Dimli pointed to her round-necked T-Shirt to Sandeep.
Before Sandeep could read the caption on her T-Shirt, she made a swirl-around and announced, "Independence Day special, bro”.
Sandeep lifted up his eyebrows in a mischievous grin and said:
“And now tadaa…guess who is here?”
Dimli looked at his face.
That little grin of mischief was still plastered to the corner of his lips.
“No”, she said, exasperated.
“Yes”, he added – refusing to let the mischief wipe off his face.
“Oh no”, she flung herself on the sofa.
“Oh yes, in the Hall”, he laughed out loud as he made an exit towards the Hall room.
She sat there – serene and soft, as little children sat in titbits here, there and everywhere.
“Keep it down I said, the teacher scolded. I was such a little girl but I wasn’t afraid….not one bit”, she continued her story, her eyes gleaming in remembrance.
As in a perfect orchestration, the eyes of the little ones widened too – some in excitement, some in anticipation, some in genuine fear. Dimli tiptoed herself to an obscure corner of the room- carefully placing herself away from her line of vision.
‘Makhon Dimma’ continued her story.
Why she was called ‘Makhon Dimma’ (Butter Grandma) or how exactly she was related to their family, Dimli never knew or was not even inclined to know but all that she was bothered about was the way the household would change with her arrival.
Though she would arrive once in six months or so and hardly stay for three days, things would become quieter, kind of more orthodox and there would always be special ‘story sessions’ which Dimli would find extremely boring.
In her estimate, Makhon Dimma would be anywhere between eighty to ninety years old.
As she adjusted her T-shirt, Makhon Dimma continued her story.
“The teacher wouldn’t give up, neither would I. As she kept on scolding, I kept turning the wheels of ‘Tokli’ which was like a mini Charka meant for spinning out threads. Out, out of my class. Go out and stand in the field’, she commanded.
We went out together – my friend and I.
As we reached the field we were amazed to see many more girls standing there, mini Charkas in hand. How many of us were there….maybe fifty…sixty..or maybe more….
The British Principal stood in one corner…her face flushed…almost ready to burst out in anger.
Then one of the elder girls came forward – not one, two of them maybe..”.
She paused a bit, her eyes fixed at the ceiling, perhaps trying to recall the exact sequence of events.
“Aah yes, two of them. Then they lifted their hands up in the air, like this….”,
Makhon Dimma lifted her right hand up – her hand mildly shaking but palms tightly closed. “And then with the loudest voice, they shouted, ‘Ingrej’.
It was a cue for us.
In a voice loudest as loud could be, we completed their slogan, ‘Bharat Chhaaro’. For the next fifteen minutes the entire school stood still as fifty girls –aged between ten to sixteen raised up their hands high up in the air and kept shouting the same slogan – Ingrej Bharat Chharo – Britisha, Quit India.
It was a part of Gandhiji’s call for Quit India Movement.
I was barely ten then.
I really hadn’t known much about the need to gain independence. It was only when we had heard one of the elder girls that we gradually understood that the air we were breathing, the water we were drinking, the education that we were gaining weren’t ours totally – it was laced with the smell of blood of our freedom fighters – those who dared to challenge this faux sense of freedom that we were being fooled into.
When the girls spoke about Pritilata Waddedar and how she gave up her life in quest of total freedom I had stood there and cried.
I had always been made to believe that girls had a limited role in society. It was the first time that a sixteen-year-old made me believe in the immense power we, women, had in us. So with gusto, we kept shouting the slogan – Ingrej Bharat Chhaaro, Ingrej Bharat Chhaaro…..
As we kept on the sloganeering, the teachers pulled up each of the girls for a severe caning. They let their palms bear lash after lash while their unquivering lips let out the mantra that ran a shiver down the spine of the English school authorities, ‘Ingrej, Bharat Chharo’”. Makhon Dimma paused – perhaps her longest pause in a long time.
“Then, did they scold you too? “, one of the curious listeners let her soft voice reach her ears.
“Did the English leave soon?” another one quipped from the sides.
Makhon Dimma laughed, “Well, we were all rusticated from the school. When the authorities called my father to tell about the expulsion he hadn’t spoken a word.
Once out of the school gate he had let out the loudest laugh. Then, patting my back, he had said, ‘I didn’t know my daughter was this brave!’ That was the moment I realized that every freedom begins with the quest from within.
As to the British...well, fifty school girls were too less a number to drive them out totally perhaps and it took five more years for them to finally leave us. But you know, every uprooting needs many strokes of the hammer and I am glad we were one of the strokes”, Makhon Dimma paused again, this time for good.
The little dots of head around her had already assembled in a perfect semi-circle around her and had begun a heated discussion on the alternate ways by which they could have ‘easily’ driven away from the British long back.
Dimli hadn’t realized when she had actually walked across and sat near Makhon Dimma.
“Hello Dimli Rani”, she smiled. “ I like your top”.
“It isn’t top Dimma, it’s a T-shirt”, Dimli spoke.
She herself felt strange at the little lump of ‘something’ hovering within her throat. She had hardly ever spoken in such a soft voice with her.
“Aha…a boy shirt. What is it written on it?”, she tried to adjust her specs to read the T-Shirt.
Dimli read it out. “Dimma, it is a bit strange for you, isn’t it? A girl wearing a boy shirt?”, she laughed.
“Why? It is perfectly alright. You know Dimlirani, that day I had also learned one more lesson. Freedom is the power to be you – the right to express yourself the way you want to, to say what you want to, to wear what you want to.
If that day I had succumbed to the social pressure of being like a girl and not take part in ‘boyish’ things, I would have never savored the real taste of freedom when it was granted to us in 1947.
That day at the stroke of midnight, not only did India get her freedom, it gave a young girl the freedom to rejoice in the fact that however small it maybe – she did have a contribution in giving birth to a new, independent nation”.
Dimli looked at herself.
The words on her T-Shirt did seem so justified now.
“And now, time for my prayers, Dimlirani”, saying this the old woman extended her hand towards her, expecting her to lift her up.
Dimli looked at her, smiled and instead of holding her hand embraced her in the tightest hug.
“Happy Independence Day Dimma”, she whispered, still holding the frail body in her warm embrace.