“My mother’s black and white graduation photograph hung on the whitewashed wall in the living room of her Nizamuddin house in 1994. It showed my mother, Inder Kaur, in a sombre pose, wearing a saree, holding her Master’s degree in Punjabi literature. She was standing under some trees, so it looks as if a few leaves are sprouting from her head.
For a long time, the main story I told myself about Mummy was about a woman who had struggled hard to educate herself. She used Partition as a liberating force. During the many years when my mother worked to complete her Master’s degree, her friends at university and some in the family would tell me, “Your mother has a lot of himmat”. Courage, energy and daring. But that was the only mother I knew and I did not regard it as unusual.
My mother had completed the 8th class when her father insisted that she leave school. A series of small, determined steps─assisted by the upheaval of traditional norms and opportunities because of Partition─had her standing under the trees with her Master’s degree in hand. For me this was the epic story of her life. I saw in her story an Indian woman’s fight for independence.
My mother sneaked in a BA (Hons) in Punjabi during the time when my father was posted to Iraq for one-and-a-half years during the Second World War. In the early 1940s in Punjab, it was possible to do the BA (Hons) known as Gyani as a single subject without having a general BA or even a Matriculation. Another young woman in the neighbourhood, whose husband had also gone to war, was preparing for the Punjabi BA (Hons) exam. The tuition classes were for three hours a day in the Gurdwara. My mother went along to see whether she could also do it. The tutor asked her to write an essay on God and Mummy was able to draw on her knowledge of the scriptures and write a five-page essay. She was in.
Bauji, her father was staying with Mummy, Lata and Ranjan while Pitajee was away. My mother upbraided him for not allowing her to continue her education past class eight, whereas the bride he chose for his son Khojinder had a B.A. Bauji remonstrated that in those days that was the custom, but gave her tacit permission to study. My mother did not write to Pitajee, thinking he would stop her if he could, even though he was in Iraq.
After completing the Gyani, Mummy enrolled to study English in Government College, Rawalpindi. But Pitajee came back earlier than expected and brought the study to a halt. Sewing classes, embroidery classes─these were acceptable. University education was not. “He did not like it,” Mummy said. “But he couldn’t do anything about my having passed the Gyani. He couldn’t have me failed, could he?”
It was this BA (Hons) in Punjabi that launched my mother into an educational career in Delhi. Ranjan had studied Punjabi and needed to continue to study the language in her last years in school. But Miss Devi Dutta, the principal of Queen Mary’s School where Ranjan was enrolled, said “We do not have a Punjabi teacher.” To this Mummy said, “I have done Punjabi Honours. I can teach my daughter Punjabi at home.”
Miss Devi Dutta countered, “We have the princesses of Patiala who tell us everyday that they want to study Punjabi. So why don’t you teach Punjabi in our school? We’ll give you an honorarium.” At first my mother received Rs 50 a month. To that was added another Rs 30, to make up Rs 80. My mother says:
I did not see it as my money. It was the respect I got there─I used to feel proud of that. I remember that Devi Dutta respected me a lot. My colleagues gave me a lot of respect. Students who were princesses used to bring chairs for me. In a way it was as if they were grateful to me. I felt that I knew something, I could teach somebody something.
My mother was successful as a teacher. Ranjan got a distinction in her Punjabi, and all the other students did well. My mother was proud of her record as a teacher and would say, “Our results were cent per cent.”
Now that she was teaching students who were completing their Year 10, the principal, Miss Devi Dutta, suggested that she ought to complete Year 10 herself. This was towards the end of 1948. A child in the neighbourhood used to get tuition for his Year 10 exam. My mother persuaded Pitajee to allow her to get a month’s tuition and appear for the Year 10 exam. After two months’ study she passed her Year 10 exam.
By this time, however, she had already begun tutoring students studying Punjabi at the BA level in Miranda House, University of Delhi. One of her cousin’s friends had a daughter who was weak in Punjabi. My mother started tutoring her. The girl told the Principal, Miss V. Thakurdas about Mummy and how satisfied she was with the lessons. Miss Thakurdas asked to meet my mother as she had been looking for a Punjabi teacher.
When Mummy went to see Miss Thakurdas at home, she was washing her hair. While she was washing her hair, she asked Mummy questions and talked to her in Punjabi. Soon after, my mother started teaching Miranda House girls Punjabi on a semi-private basis, with each girl paying Rs 10 a month. There were 20 or 25 girls so Mummy would bring home Rs 200 to Rs 250 a month.
My mother taught at Miranda House for nine years. She would go four days to Miranda House and for two days a week to Queen Mary’s. In the evenings, for many years, she taught at a private college, Kurukshetra College. The college was about five miles away and it meant going by bicycle, but it was worth another Rs 100 a month.
