Last June the India Tribune, the Chicago-based national newspaper for emigre Indians, named Kanta Khipple its first "woman of the year" for her leadership in founding Apna Ghar, the world's first shelter for battered Asian women.
It was a brave choice to make public the unacknowledged fact of family violence among Indians. Indians--Asians in general--are private people. There are no Oprah Winfreys or Phil Donahues in India. "It is very difficult for an Asian woman to come forward and admit she has been physically, sexually, or emotionally abused," Khipple says. "She has been trained that way from childhood." Given the godlike status Indian men enjoy in their homes, publicly acknowledging the need to do something about such violence cannot have been easy for a newspaper that depends on its subscribers to stay alive.
Of course if the India Tribune was brave, Khipple herself was astonishing. The paper made special mention of the difficulties she encountered in trying to establish the center. "Apna Ghar," it said, ". . . needs to inscribe on its walls the many battles Kanta fought to overcome all imaginable hurdles for the last five years." What it didn't mention is that Apna Ghar is simply the latest acomplishment in a remarkable 40-year career dedicated to helping women.
In 1986 Khipple's three children urged her to retire. To please them--because she had not always pleased them, having spent many years away from them--she left a job in the Caribbean and joined them in Chicago. Her retirement lasted about a month. "I couldn't do nothing," she says. "I'm not feeble!" She read an article describing the Club of Indian Women, a social-cultural organization, and called to volunteer her services. "I didn't want to sit around and play bridge. I said I would do anything where I could be fitted in. So they told me about Asian Human Services, one of the agencies they help."
Khipple took her resume to the offices of Asian Human Services, on the sixth floor of the Uptown National Bank building at Lawrence and Broadway, in the midst of a large Asian community. Ranjana Bhargava, the mental health coordinator and acting director of the agency, took one look at Khipple's background and invited her to join the staff. Khipple demurred. "I will only volunteer because I don't want to commit to full-time work," she said, trying to keep her promise to her children. But a few months later Bhargava left the agency to become an assistant to John Duff, Chicago's library commissioner. After a long career in family planning, Khipple took over as mental health coordinator of Asian Human Services.
There Khipple began to see the consequences of domestic violence: horribly battered women who arrived at her doorstep seeking help. Some of the women had fled their husbands and gone to shelters, then come to Khipple complaining that they didn't fit in. Over a year or so, the idea of a shelter for Asian women grew in Khipple's mind.
"These women had become so depressed they couldn't function. Talking to them, the problems emerged in which, for instance, the husband is so Americanized that he is having affairs. The woman finds out and feels powerless and, if she protests, the abuse begins. The husband beats her and tells her, 'Get out, don't come back! If you do, I'll beat you up again.' Having seen and heard that and so many other stories, I wanted to help these women. But where could I send them? I would send them to local shelters, but they would stay only one or two days. They couldn't stay. The dress was different, food is different, some of them want to pray, often they don't speak English. They got upset because other women were smoking or taking drugs. And the shelter people were calling me regularly to say, can't you come and interpret? Or, can you explain this or that to the Indian women? So it became clear that there was a need for a shelter for Indian women with their own food, their own environment, where someone could talk to them in a proper way to help them not to go back into the abusive situation and get more depressed, mentally sick, and commit suicide."
Khipple recruited several Asian women to her cause, among them her predecessor at AHS, Ranjana Bhargava, and Prem Sharma, who had started a hot line for Indians in trouble. A board of directors was established, composed of a stellar list of professionals, if not of the wealthy patrons that dot the boards of most other social service agencies. "We are not a wealthy community," Khipple says.
Under Khipple's direction, the five women incorporated Apna Ghar in 1989; the next summer, offices were opened down the hall from Asian Human Services, and a hot line was established that is now receiving about 100 calls a month. Last November, ten beds in two nearby apartments were made ready to receive women, and since then the shelter has served about 25 women, who have stayed anywhere from two nights to three months, and another 25 who have received counseling and help finding housing, public aid, child care, and other necessities of life.
The name Apna Ghar means "our home" in Hindi. "Back home," Khipple explains, "when women quarrel with their husbands, they say 'I am going to my home,' their parents' home. So we called our shelter Apna Ghar to give the women the idea that they are coming to their own home. We provide a homelike atmosphere, not too stringent rules. There is a kitchen for them to cook their own food, and we tell them, 'Whatever you feel like eating or doing you can.' If they need a sari, we get one for them."
Most of the women served have been Indian or Pakistani, but the shelter is open to anyone and has in fact served black women as well as other Asians. "We wouldn't turn anyone away if we have space, but the focus is on Asian women, and anyone else would have to fit into that setting, which means, among other things, no smoking or drugs of any kind," says Khipple.
