The preoccupations of the present often have a way of overriding the past. In some cases, however, the inspiring memory of iconic teachers like Rati Bartholomew (January 4, 1927 – September 23, 2021), who taught English literature at Indraprastha College in Delhi, stays with the students their entire lives. So it was for the socio-political activist Aruna Roy. In the past four weeks since Rati’s death, as Roy writes in the article below, his memories have sharpened, making him see how, in Barty’s nurturing presence, his love for literature has evolved into a deeper understanding of its relationship to politics.
Rati, as I have come to think of Barty later in life, is tucked away in one of my special spaces of treasured memories from my years at Indraprastha College, from 1962 to 1967. She was an inspiration . Along with Sheila Uttamsingh and Urmila Khanna, she was my true connection to the passionate world of books, words and emotional intellectual pleasure. Not just that: Rati brought into the classroom and into our lives the world beyond the walls of a women’s college and intellectual pursuits beyond those of a small society. She broadened my understanding of politics as an inequality conscious woman.
Rati walked swiftly to class in her Kolhapuri chappals, her grabbing cotton saree high on her back, a huge bindi made of lipstick adorning her forehead – the sticker bindi, thank goodness, hadn’t been thought of. era – her tied hair rolled up casually, and glasses perched on her nose. In one hand would be his purse, in the other a few books. Its sum was much more than its parts.
She was different, distinctive in her dress choice and elegance, and she always made a statement with her clothes. She dressed in hand weaving, and it spoke to me. I had studied in Kalakshetra, Chennai, and knew both the beauty and the politics of wearing hand-woven fabric. He spoke of his sensitivity not only to preserve our heritage, but expressed his concern for those who spun and wove. Her voice was in a tone that I liked. Low and hoarse. She appealed to my aesthetic as much as to my mind.
I was 16 when I joined Indraprastha College as an English Literature student in 1962. Shakespeare’s poetry and imagination had captivated me before I even entered college, but Rati led me into the intricacies of Shakespeare the playwright, his abundance, his world of infinite nuances and variations.
I have vivid memories of the topic she gave us for our Dusshera Vacation Tutorial in 1962. The topic was “just” a review of “all of Shakespeare’s romantic comedies!” We croaked, “Did you say all? ”She said yes. Read the plays and tell me what you feel and think. My friends remember that she took all the reference books from the batteries, lest we plagiarize them. was no better way to make us read romantic comedies.
When I saw the Comedy of errors at the Globe ten years ago, I blessed Rati for making us all read them. We were then young, energetic, enthusiastic and afraid of being tested, and we read them all religiously.
Even though I knew Shakespeare in school and started to love him, it was Rati who brought him to life and made us sensitive to his language – poetry and prose. Even his most fragile pieces like Henry VI came to life when I saw the Royal Shakespeare Company perform the play 30 years later in London.
It was in his class that I understood that great drama arises from the phenomenal instinct to know what works on stage. Shakespeare made sarcastic political comments even in his early comedies, which I saw in the performance. I was surprised at how contemporary he was even at the 21st century. Rati’s words echoed in my mind, when she persuaded us to see the irony and sharp political commentary in using characters in the subplot to parody the absurdities of the main plot.
Rati did not limit his classroom instruction to the program. This is how the love of literature for some of us turned into a deeper cultural understanding of its relationship to politics. I was drawn to the works of John Osborne, The Angry Young Man, and later to Brecht and Samuel Beckett. Rati taught in order to share his love and passion. Her class has always been more than a routine class – she chose topics and parts of creative writing that she knew would introduce us to a world populated by thoughts, images and the beauty of life. ‘expression.
The way Rati communicated his love for the world of literature and theater was contagious. It broadened and deepened my love for Garcia Lorca, Ibsen and Chekov. His enthusiasm for the theater led us to see the Bristol Old Vic perform Hamlet, Weapons and man and A man for all seasons at the auditorium of the All India Fine Arts and Crafts Society (AIFACS) in Delhi in 1962-63. We understood why the plays of Shakespeare, Shaw and Bolt were considered such good theater.
They were exciting evenings and made us understand why it was natural for anyone who loves literature to take an interest in the theater. Rati, the theater lover and scholar, made much more sense. Every scene and dialogue in the performance made so much more sense.
Rati and I continued to meet over the five years I spent at Indraprastha College as a student and during the year (1967-68) I shared the faculty room with her as a as a speaker. We spoke and disagreed and spoke again to resolve the differences. We talked about TS Eliot, Yeats, Blake and Keats. She was always energetic, ironic, knowledgeable and opinionated, and a fund of gossip and literary information.
When Sheila Uttamsingh joined us, their markedly different predilections made for an interesting learning. Those moments outside of teaching a dreaded third-grade class were the highlights of my life as a teacher in the rather drab teachers’ room we lived in. There was a sense of equality in his relationship with us. She even quarreled with us. This laid the groundwork for an understanding that quarreling with someone younger is a compliment – an assertion of intellectual equality.
Rati was engrossed in her world of theater and theater, and I was first in public service and later in the world of social work and activism, working for the marginalized in rural Rajasthan. Our paths crossed in 1983 when I persuaded the theater troupe of the Center for Social Work and Research (SWRC) Barefoot College, Tilonia, Rajasthan, to join a workshop with their colleagues Tripurari Sharma and Lakshmi Krishnamurti.
It was a transformative workshop that once again repeated the use of language, word creation and performance to fight for justice and equality. Over the following years, Tripurari became part of our struggles to help us use theater to communicate the complexities of an unequal society.
Rati and I haven’t met as often as we could have. His association with Sahmat and mine with the organization of the poor had abstract overlaps. We mourned Safdar Hashmi, and later I was part of a group that attended the Safdar Hashmi festival in Lahore, in 1989. Street theater with the Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) attracted Rati to my political life. When we used the theater for the Right to Know (RTI) campaign, with the help of Shankar Singh (MKSS) and Tripurari Sharma, Rati was with us in spirit.
Years later, I went with friends from the 1962 class – Rekha Bezboruah, Nisha Malhotra, and Jayanti Bannerji – to meet Rati in Gurgaon, where she was living with her youngest son. A stroke had left her bedridden. His eyes still sparkled with humor and joy.
But the real continuation of Rati’s presence in my life was through his eldest son, Pablo. I had met Pablo and his younger brother while they were waiting for the modern school bus, outside the college, while they were living on campus with Rati and Richard. Like many others, my friends’ children kept my bond with their parents alive! Pablo arrived in Tilonia in 1975 with a camera slung over his slender shoulder on the recommendation of Shona Ray, a well-known designer and progressive artist. As he continued to visit us in MKSS and Tilonia, I continued to hear from Rati, sharpened by the accidental mention of a play or cinema.
Rati leaves behind rich memories and ironic comments on life. I will think of her often, not only when I read poetry and literature, but also when I strive to live life with the courage of my convictions.
Aruna Roy is a socio-political activist with Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan.