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I Came For Tamil Nationalism, And Stayed For Well Written Women

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Facts about the Indian Nationalist Movement of the early 20th century are drilled into every school kid in our country from the tender age of seven and up. I was one of these kids, taking down copious notes about the Battle of This or That, the Leader of this Rebellion, or the Architect of so and so Treaty. A lot of it I accepted at the behest of an unrelenting grading system, and a lot I accepted because of some innate interest in The Past.

A decade later, when university happened to me, I began to crave those sides of history that were seldom presented to me. And it was a chance encounter with Kalyanaram Durgadas’ novel, “Songs of the Cauvery” which gave me just that.

It follows the story of Panju, a young boy at the cusp of two ages. Behind him, lies the world of his Brahmin father, of strict divisions in society, and a measured respect for British settlers and all the learning they had to share. In front of him, on the other hand, lies the freedom struggle – a world that is as alluring as it is dangerous. We see Panju grow from a precocious little boy into a restless youth, treading the fine line between these two worlds. His inner conflict and journey are the foundation of this novel, but Durgadas infuses it with many other remarkable characters that make “Songs of the Cauvery” all the more captivating.

Panju’s father, Sambu, is the chink in the wall of tradition, making several allowances for his young son that would he himself never had. There’s the wrestling teacher who prepares Panju, mentally and physically, for a still-to-be-identified mission which constantly propels him forward. And there’s Ranjitham, a devadasi who catches our young protagonist’s eye during his college years. Panju falls head over heels for her, but Ranjitham is no push over, or damsel-in-distress. She is cautious and unswayed by this Brahmin boy’s adoration until she is more sure of him. And even when she is, her decisions are driven by her calculated understanding of the world, and the power she can exercise in it.

Ranjitham is one of two remarkable female characters in this novel, the other being Panju’s older sister Janaki. Even as a child, Janaki is keenly aware of the different roles and opportunities available to her and Panju. And she is keenly aware of her need to break out of the set up. While her brother navigates the changing socio-political landscape of colonial India, Janaki forges her own bold path by demanding access to higher education. Despite her mother’s constant reprimand, and her father’s various (though half-hearted) resistances, she becomes the first woman to enroll as an undergraduate of English literature.

Like Ranjitham, Janaki is no passive plot device – a terrible fate that many a female character must suffer, both in books and film. And it’s to Durgadas’ credit that we have these two intelligent, headstrong female characters, couched in a story about what is apparently one of the most masculine pursuits – Nationalism.

What resonates with me, over and above the characters and plot, is just how rooted this novel is in its South Indian (specifically, Tamil) context. The names that had lined my textbooks for ten years (and then some) were invariably North Indian ones. Thumbing through these before every exam was the subtle practice of forgetting. It was the act of erasing a history, a language, customs, dress and even food from anywhere outside the handful of Northern states, the static image of which have come to represent this vivid, diverse, ever-changing country of ours. Today we are surrounded by a ‘national’ narrative and culture that is distinctly Hindi-speaking, Hindu, and upper-class. Sitting smack-dab in the middle of it all, it’s oddly comforting to read a book that flows with names like “Thanjavur”, “Kumbakonam”, “Pondicherry” and, of course, “Cauvery”, each of which form the setting of a story that carries you along in its ebb and tide.

It’s all of these elements that come together – like tributaries of a river! – and make “Songs of the Cauvery” an important and relevant read to us today. Oh, and did I mention the novel delivers a great plot twist, too?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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