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Late Kusum Karnik

Founder Member


Me as a Social Worker …… My story from my Pen 

 Whenever I think of how I got to be a social activist I remember the days from my childhood. I had little expectations of myself and was not even able to think of some ground breaking social work. Around the age of 35 I started to think if life was going the way it should be. Could I speak my mind, am I honest to myself? All this lead to where I am today.

I was born in Mumbai in 1934 in a middle-class family. My elder sister was mildly handicapped. My parents were worried for her I was the second and my brother was third. I lost my mother when my brother was very young. My father re-married. When I was a little matured in my thoughts; I thought of my step mother. When there were three kids to be cared for; she must have really squirmed inside with all the responsibility. But my step-mother never treated us that way. I am indebted to her for that and till date we are a close siblings nest. My step mother was from a village near Ratnagiri in Konkan. She was extremely industrious. She raised the 7-member family with arduous effort. I helped her in the household chores but used to be mildly upset with it. Since my child hood I was extremely outraged with exploitation, extremism in all walks of life. I often rebelled against it. I used to enjoy the outside work rather than the household chores. Reading, elocution, theatre, singing, dancing and the best of all sports were my forte. My mother didn’t take this kindly and we often bickered over it. Since childhood I was an atheist. My parents were not exactly pious so I could get away with this side of things. I was a non-feminist and just didn’t bother of dressing and embellishments. I just wanted to be independent and support the family. After my fourth grade I decide to go to the public school. When I was young I saw the freedom fight of 1942 when the environment was so animated but our houses were just cold to it. I was pained that I was not participating in the freedom fights. At times, there were riots in the streets and post offices and buses were torched but I couldn’t participate in it. I could manage to go just about everywhere quietly. Around those times the Rashtriya Seva Dal opened its office in the offing. My sister and I frequented there. I was very captivated by the new thoughts, priorities, sense of social responsibility, the news-paper articles, I just wanted it all. Under this influence we at times shared food with the Dharavi slum dwellers this gave me a great sense of elation. I also felt asphyxiated in the orthodox environment. Fortunately, my parents never resisted this. My Sister and me resented the gender discrimination we being girls poured in our life all along was just unbearable. I was the one responsible to sort the bickering’s of my siblings.

My father was avid reader and had an artistic bent of mind. He also showed us birds and different trees when we went for a stroll. This was how we were attracted to nature even being in Mumbai. For the reading habit our house was a graze-land and I devoured on everything we had. I poured through several stories, novels, poems etc. My father; and my siblings just read about everything. My formative years were spent in this environment. During those times all the literature was male dominate. The female protagonist in the novels were portrayed virtuous likable by males. The novelist Phadake, was a master at this. I like the novelist Khandekar, the protagonists Vatsala in the novel was my best friend. Two more novels Ragani by V.M. Joshi and Hindolyawar by Vibhawari Shirurkar Doghanche Vishwa played in my mind.   

This way my formative years were spent in Mumbai, I vividly remember attending Chaabildas School (though name not appropriate) I must be around 16-17 then. Our school superintendent was Akshikar and our school has a very different environment because of him. We had a lot of extra-curricular- activities. We had a huge playground at school and I fully used it to my benefit. The all-girls school gave me a sense of freedom and relief. Various programmes were planned at our school I participated in them and judged my strength. I had the good fortune of listening to celebrated personalities. A celebrate socialist “Sane Guruji” often gave his speeches at our school. I really benefited from all this. I finished school and completed my 11th grade (which is was a formal education till pre-degree) Going to college immediately was a remote possibility. So, as it was customary to get girls married around the time; marriage proposals were solicitude for me. I messed-up one such meeting and my father became more vigilant of such matters. I told him in strictest words that no dowry would be offered for my marriage. I was very anxious with the marriage thing. Archaic rituals and religious practices intimidated me. The deposition of the men folk around me made me feel that marriage was a very difficult thing. I just couldn’t find somebody special to whom entire life be squandered. I could not be even at home so staying there and doing a job would have got difficult. I like the nursing job. People just fail to see the psychological support that a nurse provides to the convalescing patients.  I thought with it I would be independent and with it I could continue my education. But, the job itself had its share of mess. The nursing job had a military tendency. I could never understand this. The dress code sucked the energy out of you. Before we entered the ward, we had to tuck in the fall We had to greet the senior nurses and the doctors demanded the respect of demi-gods. Our uniform was just not comfortable. Frock on a petticoat and high stocking. The sultry Mumbai weather made the uniform unbearable. If the wards got crowded we had to arrange the mattresses on the floor and this uniform proved most awkward while doing that work. We were always accompanied by seniors and so couldn’t speak our minds openly. We got vexed with statements like “WE DON’T NEED SMART GILS HERE”. We had to resist the advances of male Doctors and some of them took advantage of being male doctors. My rebellious nature was not able to accept this but going back home was also difficult. I was in a catch-22. I just decided to walk the path I had chosen.

