by Tejaswini Niranjana
For days now, ever since I heard the unbelievable news of Sharmila Rege’s passing, I’ve been unable to put into words my sorrow and my bewilderment. Writing in these circumstances is a form of mourning, so being unable to write is being unable to mourn. One mourns someone who is no longer there. How could it possibly be true that Sharmila, who I spoke to less than a month ago and with whom I made plans as usual – to meet, to work together, to share ideas – is actually not there anymore? The vitality of Sharmila’s presence in any room where she happened to be, the energy of her interventions, the thoughtfulness of her conversation – so much of this remains in our lives, making the mourning impossible, and perhaps unnecessary. I can almost imagine her saying: “Why are you writing about me? Shouldn’t you be getting on with the projects we had planned?”
The very last email I received from her, after she was admitted into hospital for her surgery just about a month ago, said: “I guess our bilingual project dates will have to be pushed forward”. Since this is the last thing we communicated about, it seems appropriate to describe that project now. It was something we had jointly raised some funds for, and involved doing the initial research for a bilingual pedagogy manual. It was typical of Sharmila that she wanted to turn the lens onto her own pedagogic experiment, tried out at the Krantijyoti Savitribai Phule Women’s Studies Centre (KSPWSC). In quite a few MA level courses, including one on Popular Culture, Gender and Modernity, Sharmila and her colleagues had prepared teaching-learning bridge materials in Marathi to help students deal with English-language texts in the curriculum. In some ways this was not a new experiment. The KSPWSC has nearly two decades of experience, first under the guidance of Vidyut Bhagwat and then with Sharmila, in setting up bilingual Marathi-English classrooms and preparing bilingual pedagogic materials. A number of texts on gender, development, caste and patriarchy, and on the Ambedkarite public sphere had been assembled. Sharmila had felt that we couldn’t be self-congratulatory about these admittedly pioneering efforts, and wanted to evaluate their efficacy.
As we said in our project proposal: “The efforts have been noteworthy, but questions remain. Although the KSPWSC has used translations from English into Marathi quite extensively in its classes, it has felt that its bilingual methods have not been as effective as intended, and has had to resort to Marathi-only sessions to be able to communicate with students. Are there issues with the preparation and willingness to learn of students? Is it the pedagogic process, and the overall teaching-learning situation, that requires rethinking? Are the translations themselves not adequate for the purpose? How do students with English as their first language engage with the readings? What are the similarities and differences in problems encountered? It seems necessary at this stage to conduct far-ranging interviews with teachers and students and analyse the findings to understand better where the problems lie. Only on the basis of such an understanding can a new effort be made to create the conditions for bilingual teaching-learning.”
I believe that Sharmila infused all her writing, research and public interventions with the attempt to diminish the perceived dichotomy between quality (in higher education for example) and equality which kept coming up in the debates around caste and gender, and around affirmative action of various kinds, from the 1990s on. Early on, she identified language as a key stress-point that not only indicated where we should be putting our energies but also suggested what sorts of change-inducing efforts might work. In her own teaching, Sharmila exemplified the bi-lingual intellectual and activist, and held up rigorous models of engagement with linguistic practices that most of us can only aspire to emulate. Sharmila saw early on that this was not to be a heroic individual effort. For years she worked to enlarge the circles associated with the KSPWSC to include NGOs, the media, Marathi and English-language publishers, translators, undergraduate teachers across the state, feminist and Ambedkarite groups, and others. She helped train and mentor a number of younger people at the KSPWSC to become part of these larger engagements, and to be sensitive to the interface between languages and cultural formations. Sharmila’s considerable achievements in configuring for us new fields of research around caste and gender questions are well-known and rightly applauded. I want to suggest here that it is her work as a translator that now needs foregrounding and celebration – a translator not just in a literal sense but as an interpreter across social domains, as someone who worked consistently with more than one language, who was at all times aware of the multiple asymmetries that languages metaphorically indicated, and who worked tirelessly and with great skill to address those asymmetries.