iMahal Interview Series:
Chhaya Datar
June 12, 2000

iMahal: Hello Chhaya. Thanks for visiting with us. As you know, we conduct interviews with successful or soon to be successful individuals. You are certainly one of those highly successful people from who we can all learn: learn about what you have accomplished and, more importantly, how you have achieved those accomplishments. Your background, personal experiences, hard work, and sacrifices make your life a compelling story. Many a times, success is equated with financial success. Your efforts clearly demonstrate that success has other dimensions, going well beyond the monetary gains. We are pleased that you have taken the time to talk with us. We appreciate it very much. So shall we get started?
Chhaya: Thanks for having me. What an introduction! With this kind of introduction, I hope I can live up to your expectations. I am just another individual trying to do what she believes is right, and what she believes she can. As you know, we all can and do make a difference in our own way. Wishing and trying to help others is an integral part of our Indian culture. There are so many other people who I know have done so much more than I have. So I feel humbled when you call me successful and accomplished. I look forward to sharing all I can about what I have I done, almost always with the help of others, for the next hour or so. I am pleased to be here with you.

Let me comment on success as being something beyond financial gains. You are very right. The definition of success does vary from individual to individual. At the end of the day, personal rewards and gratification of any form, be they monetary or otherwise, often drive, motivate, and inspire an individual to his or her goals.

iMahal: Well, let's get started then. Can you share with us a bit about yourself and your work in India?
Chhaya: As you know I am the Head of the Woman's Studies Unit at Tata Institute in Mumbai, India. In addition to my usual teaching load, I am part of a research team and currently serve as director for three research projects. For the past year, I was fortunate to have been a visiting Fulbright Scholar at Chatham College in Pennsylvania, USA. At Chatham, I taught a class on feminist theory.

My work revolves mostly around women's and children's issues. I am involved in the woman's movement in India, specifically to help educate underprivileged children and improve the lives of labor working women. In the area of education, I work in the realm of quality of education and adult illiteracy. Another aspect of my work involves working with the government. We train government officials to work and help the villagers. In a sense I act as a mediator between the government and the villagers. Also, we evaluate other projects that were done, and help to devise an action plan based on research we conduct.

iMahal: We just wish to point out for those who may not know, that the Fulbright scholarship is a highly prestigious award bestowed upon a select few. That is quite an accomplishment Chhaya.

Coming back to your response, how did you get involved in activities such as the women's movement, helping women and children, being an intermediary between the Indian Government and the villagers, etc.?
Chhaya: In 1972, we moved to Bombay. By we I mean I, my husband and our two sons. I started becoming frustrated at being a "traditional" housewife, confined to household chores. I wanted something more out of my life. I was fortunate enough that we were able to have household help and we were financially stable. As a result, I was able to pursue other activities. I had a strong desire to serve, and it was at that time that I became involved in social movements. I started doing voluntary work in several youth and trade unions in the textile industry, and women's organizations. I also pursued other old interests again, such as writing. I was also a short story writer. I wrote two published collections of short stories.

During the early years of my involvement in social movements, say from 1972 to 1975, I was involved with the Tribal Area of Shahada Talugua (Block) Dhulia. Here we taught women about wages and working, and developed woman camps to help them learn about such issues. In 1975, Mrs. Indira Gandhi, then Prime Minister of India, declared an Emergency State in India, thus limiting our activities. From 1976 to 1980, I was involved with the Unions in the Textile Industry. In 1980, I was awarded the Dutch Government Scholarship to study women's issues. With this scholarship, I went to the Netherlands for 16 months to pursue a Masters Degree. I received my PhD from S.N.D.T. Women's University in Bombay. Subsequent to that, I have been involved in various research projects.

iMahal: Were there any particular influences in your earlier life, say that of family or friends or role models, that instilled in you this "desire to serve?"
   ... a sharp rebellion against the notion that the ideal women is one who wears herself but for her family, suppressing her own identity ...
One trait of my mother influenced me a great deal. My mother always tended to serve others, while setting aside her own needs. Though she wasn't able to contribute her virtues directly to the society at large, she used them for her family. This has affected me in two ways: one is my inherited desire to serve, and the other is a sharp rebellion against the notion that the ideal women is one who wears herself but for her family, suppressing her own identity. I do feel that my mother represented the then traditional ideal woman.

iMahal: So yours has been an effort to serve, while establishing your own individual being who contributes to society at large, going well beyond the nuclear family.
Chhaya: Yes, you can say that. Husband and wife can, and should, share the responsibility for the family, while pursuing individual personal interests.

iMahal: You mentioned that you went to the Netherlands on a Dutch Government Scholarship. Can you elaborate on why you went to the Netherlands and what the program of study was all about?
Chhaya: I received an M.A. degree in Women and Development from ISS, The Hague. This program of study in the Netherlands was developed by Dr. Maria Mies. Twenty people from around the world came to this program, of which 16 were from third world countries. Ninety five percent of the participants worked for the government and the other five percent were involved in women's movements.

The reason for going to the Netherlands and pursue a Masters degree was to learn more about and from women's movements around the world - their struggles, their efforts, and success and failures. Here we worked on 2-3 projects involving women's organizations. One project involved field work in the Dutch Women's struggle. We got to see the movement from within, to understand their minds. For three months I worked with a group running a women's shelter. It was a home for women who were physically and mentally abused. It was through this program that I truly learned about sisterhood. I learned about common features that existed in experiences of women all over the world. I learned how we could benefit from studying certain experiences of the Western women's movements. Gradually a concept of women's liberation took shape in me. When I returned from the Netherlands I decided to concentrate my attention on women's struggles.

iMahal: So, it was a particularly significant experience in your life.
Chhaya: Yes, this experience in the Netherlands had a profound effect on me. It reinforced my desire to stay involved in social movements, particularly the women's movements in India.

iMahal: Your involvement in these social movements must have effected your family life.
Chhaya: When I first got involved in social movements, years earlier, I had two young sons. My husband was a financial manager in the private sector. Earlier, my time was completely spent on caring for the children, and being a hostess for entertaining guests my husband had invited. And then, I became so filled with the desire to make my life more meaningful that I went everywhere alone, without even my husband. This was a turning point in my life. I had undertaken to cast off the drudgery that had set into my life; and that while remaining in my surroundings, not leaving them. Once I started doing these activities, my family had to start adjusting to me not being there all the time. My work was not a 10 am to 5 pm routine. I was no longer always home when my children came back from school, or when my husband would invite people to our home. I was lucky though to have a family that was supportive of my involvement in such activities. Though the dual life was often taxing, I finally realized that if one wants to survive in such work, to be consistent, the stream of economic and emotional support must keep flowing. And my family was there for me.



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