Autobiography of a Freedom Fighter – India Currents

Buried deep inside my mind is a sepia colored scene from early childhood, its hues taken from the films we used to see on the streets during festival time. In the scene, I am sitting beside my father Dada on a plywood divan in the front room of our three-room flat in the old city and he is telling me that I was born on January 26, the Republic Day of India. I was named after Aruna Asaf Ali, the freedom fighter, he is saying. My birth name, it turns out, is indeed Aruna. I am destined to do great things in this world, he is telling me, and an incredible feeling is sweeping over me. I am special; I am to change the world, I believe.
I wonder sometimes if my mind has amalgamated disparate incidents to create this singular memory or if it just happened this way. Whichever the case, the words are real, and so are the details. Throughout my childhood, my father repeatedly reminded me that I was named after a freedom fighter; that I was to have a life different from that of other women in India.

This was my father’s singular gift to me. Every year, on my birthday, he made my favorite Maharashtrian sweet of Shrikhand—in a country where men refused to enter kitchens, my father was a great cook, perhaps because my mother never had any interest in cooking, and also because, she later became ill. The custom of birthday parties had no yet invaded India but my friends got wind of the Republic Day celebration and began to show up every year to eat the treat and listen to the story.

This memory explains everything about my life; my successes, my failures, my joys and my sorrows. My father created an expectation that was hard to sustain. And yet, not for one moment have I wished that I had been raised like a “normal” Indian girl and told that my destiny was to be a slave in my mother-in-law’s kitchen.

It is hard to know if my father saw something in me or if my intelligence, my enthusiasm, and my willingness to work hard were simply by-products of his pride and faith in me.
What is true is that my father’s words shaped me; made me different. Other fathers took their cues from Dada and encouraged their daughters—my friends—to soar and shine too.
We all went to co-educational schools. We all competed with boys; I more than most. My father encouraged me to participate in debates; to be direct, honest, and bold. When my middle school teacher accused Mahatma Gandhi of inciting the Muslims and partitioning the country, I raised my hand and objected, only to be admired, not admonished, for speaking my mind and questioning authority. Those were the heady post-independence days of the ‘60s, when women were seen as the hope of India.

Later, I studied science alongside men. The numbers of women gradually declined in my classes at each stage, from twenty-five in B.Sc. to four in M.Sc. to only one—just me—in the Ph.D. physics course at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur. Freed from the pressure to be feminine and pretty and to lure men, I behaved like a man. It was the only way a woman could survive at the university and in a profession in those days.
After graduate school in Berkeley, when I began to work in the field of energy, I encountered not only no Indian women, but no women, period. I related well to men; I enjoyed their company. I excelled because of my ability to do so. It never occurred to me to be anyone but myself.

Yet, lately, I have felt the pressure to change. I have encountered women’s games, women’s manipulations, women’s passive aggressiveness. Sometimes, in an all-women group, I have expressed my opinions too vehemently and sensed an undercurrent of resentment. And I have wondered, am I missing the female gene?

But when I was growing up, I did not feel judged for my feisty personality and my outsized ambitions. It is only now that I realize that the source of my mental security was always my father, who remained my ally no matter what. He gave me the confidence to be myself, to not worry about other people’s approval. The result was that I did get approval, from teachers, from friends, and from neighbors.

What is lacking in the feminist literature today is the narrative of bonding with fathers. When you look at women leaders today, like Arundhati Roy—a writer and activist I absolutely adore—or Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem, what stands out is that they did not have good relationships with their fathers.

Could this be the reason many young women today seem to lack the spirit, the drive, the assertiveness that should be their due in this so-called “post-feminist” era?

Now that my father is long gone—it will be the twelfth anniversary of his death this summer—I find myself rudderless. An image comes back to me, of my alarm going off at four a.m. and Dada rising to light the charcoal stove to make me a cup of tea, a scarf tied around his ears. What makes a father sacrifice for the education of a daughter?

My father was my soul mate, my guide, my friend and my mentor. He taught me to love literature, to plant a garden, to enjoy cricket, to cultivate a taste for beauty, to drink tea, and to appreciate the other little things in life. Believe it or not but he, and not my mother, taught me cooking.

Of course such a close relationship had its price. My brother resented me, for example; unable to share my father’s interests, he felt left out of the duo.

Still I do not regret my bond with my father; on the contrary, I wish that I had not let anyone come between us for any reason. For I know now that I would not have had the strength to battle the many adversities I have encountered in my life without the courage and strength my father gave me. He saw the real me in a way that no one else did. Now that I am becoming older and invisible, I want someone to see me the way he did.

I realize now how rare it is in this world for two people to be on the same wavelength. How wonderful and unusual it is for a father to impart so much of himself to a daughter.

So this Father’s Day, I want to rejoice Dada; sing an ode to him. I want to thank him for naming me after a freedom fighter, so that every single day of my life, I was reminded that I had to fight for my liberty.

And in spite of my atheism, I want to desperately believe that from somewhere beyond this realm, he is still watching me.

Sarita Sarvate ( has published commentaries for New America Media, KQED FM, San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and many nationwide publications.

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