Happy Endings.

In Muzaffapur, at the end of a very busy market, there is a small lane, with a tree hanging heavy with grapefruit. There is a small gate that leads to a large building, with small rooms, one of which is occupied by a group of women who are gathered there to meet us.

The women, as a collective, have experienced a lot. The list of violence and pain is endless. Acid, sticks and stones have broken many a bone and occasionally, their spirit. Yet, invariably, they all sing the same song of the phoenix – how they rose up from the ashes and now, are too brilliant to behold. It’s a siren song – it excites you with its allegro tempo and lulls you into a false sense of security with its redemption beat. It’s easy to believe if you want to believe in happy endings. And I so desperately do.

But life is not over when the story ends, and almost as an after-thought, the after-stories emerges. Money saved up for education is lost in an ugly legal fight. Jobs are gone, children fail within educational systems set up against them, husbands continue their harassment and abuse in different flavours, and there is no equal pay, no equal opportunity. . . hell, no equal anything anywhere in sight.

To me, the songs that emerge in these after-stories are that of the crow – The ubiquitous, cunning, practical, adaptable, pesky crow. These are songs of swollen feet and broken fingers, of hot khichidi and waist-high waters, of burned corpses and delayed justice, of empty stomachs and defiant daughters, of trickery and triumph, of patience and bitterness, of survival and continuous mind-numbing, never-ending struggle.

As I fly back to Bangalore, I begin to realise why the phoenix is mythical and the crow much more real. The song of the crow, after all, guarantees no happy endings.

A Class Act.

Muzaffarpur is new to me. The only thing familiar is the constant noise of the high-pitched horns and the overhanging smell of rotten garbage, both of which you can’t get used to, no matter how many times you visit. I once thought Bangalore was turning into the city of garbage, but we are turning the entire world into a mound of garbage. The cockroaches are going to win this war, after all.

We are staying in the middle of a busy market street. Amidst the crumbling walls of old faded residential structures, stitched together with tarp and the invariable clothes lines, are the new facades of commerce. Signs of urban aspirations are rampant in the brand names that pop up like CAPSLOCK – Himalaya, Levis, Baskin, Robbins – in the middle of all the local Hindi shop names – Rama Bazaar, Champaran Cycles, (the mysteriously named) Sanjay Articles – the latter much more interesting and therefore, much more filled with people than the former.

The sudden showers free the streets of men, women, and howling children who take cover under the awnings of these shops, while we honk our way through the tiny streets, avoiding dogs, fruit carts, and the slow-moving massive SUV. We are hurtling towards our destination with an avaricious driver who is charging us an arm and a leg, because there is a bandh in the city. Someone was shot, and the party wants its citizens to mourn, whether they want to or not.

We arrive at a busy market junction. There is a police cordon, but it is largely ignored. There is also a policeman, but armed with a thin rod (not even the thickness of my thumb), he is also ignored. Meanwhile, there are two angry young men wearing saffron headbands, wildly gesticulating. One of them brandishing a stick walks menacingly over. He rudely waves the stick at the auto driver and is about to hit the passengers, when he sees us. We are three women, sitting in the auto, and we look straight at him – not even blinking our eye at the possible assault. Our manner of dress signifies our class, and he stops mid-way, all of us knowing in a split second that the price of hitting us is something he cannot pay. He lowers his stick, we move on.

Across the Mighty Ganga.

I crossed a bridge yesterday. The river has done what it does this time of the year – it floods. We are treated to a curious site of men hanging over the side of the bridge, fishing banana from the flooded farms below. Down goes the rope with the hook, and up comes the long braid of bananas. As we go slowly over the bridge, the settling sun on my left starts to turn the vast grey sea of water into ripples of orange. On my right is the grey-blue waters stretching for miles on either side and beyond. The body of water is so huge that I have to crane my neck to find the shores, the tall smoking brick kiln towers poking out of the newly risen waters. I have crossed the Ganga thrice now during field visits, but this one is breathtaking in its sheer vastness. If I look straight ahead, I can make-believe that I live only in a grey-blue-orange world – filled with water and sky. We cross the bridge – half an hour later – a long moment, lost in silence and open-mouthed wonder. I am not a believer, but in that long moment, I understood the primal need to worship such a force of nature.

A Woman’s Day.

Given I am a feminist and all, I am often asked whether today is important for me. Frankly, I am not a big fan. But it warrants a few words of solidarity with the people who inspired the origins of this day and those who continue to fight the good fight. So, here’s a short story.

A woman comes in from the snow. She is shivering, and so are her two small children – a boy, 12, small for his age, and a girl, 3. They are both unusually quiet. Cups of coffee and chocolate are offered and are accepted. The children are taken away to a playroom, and the intake process starts. The woman has streaks of grey in her hair, and her eyes are blood-shot. But what is very vivid about her are the bruises – along her jaw, her neck, her arm, her hands. Purple ripening everywhere.

The intake is slow, as it often is. She doesn’t want to be here. In fact, she’d like to be anywhere but here. But to get anywhere, she has to go through here. So, she sits and answers patiently. A question is asked – Have you ever been raped by your husband? She shakes her head and says – no. A few more questions. Then, she raises her head and asks – He once held a knife to my throat, threatened to kill me, and then had sex with me. Does that count?

What today represents is the recognition of the continued brutal force that certain social totalities such as sexism, casteism, racism, communalism, and nationalism continue to exert over us. What today represents is the reaffirmation of all those moments of oppression I have heard and seen, for which language is found wanting. For me, it is a moment to amplify the voice of someone, who after a hesitant pause, names a violation.⁠⁠⁠⁠

Part Three: The Question, Again.

