Mahatma Jotirao Phule’s work in the field of social reforms is incomparable. He did not act only out of compassion; rather he would always explain the radical thinking underpinning all his actions. In the social reform movement, there are many who profess their allegiance to radical thinking through speeches and writing. But Phule was the first great figure to incorporate it in their personal life.
Savitribai Phule too was totally committed to the work initiated by her husband. Along with Jotirao and Savitribai’s work in educational and social sphere, they also set up an infanticide prevention centre, ensuring a safe place for pregant women with no spousal support to give birth. When a Brahmin widow named Kashibai came to their centre for childbirth, Savitribai performed the duties of a midwife. The child born to Kashibai was adopted by the Phules and named as Yashwant. The child-naming ceremony held on the 12th day symbolised demolition of the birth-based caste and varna system. Savitribai raised Yashwant. After Yashwant passed the matriculation examination, he went on to become a doctor. On 4 February 1889, Yashwant married Radha, the daughter of Jotirao’s friend from Mali community Gyanoba Krishnaji Sasane. This union wasn’t particularly well received by the Malis. Actually, Jotirao’s relatives were opposed to Phules adopting somebody like Yashwant in the first place. This fact comes to our notice by looking at the contents of Jotirao’s will, which he had registered on 18 July 1887. He died in 1890. In the will, Jotirao instructed Yashwant to take Satyashodhak movement’s legacy forward and if he failed to do so, Savitribai was given the right to change his share in the inheritance. We find the following statement in Dhananjay Keer’s biography of Phule: “Unfortunately Savitribai died of plague in 1897 in Poona.” Yashwant died in 1909. The only one left behind was his wife Radhabai. Where did this widow go? Where did she find a resting place at the end of her life’s journey? It seems like this unfortunate lady had to atone fully for Jotirao’s principled life. The confirmed date for Yashwant’s death has still not become available. But we now have the information that he was practicing medicine in Ahmednagar and Pune before he passed away. After both Jotirao and Savitribai died, their house in Ganj Peth was inherited by Yashwant and Radhabai. Jotirao must have suspected that after his death, his kin would harass his adopted son Yashwant and drag him to court on the issue of inheritance, and which is why he had made sure to register his will. Jotirao’s suspicions turned out to be true later on. The documents of the house Jotirao was living in, are available. As per the records in Mamlatdar office, for the years 1894 to 1907, the house is listed in the name of Yashwantrao Jotirao Phule. For 1909-10, the records name Chandrabhagabai Yashvantrao Phule as the owner. For 1912-13 the name that appears in the records is Maruti Krishnaji Dedge; and after that in the year 1923-24, we find the name Shri Narayana Sakharam, Secretary, Mali Free Boarding.
When Yashwant Phule passed away, he had a daughter. Her name was Soni aka Laxmi. I tried a lot to collect information about Jotirao’s daughter-in-law Chandrabhaga. I interviewed many old people living in the vicinity of the house he used to live in. Very few entertained me. I met Mali leaders in Pune. I asked old leaders in the Satyashodhak movement. But nobody shared any information. I practiced medicine for 12 years in Hadapsar. Jotirao’s brother-in-law Gyanba Krishna Sasane used to live in Hadapsar. I enquired his descendants from the current generation. Jotirao had started a school in Hadapsar with the help of Sasanes. Therefore, these Sasanes are known as “Salan vale Sasane” [rough translation would be ‘Sasanes of the school’]. One branch of their family has moved to Kopargaon. But none of them had any details about Radhabai. However, one old lady in Hadapsar shared this: “Chandrabhaga died without a child, people say at the door of some Someshvar or Rameshvar temple.” The Mali community and relatives (both natal and in-laws) had excommunicated Radhabai. After all her husband had descended from a Brahmin woman! Bitter heritage!! Who will go near them? Yashvant must have died somewhere between 1905 and 1909. The Satyashodhak movement became Maratha-dominated during this period only. Jotirao’s close colleagues like Vishram Ramji Ghole and Narayan Lokhande also had died by then. Krishnarao Bhalekar had moved to Vidarbha. Radhabai had only one daughter and she was living in 377, Ganj Peth. Jotirao had inherited his house from his father which he developed further. There were houses belonging to Phule families on three sides of Jotirao’s house. On 28 October 1910, Radhabai aka Chandrabhagabai sold this property to Maruti Krishnaji Dedge for just ₹100. Radhabai has signed the purchase agreement herself. Which proves that she was literate. Jotirao and later Yashwant had been listed as the owners of the two adjacent properties 405 Ganj and 395 Ganj. These two properties were later numbered as 394 and 377. But now these two have been merged into single 408 Mahatma Phule Peth.
