November 3, 2013

3 women and a revelation

"She take all my customers", says our auto driver pointing to Ramani sitting beside me. For the past two days Ramani has been driving me around in her auto in her Gram Panchayat, Edakkattuvyal. I was on a study visit on behalf of the central government related to the national rural employment guarantee scheme. Now she was dropping me to another Gram Panchayat further away and has hired her friend, Ramanan to drive us there. "Our numbers are saved one after another in people's phones. They want to talk to me but dial her by mistake and she takes all my customers", he says looking back over his shoulder. Ramani gives me a wide impish smile. She is a post holder at Kudumbashree, a Kerala government funded initiative for rural women to form self help groups among themselves to access loans for their micro enterprises (making soap, rubber mats, banana chips etc.) Her phone rings non stop and wherever we go, people recognize and greet her.  At a NREGA work site there had been a snake bite. When I asked what they did in such cases, they replied, "Call Ramani Akka" as though it was the most obvious question ever.

Travelling to smaller towns and villages makes me acutely aware of two things, my class privilege and my gender. I recognise that the opportunity to travel and to reach remote places is not something that all people get to do. While the purpose of the visits may vary, a pattern emerges in the codes of travel and interaction with people. I'm always surprised and grateful at how easily the women take me under their wing. I depend on them entirely on how to temporarily navigate these new places for work, food, and transport. Ramani as a working woman, in her mobility, confidence and fun, reminded me of two other women I had met earlier, Kailash and Amba.

"Khush khabari kab suna rahin ho?" (when are you going to break the good news?), Kailash says in lieu of a greeting whenever she calls and we both burst out laughing. I met Kailash this summer in Rajasthan. From Achpura village, she works with an organisation for people's rights, Jan Chetna Sansthan based in Sirohi. She and her friend Govind, were to be part of our research team for a survey on state schemes, PEEP 2013. They were enterprising, hard working and a whole lot of fun. Kailash particularly has an incredibly sarcastic sense of humour and I liked her immediately. They had both recently given the exam for the constable post for the state police and neither of them had made it. It was a doomed effort as there had been a media expose on how the exam had been rigged.

Kailash and I stay in touch on and off. She sends me ridiculous text messages: "Lamha 2 - zindagi gujar jayegi, 4 din baad diwali ayegi, abhe se hi badhai ley lo varna fir ye badhai bik jayegi". I tell her about my work which she easily understands and in every conversation we joke about marriage. "Jaldi karo, mujhe dilli ghumney ka mauka mileyga" (Hurry up, then I'll get a chance to see Delhi). This is all in jest, because over the time we spent together, we got into several conversations about family, education, expectations of marriage and the various battles and support offered at home to travel and to work.

Last April I met Amba, from Sirdiyas village who works as a nurse in Bhilwara in Rajasthan. She left a strong impression on me mainly because I was so unprepared for her company and friendship. I was in this village as part of the annual prachar-prasar yatra taken by Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan, before every May Day. When we were resting in the evening she came over to me, struck up a conversation and invited me to her house. She lived with her parents as it was closer to her work and visited her husbands' house often. He was a manager at a granite factory. Eager to talk about him, she told me of their courtship. They would meet often in Bhilwara after work and he would accompany her back in the bus that she took twice a day. She also casually mentioned that she had been married earlier as a child bride, to a friend of the family which she had refused to go through with. I showed considerable interest in this so she pulled out a box from under her bed. It had all the press clippings from back then as it had caused quite a stir locally.

Though she grew up knowing that she "had been claimed", she said she didn't take this very seriously and "called it off". This remained unacknowledged by his family. When her actual wedding to her current husband was to take place, the other family couldn't stomach the insult and threatened to come steal her away. Apparently there was lots of drama and tension; she wrote a hand written appeal to a judge and a last minute injunction against the other family was sought from the Jodhpur High Court. "You must meet him", she said, "my husband will come tomorrow hopefully."

The next day was Ambedkar Diwas which was being celebrated in the village. There was a festive atmosphere; a tent was being put up, mikes, food, water and all manner of arrangements were being made. I went to Amba's place in the morning to bathe and head to the pandaal with her. What proceeded in the next few hours was most amusing; she was on the phone the whole time with her husband.  He claimed to be busy and  just couldn't get away from work. She tried everything - from imploring him, getting angry and cutting the call, to not taking his repeated calls, to saying she was going to wear an ostentatious saree and make all the men jealous (jalaaooing sabko) to then asking for forgiveness saying she didn't mean it, to pleading again. I thought this really hilarious and pointed it out to her - that she must have nerves of steel to have resisted a child marriage and now she was behaving so silly. She giggled in reply. We decided to have some breakfast before heading out and while we sat eating rotis and mirchi achaar, again she nonchalantly mentioned she was pregnant but that she hadn't told anyone. I can feel it, she said, my clothes are tighter and the maths is right. Over that day and a half, she was just being herself as I tried to keep up.

I love being in such situations - when you don't know what it can lead to and when you have a chance to genuinely connect with someone else. I recognise that it is my class privilege that allows me to put my self in these situations and be provided this "downward access" to government spaces, peoples homes and lives. It gives me some immediate advantages; I can walk into government offices, ask questions, speak in correct English or Hindi, read and understand documents, file complaints and make calls. Through my networks I can find a vouched for local contact and request to stay in their homes and hear their stories. There are also obvious limitations to these kind of interventions. Unearthing wrong doings in implementation of schemes is one small part. Challenging and changing the situation requires much more. While Kailash might come with me to meet the Block Development Officer to present findings on discrepancies in pensions or wage payments, it is she who has to live there with the same officials, people and swindlers. While my presence might give us initial access to officials, it is the stand she takes that will have far more consequences to correct this than mine ever will.

The juxtaposition of my situation with other working women from villages is even more interesting. On the one hand, having been raised by working parents I took the democracy in my home for granted. Having had a liberal education I took my ability to make my own life choices as a given. Yet as an urban woman travelling to rural India, to my friends and family, the landscape might perhaps appear to be one of foreboding vastness where anything can happen. On the other hand, women like Amba, Kailash and Ramani, live and work in communities with intense societal scrutiny and entrenched gender roles. While I might not have as short a leash as them, I find the pattern of arguments to exert control over our lives is the same; to have palatable aspirations, to manufacture and maintain respectability and cultivating a fear of unknown people and situations.

Even as things continue as they are; scratching the surface reveals much change. Being the first women in their families to go out of the house and work, Amba, Kailash and Ramani expertly navigate the trail they're blazing. Any day questions can be raised and their life can change, yet they keep doing what they want. The ground they gain steadily increases and the positive ripple effects of their life choices is palpable. That recognition within them, that if they can do this, they can do so much more, was a revelation to me.

As published here

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