And She too is a Woman
As we prepared for our current issue, a thought struck the Fried Eye desk to cover women from the faceless multitude who make the comfortable world of confident middle class women a reality. What section of the society would this be, you may ask. The maids, the ayahs, the washerwomen, the society vegetable vender, the jamadarnis, the brick laying women involved in construction sites are some of the most common faces that flash my mind as I attempt to answer this. They may not be famous but their absence even for a single day sometimes can turn one’s life completely upside down. We decided to present to you four interesting profiles of women from our daily work space as a tribute to the countless women who need to be celebrated hand in hand with the who’s who as each of us salute the spirit of womanhood this month and always.
Kamlesh, the wife of a daily wage labourer, is a resident of Majnu ka Tilla. During January to March- the flower show season in New Delhi, she assists her husband in painting pots, bricks that line up on flower beds and tree trunks. Catching up with Kamlesh in the sunny nursery of a South Delhi college as she worked, was a startling revelation of the difference in the worlds of the women who lived in this one single college campus. Though a little hesitant initially, Kamlesh opened up soon enough to give me a sneaking preview of her life. Originally from a village near Delhi (she did not name her village) Kamlesh was married off early and has since been a devoted mother and wife. “I have six children” she tells me with pride, the eldest being 22 and the youngest 8/9 years of age. Of them four are girls. Kamlesh has never heard of Women’s Day nor does she know the name of the President of India. When asked what her idea of women’s day would be, now that she knows there is a day in celebration of women, she responded: koi bilaiti chutti hogi. (It’s probably a holiday from the West).When asked about her work schedule she replied that most of the year, she is at home. It is only in peak seasons that she accompanies her husband to work she explains. Household duties are one’s primary duties she tells me. When asked about her dreams and aspirations, she replies “Pati aur bachcho ka pyaar hamesha rahe isse zyaada ek aurat ko kya chahiye.”(“May the love from my husband and my children remain forever with me. What more can a woman want?”) I persisted in Hindi if there was nothing she wants over and above what she already has and after a pause she replied. “Filhal betiyo ki tension hai. Meri teen betiyo ki shaadi ki umar ho gayi hai . Unhe settle karna hai” (Right now I have the tension of seeing my daughters settled. Three of them are of marriageable age) Remembering that she had just mentioned her eldest to be only twenty two years old, I asked her if each of them were of legally of marriageable age. She replied that that she cannot be sure of accurately as she doesn’t remember the exact year of each of their respective births. “Ho gayi hogi” (They must be) she responds while her hands deftly move to pick up another set of pots for painting.
Noticing her discomfort I turn my attention to her work and praise her skills. At which she blushes and replies that she has been doing this for close to five-six years now. Her husband, she reveals, has been employed by this college off and on for quite a few years and she has been accompanying him off late- ever since the metro lines started working to be precise. Before the metro she did not venture too far from Majnu ka tilla. Travelling took a lot of time. Besides her children were too young to be left by themselves for long periods of time, she explains. “Abhi meri bari wali ghar ka kaam kaaj sambhalti hai isliye muje pareshani nahi hoti jyada” (Now my eldest daughter manages the household work so I don’t have too much of a problem) “Aapki bariwali sabse bari hai?( Is your eldest daughter the eldest among your children?) I ask tactfully. Kamlesh replies in the affirmative. I enquired into her daughter’s qualifications only to realise that each of her daughters have only gone to school for two or three years. “Main kabhi iskool nahi gayi hu, na hi kabhi ichcha hui jane ki” (“I have never been to a school nor have I ever desired to go to one”) she said in response to whether she has done any kind of studies. “Parhai ka kya karna, Meri bari wali sillai ka kaam karti hai. Dukaan pe bhi aur ghar pe apne se hi. Wo khaana bhi acha banati hai. Aur apni behno ko bhi seelai aur rasoi ka kaam sikhati hai.” (What help will studies bring? My eldest daughter works at a tailor’s shop and also takes her own orders at home. She cooks well. At home she trains her younger sisters in both needlework and kitchen work).