Kanta Khipple is a small, slightly fleshy, tawny-skinned woman with graying hair braided and pinned up at the nape of her neck; she has a very expressive face that ranges from a deep, brow-wrinkling frown to a tiny but genuine smile. High-pitched, melodious laughter fills her tiny office as she describes her trials and tribulations. In our many hours of conversation, her face was only occasionally still. These were moments of reflection. Although Khipple has lived nearly half her life abroad--in Sweden, England, South America, the Caribbean Islands, and the U.S.--she still calls India home. She and her husband, Rashon, own a house in New Delhi, and they are thinking of returning there. She is applying for a job with the Ford Foundation as a consultant in women's economic development in India. She will, she says, "take that or any other job which will be a vehicle to get me home."
She has never adopted Western dress. "The sari is more comfortable, more convenient," she says, although she is constantly adjusting her dupatta, the long scarf worn with the sari, almost as if it were a nervous habit. Then she says, more emphatically, "This is me, my identity. Besides, the Britishers occupied India for 200 years and never adopted the sari. They never took pajamas and shirt back to England. Two hundred years is not a short time. And it was not one or two Englishmen who came to our country. They maintained their own dignity in their lives. We used to do salaam. We used to bow our heads to the foreign person and all that."
Although she calls herself "an international person now," and although her children have sunk roots in Chicago, and although the Indian government long ago abandoned the precepts of Gandhiji, as Mahatma Gandhi is fondly called, Khipple remains a satyagrahi, committed to his ideals and to the country she helped free from British rule.
Khipple made her first speech in 1942. Only 14, she was active in the student independence movement, and she was welcoming to her hometown a liberation army that had secretly been formed in India. Of course it was not this army that won independence--rather it was the millions of poor village women who marched with Gandhi--but at the time, Khipple says, no one realized what was going to happen. The point is that she was one of the rare middle-class women who took any public stand at all. "In my social class, women did not come out in the open. The elite class and the lower classes did, but not my middle-class women."
While a teenager, she came under the influence of several intellectuals, one of them a writer who took her into the countryside to observe the lives lived by the majority--70 percent--of Indians. "They had no water, no electricity, no schools, nothing but the landlord who took the money out of the villages."
In 1950, when India was independent and Khipple had completed the country's first graduate program in social work, she went back to those villages. She says that she and her colleagues often walked from village to village, sometimes very long distances, because they didn't want to intimidate the villagers. "How can we go in cars when the people are so poor?" she explains. "So we walked, always thinking Gandhiji."
Khipple worked with a government development team as the family planning adviser. She'd convinced her superiors that family planning had to be integrated into a total development plan that included agriculture, sanitation, education, and nutrition. "And we had to teach the women how to earn some money and gain some independence for themselves.
"My biggest challenge," she says, "was to realize that the village woman doesn't have running water in her home. She goes to the well. If you tell her to use a diaphragm and wash it and keep it clean, it is absurd. Or if you tell her to use a condom? I've challenged sociologists and anthropologists with just this one question: where will the man dispose of it? They have no flush toilets. I even suggested to the men they put it into the cow dung and burn it. They said they could not burn their semen, it is sacred.
"And is the woman going to carry a diaphragm or a condom to where she and her husband have sneaked in the middle of the night to have sexual intercourse? In the villages, people live in extended families with men and women sleeping separately. The couples have to sneak off in the night to be with each other. We have not put our mind to these kinds of environmental, social, and psychological factors. We may give them all kinds of foreign devices to use, but they can't work. I have tried to tell all those people like the Ford Foundation and others who want to spread birth control: 'Come with me to the villages. Talk to the people. See how they live.' It isn't that they don't want to plan their families. They do. Very much. But the conditions of their lives make it so hard for them to put it into practice."
When she started working in the villages, Khipple and her colleagues advocated the rhythm method of birth control. Indian women had some long-held beliefs about the menstrual cycle and periods of infertility; but, says Khipple, laughing heartily, those beliefs, based on the cycles of the moon, were absolutely contrary to science. In the time of the month when the women believed themselves safe they were actually most fertile, and it proved almost impossible to re-educate them.
In 1953 the family planners tried to introduce foam tablets that would dissolve in the vagina like Alka-Seltzer when semen reached them, emitting a spermicide. This was the first of many failures with artificial means of birth control. Where could the women keep the boxes of tablets in their crowded, communal homes? When the women were sneaking across sleeping bodies in the dark to meet their husbands, how could they manage to get to the box and take out the tablet, tear away its wrapper, and insert it?
Some women wanted so desperately to limit their families--the ideal is four, one of whom must be a boy--that they began changing their sex habits. They began having sex at lunch. Women traditionally take a lunch and the beloved buttermilk out to their husbands working in the fields. They tried stashing their foam tablets outside the house, putting one in their pocket before setting out for the fields. Unfortunately, the tablets didn't stand up to the sun, the damp, the rain, perhaps not even to the strong winds, Khipple says. The experiment was a disaster, as were all those that followed. Only a tiny minority of village women have successfully used any of the devices, including the pill and the IUD, both of which present problems of their own.
