mira had sighed in response: “I like girls.”

The audience exploded as Anita’s eyes glinted with mischief and mirth. (How, now Sir Maurice?)

Ms Indira Rajaraman, one of India’s leading economists and the only woman member of the present Finance Commission (and perhaps its one dozen predecessor Commissions too,) stood behind the podium next, dressed in a non-designer sari, no make-up but still looking as she had some 45 years earlier — the same earnest, thoughtful face and the same soft, but blunt way of talking complete sense. In her speech she decried the fact that men (in office) spent so much time doing absolutely nothing, obsessed with cricket scores and similar trivia. She spoke passionately about hurdles that women encountered in a chauvinistic world where men’s attitudes had changed not a jot.

Her daily experience of 18 years as one sardine packed in the front half of the Karnataka State Transport bus while commuting to IIM-Bangalore where she was a faculty member, had exposed her to the throbbing realities of a world of illiterate, peasant women and their brood of bawling infants; but it was there that she imbibed lessons about the strength of togetherness and compassion, something her pristine education had never prepared her for.

As first among the speakers I regaled the audience with my status as Miranda’s Prima Donna on stage and how from bagging one leading role to another, I found myself in the dream role of the goddess Hera in a hilarious comedy titled The Rape of the Belt. I recounted how as I ascended the dais from one end of the stage, I scrutinised a gangly youth seated on Zeus’ throne at the other end. His gloomy face and long legs and ‘pap’ white pants made him look even gawkier. I tossed my long, thick plait behind me and asked my female co-star snootily, “Who is that ugly fellow? I have never seen him in Stephen’s before.” With similar disdain she replied, “He’s some guy from Kirorimal yaar — his name is Amitabh Bachchan.”

That brought the roof down but even more so when I told them that after three rehearsals, I was yanked off the stage when my mother confronted the principal with my third division marks in the terminal examination. Alas there was no option but to renew reciting Paradise Lost.

Drawing on experiences from my long career in public administration I encouraged the students not to equate a career in the civil services with babugiri or boredom. Working on a scale in public service could open opportunities to improve not just hundreds, but millions of lives. Given perseverance, stable domestic arrangements and a little luck, success was assured, no matter what people who could never clear the civil service examinations might say.

Sir Maurice Gwyer’s Victorian ideal of the perfect female figurine inside a gilded box was shattered long ago. New generations of Mirandians continue to graduate as indomitable women with minds of their own, unshackled from the fixed stereotype of ‘Indian womanhood’ that Gwyer sought to mould.

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