Chandra Bose, feminism, Girls Army, & Mrs. Bhupalan

I’m wondering, if Chandra Bose has won the tussle inside the Congress Party in WWII, whether rape would be a problem in India today. He makes contemporary feminists look silly. Girls Army (1943-1945) did everything a male army regiment would do, and yet did it with sensible guidelines in daily rules because it was young women, actually girls, and not men. Second in command was 14-years old. Astonishing.

There was no ‘backwards and in heels’ nonsense, either. Women in the regular Indian Army, i.e. the British Indian Army, wore the usual sort of military shirt but they wore it over sari. And they worked as typists and such. Women in the Girls Army, part of Bose’s Indian National Army (nothing British about it) wore khaki shirt and pants just like any other soldier, trained on obstacles courses and with weapons, and went into some of the worst terrain there was in the war, in Burma.

Mrs. Bhupalan — Datuk Bhupalan these days, but I knew her and loved and admired her as my Secondary School Headmistresses — was a soldier in the Girls Army. I’ve joked for years that I’m turning into her, but now I’m researching this, the more I find out what they did the more I think I can consider myself as doing very well if I manage even a small fraction of her character. In my schooldays, I’ve seen Mrs. B. in her office on the phone with a minister or a bishop or somebody else important, and she was more than capable of dealing with everyone, and win any argument, with a smile on her face. She had charm, firmness, and kindness in equal measure. And she could be fun, too, as when she relaxed and told a personal story.

Personal note: MGS girls, I know she could be scary, but we all know she was fair, and I think we were very very lucky to have such an example.

water dance

8:30 pm: Finally a moment to dance and get my head together. Silly day but all good, leaks are gone and my ceiling is in one piece again. Meanwhile I am beginning to wonder if there is a jinx on the WWII book. Every time I block out time to assemble the complete draft and do for myself what I do for others (which is, see that a book is full of holes and lay out how to get to a decent version) some wholly unexpected silliness occurs. And therefore, dance. But must get it done. Anyone who hears me talk about anything else but this book and dance for the next month, you have my permission to sternly ‘tut’. Or there’s that ‘tschhh’ sounds all annoyed older Indians — which includes me, now — make. And now I dance. I dance, I dance, see how I dance 

(The day began with a leak from the bathroom ceiling at early a.m. pre-caffeine, and went on from there. Humpty Dumpty is put together again, but the need to dance is urgent.)

Having danced, I am reminded that bellydancers often imagine themselves moving through water, in order to keep their movements fluid (except of course when they are, very deliberately, not fluid at all). And so today has been a water dance. And nothing, after all, can be better.

Blessed are the Soup-Bringers

I got a bad cold once, back when I was a young, slightly lost foreign student in a tiny town in Vermont, and something astonishing happened. I opened my door and found a surprise outside.

Vermonters are very private people. They make jokes about how you’re an outsider in Vermont unless your grandparents were born there. They’re proud. The further north you go in New England the greater — and more justifiable — the pride, because the place is beautiful but also stunningly harsh. It’s difficult even to imagine what winter must have been like there in earlier times, snow piled up to the eaves of the roof, the wind howling, and the temperature dropping down to minus 70.

When I got that cold, I found out how they survived: what was outside my door, as if magically left by fairies, was soup. I hadn’t even told anyone I was sick. Perhaps I’d coughed walking down the street?

That moment was when I understood the real Vermont. Vermonters are good neighbors. There is a lot of racism in this country — in every country — but in Vermont I had the feeling no one would care if I was bright green and from Mars, only if I was a good neighbor. When I worked at the Bennington Museum one summer, one of the volunteer docents, a middle-aged conservative Italian Catholic woman, set me up with her son, which proved it. (Apparently she thought I was a nice girl. And he was in fact a nice boy. We actually ate dinner together, both of us too polite to hurt her feelings.)

Vermonters are proud, they’re private, almost stand-offish; but when the chips are down, they’re genuinely, deeply kind. They are good friends. I don’t have the fortitude to live in that climate any more, but I hold a deep affection for the place.

And I still to this day divide people into two categories: those who bring soup when you’re sick, and those who don’t.