A volume of Ashoka Gupta's selected writings, titled A Fighting Spirit (Niyogi Books), was released recently in Kolkata and Delhi. The events were occasions to remember the fullness of her life as well as to bear witness of an eventful era. Most importantly, they served to acquaint the younger generation, which is perhaps not fully aware of the range and depth of her activities, with the possibilities that a single life can encompass.
Ashoka, wife of the well-known ‘khadi clad' Bengal ICS officer Saibal Gupta, was an essential feminist who lived and worked in the bosom of the family. Deeply influenced by Gandhiji's call for the participation of women in public life and the Independence struggle, she joined him in his peace and reconciliation mission in Noakhali just before Independence. Her experiences there as well as during the Partition-related violence made her compassionate towards women, who were victims of sexual and other forms of violence. She joined the All India Women's Conference and rose to hold its highest office, as well as the highest offices in West Bengal and Central Social Welfare Boards.
Compiled and edited by Narayani Gupta, the late Ashoka's historian daughter-in-law, and Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, the new volume brings together Ashoka's own writings and memoirs on her. The book also has rare photographs and personal correspondence. Ashoka's writing gives an account of the days she spent with Mahatma Gandhi in riot-torn Noakhali, her criticisms (originally published in the Bangla periodical Prabasi) on government policies on the rationing of clothes and food during the war, articles on violence against women and on the resettlement of East Bengal refugees in Dandakaranya. Her writings on the rationing system bring out the strength of her personality, that she was a person who drew her strength and understanding from the ground, and not from abstract theories of distribution. She tears to shreds the rule that if a clothing coupon had not been redeemed in the first half of the English calendar year, it could not be carried over to the next half, and would lapse. She posits the household seasonal calendar of an average rural family to demonstrate why it was not feasible for them to buy clothes between January and June due to other pressures on their budget, and why the only time they could do so was in the second half of the year! The planners would do well to learn from her.
The book throws light on Ashoka's dedication in rebuilding broken lives, especially those who were lodged in relief camps at Noakhali and Dandakaranya, or the women in the institutions run by the All India Women's Conference. In this effort, she used every ounce of energy she had, and every contact and friendship of hers to garner resources, and make a difference.
Her active career spanned more than seven decades, and despite major achievements, it is not enough to describe her as a social worker. She loved the outdoors, was an ardent Girl Guide, was at her best when working in a group, travelled widely, and was instrumental in launching the literary career of her mother, Jyotirmoyee Devi, who was widowed at a young age. One of Ashoka's major tasks in late life was editing and publishing her mother's work.
The remarkable journey of Ashoka Gupta comes alive in the book now published, which will hopefully make her thoughts and ideas accessible to a wider audience.