Saint Mary’s College professor inspired by Gandhi


Kusum Singh sits in a sun-kissed corner of her kitchen with the warmth of a woman completely at peace. At 78 and newly-retired from a 27-year teaching career at Saint Mary’s College, she’s entering a stage where she can listen more clearly to her heart. “In every little thing, I find peace and joy,” said Singh, who spent much of her academic life studying the work of Gandhi. “I used to have to prepare so much for class. Now I just sit and enjoy my reading and writing.” 

Finding peace hasn’t always been easy for Singh, who was told by a palm reader that she would die by the age of five. “My mother believed I wouldn’t live every time I was ill,” she said.

But Singh always felt she had a guardian angel, whom she called on frequently. One of the biggest tests came at age 8, when Singh and her sisters were sent away during India’s struggle for independence. Because their father was a high-ranking government official, their mother felt they would be safer at a boarding school. But a teacher at the school was abusing young girls and Singh staged a nonviolent protest, much like Gandhi, himself, would have done.

“I sat in the temple and prayed, ‘My God, somebody has to come from Delhi and get us or I’m not going to eat.’” Soon her prayers were answered and she and her sisters returned home.

Singh’s next big test came at age 16, not long after India had won freedom from British rule. She married an Indian prince from Rajasthan state.

“My karma (destiny) was to get married quickly, belong to my husband’s family and produce sons. But to the consternation of my in-laws, I produced one daughter after another,” she said. Her mother-in-law was especially hard on her. “She treated me like dirt since I came without a big dowry due to my husband’s opposition to such customs.”

Those were difficult times for Singh, who says tradition mandated that she and her husband live in separate quarters — a practice called purdah. “My husband used to come through a secret passage to the women’s quarters, after the elders had gone to sleep.”

“If I had been born male, I suddenly realized, I would have been sent to Oxford (like my brother) with a generous allowance.”

What initially attracted Singh to her husband was his rebellious character, which made him run away to Rabindranath Tagore’s University and join the struggle for independence. “When I met him, he had just returned from a demonstration and looked wonderfully fired up. It was love at first sight!” They soon moved out of the palace and into their own place in Edinburgh and then London, where her husband earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and eventually a Ph.D. at the London School of Economics.

“I began to think of a college education for myself,” she said. “If I had been born male, I suddenly realized, I would have been sent to Oxford (like my brother) with a generous allowance.”

Instead, she had to pursue her college education over a period of 27 years, through the untimely death of her husband and the subsequent marriage to his mentor, noted political science professor Bertram Myron Gross. Gross passed away in 1997 and Singh continued teaching Gandhian ethics and theory at Saint Mary’s College until her retirement last spring.

What she brought to SMC was both compassion and intellect. “Kusum has been an inspiration to all of us — her strong feminism, her balanced defense of the underdog, her pedagogical and writing practices,” said Saint Mary’s professor and poet Brenda Hillman. “I’ve been personally moved by her political and moral strength and by her graciousness in the hallways of Saint Mary’s.”

It was Singh’s courage in rising above her own cultural norms that Laura Garcia-Cannon, ’91 NBC-11 news anchor, recalled in her 2008 commencement speech at Saint Mary’s. “She told me ‘Laura, there is nothing you can’t do. There is nothing you can’t become.’ Those words have stayed with me and guided me through the struggles of pursuing a career in television news.”

Looking back, Singh sees stages that could only have occurred through divine intervention — like her meeting with Gandhi at the age of 2; her life as the bride of an Indian prince; her marriage to Gross and her ongoing study of Gandhi’s legacy, including a Fulbright Fellowship in 1991 and 2002.

“She best embodies a person who brings East and West — all the traditions together,” said Communication professor Mike Russo. “In doing so, we are able to understand the world we don’t know.”

Today, Singh looks forward to splitting her time between Moraga and India, where she’ll work as a resident scholar and write her memoir “From Purdah to Ph.D.: A Life Shaped by Gandhi.” Never far from her side will be her guardian angel, who, no doubt, will guide her through this next stage of life.

Ginny Prior

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