Indira Mayaram (1935-2022): A daughter-in-law remembers

Being matri-patriarchs was not unusual for women during the freedom struggle. Indira Chaturvedi had seen how her mother, Priyamvada, held the family together when her husband went repeatedly to jail

Indira Mayaram (in the middle) with Indira Gandhi
Indira Mayaram (in the middle) with Indira Gandhi

Shail Mayaram

Three days after I was married, I dressed in a cotton sari. The July weather was hot and humid but it shocked my mother-in-law, universally called Jijji (elder sister). I was supposed to dress like a newly married bride, not like the lecturer I was. As I received a dressing down, I said to myself, ‘Welcome to patriarchy’! And what a matri-patriarch she was in being a major decision maker for my husband and his six sisters as also in her own father’s family after her mother passed away.

My own family background was as different from my husband, Arvind’s as chalk from cheese. With an American mother, minimal traditions were observed in my natal family. At another level, there was a likeness as we both came from families that had been immersed in India’s struggle for freedom.

Being matri-patriarchs was not unusual for women during the freedom struggle. Indira Chaturvedi had seen how her mother, Priyamvada, had held the family together when her husband went repeatedly to jail in the 1940s. My grandmother, Jagrani, likewise assumed this role when my grandfather and two of his brothers were in Guna and Gwalior jails in 1942.

Despite cultural differences, however, Jijji and my mother developed a great fondness for each other. One spoke in Hindi and the other in English but there was a meeting of hearts. After my mother passed on, it was she who would send my father his meals. Being fond of good food, he would complain to her when she returned after a journey, “Indiraji, now that you have returned, the food will improve.” The cook would then be pulled up and some special dishes sent to his penthouse apartment next door!

Over the years I had come to appreciate this very, very special woman. She was generous to a fault not just with the family, but with a huge circle of political workers and her personal staff. None left the house hungry and there was also always a place to stay for anyone who might need it. More important, she intervened on their behalf with the authorities for bank loans to small businesses or whenever anyone was ailing in hospital or had been troubled by the police or local bully.

After her funeral what for me was particularly moving were stories of how a vegetable vendor became a shopkeeper because of her or how a dying relative had obtained access to oxygen. She celebrated and mourned with them. The very first event of my son’s wedding was a Jaunar feast held in a village where everyone was invited from morning to night.

Her exact date of birth was not known but appropriately became August 15, the day India won freedom. She grew up a precocious child, being the only daughter with four brothers and therefore much cherished. Her father was one of the major leaders of the Congress and would later become one of the founders of the Matsya State and a minister in the newly minted Rajasthan government.

His wife realised immediately after the wedding rituals that her husband was a radical reformist. He promptly told her that henceforth she would not veil herself or else he would burn the offending ghunghat. The decision would have consequences for all the women who were married into the family as they were freed from covering their heads unlike many north Indian Hindu families. An Arya Samajist he was committed to the battle against untouchability and the equal status of boys and girls.

Jijji grew up tending younger brothers and helping her mother who had become the chairperson of the Bharatpur State Municipality. Horrific partition violence in the Bharatpur and Alwar States was close at hand. She recalled on one occasion “the washerwoman came to my mother and told her that her young children would be killed by the dhar (mob). Bhabhi (mother) told her now that you have come you will not leave and kept her with them for two days after which she personally escorted her to the railway station and put her into a goods train going to British India. There were corpses all over the platform... The mob would stop the trains and kill all the Muslims travelling in them. There was an English train driver who speeded the train through the station saving everyone.”

Her father was impressed by a young man’s fiery nationalist speech. The young man was working then as secretary to Shobha Ram, prime minister of the Matsya State and Jugal Kishore Chaturvedi decided that a better match would not be found even though his daughter was only thirteen years old. In caste terms it was an unusual marriage as he was not a Chaturvedi (brahmins from Mathura who claim that they know all four Veda). The man had been born into a Garhwal Brahmin family but had dropped his caste name and used only his first name, Mayaram, which would become the family’s last name.

From her own mother-in-law’s perspective - a poor, peasant widowed woman - her only son’s bride from the plains was a poor choice as she could not even plough the fields. Fortunately, the Mayarams came to live in Jaipur as her son qualified for the provincial civil service and would later be absorbed into the all India service so that agricultural skills were not quite required.

A young bureaucrat’s salary was thin and Jijji would recall having only four saris, hand sewing her children’s garments and being able to send the girls to modest schools until they were able to join Banasthali Vidyapith. But she was a resourceful woman, charming and a good conversationalist. She studied for exams simultaneously nursing her children and eventually obtained a law degree and nearly finished a Ph.D.

She drove a car around town, learned how to fly a plane and was a great favourite with educationists such as Ms Bhartiya and Ms Terway (successive principals of the Maharani’s College where she studied) and Mohan Singh Mehta (diplomat, founder vice chancellor of the University of Rajasthan and later of the NGO, Sewa Mandir). The home was built very, very slowly, room by room. It was a happy one and the couple often played the tabla and harmonium and sang together.

Sanganer became her constituency, which she tended to even after it became reserved for Scheduled Castes. She worked with the Youth Congress and then as a member of the All India Congress Committee and helped establish an All India Jawaharlal Nehru Youth Association. She was like a daughter to Uma Shankar Dixit and his wife and like a sister to Andhra leader, Govardhana Reddy.

While she was close to the Congress’ top leadership and also to Rajasthan’s long serving chief minister, Mohanlal Sukhadia, politicians lost no opportunity to cut her to size. Twice her name was struck off after being finalised as MLA contestant and it was only much later that she could contest elections and become a minister.

What were male politicians afraid of ? Capable women with integrity who will make better rulers and administrators?

She belonged to an Old India, a mix of tradition and modernity. In a changing India, there was no space now for bureaucrats like her husband who would not even accept a box of sweets, or for politicians who used power for public service than the pursuit of unabashed self-interest! She was indeed part of a fading generation Swaraj’s Children.

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