In recent years, efforts to take family planning to Indian villages have declined drastically, Khipple says. "The earlier motivation of the social workers like me has not been sustained because they could see no change. Now we have electricity and health care in the villages. We have post offices and a television set and telephone. But there hasn't been any change in either agriculture or family planning. The real changes will not take place for a long time. We haven't the manpower or the resources or the environment to support the use of any of the devices we have today, and we don't have the modernization." Nevertheless, Khipple says, the birth rate in India has not risen. The population has grown because better medical care and nutrition have prolonged life.
The family problems Khipple encounters today as executive director of Apna Ghar stem from other peculiarities of Indian life. "Indians have a good family life," she says, "very congenial. Men are authoritarian, even tyrannical, but they are, at the same time, very loving, good fathers, and very respectful of the family. It is a joint family system and the influence of the in-laws is very strong. The husband's parents and sisters and brothers all live together or very close by. Abuse may come when the wife has problems with the in-laws. A sister-in-law may say something hurtful to the wife and the wife complains to the husband but his loyalties are all to his own family. But the wife can always go to her own family for support and her father can go to her husband and try to smooth things out. So there is a social system built in to protect the woman most of the time.
"But she is not expected to protect herself. From childhood, we are taught to respect the father, not talking loud, not talking back. We are taught values and attitudes about the role of women that are suppressive, not expressive. Indian women can absorb a lot of whipping. Slapping a child is nothing. Beating is just considered part of the culture. From the beginning, the Indian woman is taught to accept whatever comes. Never argue, respect your husband." Asked about the legal status of women in India, Khipple shrugs her shoulders. "Sure, they have equality under the law, but what does it mean? Tradition is much stronger.
"Marriage is not just a physical thing. It is a spiritual thing, a meeting of the mind, body, and spirit. If you do not give respect to your husband, then you are missing something spiritual. The woman is taught that her husband is like a god. You do not deny or disrespect or break away from your husband. Divorce in India is insignificant. If a husband abuses a wife, she says, 'Oh, he is tired. I'll have to give him a little extra.' On the other hand, if her life with her husband becomes intolerable, the woman in India can find solace in her own family, which is not far away and which expects to protect her and mediate for her with her husband's family.
"What happens when a family emigrates is that the whole support system for the woman is gone, but the attitudes of the husband and wife remain the same. The woman is helpless and alone, at the will of her husband. The husband brought the wife and children to the land of dreams, but most of the time the dream of America to enjoy lots of money and ease of life is shattered. Both husband and wife have to work hard, sometimes at menial jobs. They don't know the system, the work ethic, the relationships. Everything they find is shocking. What the world is given to understand about the paradise of America is a heaven nobody sees.
"They often have to live in substandard apartments with roaches and rats, while they left very comfortable homes in an open environment back home. They were comfortable back home. Only those who were comfortable can afford to come here. There they were among the haves. Here, they are have-nots.
"Then the wife starts complaining. 'Where have you got me? Why are we here? I was far better off in my parents' home.' Then the tears come and the depression starts. The husband gets guilty and angry and gets violent. Then she gets more upset and he gets more violent. Now, added to her despair over her new conditions, she is being abused by her husband and she has nowhere to turn. I have seen women who haven't eaten for days. They are feeling suicidal, but they are still afraid to leave their husbands. Finally, one day, they can bear it no longer. They may run away, but they return. Until we had Apna Ghar, they had no place to go. They know nothing of the laws of this country, nothing of the legal system. They have no money of their own. They don't speak English. They can't get around the city. Many who have not worked don't even know how to use the bus system, go to the grocery store, or post a letter. And they come from a culture where they were completely protected."
And yet these new immigrants struggling to adjust to their new lives are a small portion of the women who come to Apna Ghar. For the most part, says Khipple, those women are too fearful to leave their husbands and lead such isolated lives they do not even know the shelter exists. Most of the women who come to the shelter have been here several years--as many as ten years--are established, earning a living, often living in homes in the suburbs. But their relations with their husbands have not changed since India. The husband takes all the money, holds the bank account and the passport and green card, and even keeps the wife's jewelry, says Khipple. He expects absolute obedience, even if he is unfaithful. He expects his wife to handle all the household chores and to raise the children according to Indian tradition. If the wife complains of her husband's infidelity or if she fails in her duties to him, she is apt to be abused.
Women in this situation are more likely to find their way to Apna Ghar. But they arrive depressed and feeling worthless, Khipple says, even women who are highly educated and have professional skills. "Our biggest job is to restore their self-confidence and feeling of self-esteem." Indian women living in the U.S., she says, seem oblivious to the changes in women's status here. They are too bound by the traditions in which they were raised. Separated from the support system that makes those traditions work, these women are adrift in America.
Why do Indian (and other Asian) men become so violent with their wives in the U.S.? Khipple says that they are probably driven to extremes of anger and frustration by their own isolation and by the absence of the go-betweens they'd been accustomed to. She adds that they also become Americanized enough to turn to alcohol and drugs.
Joyce Pruitt, executive director of the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, ventures another suggestion: "These men may be reacting not to the reality that their wives are even more dependent on them, but instead to what they see around them in American society. The freedom and independence of American women may feel to them like a great threat to their own status. They may imagine their wives becoming like American women and take out on them these fears." The most common characteristic among abusers, Pruitt says, is a need to control. Indian men have always understood themselves to be free to control their women. They may perceive this right slipping away in America.
Although she was taught to revere her elders, Khipple grew up in an enlightened home. Her mother, who all but completed medical school, taught in and presided over schools throughout her life. Her grandmother helped raise Khipple while her mother went to school and then worked, just as Khipple's grandmother and mother-in-law raised Khipple's children while Khipple worked in India and then abroad. When she was young, Khipple's mother had hungered for an education and a career, even though her own parents were uneducated. She filled her daughter with the same ambitions.
Khipple describes her father, an uneducated dried-fruit merchant, as "a social worker helping women in his own right." He championed the cause of widows, helping them to defy tradition and remarry. On their wedding days, Khipple remembers fondly, he gave them a small trousseau to help them along in what would certainly be a difficult life.
Only once can Khipple recall her father denying her right to do as she chose. At 16 she was admitted to premedical school in Lahore, about 200 miles from the family's home in Multan, in what is now Pakistan. "You are too young to go away to school in a strange city," he said, so Khipple went to college in her hometown instead.
"So I combined tradition with modernism. I listened to my family. I covered my head when I went to college. I was modestly dressed, wearing handspun silk, like I wear today. I did not wear foreign clothes. At the same time, I moved about freely with the men, learning together, sitting and talking together. Talking to a man other than your brother or a relative was forbidden at that time, but in my family that didn't happen. I could talk to anyone, work with anyone."
Through male friends in college, Khipple met the man who would be her husband. They were immediately attracted to each other. But in Khipple's day--the year was 1947--no Indian married a person he or she had been attracted to in a public place. Men and women didn't speak to each other; their marriages were arranged by their families. This has changed somewhat in modern India, but a marriage like Khipple's is still rare enough. She calls it "semiarranged." The day after she met Rashon, she arranged a meeting between him and her parents. They gave their permission for her to marry him.
Rashon was no ordinary man. He refused Kanta's parents' traditional offer of a dowry. They would make it on their own, he said. He had already published a couple of books; and although writers don't always earn a very good living, he was sure of himself. He agreed to Khipple's conditions for the marriage. "I told him I didn't want to be a typical housewife. He had written a book, Slaves of Slaves, which I liked very much. When I met him, I said, 'We are slaves of the Britishers, and women are slaves of men. We have to negate that.' I told him, 'I will give all respect, but not traditional respect. I want to take up a profession. I will not wear the veil. I want to get more education.' He understood what I was talking about and agreed."
Khipple was 18 at the time, Rashon was 26. He had a degree in philosophy and was, she says, very progressive. Khipple went on to finish college, earn a master's in social work and another in public health in the U.S., and do graduate studies at the University of Goteborg in Sweden. For most of their married life, Rashon has lived and worked in New Delhi while his wife has been abroad.
Before India won its independence in 1947, women were barely educated and did not work outside the home. The woman who didn't marry stayed in her family home and helped to raise her brothers' children. But when India became free, some women decided they wanted more. Khipple says, "The women in the struggle for independence sacrificed a lot. Many went to jail, leaving their children behind. It was a collective experience. Women felt they could take responsibility and show the way to the future." More than 40 years later, only 20 percent of Indian women work outside the home, although many more have been educated. A few have attained stature in government and the professions.
Khipple came to the U.S. in 1964 to attend the University of Michigan. She belonged to the first large wave of well-educated Indians to arrive in the States for more education after President John F. Kennedy relaxed the immigration laws. Most of these Indians left their families behind; they expected to return. But when they were offered good jobs many stayed and brought their families over.
In the 70s, immigration laws were further eased and Indians with less education and fewer skills came over, this group with their families. They faced greater difficulties in finding jobs and housing than the first wave had known, and now the pattern of abuse that Khipple describes began to emerge.
The last ten years or so have brought the arrival of immigrants even less skilled and educated. Elderly parents are coming along with working children, increasing the economic stresses on the families. "We have now here in America, as a result of these three waves of immigration, the same class system we have at home," says Khipple. "People from different classes cannot associate with each other, cannot intermarry with each other. We have just moved it over here in just a few years. So there are all these pressures and so much abuse of the women who are the helpless victims of the system."
