I get down from the car surrounded by gleeful children and we make our way through the village to arrive at a household. It’s a two house brick house with a staircase in between the two rooms that goes right up to the roof. We sit in the court yard, a hand pump right in the middle.
The interview is with a young woman, all of 23, with three young children, all under the age of five. The oldest is just about to turn five. She is eating out of a steel bowl – her food, broken up chappati and milk. The woman sits with her young baby, 7 months old, who is sleeping. The young girl, meanwhile, climbs the chair and sits precariously on the plastic back of the chair, watching us while she slowly, methodically, eats her food. No one around, including her mother, seems to be worried about the prospect that the child might fall from her perch and hurt herself.
Duly, she gets bored, and disposes of her vessel. She washes her hands. Then, she brings out a small steel pot from a corner of the house and takes off her slightly tattered dress. Her small hands pump up the water from the hand pump in the courtyard. It fills the steel pot, and in one small smooth stroke, she pours the water over her head. She shivers, but she continues the same routine – pump, fill, pour. The routine is interspersed with tiny yells of delight.
We are all amused, and her mother looks at her indulgently. Then, when she is finished, she yells at the top of her voice – MA! MY CLOTHES!! Her mother shushs her, and tells her to wait for two minutes, and she’ll get it out of the cupboard. This is clearly too much time for the little girl to wait. So she marches into one of the rooms to pick out her clothes. She re-emerges a few minutes later, her dry clothes patchy with dark water spots from her frail body, her wet hair dripping. She squats next to me, and plays with a torn doll, oblivious to everything around her.
Her mother, in the meantime, is telling us that she has never learned to read, has never gone to school, has no idea what the legal age to get married is, votes but doesn’t know the candidates, does not think she can do anything on her own, and does not venture outside the village for any reason. I look at the energies emanating from the child sitting next to me – energies so vibrant I can almost touch them, and look at the woman sitting opposite me – her eyes puzzled and her posture inert, and I hate what we do to girls in this country.
We take defiant young children and turn them into submissive, silent women.