I met Mr. Karnik in those times. We thought, we shared like thoughts and values. We decided to get married. When I think about it now lack of sound advice and support from home pushed me to this decision. I decided that in a love-marriage we should speak about everything openly and not let emotions and hormones precede the good-senses. In those days the girls really needed good support in matrimonial matters. I had my closest friends’ experience in vivid memory. Her progressive father permitted her inter-caste marriage and severed all the ties with her. He said she had to bear her husband’s household the way it was. She never told what she underwent there. I was put-off by this.

Within 14 days of my marriage it just occurred to me that I had made a mistake. We just had bi-polar thoughts. The lack of common thought is not much of a problem as is the lack of compassion and democratic freedom. My husband felt that he is omni-knowledgeable and could think through everything and decide for others like a benevolent dictator. I wanted the freedom of failure and mistakes and be guided by them. My only expectation out of life was to be happy. I spent the next 20 years of my life fighting my marital grind. I was very frim on continuing my job and education. The joint family helped me to this end with its share of intimidations. I was tormented by my husband who was of assertive, dominating and unsupportive nature. Life became a drag. The environment in the families around us was no different. My husband’s physical abuse on two occasions was assiduously insulting. He just exploited my helplessness. In the midst of all this I completed my masters. I was dilapidated inside but wore a happy face for the world; like I was radiating the marital bliss. I just could not share my thoughts injustice and abuse to anyone. 

During the same period, I got physical ailments but fortunately was not caught in the doctor and medicine loop. I just could relate all my aliments to those I studied during psychology. I poured over many books and charted my way out. I started writing my personal diary it helped me to see things clearly. Agreeing to acknowledge injustice and pain is an important step, till such acceptance people call it fate or custom and then the resistance begins. The writing of my personal diary made my thoughts clearer. My husband’s assertiveness, elusiveness and cunningness got bolder.  The writings of Dr. R.D. Leng a psychologist was my beacon of guidance. Later, I got over her garrulous verbose constructions but I entirely agreed to her basic values of human life. This too made our marital differences clearer and agitated. Some of the human values like equality, brotherhood, freedom, justice, love, respect, respect, responsibility and democratic rights; I have a certitude without these values life remains incomplete. Naturally, I felt that all these values should be enshrined in my marriage. The panacea came in the form of benevolent dictatorship. Around 1975 our difference got intense. It was very difficult for me to call it off. I suffered asthma and insomnia. I found it very difficult to squander-away the life I built over 20 years. I was nearing 40, and often thought of suicide but running away from the life chores was not my forte and my life values held me back.

I had no idea whom to turn to for advice. My siblings would not understand this thing. I tried to talk this to my husband but he couldn’t see my point. He was happy to carry-on as a benevolent dictator. I was searching for a person who shared my thoughts. Around 1974 the political environment in the country was heated-up. The populist leader Jaiprakash Narayan was challenging the established political rulers. I participated in it and opened a new vista for me. It was just that it alleviated my frustration. In this tumult I came to know Aba Karmarkar. I joined his organisation and GRAMAYAN. I got besotted by a volunteer Nayana Kulkarni. I left my job for training at gramayan. I got permission from home, my life turned a new leaf. 

