Her Questions9 mins 198 9 mins 198
She came home tired, her head heavy with the commotion of emotions. She proceeded straight to her bedroom and lay flat on her back on the soft bed. Even if she insisted against it, her parents kept an apple on the table and lovingly made the bed. They kissed her good night. She was unusually tired after her twelve hours of a bumpy bus ride. She wished her parents had slept by then since she truly hated the idea of them getting disturbed because of her travels. They wouldn’t ever listen, though.
My name is Swati. I love bus rides. For a long time, I could not afford it. My group of girls and I would walk 12 Kilometers one way to reach school. In the early mornings, it was not so bad. The midday walks were the hardest, though, thanks to the scorching heat. Nevertheless, my school is the best thing that happened to me. I shall be ever indebted to the four wonderful women, who I call my sisters, who came to my village to convince all the parents to send their daughters to school. In return, families were given some bonus too. All the education and health care were free for me. We were given story books too. I learned to speak in English through mentors. I used to miss playing in the meadows due to school hours; however, the school atmosphere was far more inviting. I confess.
During my growing up years, I had many questions. Some are answered, some are left unanswered, some answers remain so obscure. And, some of them, I would rather not bother about the answers anymore.
Crushed hopes and unsettling indifference
I did not know what my fault was for being born as a daughter. Years later, at school, I once heard, that men were responsible for determining the sex of the baby, depending on the chromosome they carried. I giggled at it, finally relieved that it was my father’s fault and not mine. For as long as I remember, my parents saw me as a burden more than anything else. I was a happy child, not at all naughty like my younger brother. They were so relaxed around him. When and if I questioned, they said what they had for me was “huge responsibility” and “significant concern”. Because, I am a girl?
I have never been jealous of my brother or any other boy or man. I am proud of the fact that I am a girl. I am capable of accomplishing whatever I wish to. I know that now. But, early winter mornings during childhood were an exception. I would wake up with my mother as early as 3.30. My father and my brother slept until late. My mother and I cleaned the outside and inside of the house, cooked meals and milked the cows too. Fairly often I felt it was bizarre and unfair that my brother woke up to the aroma of delicious meals and ate it without any real participation.
I will not complain, those experiences made me disciplined. What irked me the most, though, was that, if I ever reprimanded my brother whenever he threw things around, I would get the blame in the end. I only meant he too should learn like I did. The answer to this question was that, I had to learn to be less loud, more polite and extremely humble. Eventually, all of this would assist in making me a good daughter–in-law and a wonderful wife. Or so, my parents said.
What about sons? Did they have a magic wand that assured to make them amazing sons-in law and responsible, loving husbands? Either a blank stare or a long silence was the answer to such questions.
Funny truth about food
As a little girl, my mother had told me that I did not eat meat, even if they forced me to when I was very little. I did not ponder over it. Mother must have a reason for it. My mother too did not eat meat. Probably, I took after her? Genes, you see. I enjoyed my simple vegetarian meals.
One day, at my maternal grandmother’s house, I witnessed something rudely shocking. My mother gobbled chicken and rice like there was no tomorrow. On the way back to our home, I curiously asked about it. My mother looked away and changed the subject. Two years later, when I brought up the question with my maternal grandparents, my grandmother took me to a side and unfolded the bitter truth.
“The women in our household gave up expensive foods like milk, meat just so the men could eat enough. “
“We must respect them. We must caress them. They work all day to support us.” My grandmother explained non-nonchalantly.
“Women don’t work all day? Both on the farms and in the kitchen! Women can become competent providers if given a chance. Why was there no opportunity and encouragement; instead, discrimination existed in the kind of food one ate and the mattress one slept. “
It leaves me utterly emotional when I recall all those painful moments of a sad reminder that I am a girl and hence I compromise. “
I had run short of questions by then.
A fateful afternoon and a damaging revelation
I must have been nine or so. Our houses in the neighborhood were all too close to one another. I heard a grandmother from the next door say something. I rushed out.
“Lucky are those who have sons. They have lineage. They have people to run to in old age. They have someone to care for them and provide them all the comforts. You must be so fortunate to have sons. My prayers are answered. My daughter in law gave birth to a son. Finally! After 3 daughters, here is a son she can be proud of. I am sure my son will love her lot more now.”
