A Personal Farewell to Dr.Gail Omvedt
Inspiring Scholar-Activist and a Poet’s Beautiful Muse
Dr. Gail Omvedt, a renowned sociologist and activist who dedicated her life to seeking, describing and forging ‘Begumpura’ died on 25th August 2021, just a couple of weeks after her eightieth birthday and I was surprised at the grief I felt. It was as if something very precious was lost. I was surprised at myself because I was not the one who had delved very deeply into her extensive scholarly works. I confess that beyond a rather superficial reading of ‘Dalits and the Democratic Revolution’ which was discussed in class at TISS and the copy of ‘We shall Smash This Prison’ from the Women’s Study Centre, I have only read her authoritative biography of Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar.
I did read about the work of Shramik Mukti Dal and its struggle for equitable water redistribution but that I associated more with Dr. Bharat Patankar and the organisation than with Dr. Gail.
I have never met her although I should have. Indeed I regret that I did not make that journey to Kasegaon, that I did not realize how important it was to see and hear her.
Dr. Bharat Patankar is my ‘Facebook friend’ and it was his loving yet ‘revolutionary’ poetry about his Sakhi (beloved) that really introduced me to Dr.Gail. His poetry which records their life and work together opened my eyes to her wonderous journey – a young Ph.D. scholar from the US who came to India to study non-Brahmin movements and who stayed back to strengthen those very movements through her scholarship. Undoubtedly, this is what made Dr. Gail Omvedt profoundly different from the many scholars who study movements and write about them – she did not treat the movements as her ‘subject of study’ rather she became a part of those movements. She was in the forefront of street protests as much as in conference halls. She took the agitations from the streets to the classrooms and the discussions from the classrooms to the streets – such was the powerful melding of her theorization and praxis.
There is one poem by Dr. Bharat Patankar that I found particularly remarkable – it describes an evening in Akkalkuva during the struggle against the Narmada dam. It is a rain-darkened evening and the poet and his blue-eyed beloved have to find their way through a difficult, blind path that is thick with mud and slime, strewn with thorns. The poet fears unseen snakes, scorpions and night insects at every step but she moves ahead with fierce courage, drenched to the skin. He wonders at how something so delicate could yet be so strong.
There are other poems that describe Gail’s commitment to the ideologies of Mahatma Phule, Annabhau Sathe, Dr. Babasaheb Ambedkar and to the on-going struggles of Dalits, farmers and women. There are poems that describe her love for India – especially the India that lives and toils in the villages – how she would proudly take her friends from abroad to see the farms and the forests. There are also poems that describe her amidst her family of incredible women – her mother-in-law Comrade Indutai Patankar who was a freedom-fighter and her daughter Prachi who carries forward the activist legacy.
Perhaps my deep sadness is because I met her through poetry and the power of poetry goes far beyond that of ideology or activism – it has the power of creating intimacy across space and time.
Rest in power Dr. Gail Omvedt – comrade of the oppressed, inspiring scholar-activist, and a poet’s beautiful muse.
– Paromita Goswami