Even until a year ago, the very frail Satyawati would spin the charkha (spinning wheel) for 3 hours a day, propped up on her bed. For the 104-year-old—possibly the oldest surviving member of India’s independence movement—it was pure habit.
Today, she lies in bed in her house in Delhi under a portrait of her son, the former Indian vice-president Krishan Kant, who died in 2002. She is immobile after a recent injury but the wheelchair-bound centenarian lucidly recollects episodes and anecdotes from the freedom struggle.
“Maine (Chandrashekhar) Azad ko apne haathon se khilaya tha (I fed Azad with my own hands),” she says as she attempts to sit up.
Even until a year ago, Shrimati Satyawati would spin the charkha (spinning wheel) for 3 hours a day, propped up on her bed. Harikrishna Katragadda / Mint
Born on 23 February 1905, Satyawati took to khadi after her marriage to Lala Achint Ram, a zealous swadeshi activist who later became a member of Parliament. Ram was too busy with his political work to bother about marriage. But he was told that apart from being strikingly beautiful, Satyawati was different. And so he relented.
Having studied at an all-girls boarding school run by the Arya Samaj in Jalandhar, his bride was intellectually equipped and willing to partner him in his political quests. And partner him she did—protesting on streets, giving refuge to other young activists and allowing herself and her three young children to be taken into custody on more than one occasion.
Satyawati is a proud mother. Her son Krishan Kant held various positions of authority over the years and her two daughters, Subhadra and Nirmal Kant, braved jail with her at the ages of 13 and 5. Subhadra, now 80, recalls being rounded up for attending a satyagraha rally in Lahore. “We were protesting in response to a nationwide call by Mahatma Gandhi. We were hungry but we weren’t scared; we had our mother to look up to.”
Satyawati recalls how she kept members of her family on their toes, ready to protest or be imprisoned at any hour. Their possessions were kept to a bare minimum. The charkha was a powerful symbol of solidarity and self-reliance and she dressed her family in khadi to keep them rooted in the spirit of the time.
In a rare public appearance to introduce a photographic guide to the freedom struggle, The Illustrated History of the Freedom Struggle by Pavan K. Varma, a few months ago, she expressed her disenchantment with today’s political leadership.
Speaking of the difference between then and now, she says the young men and women of today have the basic threads of progressive thought in hand but no responsible leading figure to help weave these together.