The old lady went on and on, singing praises of her daughter in law for blessing the family with a baby boy. I do not hate her words any more or less than I hate the general attitude and perception in my hamlet. You can’t blame one person but the entire set up, system, hierarchy and tradition. People grapple to change and then they blame gods and culture for it, all too conveniently!
I was never beaten or verbally abused. I promise. I was made to feel “lesser” than a boy in all ways. My innocent mind was brainwashed and ripped of any confidence in a girl’s abilities. I was convinced that I needed a protector or maybe a prince charming, to save me and marry me!
Under moonlight dinners, my parents would proudly discuss and meticulously planned my brother’s education. They hoped and dreamed that he would be admitted to a good school, good college thereafter and then would land a nice job in the city. He would become a successful man, they proclaimed while I watched, yearning to feel “inclusive”.
My education, my grades, my career and my own life was not so important? My parents worked day in and day out to save some land and train me to be proficient in handling family. One day, I would be married off to someone; the suitor got some money, some land as gift and he would promise he would feed me for the rest of my life!
After marriage, I would be expected to raise a family a while later, following suit. “A boy means success and progress; a girl means burden and responsibility and concern.”
Many in my family and my neighborhood saw diverse women- those who happily submitted to their husbands if the men wanted to marry again for a son; those who faced raised hands and mental harassment for not doing the chores properly; those who bore the brunt of all the frustration of working men who came back home, accusing women of spending leisure time in-spite of the women shouldering all the responsibilities in equal measure; those who suppressed themselves to boost the male ego.
I saw that the world I lived in gave me two choices – to celebrate the language of men or surrender gracefully to the language and lyrics of suffering.
A tiny ray of hope
Just when I had almost given up and started to regret, my school happened. The school gave me answers to many of my questions. The core truth remained intact- everything that had been fed into my mind by way of experiences was only a myth.
I could be as successful, as good a human being, as progressive as I wished, hoped, wanted, tried. The school and counseling workshops taught the girls to be brave, strong and fighters against all odds. We would open up about our inhibitions and insecurities. We were encouraged to have debates and healthy discussions. We were exposed to an outside world, global practices. We were asked to read, think and most importantly, question! Even if we did not get our answers immediately.
Now, I am studying my engineering through scholarship and additionally, I do monthly volunteering to help other girls in my village; I look back and I feel the journey has never been easy. It has been more than worthy, though.
I want to be a successful engineer and lead people. I want to travel the world. I want to take care of my parents and bring them to the city side. I want to fall in love and get married and someday, be a mother too. Whether I have a baby girl or a baby boy, I am going to tell them that they are “equals” and “only equals.”
Oh! I speak too much. You tell me something about yourself.
It was past midnight, Anisha could not sleep. Swati dominated her thoughts, emotions. Tearfully, Anisha reminisced her childhood days. Her mom had pledged and even sold jewelry just so Anisha and her sister went to the best school and got excellent coaching in all aspects. Her dad sat them down and inspired them every day, to work hard, dream big and told them motivating tales to remain focused. He had learnt to ride and bought a two wheeler just so he could take his darling daughters around for hobby classes, play dates and more. Even when he was terminally ill, Anisha’s parents had not given up.
They belonged to a lower middle class family and struggled to make ends meet at times. Nothing deterred her parents’ spirit to educate the girls, keep them happy and healthy and provide the best atmosphere to forge ahead in life. Never once did her parents let Anisha and her sister feel “any lesser” because they were women. They were constantly celebrated by their parents.
Having seen such hugely impactful years, Anisha had a different expectation of the society she lived in. Harsh reality struck her down today when she met Swati. There could be many a Swati, Anisha wouldn’t know. Swati, a loving, cheerful, smart girl who Anisha met during her bus journey unfolded the unsaid truths in the lives of so many girls in the society. Sadly, not just in the countryside but also in the towns and cities.
Perhaps, many little girls suffer in silence and have been shunned in the name of lame excuses. It is hard to penetrate the walls of the house than any other toughest external barricades. Yet, Anisha wanted to start small to bring about a change from her end- with little hope and little courage. Swati’s life was an inspiration to her.
The innocent mind of Swati could have led her to harbor hatred against whoever constantly put her down; all the limitations could have ended her journey, there were a thousand easy paths to choose from. Swati, however, chose to speak the language of the queens – one of grit, compassion, optimism.