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Mainstream, Vol XLVIII, No 6, January 30, 2010

Gripping Narrative of a Meaningful Life

Monday 8 February 2010, by Amna Mirza


Life and Times of Shanta Toofani: Story of a Survivor—narrated by Shanta Toofani and synthesised by Dimple (Amreen) Oberoi Vahali, Diamond Oberoi Vahali; Daanish Books, New Delhi; price Rs 195; pages 285.

The book encapsulates the narratives of life of an unknown person yet someone whose experiences and activities we all would like to hear and learn from: Shanta Toofani. Written in the form of an open-eyed account by the authors, the direct voice of Shanta Toofani in various chapters adds a certain degree of vividness to the account. It is a simple life lived in a complex way—yet in its essence it is a life lived to the fullest. This is what this narration brings to us.

Shanta Toofani, as a child, learned the meaning of life with her mother passing away, later with the second mother killing herself, or separation with sister during migration from Burma to India with her father. In all these tales, there is a deep pathos which can be summed up as ‘exiled at multiple levels’, ‘repressed psyche’. (page 9)

The first part of the book has an interesting narration from the personalistic angle with Shanta Toofani talking about how she perceives inspiration as coming from spirituality, about gratitude for nature. A pertinent note in this connection is her thought: “compassion is value of dharma, and charity is friend of dharma”. (page 34) In this very segment, we can hear tones of marginalised existence in the hierarchical brahminical societal set-up, where she seems to be re-negotiating her identity at her own terms as she takes up cudgels over being dubbed as ‘achhut’—the child of a mother who was not a brahmin.

These writungs also bring to light the saga of this lady who never attended educational institutions in a formal way yet could read between the lines of the present-day hedonistic educational scenario making people more self-centred and weaning them away from contributing towards society. (page 68) She even had a Marxist bent of mind towards society where in absence of economic equality, accessiblity to resources for all come at an unequal plane. (page 69) The paternalistic emotions of care and nurture are heard as she opposes the way children suffer when parents split up due to the rising pressures of life. (page 72)

The part of the book pertaining to her experiences while travelling in buses brings out the kind of things which all of us hear—the public transport being devoid of emphathy for old people, people making noise in buses, eve-teasing. These are some issues which she points towards as she dared to raise her voice against them. Such instances occur in our everyday existence; so empathy is the state of mind while going through this segment.

Struggle, deprivation, yet determination to trust the inevitable destiny were yardsticks to shape Shanta’s childhood. With marriage happening at the age of 17, life did not change much. With the death of one son and the other son disapproving of his mother in later years she went through poignant times. But she bore all such adversities with commendable fortitude.

Moving away from personal insight and leaping towards her activism, part III captures her social and political interventions. We hear the voice of the subaltern who fights to get her due. She comes forward here as a Durga who is battling at various ends—educating slum children by her association with Ankur, selfless concern to get money for a lady’s burnt house, standing up for the rights of jhuggi jhopri dwellers at MCD meetings, AIDS bhadbhav andolan, nirman mazdoor panchayat sangam. These instances are like threads of an interwoven fabric of life. How being exiled at the level of a mother, sister, wife, daughter, she overcame the trauma to give back good to the life without sitting back and sulking over her destiny. In this struggle within, she was an epitome of compassion to others around her.

To sum up, a beautiful narrative to be read and pondered over. It may not have found space in mainstream discourse involved in covering flamboyant events; the publishers thus deserve credit for putting up an effort in producing the book. It has in store a lesson for all of us, who in some way or other are victimised. Where Shanta Toofani comes to our rescue is where she tells us that we need to battle our way out of this process of victimisation, we need to give our life a larger meaning beyond the self basing ourselves on honesty, courage and conviction.

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