Some years ago, perhaps in 1979, it occurred to me that I had had the privilege of being the
daughter of a social worker and philanthropist doctor, the daughter-in—law of a saintly and spiritual
father, and the wife of a respected person ever—eager to safeguard the national pride. I thought that
I should narrate all that I have heard and been a witness to lest the glorious deeds of those great men
are lost in the tide of time.
With this idea in mind, I sought the advice of my husband on my intention to pen down all that I had
heard and seen about him, my father-in—law and my father. ‘That is certainly a good idea, you
should write as you have a Hair for writing,’ he said to me encouragingly. Without wasting time, I
embarked on my project and completed it during his lifetime, but it could not be published due to
As a Foreign Service Officer, my first posting was to Spain in 1976. My mother made elaborate
preparations for the assignment and packed every little thing I could possibly need, including spices
for the kitchen, and even vases for the drawing room. One day, in the middle of those preparations, I
found her sitting on the bed, pouring over sheets of paper, writing pages after pages in her beautiful
I knew that my mother read extensively. I often saw her with a book in her hand: a work of classical
fiction, a recent biography or a discourse on political history. Her morning staple was a pack of daily
newspapers with a bowl of hot milk and cream. I saw her make art, both in regular oils and in a
trendy amalgam of glass and cloth. There was nothing clumsy or kitsch about her aesthetics; all her
artworks had the confident flourish of a professional.
I saw her plan out flowers for the lawns and vegetables for the kitchen garden. She enjoyed cooking,
and despite being an uncompromising vegetarian, chose to make extravagant meat dishes for her
husband and children. I also saw her keep household accounts in the register kept in a special trunk
with multiple shelves and drawers, the kind an antique collector would envy. The upkeep of a
domestic almanac was a familiar sight through the years.
But these were her memoirs. For the first time I realized that she had been quietly documenting her
life. She was writing of the events that had touched her life, the days gone by. I watched her gather
the faded memories, which, years ago, she had secured in the recesses of her mind. The expression
on her delicate face changed
As those memories came back, at times in slow trickles, at times overwhelming her. I saw her smile,
frown, purse her lips. A tear drop sometimes formed at the corner of her eye, leaving me to wonder
whether it was out of joy or sorrow.
I also discovered why her special trunk had contained not only the household register but also many
diaries, notebooks, documents, newspaper cuttings and old photographs. It seemed she had planned
her memoirs years ago and these were to be more than just a narration of her own life and that of her
family and friends. She had grown up and lived in turbulent times. She had observed the social
churning and political upheavals taking place around her. She frequently saw history unfold itself at
very close quarters and quite often in her own courtyard. With her keen sense of history, she made a
mental note of it all, so that she could write it down later in life.
Ma faced all those barriers that a girl or young woman of the so- called untouchable caste had to
face in the first quarter of the last century. She was denied admission in all schools in her hometown
of Kanpur. Later, a mission School admitted her. Her father, impressed by the reformist movement
of the Arya Samaj, had become a devout Arya Samaji and among other reformist projects that he
personally undertook, he also resolved to educate his daughters. At a time when girls’ education was
almost non-existent, a great deal of attention was paid to my mother’s education. There were tutors
at home for Sanskrit and Urdu. On finishing school, she was sent to Lucknow for teachers’ training
where she lived in hostel for four years. She encountered severe untouchability in the hostel and the
girls kept their distance from her. However, she gradually won them over and broke the caste barrier
with her easy grace and strength of character. Meanwhile, her father passed away and the family
came upon hard days, yet her mother did not allow her studies to get disrupted. After her father’s
death, Ma, to be able to look after her aged mother and young siblings, taught for many years. Even
after marriage she taught for a year, encouraged by her mother•-in-law. It was rare to find such
instances of education and self— Reliance in those days—more so among girls from the lowest rung
of the caste hierarchy. For this, I would like to pay my humble tribute to both my grandmothers for
being so strong and truly ahead of their time.
This was the social churning that my mother witnessed and lived through. The first ray of sun, it
seemed, had pierced the never- ending dark night of social oppression and incapacitating
discrimination. The great saints of medieval India like Raidas, Kabir and Nanak had shaken the
Indian psyche, urging it to come out of its stupor and change. Later, Dayanand Saraswati,
Vivekananda, Raja Ram Mohan Roy and many others gave further impetus to this very urgent need
for social change. There was a change-though at first quite imperceptible—in the social
consciousness of India. Ma’s life, as does my father’s, brings that change into sharp focus and
reveals how those in bondage were struggling to break free and were also succeeding at times.
Politically, the last century was momentous for India—suffering the yoke of colonization, the impact
of two World Wars, and then, the culmination of the First War of Independence that began in 1857.
Sporadic and isolated battles waged against the empire for nearly a century were finally channelized
into a mass movement under Gandhi and became the most unique war fought on the face of the
earth. The world marvelled in disbelief at the success of the first-ever experiment with truth and
non—violence as effective weapons to uproot a mighty empire. India was poised for freedom. Those
were the heady days of a much-awaited, newfound freedom, only to be marred tragically by the
unprecedented agony of a blood-soaked Partition.
