A Tribute to Sandhya Rao

…Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll rise…

Maya Angelou.

I heard about your death the afternoon before I was to leave for Bihar. I couldn’t believe it. I kept reading the message on my cell phone over and over again, thinking it has to be a mistake. I could see your silver grey hair wisping across your forehead, your husky voice, and the smile that crinkled up the corner of your eyes. Even now, I can still see your face as clearly as I see the words that convey this image of you. You can’t be gone. We have so much to talk about. We are yet to talk about the work on women’s empowerment that is currently occupying our time. I am just laying down the foundation for plumbing the history of the women’s movement – and isn’t that really what started our conversation in the first place…

I remember so clearly – our first meeting in your balcony that looked into an empty green space – so precious in Bangalore. You said it was soon to go, but you were enjoying the space until it would be no more. You had kids’ toys all over the apartment, and we were talking about public spaces and park benches. Towards the end of the conversation, you were regretful that the feminist movement had done those of us who came after certain kinds of disservice by focusing way too much on the law and not enough on anything else. And I disagreed with you.

I was talking to who-I-wanted-to-be-when-I-grew-up person and I wasn’t about to let her knock herself down from the pedestal I had just put her up on… not on my watch. So, I argued with you about what it had meant for me to read about what had come before I came to my own realisation of my identity as a feminist, about the struggles around naming of violence, the work that enabled me to expand my work on gender violence. I told you about my own experiences about how the legal framework *did* help some of the women, though not most. I argued with you about how foolhardy it would be to forget that we were, after all, standing on the shoulders of giants, and that paying attention to history matters, only so that we don’t make the same mistakes. I spoke, to be honest, quite needlessly and perhaps endlessly, about how my own feminism was framed by the mentorship of feminists who had come before.

You smiled and acknowledged the compliment. And yet, in your own gentle way, you reminded me of my own naiveté. And we parted ways. Our paths crossed many times since, and always, you hugged me like you had known me a long time, like an old familiar friend. Your eyes would light up and you would always have something funny or interesting to say. I remember always coming away from any interaction with you, warm and happy – like how one feels when one receives unexpected good news.

A tribute, even a minor one, requires some form of articulation of what you have given me, and why the news was as shocking as it was. I must be honest. I am at a loss to describe it. In so many ways, I didn’t know you at all. I had met you a handful of times. Yet, as my friend S told me today – You have inspired me. There’s debt, there’s affection, there’s love and there’s respect. These are not easy emotions to give form to, and I think I am unequal to the task, at the moment.

What I will do, however, is to convey what you taught me, in the limited time that I knew you. You taught me to be warm and open with my opinions. You made difficult transitions that are necessary seem natural. You took yourself lightly, and brought to passion, a kind of a gentle, care-free spirit that allowed other people the space to participate. You seemed equipped for practical advice and a quick laugh, at any time, and when I think of you – I think of a lightness that seemed to be around you. There is so much more that I feel I ought to say, but it appears that words are poor translators for the disbelief, dismay, and the loss one feels.

I suppose, then, it might suffice to say that you meant something to me.

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *