Born in Punjab at a time when India was still fighting for independence, Baroness Shreela Flather of Windsor and Maidenhead in the Royal County of Berkshire, who is the first Asian woman to receive peerage in the UK, has seen it all over the 78 years of her life. Despite touching the nice rotund figure of 80, the Baroness is larger than life. “Fear of death is the last thing on my mind. When you don’t fear that, that’s when you are truly free,” she muses.
Soham and the kids
In the city to visit a charity school for the underprivileged at Mallapur, the Baroness made the trip to see for herself what all the hoo-hah was about. “Soham for kids was started by a dear friend, Faiza Seth. I met Faiza through a mutual friend and there has been no looking back. So when she asked me to become a patron for the school, I decided to come see for myself what the school was about,” she explains.
Flather spent a whole day at the school interacting with the kids, teachers and the support staff. Being a friend of Faiza’s, ask the lifetime peer of the Conservative Party if perhaps her expectations were slightly higher than usual, she answers, “Actually knowing Faiza, I had a feeling Soham would be a bit over the top. She has this tendency to do things bigger than necessary. So I was a bit weary. But the school is all and more than I expected.”
Run by Nusrat Abbasi, a cousin of Faiza’s, the school runs on charity and tries to break the Indian convention of rote learning. Reflecting on what she saw, the Baroness says, “What stood out for me was the spirit of these children. They were very lively and enthusiastic. And if you put them with a rich group of children, I don’t think you would be able to tell the difference. Besides them, the teachers seem like they genuinely like what they’re doing, which will automatically ensure a good education.”
The Baroness is an interesting woman. Not just by virtue of her title. Having been educated in a strong communist environment and becoming the first Asian woman to be a Baroness, she perhaps is one of the few people who’ve managed to strike the right balance.
“I studied in a Methodist college in Lucknow which was run by three very strong communist women. One of them, the principal, was Mrinalini Chattopadyay, Sarojini Naidu’s sister. At the time, we were constantly exposed to the fight for freedom. There were a lot of holidays in between school because of the freedom movement. This inculcated a strong patriotic sense in most of us,” she recalls.
Reflecting on today’s children in Andhra Pradesh, who too seem to be getting many if not more number of holidays due to the Telangana stir, Flather quips, “we had a patriotic cause while these fights now are communal and are really sad. We used to sing patriotic songs in school. Do you now? No. Children are now made to sing religious songs. I believe that should be banned.” Looking back at her years, she smiles and says, “I’ve been very lucky. I was born at the right time.”
As the first Asian woman to be a Mayor and then a lifetime peer in the United Kingdom, Baroness Flather has paved the way, rather than carve a niche for herself, for countless other women. Open as a book, as shy as a lion and forthcoming enough to leave her fellow peers blushing, the Baroness has often been in the thick of controversies for being ‘politically incorrect’. But age hasn’t deterred the woman from continuing to be the same.
To recall a few examples, she once stated on BBC radio that Nigerian men were lazy who married multiple times and made their wives work. In another instance, during a debate in Parliament, she proposed cutting down benefits as Pakistani and Bangladeshi migrants were raising bigger families. Unabashed she says, “I have never been apologetic for speaking my mind. I don’t care what other people think. If I have something to say, I will!”
The stronger sex
A strong advocate of women’s rights, especially among minorities, her doctrine is ‘give the poor women work and pay them for it.’ “Generating employment for these women is very important. There is this one example of an earth moving company that wanted to employ the women of their workers too, but the husbands weren’t very supportive. So instead, they hired them as domestic helps. Their motto was ‘if they can’t come to us, we go to them’. A very effective idea,” Flather explains.
Elaborating she says, “The world needs to realise that women are an untapped labour force. If you doubt my word, go to a construction site. Women there are lifting heavy materials and working equally hard as men. If they’re strong enough for that, they’re strong enough for anything.”