After marrying in 1947, Khipple moved to Lahore, where Rashon had been living with his sister, and enrolled in college there. But the subcontinent was in turmoil, and the partitioning of 1947 placed Lahore in the new Islamic state of Pakistan. To escape the passions of the city, Khipple arranged with her professors to take her tests in a nearby town. After graduating, she and her husband fled Lahore with the clothes on their backs.
The Khipples went to New Delhi, where they knew people in the intellectual and artistic community. They slept on their friends' floors. Every day they went out to look for work. At the end of the day they met in a park across from the famous Royale coffeehouse. They couldn't meet at the coffeehouse itself because they didn't have the price of a cup of coffee.
Some days were harder than others. On one of the bad days, Khipple arrived at the park and looked wistfully over at the coffeeshop. She was tired, hungry, discouraged. "Oh, how I wanted just a cup of coffee," she recalls. Rashon arrived and asked, "Any luck?" No, she said, and leaned back into the grass. Under her hand she felt some metal coins. "It will seem to you, as it did to me, a miracle. There was enough for us to get two and a half cups of coffee and still have a few rupees left." Khipple walked around the park asking the young mothers with their children if the money was theirs. No one claimed it, and the Khipples crossed the street to the Royale. "Money has always just seemed to come to us when we needed it," she says.
There are about 80,000 Indians in Chicago, according to the 1990 census. Most are under 45 years of age. Most women who come to Apna Ghar are between 20 and 30. Some have been married more than ten years; the average age of marriage for women in India is 19. Many of the older women, those of the first and second waves of immigration, have moved to the suburbs, but most live in Rogers Park, Hyde Park, or Albany Park. They work at jobs that vary from housemaid or busboy to lawyer or doctor. Like their husbands, the women face a tight job market; they are further restricted by tradition. They can't work at night jobs or in settings in which men predominate. And if they don't yet have a green card, they can't work legally at all.
One of the first things done by the staff at Apna Ghar is to help each new woman apply for public aid. The money gives them time to get on their feet, learn a skill, make some plans. But Indians don't accept charity easily, Khipple says. They are used to earning money, even if it is only a little, and they are used to being supported by their families. Few people go on the dole in India; family pride assures that.
Rashon Khipple had refused his wife's dowry. He also refused to ask for the relief offered refugees from Pakistan. "We were young. We felt we could make it on our own," Khipple says. They earned a little money by writing for the newspapers and doing odd jobs. Finally, Rashon managed to get them a place to live. He helped a distant relative cut through the red tape keeping him from an apartment he was entitled to as a government employee, and in exchange Rashon and Kanta were invited to move in.
A few months later, the new Indian government hired Rashon to work in its broadcasting department. Their troubles seemed over. But after a couple of weeks, Rashon was sent to cover rioting in the princely state of Hyderabad, a largely Hindu state in South India which its Muslim ruler hoped would remain independent. Unfortunately, Rashon was paid in Hyderabad currency, worthless to Kanta back in New Delhi. She was still wearing the white salwar kamiz (tunic and pants) in which she had fled Pakistan months before.
She earned a few rupees as an actress on the radio, a few more writing for the newspapers, but she couldn't pay her share of the rent on the apartment and she had very little to eat. She was, in her words, "without protection." Her parents and brother had also fled Pakistan, but she didn't know where they were.
Then she learned that a graduate program in social work had just begun at Delhi University. (It was established with the help of Columbia University.) Khipple wanted to be a social worker; this would be her way to carry out Gandhi's work. More important, enrolling would make her eligible for room and board at the university.
She went to the "principal" heading the program and explained her plight. "I can still hear her words--'Come in, dear child,'" Khipple says merrily. She was, she says, the youngest person to apply. Her husband would pay the rather substantial fees for the program as soon as he returned from Hyderabad, Khipple promised, but she had no idea when that would be. She told the principal, "I want to be a social worker, but I admit that I am coming to you now first for the shelter and the food. I don't even have another dress to wear." The principal looked at her and laughed, and then said, "OK, I'll take you."
This, says Khipple, was "my best achievement as a young person--entering professional life. I ate whatever the college provided. I did work for the college because I was so grateful. That was a shelter to me like this is. As we are helping victims of domestic violence, they were helping a victim of political violence. At night I would wrap myself in a bed sheet and wash out my dress. Students would say, 'You have so many white dresses,' and I would say, 'Yes, I love wearing white because in social work we will go to the villages and we should wear white [the traditional color of village garb].'"
After working in the villages for several years, Khipple decided that she needed more education. She applied for and received a scholarship to the university at Goteborg for postgraduate work in public health administration and social welfare. She spent the year 1958-59 in Sweden, observing the extensive social welfare network that flourished there. It was her first trip outside India. But she says, "I felt so at home. A Swedish family adopted me and treated me like one of their own."