Chandrabhagabai had to face many heartbreaks—separation from kin, excommunicated by family and community, property disputes, untimely widowhood and so on. She became a widow at the young age of 28–29. Even though she had relatives, they kept her at a distance. Her only child faced insults such as ‘bitter inheritance’ while her family was defamed as ‘christianised house’. The list of troubles was long. The Mali community had excommunicated Chandrabhagabai along with Jotirao’s other close relatives. The community lifted that ban in 1923–24: an incident that would be a separate subject altogether. The Mali community lifted excommunication only for Jotirao’s kin though. Chandrabhagabai and her daughter continued to face the boycott. Baburao Pandurang Shinde from Natepute village is the one who maintains the family tree for all the families in the Phoolmali community. I sent enquiry letters. But were we going to find Yashwantrao’s name in the records of the smug Malis? In the end, while I was interviewing people in the vicinity of Jotirao’s house, Pitambar Gajanan Phule showed a court verdict document. That court case was from 1911. I pursued the lead and dug out old papers from Pune district court. I found the following content in those papers.
Gajanan Ganapatrao Phule had submitted an application to the Pune district court on 17 July 1911 demanding that he be given guardianship for the minor. Rajaram was Jotirao’s brother, his son Ganapat, and Ganapat’s son was Gajanan Phule. The application has these statements:
- The minor Laxmi aka Soni, father’s name Yashwantrao Jotirao Phule, whose date of birth (approximately) age 6 years, religion Hindu.
- The minor is a girl and is unmarried.
- The minor’s estate as written below: (a) Father’s insurance money of ₹1000 in New York Life Insurance Company; (b) ₹1500 immovable property, including house, etc; (c) ₹1000 jewellery, utensils, etc; (d) ₹1000 withdrawn from the post office by the minor’s mother.
- The minor lives with her mother Chandrabhaga who had a second marriage and her name is Chandrabhaga Kom Maruti Mane. She has sold a few of the minor’s houses without having any property rights. She is also swindling the minor’s estate by selling jewellery, etc. This is harming the minor’s interests.
- The close relatives of the minor (a) Chandrabhaga Kom Maruti Mane, living in Pune, Peth Somwar, House number 410, in the mansion of Bahiru Dhayarkar. (b) Piratabai Kom Ganapatrao Phule, the minor’s aunt, living in Pune, Peth Juna Ganj, house number 387.
- The minor’s mother had a second marriage and is swindling the minor’s estate. The minor’s and her mother’s interests have now diverged. The applicant is the minor’s cousin brother and he has no motives opposed to the minor’s interests.
- Nobody has been appointed as a guardian to look after the minor’s person and her estate. Rather, nobody has yet applied to get a guardianship certificate.
- The applicant should be appointed to protect the minor’s estate and to raise her. And the applicant’s mother Piratabai Ganapatrao Phule should be appointed to look after the minor’s person.
No evidence was submitted to the court other than this affidavit. There is no record of Chandrabhaga being summoned by the court either. The verdict pronounced on 2 September 1911 was very one-sided.
Gajanan Phule’s application makes a few things clear. Often, a canard used to be heard that Jotirao gets money from the British government. Jotirao’s will and the above-mentioned application set the record straight. There is no need to address this grouse separately. Jotirao’s will was registered. As a doctor, Vishram Ramji Ghole had put his sign on it.
