A hunger strike for a college education

“Don’t interview me, I’m not a celebrity”, Vanita, who Vinaya calls “Mai Atya” (Mai is a nickname and “atya” means aunt in Marathi) says. But Mai Atya’s story has been an inspiration to Vinaya for many years now. At a time when girls were sent to school only till SSC and then were immediately married off, Mai Atya decided that she wanted to be a graduate. When her father reneged his promise of sending her to college, Mai Atya argued with him till he caved. “I’ve scored higher marks than my brothers! Why shouldn’t I study further?”
Read on to find out how Mai Atya fought with her father for her right to study after SSC in the 1960s…

Vanita Ambike, 72 years, Pune

Interviewed by Vinaya Kurtkoti

Why did you decide to give us an interview on education?
Let me think about this. Can we come back to this subject? Ask me some other questions first.

Okay, tell me from the beginning. When did you first feel like you wanted to study a lot?
Initially, I did not care about studying hard at all. I was sure I wasn’t going to be allowed to go to college. So what’s the point in working hard? I took my education very lightly. All five of us siblings studied in the same school and our principal was TK Joshi, who looked like Rajendra Prasad. My dad would come to school to pay our fees. The principal complained to my dad then about how I’d scored badly in the prelims. My dad came home that day and confronted me. When I told him I had barely studied because anyway I wasn’t going to college, he told me if I got a first class, I could go to college.
During the SSC finals, my father came to give me a lunch dabba between two papers (at the time we had two papers on the same day with an hour’s break). He saw my question paper. I had ticked only half the answers. He went home and told my mother, “Your daughter will fail” (laughs). The results used to be announced in the newspaper back then. He got the paper and checked the third class section, my name was not in there. He got scared and checked the second class list, my name wasn’t on that either. I’m sure she’s failed, he said to himself (laughs). Then almost by accident he looked at the first class with distinction list and saw my name in it.

Why did he refuse to let you go to college?
Financially, it was genuinely impossible to send me to college. He had to support 5 children and my aaji (grandmother) and aai (mother). And he was an extremely honest man. So we had enough food and two sets of clothes to wear, but we didn’t have any luxuries. If we deboarded the bus one stop early, we’d be able to save 2 paise. I would save those 2 paise everyday to buy a new dress. This will tell you the financial condition we were in.
All my friends got admission in different colleges. One day, I went to my friend Kamal Bhagat’s house. Her grandmother was very rich. She told me, “You have scored so much more than Kamal. Why aren’t you studying further? You take admission in college; I will pay for it.” But my family would not have liked that. When my father refused, I didn’t speak to anyone, and went on a hunger strike for three days. I just sat in one corner of the room and sulked. Finally, he agreed to let me go to college on the condition that I always get a first class.

So where did the money to go to college come from?
I used the 28 rupees that I had saved from my bus fare. I didn’t take a single paisa from him. Then I had a national scholarship for the rest of my fees. The scholarship was of 75 rupees but because my dad had a high-paying job, I got only half the amount. They didn’t consider the number of people the money was getting divided among. I had to take admission in a Marathi medium college because I knew that my English was not very strong and I may not be able to get a first class in an English medium college.

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Did your father support you after that?
After this three-day hunger strike got me admission in college, he never opposed me. He only supported me then onwards. Once I got a 98 rupee prize when I topped my pre-university exams. He was so proud about that. He took me all the way to HMT to buy me a watch. I used that HMT Sujata watch for many years.

When did you start working?
I didn’t get a first class in college. So I looked for a job because I’d promised my father that I’d get a first class throughout. So I decided to continue studying externally. At the time, everyone was getting jobs based on their SSC merit. I had 5 calls then, in addition to the RBI job. I cleared the RBI interview and during my medical test, I had to go to a clinic in Fort area, near Crawford market… it was a very dark and scary building. The two other girls selected with me went for the medical tests with their fathers. So even I had to approach my father. His office was near Fort, near my college. I went to his office and dragged him for these medical tests. Till then, he had absolutely no idea what I was up to. After that, I earned as well as learned

What about Tai Atya (Mai Atya’s older sister)? Didn’t she want to study or work?
She wanted to, but she didn’t rebel like me. She started working only when she started looking for grooms, because everyone wanted a working wife.

Mai Atya, did you give dowry during your wedding?
No. I broke it off with one guy over this. My dad had decided to get me engaged to a doctor. But his mother demanded that we invite 500 guests and give them 15 tolas of gold and my father had agreed to that. By then, we could afford all this. I put my foot down against this match even though I had the money to make it happen. I would give the money of my own free will, not as dowry. When I heard all their conditions, I just said no. After that I was single for 5—6 more years. But I was firmly against this dowry match. I had no interest in a man who demanded dowry.
I now feel like I troubled my parents a lot. My father believed that I would get married like that (snaps fingers) and it would take a long time for my sister. But it was exactly the opposite! She had the right attitude. She would go find out the addresses of eligible men from various bureaus and write letters to them. And she would meet them with a smile on her face. So men would get impressed and she had five men who wanted to marry her at the same time. Me, on the other hand, never wrote to any guy, nor found out their addresses. My father was compelled to do all this, even though he wasn’t so good at writing Marathi (his mother tongue was Kannada). And I was the apple of his eye, so he never believed that any guy was good enough for me.

Okay, Mai Atya, coming back to my first question, where did that drive to study hard and to acquire higher education come what may come from?
My grandmother who lived with us was widowed. She had to wear a red saree and shave her head every few months. I saw that and thought that no one should ever have to bear those circumstances. Why should she have to live like that? So I didn’t want to depend on anyone. So even though I stopped going to college once I started earning, I did not stop learning.

On education - Interviewing India

The last question has nothing to do with your interview topic, but we ask everyone we interview – what does love mean to you?
To be honest, I have never experienced “love” in the contemporary sense of the term… what you would call romance. But after marriage, I felt love was companionship. When I met my husband, I knew he was the man for me, my soulmate. There are bound to be disagreements between two people of different cultures. But I never even thought of leaving him and starting something with someone else. Once I got married and walked the saptapadi around the sacred fire, I did not think about anyone else.

Categories: Education

Meet the interviewer

Vinaya Kurtkoti

Vinaya Kurtkoti is a Pune-based freelance copyeditor and journalist. She enjoys talking to people and listening to their stories – whether they are about old, lost friendships or why they cannot use prepaid mobile connections anymore. Anything you say can and will be used in your interview. Like her favourite fictional character Dirk Gently, Vinaya believes that everything is interconnected (some things more than others).

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