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'Bird, take me flying with you too!' Being Devangana Kalita

By Ashley Tellis* 

I first met Devangana Kalita in a first year English Honours classroom in which I entered to teach Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in Miranda House, Delhi University, in 2008. She was one of the smartest students in the class – Devangana smiled the most and had the brightest twinkle in her eyes of the girls in the class. A middle class girl – Kalita comes from a family in upper Assam, the Kalitas along with the Brahmins dominate Assam (the Bamon-Kolita nexus as it is called) – in an elite all women’s institution known for a feminist, rebellious history.
Like all institutions, it was repressive; like all all-women institutions, particularly so. But Miranda House had met its match in Devangana. She organised, protested, all within the democratic tradition resisted. The seeds of Pinjra Tod, the group Devangana was to eventually co-found, and which now finds her jailed for as absurd a reason as inciting a ‘riot’ were already sown in that first year.
By the third year, they were protesting in front of Sheila Dixit, who came to the college as a chief guest, about what was being done to Delhi’s poor for the Commonwealth Games, they had organised the women in Miranda House and had begun to participate in Delhi-University wide and Delhi-wide cultures of protest.
Devangana was a brilliant student and fiercely competitive. I remember how horrified I was when she came in to the English Department to fight for a few measly more marks in the then new ghastly Internal Assessment system that Delhi University had just introduced. I expressed my horror; she laughed her infectious laugh. I left Miranda House at the end of her first year but we stayed in touch, became friends and have stayed friends ever since.
She applied for an MA in Development Studies at the University of Sussex soon after her BA and, of course, she got in. Before that, she was in Udaipur supporting projects working with adivasi children to bring their voices to local decision-making processes. She giggled. She is always giggling, even in the middle of tears and difficulty. Already, she was committed to a series of female friendships, a wide network of friends she was indispensable to and who were equally indispensable to her. All the characteristics that marked her were impressing themselves upon her more and more deeply – her love of justice, nature and a fun time – all in equal measure.
The fieldwork for her MA dissertation was among tea plantation labourers in Assam and their exploitation and struggles from colonial times to the present and how they have organised themselves and struggled for dignity. Her middle class parents, like all middle class parents, did not always approve of her choices but she smiled through their injunctions, as she did with all their other injunctions and all the injunctions of all authority figures, and did exactly what she wanted to do.
There is no stopping Devangana once she has made up her mind about something. She came back from her degree in Sussex, something very few middle class people do, and plunged herself into all kinds of activism: with labourers, with labouring women, with women students and Pinjra Tod was born. For Devangana, the personal and political are always interconnected and while she had differences with her parents growing up, over the years, she always had the patience to talk it out and explain why standing up not just for one’s own rights but for others’ is so crucial.
I remember meeting her in a soulless cafĂ© in Connaught Place in New Delhi just next to the legendary store People Tree where we would always meet and her telling me how the fieldwork and writing that dissertation changed her life. She had become a more serious person. I remember the pride I felt at another student of mine flexing her wings. One of the great pleasures of being a teacher is learning from one’s students.
Over the years, I have learnt so much from Devangana. Principally, I learnt what feminist solidarity means. Devangana is the most loyal feminist friend I know. She held the hands of even the most difficult and trying of her women friends, held them even when the pressure on her own hand got so much that she had to temporarily drop the hand she was holding. But, within no time, she was holding it again. 
And it was not only women, she held the hands of men in their pain, heterosexual and homosexual. When I would express exasperation at Vqueeram (her mad queer flatmate and one of my hateful loves) not being able to write his PhD, she would urge patience and say he will do it and we have to create the space for him to do it and say he was doing it, even when he wasn’t.
I learnt from Devangana what community is. She may be married to a man and in a monogamous relationship and institution but her house was always a commune, where many people stayed, many came and went, a caravan, a sarai, a watering hole for the weary.
I learnt from Devangana the tolerance of political difference. I would often be exasperated with the people she hung out with, had time for, gave shelter to. Being the irascible, cantankerous, politically purist so-and-so I am, I never hesitated to voice this to her. She would only giggle and say “Oh Ashley! He/she is not so bad.”