Karmarkars work was concentrated in Damkhindi a remote village in Thane district, in Mumbai. His organisation was called as “Bhumiputra”. The training was of high quality. We had to work in the fields for eight hours which was personally satisfying.  The idea of tilling the land and yielding one’s own bread is mentally flattering and satisfying. The dignity and value of labour is important for our own mental hygiene. Here I realized that for a good health the social surrounding is equally important. While working with this Non-Governmental-Organisation (N.G.O.) I felt a sense of liberation as I was free of the confines of home and house-hold chores. This environment was devoid of the sexual discrimination. My ailments-asthma and insomnia faded away like magic. When I left home I let go a lot of things; now I was donning Jeans and “Kurta”. I never liked the mangy saree and a tight blouse. The new clothes made me feel more comfortable. I also got over the pesky and nagging feeling of the feminine dressing with the new attire. But some of the male volunteers didn’t like this. The point was we got very comfortable and Nayana too dressed like me. I was relieved of traditional female dressing and embellishments. The time I spent at this organisation enriched my world-view.

While we were leaving Pune, I met a youngster from Uttar Pradesh (U.P.) an engineer from I.I.T. working with TELCO (a truck manufacturing company). He wanted to learn Marathi and for that reason he came to our school. I had some free time as I had curtailed my Psychological counselling. I had decided to leave Pune and join Karmar’s work. I experimented a new technique while teaching Marathi. All along I had heard that “Language is taught” but never really made sense to me. To this effort I started sharing my experiences with Anand in Marathi. Initially Anand was a philander, he never felt the need and sense for social & community service; he was only concerned with spending the money he earned. My husband and Anand shared the same thoughts. Around November 1975 I left Pune for “Bhumi Putra”. At home especially Mr. Karnik felt where would I be without a home and who would support me. He was pretty confident that my mind would not absorb other things than the comfort of home. He was self-assured. He never bothered to find out how I felt about everything or he was too bored with me. He also must have thought why he married me? If I were to be off-the-scene he would feel relieved. We just got over our marital story. Twenty years of companionship or twenty years of bickering we ultimately punctuated the time with this period. I assumed full responsibility as I initiated it.

Anand was getting introduced to all the new thoughts and moving on with them. He was doing some NGO work with his job at TELCO. He then decided to join a NGO at Satara quitting his job. Our group has moved from Damkhind to Kamshet in Pune. We were in touch and still had discussions. I wanted to set Karnik free for a re-marriage and I was in the legal course of divorce. For a woman to get married itself is an uphill task and I was in tatters within, re-marriage was just a closed door for me. Once Karnik was certain that my decision was final he amicably settled it. I had finished my training at Bhumiputra and was dawdling in Pune. I was thinking of where to work with this training. The support of my sister, her husband my brother made life more bearable and maintained my poise.

 When life takes you through so many twists and turns  you cannot predict where the next turn would be. As a young lady I never wanted to get married, I never thought I would divorce, I never thought I would be a householder again. Anand proposed for marriage and I was completely rattled. He was much younger to me well educated and doing good in life. On the other-hand, I was an ordinary looking and sombrely educated intellectual adult. If later, should Anand feel mistaken and cheated, then the guilt would be impossible to bear. This thought stirred me inside-out. Besides, I was just not interested in being homemaker again. I tried to rebut it as long as I could but Anand just didn’t heed to anything. Then I spoke about this with my sister and her husband my brother and with their support I consented. At the outset I made my priorities straight with Anand; that I would continue with the surname Karnik, my work, my dressing, independence and would not be a workhorse for his family and would not compromise my conditions for them. I started working with Anand and in the interim, visited his parents. I just don’t know how his parents accepted me. Anand’s’ sisters became my best friends and they knew everything about me. 