So, what is empowerment? I am still figuring it out. But when I think about the image of empowerment in my head right now, it is this:

a young girl’s tiny thin arm lifted against the blue-white sky, holding the shiny pot, water slicing through the warm air to plaster a young girl’s hair against her head, as the sounds of her delight mingle with her mother’s hesitant murmured replies of no, I don’t know, no, I don’t know, no, why will I know that, no no no no and no.

Part Two: A Vignette

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.

Part One: A Question.

Part One: A question.

What does empowerment look like? The study that I am currently working on in Bihar examines the impact of a government program on women’s empowerment. But to measure empowerment is not easy. The text book definition of empowerment, as most of you know, means to give power to, to enable (someone) to. . .but that often means that someone is providing the ‘power’ to these disempowered. But what we are really examining in the field is how people take power, use power, own power. And this is not easy. Because it is not a neat shift between point A to point B. It’s negotiated, it’s complex, and it changes its form. It’s also almost always hard to get a grip on – like trying to hold onto the morning mist. You can see the evidence of it, but to quantify it is slightly harder. But that’s our job. That’s our work. So, we do it or try to, in any case. So, what does empowerment look like?

Patna.

I have been in Patna for the past four days. Today is the first day that I decided, out of sheer exhaustion, not to write notes. What people don’t tell you about learning a skill is how much you stick to the discipline, out of sheer habit. And when you don’t do something you have been trained to do, the habit rubs against you like coconut coir. So, this is me soothing the tiny scratches of my own indefatigable guilt.

Two days ago, I went to a village flanked by a railway line and yellow flowers. The mornings in Patna are dusty, very noisy, hot and bright. You travel 45 minutes, and you reach the foggy lands of the village. Your car turns into a flattened mud road, and it seems as though ghost trees emerge from the fog. My first view of the village was the darkness of four brother trees huddled towards the entrance of the village, against the background of exposed brick houses. The yellow flowered fields of mustard fields stretch on either side to the edge of the fog that envelopes our path. We pass a woman with a bright pink sari – a contrasting dot in the landscaping of grey and yellow. We arrive at the narrow streets of the village, dung cakes drying patiently on all the walls of the houses. Gourd creepers hang by the trees, and a man patiently squats on the side of a road, as another takes a knife to his face and scrapes off the stubble of the night. We stop by a house, and three girls are playing hopscotch in the courtyard. The smooth slate skips over the line and a girl wearing a tattered skirt emphatically points to a gross violation, and triumphantly sets to throw her favored stone, vigorously rubbed against her thigh, perhaps for luck, perhaps by habit. Young boys mill around the window of our car, broken teeth and hearty smiles. I open the door, and step into the heart-land of rural India.

Haveri: Part Two

Haveri town is not a great looking town, and it’s not very big. If you walk for about 20 minutes in either direction, you have pretty much covered it. There are three main roads, at various angles to each other. In the past, I have taken short cuts into unknown territory, and like magic, I always seem to meet one of these three roads. They are like permanent pebbles on the forest floor. But I don’t spend a lot of time in Haveri town. Most of my travel is in the four taluks that form the Haveri district. And the landscape in these taluks is simply beautiful.

The last time I was here, it was raining. And the scene was verdant green. Just rolls and rolls of it right to the horizon. Now that the rains have dried up along with the corn, there are different colours in the palette now. The eye-searing yellow of the sunflower fields, the dark brown of the depleted corn husks, and the second coming of the lime green rice shoots.

What hasn’t changed is that every time I look outside the bus window, or if I am walking along the edges of a village, my eye has to expand to take in everything: the cottony clouds against the sky blue sky. The rolling hills now dotted with stringy trees, the bare branches etched out against the white-blue sky. The giant blades of the white and orange windmills making music against the horizon.

I don’t always enjoy all aspects of my work. The heart-searing poverty that I am documenting, the social attitudes that prohibit a woman from being fully herself, the yellowing hair of malnourished kids. Some days, I come out of a hut, drenched in wretched guilt and profound helplessness. The world is dark and nothing can be done and it’s all useless anyway. Then, on my way home, I see the blue-black fields rushing to meet the disappearing skyline and I start to breathe again. Long deep breaths. There is beauty in the world. And I live to hope for a better day.

Haveri: Part One

Haveri: Part One.

Up at 3am, looking out of the train window, on my way to Haveri. Most of the world is sleeping except the train people, the ones with the big torches, waving the train on. In the distance, I can see empty fields, the flatness broken only by the silhouettes of trees – dark against less dark. Going to Haveri is familiar now. I arrive at the hotel, and I know the attendant who’ll be the first to wake up to open the door. The giant black fish in the tank by the lobby is still making its melancholy rounds. The waiters in the restaurant have big smiles when they see me and ask if I want my favorites. On my way here to the railway station, an auto driver yelled at me – Wait! I’ll drop this person off and be right there! from across the road. And he was, five minutes later, making happy chatter all the way to the station. As I am sitting here, in my favourite spot at the train station, I even recognise the train people in this station. The Nandini milk guy and his deep discussions with the water guy. The three police men who are constantly chewing pan and adjusting their belts. Heck, even the dogs at the station recognise me now, wagging their tails in greeting.

I am not blind to the problems in a small town. No wifi, for instance. But it is nice to be given an extra papad for my rasam rice without asking. It is nice to sit and write this in a railway station, at midnight, without worrying about my bag or my body. It is nice, once in a while, to fit my song into the rhythm of another town.