Gajanan Phule’s application confirms the time period of Yashwant’s death and his daughter’s birth. But we are left with the question of Chandrabhaga’s second marriage. I do not believe that she had a second marriage. Because after Chandrabhaga left the house in Gajanan Peth, she did not start living in Dhayarkar’s mansion. She was living just behind the Rameshwar temple of the Naiks in 1303, Shukravar Peth, Pune. I received this information from Manakabai Dashrath Shinde (age 85) and Sonabai Krishnaji Phule (popular actor Nilu Phule’s mother). These two shared many old stories. Nilu Phule’s colleague Chandrakant Borate and Pune municipality’s member Madhu Nirfarake showed the way, which helped me uncover the life stories of Chandrabhaga Phule and her daughter Laxmi aka Soni. The statements made by Gajanan Phule about Chandrabhaga’s second husband must be untrue. Fulvantbai Zodge, the biographer of Savitribai Phule, made multiple enquiries in and around Dhayarkar mansion in Somwar Peth. I too went on a quest to find details about Chandrabhaga’s death on the address of 1303 Shukravar Peth. Manakabai Shinde told me that Jotirao’s granddaughter, that is, Yashwant’s daughter, was married to her brother’s, Bhau Ganagaram Holey’s, son Babu Holey. Bhau Holey had a confectionery in the market and he lived in the locality called Khadak Mal Āli. Bhau Holey had an intercaste marriage, a factor common with Yashwant. Laxmi was attractive. She looked like her father. But she was thin and weak. Laxmi used to live with her mother Chandrabhaga but people used to badmouth Chandrabhaga and say mean things about her, which resulted in Laxmi being separated from her mother eventually. Chandrabhaga would take up whatever work she would find to manage her survival. Holey also supported her. Laxmi had two children. One was Dattatray Baburao Holey (45 years) and another Mathura (43 years). Laxmi died in 1938 and before that, her mother Chandrabhaga aka Radhabai died sometime around 1930–31. The Holey family used to live in 888, Shukrawar Peth at that time.
Dattatreya Baburao Holey currently lives in 831, Dattawadi, Pune. He works in Kirloskar Cummins and has five children. His sister Mathura is married into the Kondre family from Mundhwa village. With Dattatray Holey, I visited all places of importance from this story. He remembers his maternal grandmother (Chandrabhagabai). He showed me the place 1303, Shukrawar Peth. He remembers that when Chandrabhagabai died, his paternal grandmother was the one who carried her to the pre-funeral ceremonial bath. A bronze pot that has come down from Jotirao’s family and was passed down by Holey’s grandmother Chandrabhagabai is witness to all these memories.
The one who was excommunicated by all, forgotten by even the Satyashodhak leaders, was eventually engulfed by time at the doors of Rameshwar temple—disowned and dispossessed! In 1924–25, the Satyashodhak movement was at its zenith. Chandrabhagabai’s house was within calling distance from the houses of then leaders Keshavrao Jedhe and Dinakarrao Javalkar.
Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj had married his daughter to Phaltan’s Bajaji Nimbalkar. Bajaji had converted to Islam. Shivaji Maharaj brought him back to Hinduism and arranged the wedding. Do we have the family tree for Bajaji? I asked this question to Phaltan’s Malojiraje Naik Nimbalkar. He said there were no descendants to Bajaji. His response gave me a sense that he didn’t particularly want to entertain this line of questioning. What happened to Shivaji Maharaj’s daughter? History doesn’t tell us. As soon as Ramdas heard the words ‘Shubh mangal, savadhan’, he took off from the wedding spot. Ramdas later reached sainthood; however, what happened to the bride he left behind? I am yet to come across an answer. The names of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Ramdas, Mahatma Phule have acquired immortality, but the wretched women mentioned above have been lost to time—as an atonement!
[This essay is originally from the Marathi book ‘Amhi Pahilele Mahatma Phule’ (2018) and was translated by Tejas Harad.]