I learnt from Devangana what love and care is when I saw how she cared for her younger brother - a warm and lovely soul who, overcoming his cognitive disability, has gone on to become a fine musician; how she supported him without a trace of impatience, with a remarkable balance of empathy and the recognition of his full humanity.
With Ashley Tellis
I learnt from Devangana what feminist politics is on the ground when I saw her in protest after protest outside colleges, against sexual harassment, against the caging of women, against the poisonous combination of caste and gender discrimination, against authoritarian oppression of any kind.
I learnt from Devangana how to do collective politics: how she never foregrounded herself as founder of Pinjra Tod, always worked together with all the women, listened to all the voices (no matter how many hours it took); even the vicious voices of identitarian attacks on her and Pinjra Tod by people who call themselves allies and activists; even the voices who blatantly misrepresented Pinjra Tod’s work in the Citizenship Amendment Act-National Register of Citizens (CAA-NRC) protests, which was just to show solidarity with the protesting women across the city; and now even the voice of a state drunk on power and unable to see how it is killing all its finest minds, putting them in jail. Even from jail, she shows patience in listening to women, engaging with them, holding their hands and sharing their pain.
I learnt from Devangana how to have fun, how to let one’s hair down, sing, dance, wear outrageous clothes, enjoy food and drink and the pleasures the world offers in all their exhilarating and destabilising rainbow-coloured multiplicity.
I learnt from Devangana the tolerance of political difference. I would often be exasperated with the people she hung out with, had time for, gave shelter to
I learnt from Devangana how to be excited about one’s work, to be passionate about a reading, a class, an exciting teacher like Neeladri Bhattacharya, about discovering a woman in history who was marvellous and amazing and to share that with everyone she met with that infectious smile, that twinkle in her eyes in the first year at Miranda House.
I learnt from Devangana the art of creative protest. Over the years, the amazing forms Pinjra Tod protests took, its Mobius-strip like imagination took my breath away, from the wonderful use of the film Mother India for a critique of nationalism’s use of women to questionable queer marriages performed in Parliament Street police station in Delhi where Pinjra Tod members regaled bemused policemen with the entertaining energy of difference.
I learnt from Devangana how to take joy from the smallest things in the world: a plant, a bird, a colour, a piece of cloth, an earring. When I read her letters to her friends from jail which Nimisha (one of the scores of women I met through her over the years), also a student from Miranda House, a Science student, who grew along with Devangana through the shared history of their oppression as girls growing up in Uttar Pradesh and Assam, in conservative middle class families and contexts, and both flowering into their individual voices and holding hands through conflict, difference, pain, hate and love (which Freud tells us are so deeply intertwined and Devangana accepts almost intuitively within the larger frame of solidarity), I am simply astounded by her indomitable and unsurmountable capacity for joy. In one of those extraordinary letters which I read on nights that I miss her as I cry. Just look at how she opens one of her letters:
“Its around 10 pm, the sounds of crackers bursting has been going on for the last two hours despite the SC ban (not surprising!), it’s the only sounds we have heard from the city, the ‘outside’ world in all these months except the horns whistles of trains that one hears at night, which trains are these, where are they headed, where are they coming from? There are old Bollywood songs playing in the background.”
From Devangana, I learnt how to be a poet. Though she and I have a long overdue class on punctuation and grammar.
Devangana is in jail. That sits like a stone in my chest whenever I remember it. It is worsened when I think of the pain of her flatmates, of her comrades in Pinjra Tod, the hundreds of women who shout on the streets with her, marking the protest that any healthy democracy needs. It is so hard for me to understand a state that feels the need to incarcerate a mind and spirit and body like Devangana’s. But then I read her words again:
“It rained in the evening, the smell of rain, the wet earth, the smell of leaves and a full arch rainbow, some blue skies and passing clouds after many days of smogy skies, a bright red sun and hundreds of black kites circling at dusk, one of the little kids called out, 'Chiriya, hume bhi upar le jao', four bright stars spotted before proceeding to lock-up. I could feel you all the whole day today.”
We feel you too, Devangana. All day, every day. Hundreds and millions of us. In this country you love, for some bizarre reason, and all over the world.
And smoggy has two gs  and it is 'chidiya', you Assamese cow. And we have to have that grammar and punctuation class soon, Devangana. I am horrified. I taught you English.
And I am crying again.
---
*Independent researcher, writer and editor. Ashley Tellis’ research interests include Dalit autobiography, LGBT politics in South Asia and minority poetics and politics

Comments

Pankaj Butalia said…
Very touching. Nice to see there are people who look out for such bright sparks in our midst

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