My parents were married in 1935, when the struggle for freedom was reaching its height, and my
mother left Kanpur to make her home in Chandwa, a tiny village in the backwaters of Bihar. Despite
being a city-bred, educated girl, she found great happiness in her rural surroundings. Her husband
travelled from village to village giving the call for freedom from foreign rule and emancipation from
the shackles of the caste system. Life was harsh and full of struggle. But she knew she had not
married an ordinary man and was determined to support him in everything he did. Leaving very little
money with her whenever he went away to the Hazaribag ]ail, she resolutely lived at her home in
Patna and braved all odds to look after her infirm mother-in—law and infant son. With exemplary
courage, she faced the danger of challenging the British and never showed the slightest sign of
weakness. Much later in 1987, she was honoured as a freedom fighter by Prime Minister Rajiv
She came to Delhi in 1946 when my father joined the interim government. For years she lived in the
midst of undiluted power and authority, but they could not corrode the refreshing simplicity of her
uncomplicated nature. She would follow the near impossible schedule of rising at two every night to
get ready and pray till dawn—thereafter her time was spent in taking care of her extremely busy
husband, her children, their children, guests, visitors, the household staff and the needy who came to
her. As a fawning mother, she always indulged me and my brother. My brother, generous to a fault
and endowed with razor—sharp intellect, was knowledgeable and versatile. It was her heart’s desire
that he should realize his fill potential.
Though she had suffered humiliation and trauma on account of untouchability, she was never bitter.
But atrocities on Dalits caused her a lot of anguish. Whenever she learnt of such incidents, she would
urge her husband and son to take immediate action. After their deaths, she was stoic in her grief and
encouraged me to fight against the victimization of Dalits. When Dalits were massacred in Panwari,
she, at the age of eighty and with indifferent health, courted arrest along with thousands of workers at
India Gate in New Delhi.
Tall and slim with long tresses tresses in a knot at the nape of her neck, her khadi sari carefully
draped over her head, a vermillion dot blazing on her forehead, Ma commanded respect wherever
she went. She was a woman of few words and rather shy and reserved, yet readers would find that
in this book she is not wanting for words and that she is forthcoming. By the time 1 returned to India
in 1978, she had written most of her memoirs and gave a copy each to my father, brother, my
husband and me to read. The years that followed were indeed unsettling. My brother met with an
untimely death leaving his parents heartbroken. My father took to bed and eventually succumbed to
his illness. Ma secretly cried all the time and also prayed for long hours which gradually stretched and
became unending. In my effort to help her cope I took out the script of her book from that special
antique trunk, and three volumes covering the period till 1972 were published in Hindi. Given his
helpful nature, my husband burnt the midnight oil in proofreading. However, all of it could not be
published, which we plan to do in the near future. The unpublished script, apart from offering insight
into other events, also gives an insider’s account of the Emergency and the subsequent events that
changed the course of I India’s political history.
Babuji was keen that Ma’s work be published in English as well. I am grateful to Ravi Singh of
Penguin for fulfilling his wish. I appreciate the faith he has rightfully shown in Ma’s writing. Deep
inside I was worried as to who would handle the delicate task of translation and I think there could
not be a better person to do this than Tara Joshi. She has the ability to go beyond the written word
to capture the essence and translate. My special thanks to Saroja Khanna for being more than
patient with me.
The book is before you, readers. I am sure you will have enough to ponder over, on the milestones
set in a lifelong journey of undiminished hope and relentless endeavour.
From the Jacket
By the early 1950s, there were indications of a strong awakening among India’s socially
The heart-warming story of Indrani Devi’s life unfolds with her happy childhood, her
education, the political rumblings in the 1920s, and her family’s interest in the freedom movement.
The wife of Jagjivan Ram, the renowned freedom fighter and statesman, she was a keen observer
who was privy to the unfolding of modern Indian history. Spanning five decades, her memoir is a
poignant insight into the important political developments and events in the country even as she
shares wonderful and intimate moments of her family life.
This is also her account of a great visionary, one who worked tirelessly for the
marginalized. The revolutionary changes that Jagjivan Ram introduced and his persistent fight against
social discrimination, made a difference to so many lives. This memoir brings alive Jagjivan Ram’s
phenomenal rise and his path-breaking role in national politics.
Milestones is a refreshingly candid revelation of the intrigues and machinations that
shaped the political parties of India, and of the important developments during 1937-47 that
influenced India’s destiny. Indrani Devi gives an insider’s taken on the perseverance of the freedom
fighter, the role of the Congress Party and later its split, and much more, until the time of the
Pakistani aggression, and the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Milestones is not just a memoir but also an important historical document.
Indrani Devi was born in Kanpur in 1911. Her father Dr. Birbal Das was a doctor in the
British Army and devoted himself to the reformist activities of the Arya Samaj. Influenced by
Mahatma Gandhi’s Swadeshi Movement, he became actively involved in it. Her mother was
Along with her schooling at Kanpur, Indrani Devi learnt Sanskrit and Urdu at home.
After completing her schooling, she passed the Teacher’s Training Examination in 1931 while staying
at the hostel of the Normal School, Lucknow. She worked as a teacher in Kanpur from 1931 to
Indrani Devi was married to Babu Jagjivan Ram on 1 June 1935. She closely witnessed
and experienced the important events of the freedom movement as well as other defining moments of
post-Independence India. For over half a century she had a ringside view of the nation and
society-well-known political dramas as well as some behind-the-sciences happenings that were
never fully/truthfully revealed.
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