Malati Manohar Harshey, L.L.B. Jabalpur University, 1966

“My mother, Malati Manohar Harshey (1920-2003)
The first woman graduate in our family, she was also graceful, wise and widely beloved. A self-made lady who stood out in her time and set an example for all the women in the family.

Mummy was a firstborn child raised to an intellectual but submissive youth in the small town of Hubli in Karnataka. My grandmother Anandibai Tembe gave birth to her at home on the 27th of March 1920, with a midwife. My mother helped her with a lantern in hand for subsequent deliveries, numbering twelve in all.

In a home brimming over with children, my mother being the eldest had her tender hands full. To add to her chores was the constant worrying about the next meal, counting pennies to make ends meet thanks to a short tempered and hence usually out of work father – my grandfather Nanasaheb Tembe, a lawyer.

The saving grace in Mummy’s life was her father’s conviction that she was the brightest thing to have landed on this part of the world. He spared nothing to ensure that she and her immediate sibling pursued good education. So began the journey of an unending thirst for reading and learning which stayed with her till she left us at the age of 83, a decade ago.

Facing innumerable hardships she underwent schooling at in Hubli and topped the Bombay Presidency matriculation exam, thereby bagging the coveted Chatfield Prize. It was no small feat for a girl growing up in such a small town. (Novelist Shashi Deshpande had her protagonist Jaya aspire to win this prize in her award-winning novel That Long Silence)

Having proved her intellectual mettle, there was no stopping my mother from enrolling for graduation and she joined Dharwad University, once again topping its lists on the way to claiming her BA Mathematics (honours) degree in 1940.

Tales of her perseverance in those days are both intriguing and funny. The Hubli-Dharwad train was infrequent and it was a long walk both ways to the university and her home. The red soil of the region would stain her hem and so she tied her sarees high, looking like a joker and laughing at herself. These stories of hers shone with frankness and humility.

During the course of her study here she realised, or more accurately, her father pointed out that she could take care of all her siblings’ education by acquiring a job. Extremely rare at those times in families such as ours (middle class Maharashtrian Brahmin), my mother enrolled further for Bachelor of Teaching or BT which is known as B.ed today. She completed the degree in 1942.

A teaching job at Lamington School, Hubli came her way and she started bringing in some much needed money, providing succour to her siblings all of whom yearned for good opportunities.

Among bedtime anecdotes that Mummy shared with my brother Dr Balwant Harshey and me, she often told us how she bought a set of two sarees for Rs 8 from the newly opened mills in Hubli. And how they were so much softer than the handloom ones she wore earlier. This to her was luxury.

She told us that our Nana took all her salary and kept account of every penny, losing his temper if even a few paisas were wrongly appropriated. But he claimed that none of this was with the intent to hurt her. This was his way of teaching value for money.

In a couple of years she began to yearn for love and marriage. This was heightened because her younger sister was secretly in love and planning to get away from the situation at home. Being the darker skinned of the two “marriageable age” girls of the family, my mother was not even a choice to be shown to prospective grooms. Therefore Nana pushed marriage for his second born, my fairer aunt.

Fortune willed it otherwise. Mummy being the mother figure took her sister to Pune to meet the man who was destined to be my father, during which journey my aunt confessed that she was already committed. Despite panicking, my mother held forth excellent conversation and completely floored my erudite dad, Dr Manohar Harshey, who wooed her on a walk along the railway track and popped the question. When she said she needed to ask my Nana, Dad would not settle for the postponement of an answer. Courageously, she said yes.

They married in 1945. Mummy showed great spirit because my Dad lived in distant Madhya Pradesh. She had no idea of life outside her home in Karnataka and at best Maharashtra. To a distraught Nana, my Dad promised a visit to Hubli each year which the couple never failed to make. Together they also took care of all my mother’s siblings – their education as well as marriages.

Her education never stopped. Though my father requested that she not take a job outside home, he encouraged her many talents and showered her with love and all the comfort money could buy. While taking care of the home and nurturing her own four children (of which I am the third born) she continued on her path of learning. Sometimes for pure intellectual satisfaction and sometimes to please my father and be his companion in all his cultural pursuits.

Despite her early schooling in a Marathi medium school, Mummy had been a diligent student of English and read Victorian novels with ease, meticulously writing her observations in the margins. She read with such absorption that if someone quietly turned her chair the other way she wouldn’t know.

Besides literature, Mummy developed a passion for Hindustani Classical music with my dad’s active support. She completed her Masters in Music from the Morris College of Music, Lucknow in 1956.  She showed confidence in learning the Kirana gharana style of singing from the doyenne of that school – Vidushi Gangubai Hangal, and thumri and dadra from Vidushi Girija Devi of the Benaras gharana.

The town of Jabalpur benefitted greatly from the philanthropy of my parents who generously contributed to theatres and music schools like Bhatkhande Music Institute, Sangeet Samaj Jabalpur and Sangeet Mahavidyalaya.

They also hosted performances by theatre groups from Mumbai and Pune and top musicians such as Pt. Bhimsen Joshi and Pt. Ravishankar in our home. Large gatherings were invited to partake of the music and free flowing tea. Dr Harshey and Malati tai became household names both in Jabalpur and in performing arts circles around the country.

Having had a taste of Mummy’s will and daring, my Dad once asked her if she would like to sail on a steamer alone and see “the Continent” as Europe was called. True to his expectation she said yes and off she went for a month in the year 1952, leaving my two older sisters Dr Mohini Harshey & Rasika Harshey behind with Dad. Mummy’s experiences in Europe were chronicled in a diary and one could see glimpses of racism she faced while trying to enjoy her moment in the world.

One incident that brought her to tears was when some of her western co-passengers objected to her touching a plate of toast, and ordered her to eat after them. Yet she kept her wits about her in her loneliness when she missed my Dad and her babies.

Her last degree in formal education was LLB in 1966 from Jabalpur University. I do not have a memory of why she pursued this course.

My parents were a couple constantly in love with each other, showing tremendous respect for humanitarian values and sharing many artistic hobbies and interests. After Daddy passed away at an untimely age in 1969, Mummy remained the ever-gracious and mentally vigorous mistress of the house until her demise in 2003.

My mother’s strength came from her education and my father’s love. Not from the worldly possessions and respect they eventually amassed.”

Complete academic achievements of Smt. Malati Manohar Harshey

Chatfield Prize for the Bombay Presidency matriculation topper among girls, c. 1937

B.A. in Mathematics (honours) from Dharwad University, 1940

B.T. (Bachelor of Teaching) from Dharwad University, 1942

Teaching job at Lamington School, Hubli, sometime between 1942-1945

M.A. in Music from Morris College of Music, Lucknow, 1956

L.L.B. from Jabalpur University, 1966″

Contributor: Devika Nadig (daughter)

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  1. Education, passion, dedication…and she had them all in abundance. Incredible and truly inspiring memoir! My salute to Srimati Malati M. Harshey and to all other such profound ladies who laid the pathway for the generations to follow…

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