When she got up to speak there was nothing remarkable about her, diminutive and soft spoken as she was. However, as she began speaking and linking the disaster of nuclear power and warfare to the civilisational crisis emphasised by Tagore I became interested. I learnt from enquiries that she was based in Shantiniketan and an environmental and civil rights activist. It so happened that I subsequently spent one and a half years in Shantiniketan building my parents' home there so as to get a breather to find out what I could do with my life. This provided me an opportunity to visit Shyamali Mashi frequently at her residence in Purva Palli. The first time I visited I was treated to a puppet show. She had this puppet called Vasundhara which symbolised Mother Earth. The puppet had one foot that was suffering from Elephantiasis. Shyamali Mashi then launched into a hilarious satire on the consumerism of humans that had disfigured Vasundhara's foot.
I slowly got to know the depths of Shyamali Mashi's activism. She was a tireless person continually participating in various actions across the country. Indefatigable is the only adjective I can think of. The major problem of the environmental movements in this country is a lack of human power. Since these movements never have any money they have to rely on voluntarism of the skilled intellectuals. Shyamali Mashi by participating in a whole host of such movements tried to make up single handedly for this lacuna.
Personally for me the crunch came on December 3rd 1984. Lethal gas leaked from the Union Carbide factory in Bhopal killing thousands of people in their sleep. Next day Shyamali Mashi called a meeting at her home and announced that she was going to Bhopal to do rescue work. I could not go with her but this immediate response of hers made a deep mark on me. There was pressure on me at that time from my parents to give up my wayward ideas and take up a job or pursue higher studies. But that one action of Shyamali Mashi's strengthened my resolve that as soon as the house was completed I would set off to follow a life of activism. I started searching and found a place in Madhya Pradesh where some activists were fighting for the rights of the Bhil tribals. When Shyamali Mashi came back from Bhopal I asked her whether I would be right in disobeying my parents and following my head to go off among the Bhils. She said that as a human being my duty to the poor was more important than the wishes of my parents! I of course did not tell my parents of this and just followed Shyamali Mashi's advice. She was the quintessential anarchist having little respect for the institutions and norms of a society built on injustice. Not surprisingly many looked askance at her activities and attitudes. But she fought on regardless.
Later she visited the Narmada valley and also took considerable trouble to set up a support group for the Narmada Bachao Andolan in Kolkata and Shantiniketan. She mobilised many young people in Shantiniketan to take part in local actions.
This is what is the most important quality of Shyamali Mashi. The ability to inspire and advise youth to work for the community. Not only I but many other youth over the years have been inspired to give up the mainstream and work for the rights of the poor and for the conservation of nature. Not only youth but elders also sought refuge in her quiet greatness. The great Pannalal Dasgupta spent his last days at her home because that is the only place where he could live according to his whims and fancies. She continued to fight and inspire right to the end despite her failing health. When Binayak Sen was unjustly incarcerated in jail in Raipur on cooked up charges of hatching a conspiracy in cohorts with the Maoists, Shyamali Mashi took part in the protest rally.
Fighting for justice is a thankless and tiresome task as I have realised over the years. It requires tremendous amount of stamina. Especially in the context of the modern world in which consumerism is being promoted like wildfire and people like Steve Jobs who make billions out of selling overpriced electronic baubles manufactured by exploiting Chinese labourers are considered to be the heroes. Consequently Shayamali Mashi and her legacy of tireless struggle will always remain to inspire youth who want to live a more meaningful life in pursuit of justice.