I first met Kamla in 2013, a few months after I had returned to India and settled in a small town in Himachal. Within a minute of meeting her, it felt as if I had known her my entire life. She heard my life story without interrupting me and declared that I was at once a fool and someone special. "Tu to badi pagal hai!", she said and added "this village is lucky to have you here!".
She was Kammo for mom. She in turn addressed my mom as didi. She insisted Aloka call her Kamla nani. And she frowned upon me when I called her Kamla-di, something I had heard everyone in Jagori calling her. So she was simply Kamla for me.
She trained and traveled often in the three months that she was in Himachal, and was free for only about 15-20 days scattered over the months. I made sure I spent at least some time with her on these days. She did too. If there was a meeting with someone interesting nearby, she would take me along. She made me organize mehfils and get-togethers. She introduced me to everyone she thought would be good for me. These summer months were the highlight of our year, thanks to Kamla.
In our very first meeting, she asked me to teach English to the staff of Jagori. "Tu to acchi Angrezi bolti hai. Tu Angrezi parha sab ko", she had said. Though I had never taught English to anyone in my life, I said yes, because you don't say no to Kamla. That was the beginning of my journey of teaching that has sustained me in all these years by giving me purpose. It has also connected me to the village and the kids and youth. I have received so much love from numerous people because one woman saw something in me that no one else saw, including me.
She kept seeing in me things neither I nor others saw. When people applauded the dancers in a dance workshop held at my home, they saw me as one of the dancers, just as I did. But she saw me as someone bringing Indian Classical dance to the village and making it accessible to village kids. When people applauded my school students for their performance in an English play, they saw me as a volunteer teacher with whom kids had fun, just as I did. But she saw me as a person transforming the lives of village kids. To be loved is one thing, but to be seen is quite something.
The more I got to know her, the more I realized that I knew very little about feminism. I attended two days of her gender workshop one time and that's it. The rest I learned by talking to her and reading her books and articles. I had many questions and initially I asked them with diffidence, questions cloaked as observations. Her responses to me were never direct. She left me with oblique half-answers and I believe it was because she expected me to figure out things for myself.
"Kamla, I was treated the same as my brother growing up. There was no discrimination at home" I remember saying to her once. Her response was oblique. "And what was outside of your house? What did you step into when you stepped out of your door", she responded. Once there was an uproar on Facebook when she shared a video of Sadhguru talking about women dressing to please men. I called her and asked why was wearing whatever women felt like not an expression of their freedom? Her response was once again brief. She said "In an ideal world, it would be, of course. But don't forget that we are all operating within the boundaries of patriarchy." When I said I wanted to attend her workshops to learn more from her, she said to me "No one knows everything there is to know, not even I".
She used to call me once or twice a month for a chit chat. She would often complain that I was always too busy and never called her. If I called her and she was busy, she would always return my call. If I wrote to her, she would be prompt with her response. How could a person who had an abundance of friends accommodate me in her life so easily? How does a heart become so expansive?
This changed only in the last few months of her life. She didn't respond to my message when I wrote expressing my anguish at the diatribe against her on social media (that's an elephant in the room no one's talking about, perhaps because its irrelevance is obvious now). She didn't respond when I wrote to her after her diagnosis. But I didn't give up, messaging and calling till she finally said "Tu aaja".
I spent a week with her in Delhi in early September, taking care of her jointly with two other friends of hers. I got scolded by her countless number of times that week for not being prompt enough, for not understanding what exactly she wanted me to do, for offering to hold her hand when she walked (I am not that weak!) and what not. I will cherish that scolding all my life. I didn't get to rest or sleep much that week, managing her oxygen and medicines and being on call at night. I will cherish each moment of that whirlwind week all my life.
She was losing strength fast but not her sense of humor. When I said a couple of times that I am sad that her nephew is leaving, she said "Lo dekh lo Puja ko. Woh Delhi se Indore ja raha hai aur isko itna dukh hai. Yahaan mein duniya chhorh ke ja rahi hun, uska kya?" We laughed together. I cried alone in my room later.
Kamla, my mentor (sorry), my mother, my sister, my dearest friend, I am so honored and so privileged to have you in my life. The force that you were cannot vanish. The love that you were cannot dissipate. You live in me, in Aloka, and in the thousands of people for whom you had space in your big big heart.
I am filled with thoughts and memories of you. I am bereft.