According to several accounts written by Parsis, the All India Women’s Conference wanted to pay homage to Cama during her birth centenary, and keep her memory alive in post-Independent India
Named after Bhikaiji Cama who was referred to as the “Mother of the Indian Revolution”, the Madame Cama Road stretches along the Mantralaya, the seat of the Maharashtra government, before meeting Marine Drive. Belonging to one of the most affluent Parsi families of Mumbai during the 1800s, Cama is credited with playing an important role in India’s Independence movement.
While details are scant about why this road was named after her, according to research scholar Nawaz Mody’s book ‘Parsis of Western India’, the road was named to honour Bhikaiji Cama during her birth centenary in 1961-62. According to several accounts written by Parsis, the All India Women’s Conference wanted to pay homage to Cama during her birth centenary, and keep her memory alive in post-Independent India. They urged the India government to take suitable steps to commemorate her memory. This led to the Greater Bombay Municipal Corporation naming a road after her and the government also issued a commemorative stamp on Republic Day in 1962.
But naming the road after Madame Cama came with its own set of challenges. “A query was raised in the corporation as to why the road was being named after a foreigner after Independence because of the use of Madame,” says Mody. Like much of her life, the naming of a road in Mumbai, the city of her birth, was not without its set of controversies, which now seem to have been put to rest with time.
According to Mody, while writing her book, she was looking at Parsi personalities who had been neglected. She was attracted by the story of Bhikaiji Sorab Patel. “She belonged to a very wealthy and distinguished family with her grandfather having been credited with setting up several educational institutes, like the Parsee Girls School Association. All her brothers were also highly educated, having got a Bachelors or Masters degree according to the Mumbai University records” said Mody.
“While she might not have got much credit for her work during her time, several things were named after her including the road in front of the Mantralaya. In 1997, the Indian Coast Guard also commissioned a Priyadarshini-class fast patrol vessel named the ICGS Bhikaji Cama,” she added.
Bhikaiji did not go to college, and she got married at 24, around 1885, which was unheard of during the time. “It was quite a late age for a Parsi woman to be getting married at that time. She got married to a solicitor Rustom Cama,” added Mody.
Her marriage, however, did not work out and she left her husband, never to return. “She soon got involved in the freedom struggle and was a strong advocate of violence initially, and then became a pacifist,” explained Mody.
She left for London in about 1902, where she worked for Dadabhai Naoroji, and then moved to Paris, where, with Munchersah Bujorji Godrej and Shyamji Krishna Verma, she founded the Paris India Society.
“She was involved in funding and publication of Bande Mataram and Talvar, which contained material against the British government. She was very good friends with Maud Gonne, an Irish revolutionary. Paris then was the centre of all revolutionaries and she met many of them from Russia, Egypt, Poland, and many other places. She funded much of the movement during this period,” said Mody.
But her real moment of glory came on August 1907. “In the International Socialist Conference, she unfurled a flag of independent India, which was not very different from the flag launched by Dadabhai Naoroji in Calcutta earlier,” said Mody.
“Her health, however, started deteriorating around 1935 and she decided to return home to Mumbai, after she gave a written undertaking that she would not participate in the revolution. By then, the male members of her family were all dead and she went straight to the BD Petit Parsee General Hospital. She had hardly any money left with her,” said Mody. She had bequeathed most of her personal assets to the then Avabai Bai Petit School in Bandra.