In a near repeat of what had happened at Queen Mary’s School, Miss Thakurdas, who became a friend, told Mummy, “Mrs Singh, you teach BA students. At the very least, you should do your BA.” So my mother started the long haul to obtaining a full-fledged BA. In the 1950s, one could do it in a two-step process─the FA first, followed by a BA, subject by subject. With the extra income coming in from the evening classes, she was able to get a month’s private tuition for Rs 125.
She did not pass. It was a two-year course, and a month’s tuition was not enough. She finally passed her FA in 1950 but failed the BA English subject twice. She says:
I used to have a cousin who would say the old and decrepit can’t study. (Mummy was 40.) I told him this old and decrepit person will study. Well, I failed English. Next day I picked up the books again. Changed the tuition centre. Went to Gole Market, three miles further─12 miles cycling coming and going in the evening.
After passing her English exam in 1952, she began studying for her BA history exam at Kurukshetra College in the evening. I remember going with her sometimes on the back of her bicycle. She would sit among the students for one hour studying history and would then stand up to teach Punjabi for the second hour. A couple of her students would cycle back with her on dark winter nights and escort her home before going on to their homes. She would get back at night and her food would have been kept for her, but it was cold. I remember she was often desperately behind, and when I was eight, I would read her British constitutional history while she was having dinner.
My mother failed the BA history the first time she appeared. Her command of English was always the stumbling point. She lacked fluency and confidence in English. She passed the second time around. So with English, History and the Punjabi she had already done, she completed a full BA in 1955.
For my mother this was a hard, though exciting time. I remember only the excitement it brought into my life. My only experience of drama as a child was going to Miranda House to see my mother’s students enact tragic love stories such as Sassi Punnu. Or hearing Mummy and her students sing Heer Ranjha, also a story of doomed love.
My mother’s life seemed to be full of adventures. The story I liked best was the one about Mummy saving a girl’s honour when she was cycling back with her students from Kurukshetra College at about 8:30 one night. Near the bungalows at Shahjehan Road, a young girl was standing, surrounded by a large crowd of people and one or two policeman. My mother dismounted her cycle and moved the people aside and asked the girl, “Where are you from?”
The girl was very beautiful. She had a broad face, a fair complexion. She was wearing jewellery and shimmering clothes. She said “I am lost. Yesterday I got married. Today my in-laws took me to Hanuman temple. When we came out, I went one way and they went another way.” She had been walking and walking. She dared not get into a taxi.
Just then, the wife of a noted cloth tycoon happened to pass by in a car. She stopped to check out the unusual situation. There was a newly married woman. There was my mother who was tall and strong. The cycles were also there. The tycoon’s wife said, “I will send the car back for you. Please see her home.” Her car came back. My mother sent her cycle with one of the boys. The other boy rode in the car with them with his cycle at the back.
However, first the policemen took them all to the police station. After the report had been made, the policemen said they would see the girl home the following day. Mummy insisted that the girl be allowed to go with her. She told the policemen that her uncle, Mama Atma Singh was a member of parliament. Upon hearing this, they began to mollify her. My mother insisted that she would accompany the girl to her parents’ home. She told the policemen, “You know if this girl stays even one night here, her honour will be lost. I am not saying you are bad, but it is the public view that any girl who has spent a night at the police station is not worth anything any more.”
Two policemen accompanied my mother and the girl in the car. The student and his cycle went too. Mummy’s voice lowers as she retells the story,
When we went to her parents’ house, there were a hundred people sitting there in a small house. When they saw us, they were mad with joy. They started shouting, ‘The girl has been found. The girl has been found.’ The in-laws were there too. I told them ‘I have come with this girl to tell you personally that nobody has touched her. This girl is as untouched and pure as she was before. Now please look after your girl.’
They began to prostrate themselves at my mother’s feet, calling her “Goddess, Goddess.” Even the girl said, “For me the goddess appeared. For me a goddess appeared.” My mother was very satisfied that she had been able to do a good deed. She came back home to find everybody was asleep. There was no food or water left for her. My mother says, “I went to sleep too. The next morning I told him I came home after midnight, and he was angry and said, ‘Why take an unnecessary risk?’”
My mother began attending MA classes at the University soon after she completed her “full” BA in 1955. She would teach 12 students in the mornings at Miranda House ─that brought in about Rs 150─and then walk across to the university classes which started at about 10:30.
