Nirmala Dandekar was born Sudha Sridhar Gadgil. Her life began in Mumbai and she lived with her parents, paternal uncle, two brothers and a sister. She grew up in a chawl, or a multi story story building containing 10 to 20 rooms, with a boys’ school, public library, and the busy Tilak Bridge in her immediate surroundings. She remembers her mother feeding the cats that hung around the chawl. Her experience of Mumbai paints a picture devoid of the development that now associated with the city. She remembers the isolation of places in Mumbai that are now bustling centers of activity.
As a young child living in Mumbai at the time, she witnessed the plurality of the city. She talks about the Chinese traders and other northern traders who came to the city. She remembers the plurality of Mumbai, with people of different religions and castes living together without trouble. She specifically mentions how her mother, who was a Dalit from a small village in Ratnagiri, would sometimes need to buy wares from traders of higher castes. Although they refused the tea her mother made them, she would ensure that she gave them some money to buy a cup of tea for themselves from a place of their choosing. But the Dalits that came from the village would treat her mother, Yamuna Sridhar Gadgil, like a sister.
Her mother would cook and clean everything but the vessels for which she had help. Her mother was also well versed in household remedies for common ailments and visits to the local doctor were only in cases of emergencies. Her school, General Education Girls’ High School, promoted the spirit of the independence movement. The school’s principal was the wife of B. G. Kher, a solicitor and social worker, who became the first Chief Minister of Bombay State. Political leaders of the day were regularly invited to address the students. These personalities included Pandurang Sadashiv Sane (Sane Guruji), an author, teacher and freedom fighter and social activist. She recounts her proximity to the freedom struggles, having seen Dr. B. R. Ambedkar, Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in person. She remembers that in 1942, the independence struggles had really begun. She remembers the guards outside her home on the night of the night of the Navy revolt in Mumbai in 1943.
At the time of the Partition, in 1947, Nirmala was 14 years old. While her age didn’t cause her to think too much about the event, she was affected by the sight of a refugee camp that her teacher organized a visit to. Her teacher, she says, wanted the students to know the plight of the refugees. She recounts how the refugees were brought to a school in Dadar and she recalls that some schools were made into temporary refugee camps and how she saw and heard of the conditions in those camps. She recounts that a majority of the people were from Sindh and Punjab. Mumbai became a place of fear, she remembers. Conversations became hushed. Refugees were relocated around Mumbai, to nearby towns of Kalyan, Badlapur and Ulhasnagar in a few months’ time.
After Partition, when conditions began to settle down, routines resumed, she says. School resumed and soon, when she was in the eleventh grade, she was married. A relative had found a match for her. Sudha Sridhar Gadgil was married and was to be known by a new name, Nirmala Vasudeo Dandekar. She smiles as she shares how her wedding was conducted in two rooms of the chawl where she lived. The wedding itself was short and sweet as both the bride and the groom had exams they needed to appear for. After the wedding, the newlyweds moved to Kolhapur, where the groom worked as a college lecturer. The couple has two daughters and a son. As a homemaker, hers were the shoulders on which the responsibilities of the household were placed.
Now, Mrs. Dandekar spends her time reading the newspaper and exercising. Her past entertainment of watching plays, listening to lectures and going out is now rendered challenging by her health. Sharing her message for the current and future generations, She wishes for young people to be active in their communities and take initiative in being respectful to each other, and that each person needs to make a conscious effort to bring happiness to others.
This interview was conducted by Oral History Apprentice Simran Luthra. Simran records stories in Pune, Maharashtra. She holds Master’s degrees in English and education, and works with a startup company in the education sector. Says Simran, “Collecting stories is an almost therapeutic experience for me. It allows me to be transported to another time which is both familiar and unfamiliar. It also makes me realize how much life has changed for people from the generation that saw Partition. It never ceases to amaze me how resilient human beings are to upheavals and change.”