Indian women no longer die with their husbands on the funeral pyre. Although the British outlawed what they called suttee (sati in Hindi, meaning "faithful wife") in 1829, the practice continued well into the 20th century before vanishing in independent India. In the 70s, however, one woman revived the custom. "To us, the educated class, it was a hard blow that, in spite of many years of eradication of sati, still people have that kind of values," Khipple says. "It is not, for these people, that the woman is dying with her husband. It is that she becomes a goddess who will sacrifice herself for her husband. It is her strength, her will. It is her reverence for her husband, which is so destructive, so bad socially.
"A woman feels she gets power just standing there on the pyre with the flames roaring all around her. They get a power and a glory. It is religious, spiritual. It is a kind of humility. 'I will be a part of my husband and we are inseparable. We live and die together.' In Indian scripture it is taught from infancy, respect for the man. It is in the marriage grace. Even the first consummation is considered spiritual. Two souls meeting together. Not sex for gratification of your sexual urges. The scriptures say this over and over again."
Though the return of sati in the 70s amounted to just one incident, says Khipple, "in many states there were ripples, endorsements by certain classes of people who even went to this place to see sati being performed, including a couple of government ministers. Then, in the 80s, there was another case. So, while it has not been revived, it is clear that it is still in the psyche of the country. It has not been erased, it only lies dormant. We had an eerie feeling with that second case that it may yet arise again."
Khipple remembers her wedding with Rashon as "very progressive. No pomp, no money spent on all the decorations that normally go with Indian weddings. We just went together, without the veil or anything. People came to see what kind of a wedding we would have. They were surprised. We started our lives as friends. It was six months while we were getting comfortable together before we had anything sexual. We lived together, ate together, did everything together. But we waited until we felt we were ready for sex.
"I have the ideal husband any woman anywhere might aspire to," Khipple adds. "We decided not to have children until we were entirely self-sufficient and could live on our own." They started life together in the home of his sister in Pakistan. Partition threw them on their own far sooner than they had expected, but they postponed their children until Kanta had finished what turned out to be only the first lap of her education.
"My husband and I have always had a beautiful companionship, laughing and crying together. When we were poor, it was OK. What we were doing was good and that was all that mattered. We have been through many separations, cried over them, over not being able to share the responsibilities, but never was there any misunderstanding." Khipple has lived apart from her husband and children for most of her married life. "I had to do those things I had not yet accomplished. My husband always said, 'OK, if you want to do this, do it.' In all the years of my development, he has never stood in my way. 'Just ask me how I can help,' he says."
Five years ago, when Khipple decided to take her children's advice and retire to Chicago, her husband joined her here. They've been living since in an apartment in Evanston. A writer, now retired from government service, he can work anywhere. Barbara Baum, a friend who has known Khipple since she first came to Chicago in 1966, says of Khipple's husband, "He is a very quiet, solitary, reserved man who rarely speaks except to answer questions"--not an altogether unusual description of a writer. He is working now, Khipple says, on a book about Indian youth.
One of the major goals at Apna Ghar is to provide the women who seek help with the training and education that will let them be independent. Khipple says, with an undercurrent of anger in her voice, that she has not been able to fund courses that would train the women for work they can do within their cultural limitations. "The government should realize that if they provide this kind of funding, most of the people would come off public aid and it would actually save money. There are so many women among all people who would be employable if they were only trained."
Apna Ghar sends its women to the city colleges, primarily to Truman College. One woman has completed a computer course, another has finished a course in day-care work. Both have jobs now, Khipple says proudly. But some of the women have to learn English before they can move on to vocational training. "We provide transportation for them to go to school and help them find day care for their children and give them money for books.
"My vision for the future of Apna Ghar is for a school for battered women," Khipple says, "to provide job opportunities and to develop leaders among them. Some are already highly educated but have not used their skills because of the home situation. But many have no skills at all. I see this not as a shelter but also as a place for learning, not just doling out charity, but an environment where growth will take place. They've come to this country with a big vision and they should be permitted to try to fulfill it."
In a weekly support-group meeting in the little conference room at the offices of Apna Ghar, a group of women are sharing their problems. Some have left the shelter and are now living on their own. Two came to the shelter only a couple of days ago. Some are more vocal than others. Some are more defiant and angry at their husbands. One woman sits silently because she still speaks no English and must wait patiently for Suparna Arora, the leader of the group and head counselor of the shelter, to translate for her. She seems to be content just to be here. The women talk about their current problems and their new strengths. One woman says she tried to leave her husband dozens of times. Now, when he pleads with her to return, she tells him to "take a walk." The women who are now on their own urgently encourage the new residents of the shelter. "You can do it," they tell them. "We did it and you can, too." Arora also encourages them. "You can do it. You can learn to take care of yourself, to respect yourself. You can be your own person."
