Meeting Gloria Steinem after many years I am astonished to see how little she has changed: the blonde mane of hair is a little paler but the black uniform - black pants, black top, low-slung belt - is the same, accentuating her tall, slim frame and lithe gait. People when they meet her are often surprised; they imagine a fiery radical, but the feminist and journalist who will turn 80 in March comes across as gentle and soft-spoken, with a quirky sense of humour and the reporter's eye for telling detail. She is both an attentive listener and evocative raconteur. "I was walking to my apartment on East 73rd Street not long ago and there was this taxi driver outside smoking a beedi. Oh, that smell! It made me so nostalgic, the kind of memory sense that floods you. India's always been so much part of my life."
In 1957, she was a newly-minted Smith College graduate, and engaged to be married, when she won a $1,000 Chester Bowles scholarship and landed in Delhi, essentially, she says, to escape marriage. "Don't women always want go to the farthest place possible when they don't want marriage?"
It perhaps helped that both her grandmothers and mother were ardent Theosophists, but she had spent three months waitressing in London to get her Indian visa, and couldn't find a cheap place to stay in Delhi. "Someone said, why don't you try Miranda House in Delhi University? So I did. They let me stay in the hostel and audit classes for two years." She wrote articles to supplement her income, even helping with a guide book for Air India, but it was much more than taking the bus to Gaylord's in Connaught Place for the occasional coffee that left a mark.
"I wouldn't have become an organiser if it wasn't for India." It was still the high noon of the cooperative and handicraft movements, and Vinoba Bhave was an influential Gandhian spearheading the crusade for land reform. "These things made me understand that change doesn't come from the top, it starts from the bottom. You can't have grass without roots." Many years later, together with her close Indian activist friend Devaki Jain, she went to see Kamaladevi Chattopadhaya; they were talking about Gandhi's political activism when Kamaladevi interrupted to say, "But it was us women who taught him so many things." That made Steinem realise how often women's participation in struggles - including the Civil Rights movement in her own country - had been sidelined. "We know of the many women activists but why weren't they up on stage with him when Martin Luther King staged his famous march to Washington exactly 50 years ago this week?"
Steinem's own assault on New York journalism began, in accordance with Gandhi's dictum, from the roots up. Falling in with the visionary editor Clay Felker, she took up subjects such as contraception, and later, in a famous account that earned her intense notoriety and celebrity, went to work as a decoy Playboy Bunny at Hugh Hefner's club. To this day, she remembers how "terrible and tacky" that month-long assignment was. "It was basically a place full of desperate middle-aged men chomping roast beef and boozing."
Her initiation as a political writer came on Felker's New York magazine and her "life as an active feminist" opened when she covered a speak-out on abortion. Having undergone one herself, to hear women stand up and tell the truth was her "big click" moment. "If I'm remembered at all it will be for inventing a phrase like 'reproductive freedom'," she later said. When she started Ms. magazine in 1972 as an offshoot of New York, the pilot print run of 300,000 copies sold out in three days.
In India this week, she launches As If Women Matter (Rupa, Rs 395), a collection of her essays, edited and introduced by her friend Ruchira Gupta, the well-known campaigner against sex trafficking. Subtitled "The Essential Gloria Steinem Reader," it is a wide-ranging, often disturbing, collection of accounts of violence against women. Steinem can be as uncompromisingly critical about her own country on the subject as she can be about India. "If you added up all the women who've been murdered by their husbands or boyfriends since 9/11 - and then added up all the Americans killed in 9/11, in Iraq and in Afghanistan combined - more women have lost their lives to domestic terrorism."
With two former Supreme Court judges charged with sexual harassment, a top editor in jail for sexual assault and new legislation against sexual violence in place, she has been closely following Indian headlines. She describes the controversies and debate as part of "growing pains" in the long-haul fight for keeping the feminist agenda in focus, a manifesto whose central tenet is this: "that racism, caste and class cannot survive without controlling women's bodies". She debunks the notion that sexual violence against women is greater amongst low-income groups. "It is part of the false memory syndrome. Sexual abuse and violence is likely to be more prevalent among the wealthy and powerful."
Then there is the matter of the Indian diplomat's nanny in New York, a sudden irruption in otherwise smooth-sailing Indo-US ties. "I'm not sure we treat our domestic labour any better than you do. Please remember that 65 per cent of undocumented immigrants to the US are women and children."
As I leave her after a delicious breakfast of aloo tikkis and omelette in Ruchira Gupta's home, and she prepares for another long day, I imagine Gloria Steinem's nostrils to be prickling at the smoke of burning leaves piled on pavements on a foggy winter's morning in Delhi. Ah, that old familiar smell! "These things - the yellow-and-black bumblebee taxis, the autorickshaws, coffee at Gaylord's," she had earlier confessed, "these things make me think of the person I once was… and what I have become."