'Better late than never': Padma Shri for 102-year-old Gandhian Shakuntala Chowdhary

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padma shri award, Assam, Shakuntala Chowdhary, Sarania Ashram, mahatma gandhi

The Padma Shri might have come quite late to Assam’s 102-year-old Gandhian Shakuntala Chowdhary, but for her family and well-wishers, it is “better late than never”, and they have urged the authorities to hand over the award to the centenarian here.

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Chowdhary quietly lives her twilight years, ensconced with fading memories of a life devoted to selfless service, truth, simplicity and non-violence, at the Sarania Ashram where Mahatma Gandhi had stayed during his last visit here in 1946.

“We are very happy that she has been awarded the Padma Shri but it should have been given to her much earlier… now she is not in a condition to travel to the national capital to receive it,” said Coordinator of Kasturba Gandhi National Memorial Trust (KGNMT) Kusum Bora Mokasi.

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A close associate of Vinoba Bhave, Chowdhary has been the ”heart and soul” of the Gandhian institutions since 1947, bringing about immense change in the lives of many young girls and women across the state and has won several accolades, including the Jamnalal Bajaj Award.

“Earlier, she would get angry if we discussed awards and said it was her duty to serve society, but now we are not even sure if she has realised that she has been honoured with the Padma Shri,” Mokasi said.

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Considering her age, “we request the authorities to present the award at a simple ceremony at the Sarania Ashram”, she added.

Chowdhary might not be aware of the development, “but we are repeatedly telling her about it, so that there can be some semblance of comprehension”, said her niece Chandana Choudhury Barua.

”Many people have called us, saying the award has come too late, but it is better late than never. We hope she will be given the award here so that she can receive it herself,” Barua said.

The centenarian, however, is happy to receive the bouquets from well-wishers who came to congratulate her, as she greets all with folded hands and at times with ‘Mahatma Gandhi ki jai’ in a soft voice.

Born into an enlightened family in Guwahati, ‘Shakuntala baido’, as she is affectionately called, was a bright student who went on to become a teacher, and it was during her stint at Guwahati’s TC School that she came into contact with another Gandhian Amalprova Das, whose father had donated his Sarania Hills property for setting up the ashram.

Das had urged Chowdhary to join her to help run the Gram Sevika Vidyalaya and manage the Assam Branch of KGNMT, following which she became the office secretary, entrusted with the task of running the Trust’s administration. She simultaneously worked as a teacher at the Vidyalaya.

Chowdhary succeeded Das as KGNMT’s ‘Pratinidhi’ (head) in 1955 and for 20 years she steered the mission witnessing many developments like the Chinese aggression, the Tibetan refugee crisis, the language stir of 1960 and she led her team to provide relief and succour to the distressed, Barua pointed out.

The highlight of her life was her close association with Vinoba Bhave and her active participation in the year-and-half long ‘Padayatra’ in Assam during the last leg of his famed ‘Bhoodan’ movement.

She was a part of his entourage and as an interpreter, conveyed his message to the people in Assamese.

Barua said Chowdhary would often fondly recall her association with Vinobaji and considered herself very fortunate to have been in such close contact with this “saint on earth”.

Chowdhary’s father had even wanted her to go and live at Bhave’s Wardha Ashram, but her seniors at Sarania Ashram persuaded her against it as she had many responsibilities to fulfill in the state.

Bhave had also taken the initiative to promote Devanagari script among people of different linguistic groups along with their own script, and asked her to start a monthly magazine ‘Asomiya Vishwa Nagari’, which she edited till a few years ago.

“The magazine was printed at our family press which in later years remained functional primarily to ensure that it saw the light of the day and reached subscribers without delay,” Barua said.

Chowdhary was also at the forefront of the ‘Ban Cow Slaughter Satyagraha’ started by Bhave in 1978, the ‘Stree Shakti Jagaran’ and also served as a trustee of KGNMT at the national level.

She loved spinning yarn and even at this age, is always immaculately dressed in khadi ‘mekhla-sador’, and is very particular about orderliness and cleanliness around her, Chowdhary’s assistant Anju Senapati said.

The centenarian was always an avid reader, and even now, a book on Gandhi rests on her bedside table, while walls are adorned with paintings and photographs, capturing memories of a few milestones of her illustrious life.

Till a couple of years ago, she would wake up before dawn and exercise, offer prayers, wash her own clothes and help in the kitchen, Senapati said.

Prayers and music have been a source of sustenance for her with Rabindranath Tagore’s songs being a favourite and even now, with memory playing truant, she often hums songs composed by the bard.

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