Given that this conversation was taking place in a women’s college, I asked her why it is that even after a year of working here, she has never dreamt of seeing her own daughters in college. She tells me her own daughters were much better off. The girls I see around me are all still living on their parents’ earnings while her own have even bought their cell phones with their own money. They may not know to read and write or earn in lakhs but they have learnt to live lives with dignity. None of them begs-she points out to me. “Agar hume kuch ho jaye, wo itna kabil ban gaye hai ki khud ki zindagi izzat se jee paye. Ye baat main apni hare k beti ke liye keh sakti hu. Kya aap ye baat yaha parhti hui har larki ke bare me bol sakte ho? Meri sabse choti wali dus/gyara saal ki hogi.” (If anything was to happen to us, my daughters will be able to live a life of dignity. They have become that able. Can you say that for each student who studies here? I can say that for each of my daughters and the youngest is only ten or eleven years old.” Her response this time brought awkwardness from my end and therefore I changed the subject and asked her if would mind my taking a photograph of her. She refused to pose but was okay with a photo taken of her at work.
Ammaji is a youthful vibrant lady in her seventies. A daughter of Haryana, Ammaji has grown to become a mother to all of Zamrudpur- the urban village at the heart of South Delhi. Ammaji is popular because of her way of speaking, her philosophical take on life and her disciplinarian attitudes towards work. She can often be seen squatting on the lawns of the several education institutes that have sprung up infront of Zamrudpur in the last fifty to sixty years. She has seen them all grow like the “children” each of them nurtures. My acquaintance with Ammaji is almost a decade old, the major part of which I spent considering her as the oldest of the ladies who come to clean the lawns of my alma matter every weeding season. It was much later that I discovered more to her. Conversing with her for Fried Eye was easy because of my familiarity with her past but she good-naturedly narrated it all again.
Srimati Jaipali or Ammaji once owned seven cows, a couple of houses and some cultivation land in the once non-existent section of the city called South Delhi. She would weed grass even then because that was her cattle’s fodder and her cattle were her source of sustenance. But soon a day came when her family along with some others had to give up their lands for the building of the educational places. “Today all I can boast of materially owning is one cow” she says “but I have not lost out on the love of the people. As I grew older they embraced me with the respectful love reserved for a mother. Not just Zamrudpur but also the institutions that came up around it” I interrupted by asking if she did not hold resentment for the encroachers of what used to be her property. Ammaji responded in the negative saying. Our time the lands were barren. “Yaha kuch aasani se ugta nahi tha…”(Nothing grew here easily) Now, she continues, the soil is more richer, here our children, our society’s future is getting cultivated. And the land has willingly turned green here. Look at all the trees she said, gesturing to her surroundings. This place has developed like a beautiful young damsel, she poetically concluded. As she brought in the comparative, I ventured to ask if Ammaji knew of Women’s Day? Of course I do she said. I am not that ignorant. I know of all the days of today’s calendar. Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, Cancer Day, Aid’s Day. I know all of them though I don’t know their exact dates. But once you reach my age, if you have been a good person, wherever you go you will be treated as if it is your special day regardless of these days, she added with a smile as a gardener came in with a cup of tea for her. Just look at him, will never drink his tea without getting me a cup and I haven’t even done much work today. I don’t need a Women’s Day or a Mother’s day. They make me feel good every day. I further enquired if Ammaji believed in women’s education and empowerment. She replied with a staunch yes. Yeh koi puchne ki baat hai, jaha dekho naari shakti ka praman milega aapko. Pratibha Patil, Sonia ji, Sheila ji, Mamta ji… des ki politics me naari, filmo me naari, sikha me naari, humari Kalpana to brhamand pe bhi cha gayi thi (Is this a thing to ask? Wherever you look, you will see glimpses of women power. Prathibha Patil, Sonia ji, Sheila ji, Mamata ji… there are women in the country’s political scene, in films, in education, our Kalpana even shone in the universe.) She continued: I learnt how to write my name and have the newspaper read out to me though I never went to school. I have daughters whom I managed to educate. Two of them are teachers. My granddaughters are graduates. One is doing a B. Ed.
I could not help asking how many members her family had, how much did she earn by weeding lawns and why she still worked so vigorously. She replied my daughters assist in my daily expenses; my family includes each person who calls me Ammaji, including you. As for working, this is not work. This is my land. It has not forgotten me. It still provides grass for my one cow. I need to return the favour by keeping it weed free. And it’s a duty and attachment which will never end. “Yeh nayi ghaas jane hi nahi deti muje yaha se” (The new grass refuses to let me go away from this…”) Would she mind posing for a photograph? “Khicho. Puri lena. Sirf shakal nahi. Is side se khicho. Photo achi ayegi light me” (Click. Take my full profile not just the face. Take it from this side, it will come out better in the light).
