In 1987, a part of a house in Vile Parle turned into a library and a meeting place for women enrolled in postgraduate studies and MPhil.
The library was stocked with books by women and for women, some of them by international publishers, which were hard to procure in India back then.
Open through weekdays, the library became a valuable centre for its subscribers. And, once a fortnight, women would come together for a study circle, exchanging cyclostyles on research papers, notes on feminism, but, most importantly, parts of their own lives.
The place was called Vacha, meaning to express oneself. It was founded by a small group of women and among them was Sonal Shukla – an educator, a Gandhian and a feminist who was also known Sonalben. It was her home that doubled up as Vacha.
In just a couple of years since its founding, Vacha was formally registered as a charitable trust and moved to a municipal school in Santa Cruz.
Born in Varanasi in 1941, Shukla was synonymous with not just Vacha Charitable Trust, but also India’s feminist movement.
On September 9, she died of a cardiac arrest in Mumbai. She had just completed 80 years. She had long retired from Vacha Charitable Trust as managing director but continued to be closely associated with its operations.
Shukla’s friends and colleagues remember her fierce feminism, her endless witticisms and her interest in sharing lunch dabbas.
“She would see gender in everything. If people used the slogan, ‘Hindu Muslim Bhai Bhai’, she could ask them, ‘Where are the behenas?’,” recalled Nischint Hora, who started as a volunteer at thetrust and retired as co-projects director.
Shukla went on to expand the trust’s scope with improving girls’ education and reducing dropout rates. There was more to this, Hora said.
Shukla wanted to use education as a means of preventing gender-based violence.
“When girls came to Vacha, they were encouraged to not only converse and learn, but to also question. Some of them were stunned that they could question authority, even question their fathers,” Hora said.
The feminist library wasn’t Shukla’s first time at opening her house for the cause of feminism.
In the late 1970s, when the judgment in the alleged custodial rape of a minor Adivasi girl (often called the Mathura rape case) had shaken India, Shukla’s house became a refuge, a birthplace and a crucible for an important moment in Indian feminism.
An open letter, authored by four law professors who objected to the acquittal of the policemen in the Mathura case, was shared among feminists and social activists who met at Shukla’s house.
The letter underscored the importance of consent, leading to a demand to amend rape laws.
The Forum Against Rape was established thereafter, which was later renamed Forum Against Oppression of Women. Shukla was one of its founders.
A statement from the Forum read, “Long before Sonal came to be known as Sonal from Vacha, she was Sonal from Forum and Sonal from Centre. She was there when Forum began, when Centre began. Her home, her feisty personality, her politics all shaped us in our initial years and for many years later.” Shukla had stopped being a part of Forum’s activities for about two decades due to her commitments at Vacha Charitable Trust, the demands of old age and because she felt “her work in Forum was done.”
Hora said that Shukla often acknowledged her husband, Dr Himanshu Shukla, who died two years ago, as being supportive of opening their home to Vacha.
As much as the library flourished with feminist texts, Shukla also stocked them with detective novels by female authors. She was a fan of works particularly by Sue Grafton and Sarah Paretsky.
Her associates recalled meetings at Vacha as ones filled with street theatre, music and songs, much like Shukla herself, who showed that feminism is serious and fun.