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A Burning Flame to Light A Lamp

Narayani Gupta

By Muriel Wasi
Bibliophile South Asia, New Delhi, 2005, Rs. 295.00

VOLUME XXIX NUMBER 10 October 2005

There are few general histories of the changes in the lives of modern Indian women, but there is a rapidly growing number of biographies and autobiographies by women, and essays on themes connected with their lives and times. When someone puts these together, she will be able to identify diversities based on region, class and religion. But I think one generalization might be suggested—that generational shifts will become obvious, depending on the opportunities open for women. In the early decades of the twentieth century upper middle-class women were allowed to go to college, particularly in the Presidency towns. The experience for many of them was so intoxicating that they did not want their academic career to end with an M.A., and decided to go on to teach or write. We can discern a toughness and courage, and a sense of mission, in many women born in the decade after 1910, which has not since been equalled. To that generation belonged Muriel Wasi. When she graduated in 1933, she enjoyed the distinction of scoring the highest marks in Madras Presidency.   The essays brought together in this book make it clear that for Mrs Wasi life was one long education, beginning with the conversations around the family dining-table (“less a meal than an episode”, p. 18), going on to a cherished three years at Oxford, from 1937 to 1940 (“I remember, after a stirring tutorial with a philosophy don, standing for a moment on Magdalen Bridge and feeling that life had just begun”, p. 25), till she was well past seventy (“I go wherever I can learn”, p.59, “I go to seminars, listen in to music, radio-plays, participate in informed discussion”).   The last quoted sentence ended with the words “though my most valued moments are those spent alone reading, studying, asking questions”. This is the explanation of the title of the book. “I have seen my life less in time or achievement, than in special moments of being within a narrow corridor of a crowded moving train. The populated space contains people…who frequently interrupt the growth of what I conceive to be the essential spiritual identity of a private man or woman. Perhaps that is why the truly thoughtful retire to a planned contemplative life” (p. 58). Order, discipline, courage, a certain impatience, a need for privacy characterized her. It was a fascinating career, beginning with a stint in the Directorate of Military Public Relations in ...

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