Lalmani, from Bihar, a wizened old lady, smiled shyly when we asked for an interview for our e-zine. Hesitant initially, she warmed up later as the conversation progressed. Manning a small tea stall in Indirapuram, Ghaziabad, she seemed quite at ease dealing with customers all single handedly without any help.
“The shop belongs to my daughter,” She confided. I sit in the shop to help her out.
She had lost her husband few years back and stayed with her daughter and son in law, her only immediate family. Our notion about educated class and small family was busted when she revealed that she had consciously planned for a single child, irrespective of the gender so that she could take better care of the baby with the minimal resources available to her. Though she could not fulfill her dreams of educating her daughter but she took pride of the fact that at least her daughter had succeeded at what she failed. Her three grandchildren attended the Govt School in the neighborhood regularly.
The income from the shop wasn’t much. From the daily sale of around Rs. 500, she could save only around Rs 100 some days, which was not even enough to fulfill her needs, let alone dreams.
“I feel ashamed of being a burden to my daughter and son in law, but I have no other way out… she tried to justify more to herself, than us, her eyes turning slightly moist But I try to stay out of their way as much as possible.. They take good care of me, but…still.”
On inquiring about the day to day problems she faced being a woman, she reacted sharply. “It is not about being a woman, but being poor. Once upon a time in Bihar we had landed property. We used to enjoy respect too back then. But now here we always remain in fear.”
What about the administration? The facilities? Was she aware of those Govt schemes for women and children, especially the girl child? About her rights?
“Yes, I have an idea that there are women friendly schemes of the Government, but I have no idea what they are and how to avail them. None of the persons we know, have a thorough knowledge about them. Nobody tells us.”
And we wondered if she had ever heard of women’s day? Did it carry any meaning to inquire someone about International Women’s day if she was not even aware of her rights?
Well we did try our best to educate her about the Ladli scheme, about free Govt dispensaries, education but we realized that a much stronger and focused approach was needed to create a total awareness among women such as her. A sporadic random selection would not serve much towards the cause. Still we hoped that someone was better than no one and took her leave after stuffing her as much as possible about information of some of the facilities and welfare schemes that were easily available.
The rendezvous with Sakeena, a maid from the neighborhood of Ghaziabad was an altogether a different and interesting experience. Sharp and alert, she literally bombarded us with questions, CBI style, to gauge our intentions before relenting for a photograph and a quick chit chat.
“You cannot trust anyone nowadays. I was almost about to be whisked away by the police when one of my previous landlady had committed suicide, so now a days I remain alert. about what goes around”
Mother of five children, she was aware enough about the need for a small family and was trying to incorporate that ideology in her eldest daughter’s (who is married) mind. Her eldest daughter was married off early, but she had taken it upon herself to educate her other two daughters along with her sons. She was hesitant to share with us her dreams and aspirations and just smiled mysteriously. But her smile said it all. It was the smile of a person who was confident of fulfilling her dreams. Her smile said that she had planned well. A little bit of prodding revealed that she had opened accounts in the post office and was saving for her children’s future.
Did her husband agree with her progressive views and plans?
It did take time for him to trust her opinion, she had replied , but in the end he had conceded the decision making powers to her.
But of course I never do anything without asking or discussing with him”
When We inquired this feisty lady of the trials and tribulations she faced on being a women, she revealed that the freedom she enjoyed here was absent when she was in their village . Opinions were not asked. Decisions were taken by the males or the elders.And though everybody lived in a harmony, it was possible maybe because only few had decision making powers, hence a lesser chance of discords. Things changed for the better only after they migrated to the city.
She was aware of some of the facilities available like free health care, maternal health and childbirth, free education and mid day meal schemes but she was not aware of the monetary benefits that were attached to sterilisation operation and hospital delivery. We gladly complied with the information , which she attentively noted down .
Surprisingly she did not seem much interested about knowing about the rights of a female.
“As long as I have the basic amenities of food, shelter, clothing and am being treated justly, I do not much care about my limits and legal rights. These are for the bade log”
And she had giggled uncontrollably. What does it matter, she replied once she sobered down. Yes what did it matter indeed? Especially who enjoyed only the fringe benefits of the society? Did it really matter to the persons to whom it should have really mattered at the first place?
Contributors- Radhika Baruah
Copy Editor- Tinam Borah
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