The Masters was a joy compared to the BA. My mother was now on solid ground for she no longer had to struggle with poor English. Her knowledge of the scriptures became a big asset as she was studying classical devotional poetry. The emphasis now was on getting a first division, something that had eluded her all her life. After studying for two years, in the preparatory holidays before the final exam, she developed a severe pain in her right arm and had to defer taking the exam. By that time, the marriage had disintegrated and my father had left home.
But parallel to the story of my mother’s education was another story. At her graduation ceremony in the University of Delhi in 1958, she was alone. Our family home had dissolved. My father had left home and was living at his clinic. My mother was living at the Working Girls’ Hostel. I was in the hostel in Queen Mary’s School in Delhi. Lata and Ranjan were already married and living in Bombay and New York respectively. But for us in Delhi, the traditional structures had fallen away.
There however was time for philosophy and poetry. It must have been 1957 when Mummy went to the Miranda House hostel to prepare for her Master’s degree. She was 46. Her room was on the first floor, on the eastern side of the quadrangle. There were friends with whom she discussed Punjabi and Hindi literature, the philosophy of Sikhism and Hinduism, the Bhakti movement. These discussions took place over hostel food that came from the mess in a three-tiered container eaten with rice jazzed up with cumin and ghee on an electric stove in Krishna Sharma’s hostel room.
My mother had become friends with Krishna Sharma. She was a historian and went on to do a doctorate on Kabir and the Bhakti Movement. My mother knew Kabir’s work for it is incorporated in our holy book. Not only did they discuss poetry, history and religion, but Krishna Sharma also found in Mummy a surrogate mother. She was the first person who said to me that my mother was remarkable, that she had courage, that she was a scholar. Krishna Sharma was my mother’s first public fan and would say over and over again that I was fortunate to have a mother like her.
My weekend visits to Miranda House when I was 13 were also my first experience of being with someone who was not from North India. My mother’s neighbour in the hostel was a South Indian woman who had been married and widowed as a child. Listening to her tell Mummy of her struggles to obtain an education and financial independence first brought home to me that the stories of women in India had a common thread of sorrow. I listened to her, for I was always in the room as that was the only place I could be.
One day, the South Indian neighbour’s uncle was visiting her. The story about him was that he had received a boon from a yogi or fakir and could read hands accurately. In his family he was much avoided for he had the habit of telling people what they did not want to know. But my mother was taken by the idea of this uncle, and wanted to know, more than anything else, whether she would get a first division in the coming MA exams.
The uncle looked at her hand and told her, No, she won’t get a first division. But, he said it wouldn’t make any difference because she would get good jobs. Mummy says he looked at her hand, then looked up at her, and said softly, “Life has been difficult.” But, he said, the last 20 years of her life would be her best years. And so they were.
An educator of women
Mummy was appointed as a part-time and then a full-time lecturer at Khalsa College at the University of Delhi in 1958. She also taught students doing their Masters in Punjabi literature at the University of Delhi. She taught at Khalsa College in Delhi for nine years. During that time, she started work on her PhD on “The Puranic Influence on the Adi Granth.” A Brahmin priest would come to the hostel to teach her Sanskrit.
In 1967, she was the Acting Principal of Mata Sundari College in Delhi. In 1969 the Khalsa College committee from Amritsar approached her. They were establishing a sister college to the historic Khalsa College that has been part of Sikh history. My mother must have been an ideal candidate with postgraduate qualifications, an experiential knowledge of the scriptures, administrative and leadership experience. Moreover, at 58, she gave the new institution a look of immediate respectability and maturity.
It meant she would have to defer completing her PhD. That wasn’t going well, for her supervisor had moved to Punjab, and she was beginning to think that if she wanted to continue, she would have to change her dissertation topic. But she later realised that at that time she had chosen a career as an educationist over achieving her personal goal of doing her PhD.
Becoming the principal of a college was the fulfillment of a dream she had almost dared not dream. In 1971 when she was 60, she had to retire. She was then invited to become the founding principal of the first women’s college in Lopon. It was the first time girls from the villages around were able to get a university education.
When Mummy was 65, she had to retire from Lopon according to university regulations. By this time the college had a university-approved B.Ed programme. She thought she would now complete her PhD under her old supervisor. But then the gurdwara in Patti approached her to establish a college for women. Again, it was the first college to serve the town and the 52 villages around it. She remained there for 10 years.
She retired from academic life at 75 after being the founding principal of three women’s colleges in Punjab. Her search for survival and education had given her a sense of self. In return she helped enable a whole generation of women in Punjab.”
Contributor: Supriya Singh (daughter)
Based on Supriya Singh (2014), The Girls Ate Last: Partition, Education and the Life of Inder Kaur, Eltham, Vic: Angsana Publications.