Indian Decade

Tough Love

Charming, polite and teaching sex workers martial arts–an inspiration for Indian women.

Sometimes you meet someone whose story you feel you have to share, because they run so much against the grain of everyday life.

I first came across Reshma ten years ago, while on a visit to Chennai. She had none of the ‘helplessness’ displayed by some women trying to be more ‘ladylike.’ She had her priorities, her views, and politely–even charmingly–ignored those who got in the way. Her role model for this kind of strong woman was Jayalalithaa, the glamorous film star-turned-politician who had a same-sex partner. Reshma’s passion was martial arts, and training girls in them, which she did this across the country.

But even a sensei has her moments of disappointment, even despair, and at such times she would hunt me out and visit for a confidence boost. A little over a month ago, a youth ran over her leg, resulting in her needing multiple surgeries to help repair the many bones that were broken. The doctors had told her to rest for three months. But here she was, five weeks later, doing what she loved–giving women the confidence to believe that they could prevent the unwelcome physical intrusions that women in India who dress in the liberal western way are forced to put up with. Only this time around, she was training not students, not ordinary working women, but sex workers–a group clearly more prey to male exploitation than most others.

I come from a reasonably (if not always sensibly) liberal background–my uncle, Aubrey Menen, wrote the first book that was banned in post-colonial India, a satirical take on the Ramayana that he called ‘Rama Retold’. Meanwhile, my mother, Kamala Das, in the 1960s ignited the era of more sexual openness in India by bringing out an autobiography–‘My Story’–that included a confession of extra-marital sex.

So I’ve been a booster of Reshma’s cause. She reminded me of Mary Roy, the mother of novelist Arundhati Roy, who had come to meet me ( with her precocious little daughter in tow) in 1985,when she was taking on the Church in the Supreme Court to try to secure for Christian women in Kerala equal inheritance rights for females. The newspaper ‘Mathrubhumi’ or ‘Motherland’ newspaper, of which I was editor at the time, backed her all the way, the only newspaper in the state to do so in a place where the Church was not an inconsiderable force. I saw Reshma in the feisty tradition of Mary Roy, and backed her crusade to ensure women in India mastered the art of self-defense. It has been a privilige to do so.