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In a league of their own

Malavika Goswamy shouldered every challenge that was thrown at her and dealt with a series of setbacks until she literally collapsed under the burden

In a league of their own

Ira Pande

Early this month, on March 8, we all celebrated International Women’s Day. The world over, there is now a growing realisation of the role women play in every sphere of life and how they are expected to make sacrifices that men are never fully aware of. Politicians, many of them abusive, patriarchal, die-hard misogynists and sexually exploitative rogues in their own homes and workplaces, suddenly spout homilies on nari shakti to gain favour with an important vote bank. This drama is now so widespread that no one even blinks an eye at the blatant hypocrisy of the high-minded thoughts freely aired that day.

In one of the most inspiring speeches made from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day, I recall listening with rapt attention to the first speech made by the present Prime Minister when he asked parents to discipline their sons, not their daughters. No one, he said, asks a son if he rolls in late but if a daughter is even a few minutes late than expected, she’s taken to the cleaners. How many Indian males help their working wives with child-care and cooking? I used to enter the house after a long day at work through the kitchen at the back of the house, where I put away the fruits and vegetables I’d picked up on my way back from office, checked the fridge to see what had to be cooked for dinner while my husband floated in from the front door, his briefcase and tiffin carrier in the hands of the driver behind him and a cry would go up, ‘Sahib aa gaye, chai banana!’

Mind you, ours was a very liberal and egalitarian home and I never faced any problem personally, but this little daily incident used to both amuse and irritate me. No matter that I earned a bigger salary, Sahib was still the boss! There are countless stories of women who take on more and more, some even choosing not to have a job of their own to help with the running of a household or, later, looking after aged parents. I am sure more women elect to become caregivers than men and yet, it is calmly accepted as a social reality. We are called natural caregivers, yet I suspect this weird compliment has more the self-interest of the male fraternity than admiration because it then frees them for a more exciting life beyond the routine tasks that would slow their career flights.

All these thoughts strike me today not because they are great discoveries about gender injustice, but to record a woman who went on shouldering every challenge that was thrown at her and dealing with a series of setbacks until she literally collapsed under the burden. Malavika Goswamy and her brother Apurva were schoolchildren when we were in Chandigarh all those years ago. Their illustrious parents, Dr BN Goswamy and Karuna, were the leading lights of the city’s art world and widely admired. My link with the senior Goswamys remained strong but as the children went abroad to study and then forge their own lives, they receded from my life. In the last few years, I heard of how Apu and Malu (as they were called at home) had set up a flourishing company called Continuum, which dealt with pharmaco-vigilance and drug safety, now regarded as a frontier area of research.

The brother and sister had studied in Switzerland and worked with some of the most famous pharma companies, since many of these are based in Switzerland. It seemed like a wonderful family enterprise and something that gave both of them a place to recover from broken marriages. I was aware that Malu had a disabled son whom she and her mother Karuna handled with immense patience and sensitivity, so that he could deal with his future with courage and confidence.

Then, in a series of weird tragedies, Karuna passed away during Covid and soon after that, Apu was diagnosed with cancer. Malu stepped in quietly and shouldered the burden of these crippling disasters and soon after, Apu passed away last year. Dr Goswamy, too, passed on. She carried on bravely, handling the professional responsibilities of their company, the loss of a brother and parents and the complex problems of dealing with multiple worries regarding her son. Then, no doubt exhausted by these multiple demands made of her, a few days back, she collapsed and died before she could reach the hospital.

Even as I write this, I cannot help thinking that this is like the script of a bad Bombay film. In the space of a few years, what was a happy and close-knit family has vanished like a puff of smoke. I have seldom heard of such a tragic end to a great family and the rapidity with which their house came crashing down. What can explain this? Fate, the evil eye, karma — we may think of all these, but it is beyond my understanding why so many wicked people live happy and comfortable lives while those who were made for great things are doomed to suffer even beyond death.

‘Like flies to wanton boys are we to the gods,’ says Shakespeare’s Lear. ‘They kill us for their sport.’

As always, I can only accept the wisdom of these lines. May no other friend ever have to suffer like this exemplary family.

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