Withered Jewel of Lucknow!

How life can be unfair as it is uncertain is a bitter story. A name people do not hesitate to throw as a trophy to boast as an example of the accomplishment, empowerment of women, has sadly suffered demeaning anonymity and exploitation of age in the hands of the same society.

Born at a time when women were still under the restricting sway of the purdah system, Isha Basant Joshi went on to achieve something incredible for her age and sex. She was the first woman to become a civil servant during the reign of the British.

On 31 December 1908, she was born to Evelyn Basant Mukund of Allahabad. Born and brought up in the city of nawabs she went on to acquire her education from the premier institutes of the city. Her schooling was done at the La Martiniere Girls College, a prestigious school of the city that holds the same esteem even today. It is considered a privilege to belong to that elite group, students of the institution, which was called the ‘bastion of the British’. She was the first Indian girl to be accepted to the exalted and exclusive British model.

Set on a promising trajectory, she went on to do her graduation from Isabella Thoburn College another prominent institute of Lucknow on its early years. She went on to acquire Masters in Arts degree from the Lucknow University and later moved to Britain for higher education. She got merit scholarships throughout. Was a State scholar for 2 years in UK for T D ip. LONDON and also acquired further experience in education field.

Isha’s life is one of many beaming firsts. After the completion of her education she was hired as the first woman lecturer in the Men’s Government Training Centre in Allahabad.

Around that time her greatest achievement yet that was to register her in Indian history books, happened. She was appointed to the Indian administrative services, one of three major organizations that governed Indian administration under British rule. She was the 1st woman in independent India to become an officer of the Indian Administrative Service, after the British allowed women to take the important examination.

She served as joint Magistrate and Assistant Commissioner of Lucknow. Later on she went on to attain an important position in the ministry of education. She served as the Deputy and Joint Secretary of the ministry of the Government of India. Later she worked as Commissioner-cum-Editor of the district gazetteer; some part of her work on Jhansi was found. She held this position until her retirement in the year 1966.

Joshi also wrote prolifically under the name Esha Joshi. Her collection of poems called spindrift was published in the year 1987 and finds mention in the journal of commonwealth literature by Shyamala Narayan, India, for the year 1995. Her book the jewel in the case and other stories along with a collection of poetry titled sanctuary was published in the year 1994 by the writers’ workshop Calcutta.

Ruth Vanita in the Women’s poetry published by Writers Workshop, Calcutta during 1994, a book review, writes, ìI found Esha Joshi the most interesting poet of the lot. She has a wider range, works competently with many different rhyme schemes and moves with ease from serious sonnets to parodies and children’s poems. She is the only one, who displays a sense of humor, using literary allusion to good effect,

My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow coloured salad

and concludes,
Ah then my mouth with pleasure fills,

Champing those golden fries and grills
Some of her haikus are quite telling:

In the glass I see your face,
not mine

Her writing has a touch of Victorianism and is influenced by modernists too. Working to emphasize the emotions she employs rhyme and rhythm.

With the passage of time however, things changed for this stalwart of a woman. Her name, work and reputation started receding from the public’s memory; the Government forgot and forego the claim and right over privileges that its most decorated woman administrative officer had earned with honest service.
The city of Lucknow has produced many proud personages. Javed Akhtar, Vinod Mehta, Mirza Ghalib, Meer, Bhagwati Charan Verma, the list of jewels of Lucknow is endless and illustrious. These luminaries made a mark in history, succeeding in their respective fields and have honoured Lucknow with their achievements.

A search to trace the journey of their success results in a plethora of information. Their life, their work, their controversies, their demise, their lineage and legacy all are there for the world to witness. But for Isha Basant Joshi even this insubstantial record of pages is dim, disappointing, and unyielding.

The last report of the lady was published some 11 years ago when she was found in a lonely back room of the fortress-like white mansion on Kabir Marg, which she had owned and occupied for the better part of her life. The tribune reported on 14 November 2011, that Deep Narain Jaiswal lives in the house now and alleges ownership. He relegated her to a decrepit servant’s quarter. Isha had wanted to stay in the place since she was very attached to it and had done so with the buyer’s consent. Isha Basant Joshis’s friend Purnima Lal Revis says ‘she was provided with a full time nurse but proper care was not taken”.

