There is a special woman in each of our lives, some one we want to think of and celebrate. While the list of women celebrities grows by the day, there are millions of invisible ones. Whether in our homes, our work places, on railway trains, in small huts that one drives past, there’s something in every woman that calls for a standing ovation. Be it courage, resilience, tolerance for physical and emotional pain, patience and endurance, there is need to recognize, respect and acknowledge this extraordinariness. A business school started a dialogue for women students at business school to engage with women professionals and entrepreneurs with a view to preparing them for life after getting into the work world.
It’s useful to have a road map of broad goalposts, a life map while discovering and learning from life. This teacher gave me a life map and put inside of me an anchor and lighthouse. And it is to her that I’d like to propose a toast this Women’s Day. Geeta, a story-teller par excellence, was an inspiration. She spoke softly yet emphatically and never once did she raise voice nor hand. She had pithy maxim stacks of her world view. Brutally honest, she dissected her foibles, choices or lack thereof critically so others would learn from her mistakes. She taught lessons on delayed gratification, the need to study hard, and even the basis for finding a life partner. She was “midwife” enabler helping knowledge inside emerge. Grit and determination personified, she encouraged the taking of ones own decisions and taking responsibility for ones life.
Geeta taught an important lesson that one needs to make the most of ones gifts. She was about building on strengths and working on those areas to win. When physical fitness wasn’t quite the trend it is today, she insisted on physical exercise and the importance of grooming. She was always smartly turned out. The inner strength was all draped around a fragile form. She was driven to be very good at whatever she did. Her advice would resonate with each 25 year old for she said, ‘do what makes you truly happy’. Geeta wished she had been brought up to be a professional and a career woman.
This feisty, multi-faceted woman, Geeta Brahmavar (1943-1993), was born on the 15th of January to Shankarrao and Nalini Brahmavar in Dharwar, Karnataka. A second girl child born a year after the first, Geeta grew up quiet and willful, with a mind of her own. She studied in different schools across districts of Karnataka given her father’s transferable job. One among four siblings she believed she was the most neglected and unfairly bore a grudge against her parents for the longest. She did well at school.
A turning point in Geeta’s life was being sent away to boarding school in Pune in her 8th standard. The Huzurpaka Girls High School laid high emphasis on self-discipline and the quest for perfection, two qualities Geeta respected and imbibed. She loved Marathi literature and poetry. After completing her schooling, she moved back home to Belgaum to do her Bachelors in Marathi in RPD College. Daughter of the Deputy Superintendent of Police, she was brought up to be married comfortably to a man within the clannish small Chitrapur Saraswat community.
Geeta’s mother, Nalini was a convent educated matriculate. Nalini supervised the girls’ dance and music lessons and trained them in domesticity. The girls learnt embroidery, sewing and cooking. An important influence was Geeta’s cousin Sunanda, ten years her senior. Sunanda read English novels and was exposed to English films. Every summer vacation that Geeta spent in Bombay, she soaked up Sunanda’s cultural context. Sunanda got married and moved to UK with her husband to live there until her death, but the influence stayed.
The Brahmavar sisters were the toast of RPD College. They were extremely attractive and talented. Geeta met a handsome student in RPD, the talented Vasant Samant. He excelled in dramatics, directed and acted in one act plays, and held magic shows. Vasant was a sailor and he did a year of college before going back to sea and earn enough for the following years tuition. Geeta recognized strength of character, determination and the yen to succeed. The seven-year age gap didn’t quite faze her. In this period there were marriage proposals from highly educated, well-placed boys from the community. Geeta the quiet rebel, was obstinate that if she would ever marry, it would only be this man who had neither an education, nor job or home. She chose a hard life for the man she loved.
Her father retired and the family moved to Bombay, after which Geeta’s parents relented and the couple married in 1964. The ensuing years were a period of struggle, of finding a job, a home and the bringing up a child born a year after they were married. Geeta applied to the employment exchange soon after marriage and received a call from the Income Tax Department. She began with a clerical job and realized that she was unable to relate to work and to colleagues and knew the only escape was to work hard and get promoted. In they meanwhile they got lucky, winning lots for a housing board colony flat, a one room kitchen with a tiny balcony that doubled up as bedroom.
Geeta was a practical realist, a believer in gender equality, a woman with drive and the need to excel. She believed in Puritan values of hard work, honesty, and fierce loyalty to her spouse and family. She drove these hard and led from the front. Life led her to discover that she had enormous patience and perseverance. Geeta was a skilled time manager juggling home and work and became adept at multi-tasking. Geeta and Vasant kept an open house. They had relatives from out of town come and stay for extended periods of time in the small one room, kitchen apartment they lived in for the first 12 years of marriage. These family and friends lived here, found jobs and moved on.
These were hard years, of studying, housework and bringing up two daughters. Geeta’s parents helped look after the children till they were about three and a half and ready for school. After this she had them sent to a crèche in the neighbourhood.
Geeta fueled ambition and helped Vasant complete a diploma in advertising management in the early years of their marriage. She made copious notes and helped him with his studies. For herself, she took Departmental exams and each exam meant burning the midnight oil. It needed tremendous determination to study after the day’s chores were done. Interestingly, Geeta didn’t put life on hold. She loved shopping and window shopping and would watch a movie in a theatre by herself if she had to. She was funny with an interesting touch of irony. She read novels and sewed and embroidered. All the clothes the children ever wore were sewed by her or by her mother.
Within a year of being in the Department, Geeta studied for the Inspectors exam, topping the country in Maths. She was soon Inspector and in some years Officer, and around 1989, Assistant Commissioner. No mean achievement for a woman, a mother of two, and a person afflicted with an allergic bronchiactis due to the Bombay pollution. She hated any sympathy and mentions of her illness so I’ll keep this part of the story brief. Suffice to say there were at least two major hospitalizations every year and minor illness all year round. When the going was good, it was great. She gave great cooking instructions that even a 10 year old could follow easily. She told stories of her work day, lessons she had learnt from colleagues, overheard train conversations. Through her lessons she taught the importance of standing for ones beliefs, of not succumbing to pressure and never compromising ones values. Simply spiritual and never idolatrous, she believed religion to be a deeply personal and even private matter. She encouraged me to write poetry, essays, movie reviews and to paint.
A meticulous planner and good communicator she was direct in speech, albeit sharp-tongued. She was hopeless at being politically correct or diplomacy, but ironically was highly sensitive about the smallest slight. She seldom forgave and never forgot. It was better to stay on the right side of her. She fought bitterly for what she believed in. She was pragmatic. Geeta loved winning and my winning made her happy. All the pennants pinned onto her made her illness more bearable. I hung on to every word, mulled over each phrase and saved every letter she ever wrote me.
Stoic and unrelenting she battled her illness and claimed she had “negotiated” during one near-death experience to live until had brought up and taught her daughters to be independent. She died the day she decided they were ready to be on their own, days after her 50th birthday after the birth of her first grand-child and a day after her younger child got her first job. I raise my toast to this woman, my mother, who taught some of life’s timeliest lessons.