My time with Anand passed like a breeze and suddenly I became pregnant. This was another shocker and a Juggernaut for me. I was just not sure if I could handle the responsibility at this age. I had also read that the children born to aged mothers could be mentally retarded. This would also hamper my work. But I had full freedom and support from Anand in this regard. Ultimately everybody advised me to go ahead with the pregnancy. The next two years were filled with pulls and pressure. As I came to know Anand better, out here too I faced male chauvinism. I had a different struggle with Anand. I had given a deep thought to my value set in life. I was going to be austere minimalist not spend money on make-up and jewellery and always wanted to be thoughtful and mindful of my decisions all-along. Anand had not thought deep before giving himself to community work. I had come this far, circumventing my shortcoming’s and the mistakes in the twenty years of my first marriage. Anand’s situation was different he was conceited with his high education. He thought he had perfect solutions to the community and social problems but I thought about them differently. Every time he planned executed and assessed his programmes. Many-a-times he used to give-in and I used to quip his work but we never let this game get to the extremes. Anand deserves the credit to enliven my wilted self. But some of the restrictions slowed my work. Our peer volunteers and Anand have contributed to this exacerbation in equal measure. I think that these folks should deeply think on this issue. The enslavement of women is a major hurdle in her progress. It is a societal incumbent that men should always want to win the competition, hog the high achievements lead and assume responsibility. This leads to vainglory and guardianship on the men. The men- folk should be able to cast-off this burden. There is a quintessential iconic model around this. Men shouldn’t cry and get emotional and are expected to bear many such things. They should alleviate themselves of such things. The world is still very much patriarchal. The boisterous qualities are still seen as normal and have an acceptance. Many-a-times the women fall in line with the qualities and values. The real question that seriously begs the answer is: whether these qualities help build a healthy society.? The female qualities as they are perceived and understood are the current and real? This needs a close examination. The so-called female qualities that are upheld like: caring, love, forgiveness, co-operation, dutiful and sacrifice are all humane. But these are completely to the female side and absent for the men folk. The women should be unfettered from the burden of such expectations. All these attributes are present in the tribal and Dalit groupings. As one goes higher up in the caste groupings one finds that the patriarchal values grow stronger. The affluent class have the lesser benign behaviour. We see the exact opposite picture here there Is impertinence, omni-knowledgeful, fierce competition, and the desire to always win on the rise.

While working with the tribal, Dalit and handicap women I realized different things.  I saw their ability of the deprived, forbearance, sacrifice, to carry-on in the face of exploitation and forgiveness. I discovered their strengths when they fought for their rights. I developed a regard for their abilities. These dilapidated sections have the remarkable ability to stay happy laugh at simple things face difficult situation with courage and keep their life interesting.

The tribal way of life gave me an idea of how to be a minimalist and how to stay that way. This is a great way to be content and happy. Economics preaches that human needs are unlimited but social sciences teaches one how to limit these compounding wants. Creating new wants and striving to achieve them and pay any price for it is just unwarranted doesn’t sound right. One can very well learn from the tribe’s how to live with a vow of austerity.  I now could understand the difference between poverty and destituteness. Staying under-privileged on a personal level and increasing social abundance is a serious anthropological need. The entire way-of-life on the planet is based on economics self-aggrandisement and self-gratification. To satisfy human physical needs create new-ones and to satisfy those create production centres helped by the marketing machine is the new social order. The basic values don’t fit in the greater design. In this mad rush to acquire more unknown factors of flora fauna and the microbial world, so many diverse species get extinct. The ozone depletion, collection of unwanted gases in the environment and global warming are serious matters. Life has been sustained with five elements of nature and now everybody is a silent by-stander to its exploitation. Even the rich folks are equally stirred by these factors. We just need more social awareness to see this clearly. I am happy that I am not gasping in the confines of a walled and gated home. I am associated with environmental groups and doing my bit for the environment. I am striving to castoff my shortcomings, selfishness and weakness. In the ripe age of my life this provides me some solace but I equally regret having started late on this. I was also fortunate to have seen the Narmada protests at close quarters and gained learnings from deriving hopes for the next thing. I see and substance in the great void of darkness I see some dim soft candle lights ease the shade of darkness.