But the news of her ill treatment got out and under the glare of media she was moved inside the house to her rightful place again. The last medical report accessible stated her medical condition to be as expected of a 96-year-old person. The report stated she suffers from senile dementia, fluctuating BP, low hemoglobin and is very frail.

On this occasion Jaiswal had not let media persons contact the lady sighting her ill health as the reason, despite many requests and attempts. The doctor who checked on her said she was fond of her visitors. The owner of the house said that she was a childless widow. Her relatives moved to the UK but she decided to stay back and they send some money occasionally. Whether her ascertained pension of 12,500 reaches her every month no one knows.

For a society to be truly progressive and honorable, it must first be respectful of its elders. A life of such extraordinary measures must not be allowed to fray in anonymity. Just as it is important to accord honour to achiever in social service, sports, academics etc, it is crucial that the luminaries of the past be held in the esteem they truly deserve and command.

Team Members from Lucknow Observer tried to locate the whereabouts of Isha Basant Joshi but all our earnest efforts were in vain. At Kabir Marg members tried enquiring local vendors, security guards, newspaper hawkers and residents about the lady. To our dismay, most of the people were unaware of the existence of this eminent woman in their neighbourhood.

She has written ñ
Many truths that burned

and burnt the dross away
If you had but returned

After the last report her life suffered anonymity and for a long time we were unaware of her state when her visitor and the friend of her niece, Prema Paul, Pauline informed us that Isha Basant Joshi passed away a few years ago, unnoticed. Pauline says, “I visited her often, with my friend Prema whose aunt she was. It pained me immensely to see the conditions she had to live in, but I was helpless, and she never complained. She had a sewing machine, with which she occupied herself, altering her blouses. She was very particular. We used to talk over the phone as well. Once she told me that she did not have a needle threader, so I got that for her. Somehow, we connected and she shared her feelings with me”.

Her niece still feels proud saying, “She was an achiever, always competitive, aspiring to reach heights. Had to cope with male dominated service colleagues. Isha was very upright & clear headed. She was widely travelled, extensively in India & over 30 Atlantic + Pacific countries on a personal basis. Knew many languages, could recite off- hand Sanskrit Shlokas & was able to communicate with all ages & peoples from all parts of the world. She was artistic, had a major role in Planning the Buddh Jayanti Park, New Delhi. She didn’t receive any recognition from the Govt. for her contributions / merit. After retirement life was a struggle, as she was an idealist & impractical trusting people who took advantage of her to the degree of denuding her of her worldly possessions. Had an attractive & pleasing personality & practiced many Asanas of Yoga till the very end”.

She spent her final years in neglect and passed away in oblivion. Many chapters of her life, many details are unknown ñ there is no reliable source that informs the nation of her pioneering story. The barriers she must have broken, the struggles she must have undertaken, to do what no one woman had ever done before, to dream what no other woman of her time thought was possible; her friends on the journey, the milestones who will tell her story? How will we know?

A woman who made her city, her country proud and set down an inspirational path breaking career trail for the women of India to follow, shall be given full government support. The government must immediately set to the task of restoring Isha Basant Joshi’s forgotten identity and fame.

In the Spectrum Of Indian Writing published in 1997, in an essay titled Anger And Sexuality R K Singh writes of Joshi’s poetry ìshe has an acute sense of her contemporary social reality even as her anger is rooted in broader feminist vision and perception. Her poetic sensibility is characteristically tender, personal, lyrical and ironical.

This waif, this cold of earth, this wizened form
You spurn, despise, laugh at, this wraith,

This shred of life ñ who made him thus,
Robbed his birth right, due and faith,

Who made him this, less man and more docile beast
Öwho took the morsel

From the starving breed,
This travesty of man? O faithless, look

Into the mirror of your mindless heart and dare
To weep, if stone has tears, and find the answer there.

Nikita Gupta
(Published in The Lucknow Observer, Volume 2 Issue 22, Dated 05 January 2016)

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