North Stars ft. Sujata Khandekar

Relatively new to the development sector, I visited the CORO for Literacy office in Chembur, curious to understand the incredible work I had read about.  There I met Sujata amidst a group of beautiful people who would teach me more about life in the M Ward of Mumbai than I had ever known till that day.

Sujata Tai as she is fondly addressed by many, laughs like a child, embraces like a friend, and gives her counsel like the senior she is to many like me.  I suspect I am not the only fan she has; such is the love she receives from those who get to know her.

One of those stellar role models who is deeply aware of her own privilege, whether it be her Brahmin identity or her educational qualification, Sujata’s deep sensitivity to the marginalized makes her stand out.  She prefers being called an enabler, not a leader. 

Who am I to lead? The power rests with the people.  They can lead, I can only facilitate. 

Hailing from a family of four daughters, Sujata was in awe of her father, who has played a huge role in laying the foundation for the sense of fairness and justice she embodies.  He always encouraged her to view things positively and follow her instincts.  So much so that he encouraged her to address a gathering of 10,000 citizens during a local agitation, when she was only in seventh grade.  

Everyday young Sujata would come home from school and narrate the day’s events to him.  One of those days, her father drew a straight line on a slate and asked her to make it smaller without changing it.  Sujata gave up in frustration.  He then drew a longer line next to the original one. The first line had become smaller.

Sujata never forgot that lesson.  Whenever an issue emerges, think of the big picture and the issue becomes smaller in the large scheme of things.  

Through those years there were two people who were an integral part of Sujata’s life; Satyabhama and Dadaji, who she speaks of so fondly even today.   It was normal to spend Sundays with them.  Before every exam, the girls would have to touch their feet in addition to taking blessings from their parents.  Satyabhama was a Dalit lady who helped Sujata’s mother with cleaning and Dadaji was a Muslim watchman in her father’s old office who loved their family and showed up every free day.  Sujata spent days with Satyabhama and him.  Every exam morning, a mandatory Ashirwad from parents, Satyabhama and Dadaji before leaving for school was a ritual.  

Recalling those days, Sujata reflects how she realized the magnitude of their presence in her life much later.  Equality and equity are not taught; they run in our blood by living them.

Sujata eventually completed her engineering, married and moved to Mumbai with a comfortable job and joined Stree Mukti Sanghatna as a volunteer.  The brilliant Jyoti Mhapsekar, founder of SMS had written the legendary play, ‘Mulgi Jhali Ho’ a story of a girl born into a family that desperately wanted a boy. Sujata as part of the cast performed in 1500 shows of that play.  

Sujata Khandekar (back row, second from the right) and Jyoti Mhapsekar, (front row, first from the left) as part of the cast and crew for the play "Mulghi Jhali Ho" (Pic. Courtesy: Prabodhan, YouTube)

The play introduced Sujata to gender biases or discrimination.  She, who had brimmed with pride when father said, “Sujata is my son!”  now understood the problematic nature of that compliment.  But then this ability she has to deeply introspect, and course correct stood out for me always.   It’s very difficult to find people who are students of life the way she has been.  And that is probably how, her life took an interesting turn with the formation of CORO. 

CORO was set up in 1989, by Madhav Chavan (Founder, Pratham) as a collaborative of seven activist organisations with the mission of adult literacy.  Sujata was introduced to community life for the first time and from here began an incredible journey of evolution.  The upper caste educated privileged community workers thought they will go into the community, explain why people should be literate, share all the books, and everyone will be excited to learn. Why would people not listen?  It seemed like common sense.  But they were rejected by the community and had to unlearn their presumptions, learning to listen to people instead.

She began spending almost all her time among the people in M ward of Mumbai and felt the duality of her existence deeply.  Considered to be the poorest part of Mumbai, the M East ward covers over 256 slums and as many as 13 resettlement colonies, and the 132-hectare Deonar dumping ground that processes 4,500 tonnes of garbage every day.  Sujata’s relationship with the people there deepened and she was spending more and more time with them. All meetings would be conducted in her huge accommodation those days in Hindustan Petroleum colony. Her friends from M Ward would be coming to her home all the time.  

When the time came to buy their own house, her husband asked Sujata if a large home would create a hesitation or barrier between her and the community leaders?  The house was beautiful, with huge windows with parapets.  They really wanted it but didn’t want their friends in the community to feel left behind.  Sujata invited her community friends to see their chosen home without telling them of her preference.  It was only after assuring them that the house will not merely belong to Sujata and her husband but will also be a haven for the community members, did they go ahead and buy it.     

While work deepened and Sujata’s context knowledge sharpened, her personal life was undergoing turmoil.  Sujata and her husband shared common values and interests in social causes.  However, differences and discontent surfaced after a few years of marriage and his extramarital relationship became the last straw. Sujata walked out of the marriage and started living on her own in the year 2011. 

I have thought a lot about how Sujata may have come to terms with this incident in particular.  To stand for women’s rights, to be known as a flagbearer of respect and dignity for women, and then to acknowledge that one’s own personal life is far from picture perfect is not easy at all.  But Sujata has navigated this with grace and dignity. 

As her work evolves and she transitions from her existing role at CORO, she doesn’t view it as a handover or an exit from work.  Her work continues as she still advises/mentors the wonderful CORO team in her quest to ensure people continue to be served.  

Over the last few years, whenever we met, Sujata would tell me how she is incredibly busy with her PhD and I always teased her about the amount of time it is taking.  I have been privileged to read a draft of her labour of love, that she has been diligently and passionately pursuing over the last many years.

With co-researchers in the academic work undertaken for the study. (Pic. Courtesy: CORO)

Titled “Meanings of Women Empowerment: Grassroot Women define and deepen empowerment through collective analysis of their own empowerment trajectories”, this may be the most unique way of working on a thesis.  True to her empathetic and participative style of doing just about anything, Sujata has studied empowerment from the lens of women who were empowered.  She has identified seven women leaders who overcame unbelievable trials in life to first take control of their own narrative, and then work for others.  Vinaya, Anita, Dwarka, Anwari, Mumtaz, Sheela, Pallavi who along with Sujata, have gone through a very difficult process to archive their own lives so that others can learn.

We are so used to reading, understanding, researching on issues from the outside, somewhere the voice of those at the center of anything tends to be put on mute.  Even in her research, Sujata puts the voice of the woman at the center.  She hears them, shares with them, validates them and allows them to validate her.  They heal together, and in their healing they empower each other - and if we are willing, they empower us too.

She doesn’t stop there, lest her partners in research be labeled as mere participants.  She calls them co-researchers and co-authors, acknowledging their leadership at grassroot levels, giving credit where it’s due.

So yes, it is difficult for me to explain why I admire this wonderful woman: Her love for life, her easy laugh, her humour in spite of being privy to the worst of human behaviours, her generosity of spirit, her belief in goodness and equality, or her incredible understanding of the work she leads.  

With Bhawaridevi, Dr Lakshmi Lingam, Flavia Agnes and Dr. Vibhuti Patel (Pic. Courtesy: CORO)

Maybe what towers above everything else, is Sujata’s strength that comes from her acknowledgement of the privilege she was born with and therefore the role she must play as a facilitator to those who are marginalised.  

Always the facilitator, never the leader.  Our very own Sujata Khandekar.   

naghma mulla

Owner of the loudest laugh in the room and a development sector professional by day, Naghma is a by-mistake CA, who writes what she feels and feels what she writes.