In 1964 Khipple received a scholarship to the University of Michigan to learn more about American techniques of public health. The scholarship was awarded to Indians by the Watumull Foundation, which had been established by an Indian who had migrated to Hawaii and made a fortune. The scholarship paid $240 a month for tuition, food, and lodging for a year. Recipients had to promise to return to work in India.
The scholarship money did not arrive in New Delhi before Khipple left. She arrived at Kennedy Airport in New York with $4 in her purse. When she discovered that she would need more than that just to get from the Detroit airport to Ann Arbor, she was overwhelmed. Resourceful as always, she approached a man who looked approachable and told him her plight. "Can I request you something?" she asked. "I have just come today to America and I have only $4. Can I borrow some money from you which I will return to you as soon as my funds arrive?" He told her, "I don't have much money, but you can have this $16 I have."
In Ann Arbor, she wandered the town and sat on a bench thinking about home and wondering what she would do next. She remembers not eating for two days. She says that later, "I watched how they threw out so much food, how people leave so much behind. It was real culture shock. Before my eyes I could see the children of India and Africa starving, and here is this one country that is consuming so much of the world's resources and throwing it away."
On her third day in Ann Arbor, a young Indian student walked by her. She stopped him and made conversation. "Where do you come from?" He, too, came from Delhi. "Where do you live?" He offered to show her. "Do you have a cup of tea and a sandwich there?" she asked. "I am very hungry." He fed her and gave her a place to stay for the night. The next day her money arrived, and she moved into a room with another Indian student. But the scholarship money didn't stretch far enough, so she took a job showing films in the evening at the university hospital for what she recalls was 60 cents an hour. When she found that she couldn't work nights and get her studies done, she requested more money from Watumull and got it.
In 1966, armed with a master's in public health from Michigan, Khipple came to Chicago to spend three of the most arduous and stimulating years of her career. She had been hired by the Planned Parenthood Association of Chicago to train international students in family planning. She took them to Uptown, where she set up a storefront operation. She took them to Woodlawn and to the Robert Taylor Homes, whose residents she approached through community organizations as well as door-to-door. Community organizing was a large component of family planning in India, she says. "You can't impose ideas from above. You have to involve and activate the community."
In 1967 Khipple became one of the first 11 fellows of the Adlai Stevenson Institute for International Affairs, a think tank funded in part by the Ford Foundation, affiliated loosely with the University of Chicago, and headquartered in Frank Lloyd Wright's famous Robie House in Hyde Park. The institute was organized to give internationalists an opportunity to develop small-scale projects in emerging nations, an idea described as "cosmic" by the Wall Street Journal in 1969.
The Journal described Khipple's project: "Mrs. Kanta Khipple . . . has designed a village-oriented program of family planning education that will attempt to involve local people in its administration, and employ indigenous beliefs and local folklore in teaching about birth control."
Khipple's project was approved by the institute and the Indian government, and John D. Rockefeller III promised $80,000 to fund it. When word of the project reached the offices of the American Agency for International Development in New Delhi, Khipple was summoned by the U.S. ambassador to India, Chester Bowles. "Bowles very politely informed me that the only way the project could go ahead was if the Indian government released the PL480 wheat money to pay for it in exchange for Rockefeller's money, which would go to the U.S."
PL480 funds were rupees set aside by the Indian government to pay for American grain. The U.S. much preferred to be paid in dollars, but the Indians had little hard currency. Bowles saw Khipple's project as a wonderful opportunity for the U.S. to receive a few more dollars for its grain. Rockefeller would turn the $80,000 over to the U.S. and the Indian government would finance Khipple's project with rupees.
Khipple was outraged. She told Bowles, "I have not come with this string attached to my project. This is a new development which I will not take to my government." Her view was that her government needed every rupee it could get and that the Rockefeller money was a gift to India that in effect was being stolen by the U.S.
She says, "Rockefeller said he wanted to give me the money directly, but somehow someone at the State Department or AID got to him. I don't know. I assume that what happened was that AID wanted to control the project. That was that."
The project outline still sits in a cabinet in Khipple's home. "I get so upset when I think of it, I want to throw it away. But something tells me to keep it. Maybe one day . . . "
At Apna Ghar, a little money--about $187,000 was raised during the first half of '91--goes a long way. "We are very careful how we spend our money," Khipple says. One day, after meeting with Khipple in her little bare-bones office, I find office manager Pam Wilson and Suparna Arora in the reception room stacking a large dolly with boxes and bags to be taken to the shelter. I assume some strong young man will inherit the job of getting it there. But the two women wheel the dolly to the freight elevator, and after they've loaded as much as fits into Wilson's car, Arora pushes the still-heavy dolly the couple of blocks to the shelter. The four staff members and the board members of Apna Ghar do everything that is needed. Ranjana Bhargava, who is president of the board, says she gives 16 hours a week to the shelter despite a demanding full-time job and her responsibilities at home to her husband and two teenage children.
