As tributes poured in for South Asia’s most prominent feminist icon Kamla Bhasin, my mind went back to a workshop I had attended over 15 years ago. As the passionate, feisty activist spoke there was pin-drop silence and an electric energy in the room. She said the first place where a woman was tormented the most, was the home. Either not allowed to be born, discriminated as a daughter; harassed by the mother-in-law, beaten by the husband or sexually abused by male family members.

She shared the experience of a Jagori (which she co-founded) representative from a training course for disadvantaged rural women in remote Rajasthan. A participant’s 15-month-old son got high fever and turned critical, and after great effort a doctor was reached and the child slowly recovered. But as the fever raged, the mother, pointing to her 3-year-old daughter, also with her, lamented: “I wish it was her and not my son”.

Bhasin said that later “when our members chided the mother for wishing this, the helpless woman wailed: ‘I know I shouldn’t have said that. But I attended this meeting defying my mother-in-law. If I had returned without my son, I would have been thrown out of the house. That is the reality of the world we live in; a daughter is dispensable, a son is not.”

Bhasin was 75 when she passed, after a battle with cancer, with the feisty woman of indomitable spirit even briefly addressed online an Indo-Pak peace forum from her ICU bed. A social scientist by training, Bhasin had worked with the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization for 25 years. This gave her the opportunity to travel across South Asia and she is mourned in Pakistan as well, from whose women she got the essence of the Azadi poem she famously improvised. Beginning with the words: “Meri beheny maange azadi” , the poem is a magical group chant demanding freedom from patriarchy and a plethora of other oppressions.

The most remarkable part of Bhasin’s life was the courage with which she faced huge challenges in her personal life. She went through a divorce, faced the suicide of her 26-year-old daughter, and was a tender caregiver for her son afflicted with cerebral palsy. He is 41. Those who were close to her, or worked with her, marvelled at how she could continue to work, laugh and care for so many people, despite life dealing her such adverse blows. As Syeda Hamid says in her tribute: “She epitomized peace, she was feminism, humanism, above all she was that four-letter word which trembles on our lips; she embodied that word, love.”

She wrote 30-odd books, several children’s books, poems and also took on the task of correcting the gender-bias in nursery rhymes. One of her most famous poem for children is titled ‘Because I’m a girl, I must study’. As Jagori said in its tribute: “Through her songs and posters, she has reached out to millions of activists and energised protests. Using simple language to demystify concepts, she was able to reach the ideas of feminism and patriarchy to the lay person without jargon.”

The virus of patriarchy

In a recent TED talk, she said the tiny Corona virus had put a magnifying glass on so many other “social and economic viruses that the powerful have created and continue to nurture and spread to control the world. The first such virus is patriarchy which continues to mess up the lives of billions of women, men and transgenders. Connected to this is the virus of toxic masculinity.” Add to these some other viruses unique to South Asia such as those of “caste, race, religious fanaticism and the most deadly virus of greed which has created what many people call disaster capitalism.”

This stalwart of women’s rights was given a fitting final journey, as described so evocatively by senior journalist Pamela Philipose on Facebook.

“She was given a farewell worthy of a woman who had made it a habit to plant saplings of love everywhere. Kamla’s sahelis from every generation poured in. This ring of indefatigable friends (who were by her side in her final days and hours too) had tastefully decorated the platform on which she rested at the crematorium with the sweetest, most aromatic flowers of the season. There was also a lot of singing for a woman who loved singing and who used songs to transform lives — songs like many-coloured strings of word beads in Nepali, Urdu, Punjabi, Rajasthani, Hindi...amazing what a polyglot Kamla was and one wonders who will write such songs now.”

Kamla’s voice, courage, energy and spirit will live on, straddling borders, giving hope, direction and insight to generations of women on how to take on the evils of patriarchy and misogyny. And most important, to do so, not with acrimony and hate, but humour, poetry, singing and love.