119 Years of Trust Stamped Impressions
THE TRIBUNEsaturday plus
Saturday, March 20, 1999


Regional Vignettes

A woman of classes and masses
By Reeta Sharma

I HAD met Champa Mangat Rai in 1976 at Usha Lall’s home in Sector 11, Chandigarh, over dinner. She had looked stunning with a string of pearls round her beautiful long neck, wearing a brightly printed pink chiffon saree, adorned with a meticulously made traditional Indian style Joora. That evening she had initiated a heated discussion on the Emergency and its fallout. She was anguished at people being jailed "in a blatant dictatorial manner". "How could she (Indira Gandhi) be so undemocratic in a democratic country like our?" was the question Champa was repeating, shaking her head in desperation.

In particular she was angry over the arrest of Pramila Lewis(Usha Lall’s daughter). Champa was fully aware of Pramila’s social work among the labourers of Mehrauli farms. And that Indira Gandhi had a personal grudge against Pramila for having exposed her for not paying full wages to labourers in her own farm. Questions were raised in Parliament in this regard, embarrassing Indira Gandhi to no end. "Clearly, she has avenged her humiliation by jailing Kinna (Pramila Lewis). She is desperate to stamp out dissent and all opposition. But how can a democracy survive without Opposition?" It was always the larger issue on a wider perspective that held Champa Mangat Rai’s attention. That is what she was, an intellectually groomed woman who could view issues which affected the masses and which had wider repercussions.

Gradually, over the years, sitting through intense discussions with her, I grew to admire her. She was a very deep, serious, conscientious person full of compassion. I was outside her class of affluent people who had studied in the best of schools, colleges and universities. Her world of chiffon, georgettes, and pearls was in total contrast to that of mine with a very, very limited set of salwar-kameez suits and sarees mostly gifted by friends and relatives and with nothing at all by way of jewellery. But Champa Mangat Rai was absolutely oblivious of my unmatched class and social status. With an open and warm heart she made me part of her life.

Champa was almost always the first one to arrive for any of the functions organised by Majlis. She never missed my plays either. She was the only viewer who always established a rapport with the artists and me in particular, sitting always in the first row (which was as good as reserved for her). It was like having your mother in front of you while performing on the stage and coping with the stresses and strains of each performance. Over a period, she also became my severest, yet objective, critic.

Though she certainly belonged to an elite class, she respected the people of all classes. Beyond the pretensions of pseudo-intellectuals, she could understand the relevance of amateur theatre. She remains an exception in inspiring the likes of me by saying, "Plays by amateurs are closer to the grass-roots of Indian problems and understanding. Masses can associate themselves with such plays far more easily than with the complicated and symbolistic elitist theatre. This is not to say that the highly professional theatre has no relevance. Both are required to grow at two different levels and with equal importance".

Legends like Champa Mangat Rai are few. She was a strange example of a person who surrounded herself with the richie-rich class and the poorest of the poor as well. Whether it was a maid who had been deserted by her alcoholic husband, or a poor old servant of one of her friends, or the four children of another sweeper or the sick mother of her former maid, or the entire family of her age-old cook, or the chief secretaries, secretaries, theatre personalities, writers... all had a warm home in hers. "Concrete and logical help" was her motto in dealing with the needy. Poor children must be educated. Books must be bought for them. Battered women must be provided shelter and rehabilitation, and in this regard she kept track of every NGO she could approach. The nourishment of kids and that of any pregnant poor woman was very much her concern, if it came to her notice.

But there was subtle quietness about every gesture of hers. You never heard her talk about what she was doing for others. I learnt about many of her gestures of compassion and consideration from the horse’s mouth by chance. Whenever I tried to broach on the theme to appreciate her, Champa would dismiss it with a typical wave of her hand and deliberately change the topic or get into a discussion touching on wider issues.

For years I had been persuading her to allow me to write a profile on her. But everytime she chided me saying: "You will be blatantly partial. Anyway what is there to write about me? I was lucky enough to have gone to the best of schools, colleges. I got a job without any hassle. I never faced any financial problems. I never had to face any crisis. So what is there that I can share with your readers? Forget it. Why don’t you write about Mrs..." and she would reel of suggesting others’ names.

I came to know and grow with Champa by the time she had become a private person. She never talked about "him". Whatever she mentioned was unfailingly dignified and with respect for that human being. She never encouraged even her closest friends to criticise him in any way. But all of us knew that she could never grow out of him.Yet how amazing that she never allowed bitterness to come in the way she felt about "him".

There was a festive occasion in my home on March 7 and Champa had promised to join. By her previous record, one could set one’s watch by the announced time of her arrival. But that day she was late. Late enough never to come. A couple of times I looked around for her shinning silver-haired head but it was nowhere to be seen. I felt strange. This was the only time she had not kept her promise with me. The next day’s papers revealed the secret of her betrayal. She had on March 7 gone into sleep, for ever and in peace cancelling all her engagements in this world.

At the cemetery, when I passed by her beautifully decorated coffin, decked with flowers, I saw Champa lying peacefully behind a veil of white net. I could see Dr Mamgain hovering around supervising the arrangements. Whenever, Champa fell sick, Dr Mamgain was always around to attend on her. I wondered what is it that she was monitoring today, especially when Champa had freed herself from her chosen vacation by going to sleep forever.

Then I saw Dr Mamgain lift flowers from near Champa’s grave. She turned away swiftly with a bundle of flowers in her hand. I followed her. She went past dozens of graves to finally reach one and placed the flowers on it and closed her eyes for a prayer. After she finished she turned around, and on finding me said: "This is Champa’s mother. And you know she really adored her mom".

Ever since I entered the cemetery, my eyes were searching for Inder, the pleasantly plumpish sardarni and the next-door neighbour of Champa. I had often wondered about her for she was almost always at Champa’s side. Her arrival was always followed by either her own baked cakes, or some pickles, or baked vegetables, or saag or, a bunch of flowers. I knew from my observation and intuition that she had become an inseparable part of Champa’s life. Though she was much younger to Champa, she fussed over her like a caring mother.

I could not find Inder anywhere. At last when the priest said, "Let’s bid final farewell to sister Champa Mangat Rai",... taking a deep breath, I lifted some soil and at once I saw a woman, oblivious of anybody’s presence, silently shedding tears into the grave. It was Inder.back

Home Image Map
| Good Motoring and You | Dream Analysis | Regional Vignettes |
Fact File | Roots | Crossword | Stamp Quiz | Stamped Impressions | Mail box |