"We have all spent nights at the shelter," Khipple says, "when the paid supervisor can't be there." To make sure that the food served at the shelter is both nutritious and economical, Khipple does all the shopping herself.
A crucial expense at Apna Ghar is the care package each woman receives when she leaves. Sears makes up these packages. They contain towels, sheets, blankets, cooking utensils, dishes, all the basic household necessities, items worth about $250, Khipple says. Sears ties each package with a ribbon, puts a card from Apna Ghar on it, and delivers it the day the woman moves into her new apartment. If a woman is fearful about revealing her address, Sears brings the package to Apna Ghar and someone there delivers it.
The shelter gives each departing woman a food package. "They will get food stamps, but not immediately, and they have to have something to start with. We give them a bag of rice, lentils, salt and pepper and spices, canned goods, just a start for a week or so."
Indian stores give Apna Ghar a break on food, and also on clothes that the women usually need because they left home with nothing. Some stores, says Khipple, have even donated saris. In addition, the board members collect hand-me-downs, Western clothes as well as Indian, for women who must wear them to go to work.
Last spring an Indian woman in Milwaukee wrote on her wedding invitations, "Please no gifts. Send contributions to Apna Ghar instead." The shelter received about $400. Some $15,000 has trickled in from Indian and Pakistani supporters. But the bulk of Apna Ghar's funding comes from the Illinois Coalition Against Domestic Violence, which is the private conduit directing state funds to shelters and other kinds of services for battered women.
The world's only shelter for Asian women, Apna Ghar is also unique among Chicago shelters in having a visitation room in which noncustodial parents can visit their children. In a large room of the Uptown Bank Building, two floors down from the shelter offices, toys and furniture are kept for the children of battered women who have fled their homes. The custodial parent, who is often the husband, brings the children to the offices and a staff member takes the kids to the visitation center. The parents do not meet.
When Khipple first arrived here, she lived at International House on the University of Chicago campus. Later she found a room in the Evanston home of Bernard Baum, a professor of public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and his wife Barbara. Khipple lived with the Baums for a year and a half, until her very aged mother-in-law called from New Delhi. The struggles between the Hindus and the Muslims frightened her, and she asked Khipple to take the children. Khipple found an apartment in Evanston, borrowed money for plane tickets, and sent for her family.
In 1970, her stint at the Stevenson Institute over, Khipple was faced with a familiar dilemma. Her mother-in-law and grandmother had helped raise her young children while she worked in the villages, often being away for weeks at a time. In 1958 she had turned her children back over to her elders and left for Sweden. The next year took her to England for further studies, and four years after that she came to the U.S. She'd meant to stay only one year, but the opportunities that came along were too great to resist.
Now she was being offered yet another position that would separate her from her family. The World Health Organization asked her to go to the Caribbean as a consultant on family planning to the 18 English-speaking countries there. Khipple's husband and two youngest children returned to India while she went off to Barbados. Her oldest daughter, then in her first year of high school, wanted to stay, so Khipple arranged for her to live with the Baums.
Except for visits to India and a year on the faculty of Columbia University, Khipple spent the next 14 years in the Caribbean.
Throughout my many hours of conversation with Khipple, I have been bothered by one question: If she is so dedicated to her native land, if her identity is so strongly Indian, if she is so dedicated to improving people's lives, to the creed of Gandhi, why has she chosen to work elsewhere for 25 years? Surely India is as much in need of her services as anyplace else.
Finally I pose the question. She hesitates. She is still guilty about not having kept her promise to the Watumull Foundation to return to India after receiving her master's. "In another way, though, I feel that I kept the promise, because throughout my life I have worked with diverse ethnic communities. I went to a developing part of the world where there were Indians, lots, in Trinidad, Jamaica, and other places. Those governments needed assistance, which I could give them. I was honest then in that I did not dream of staying here and I still don't dream of staying here to get rich. Even though I didn't go back to India, I have shared my knowledge, I have shared myself.
"But still, I have not kept my promise. And this is something still in my meditations. Did I cheat in any way? No! Because that was not my intention. Did I lose my integrity? No! But I still feel, though I'm serving Indians and Pakistanis now in Apna Ghar, it's still not the same thing. Maybe it's not too late. I want to go back now."
I am still disturbed by the question. I feel that Khipple has not given me a straight answer. But I drop it. Perhaps it is something she doesn't even understand herself. Perhaps Khipple, like most people, has moved in the direction that each separate step of her life chose to take her, and those steps led her here. It will be interesting to see whether she actually does resign from Apna Ghar at the end of the year, as she has promised herself she will, and whether she will then return to India, where, she says, she and her husband have elderly relatives who need caring for and where their lifelong friends are.
One thing is certain. She will not retire to play bridge.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Phara Fisco.