Thursday, November 3, 2011

The mess workers of YPS, Jalihal

As part of my Grassroutes fellowship road trip, I traveled to Sangli, Maharashtra. Although not as advanced as a Bangalore or a Mumbai, it is moderately well developed. The district of Sangli has a taluk named "jat" (pronounced as zath) which in turn has 147 villages under it. The villages are drought hit and have hardly any water available.

I traveled to a village named ‘Jalihal’. Right from the beginning, it was the lifestyle of the people that struck me to be verily amazing. It made me feel as though I had traveled back to the 1940s. “Yerala Projects Society” is an NGO based in Sangli (about 150 kms), which has adopted 22 villages in this taluk. There are approximately 45000 people living in these villages.
They have responsibility for overall development in these areas.

The NGO runs a mess for all the people who work for the NGO. The mess workers included two young girls – Hoshyakka and Bhagyashree. I must say I found their life stories quite remarkable!

Hoshyakka was 12 years old when her grandfather got her married to a man who already had an 18 year old son and a daughter from his first marriage. She had no idea what a marriage meant. She could not understand why she was being sent away from home. People say that her husband was a drug smuggler and an alcoholic. It was only after the marriage was over that her family realized they had been cheated. Once they did know, it was not like they could do anything about it, they were too steeped in poverty.

Hoshyakka went to stay with her husband. He would get drunk and beat her up everyday. He would accuse her of infidelity, even when she did not know what it meant. Unable to bear all the torture she returned to her parents. She was probably 14 or 15 then. She was so confused and scared of the world that she would speak to none nor come out of her home. I shudder to think about the indelible scars that this experience would have caused on her psyche. If a simple negative comment from a peer can cause me so much trauma, I can only imagine what Hoshyakka’s mental condition might have been!

The story has a happy ending - after a lot of encouragement and support from the NGO, she now works for the NGO at their mess. She is 20 years old and earns Rs.60 per day. She is the sole bread winner for her family which includes her mother and her sister who is mentally retarded. All that her alcoholic father left for them is a house which has one room and a porous roof.

Hoshyakka working at the mess
 When I asked her why she was working here, she said – “I do not want to go back to my in –laws, I don’t even know where my husband is. He has been absconding for years. I have a family that depends entirely on me. Also, I feel like I am reliving my childhood here, something that I had lost. I talk, laugh and interact with the school kids and the NGO staff. It gives me confidence and makes me feel good about life”.

“Why do you like this school so much?”  I asked out of curiosity. To me, it was just a normal school in a village. I could not understand why she felt it was so special. The smile from her face faded. “I went to school only till the 7th grade. I don’t even remember anything of what I have studied. I cannot read or write now.”

I did not know what to say. I noticed that she had a mobile phone. If she had learnt how to use that,  she could learn anything! I asked her - “What are your future plans? Do you see yourself working here throughout your life? Don’t you want to study?”
She smiled and said – “For someone like me, the life I am leading right now itself is a big achievement. Village folk here do not respect a woman who has been abandoned by her in-laws. As of now, I am happy here. Having said that, I do want to study. Right now I am too busy running a home and trying to make ends meet. Perhaps, someday….” She concluded.
Hoshyakka - all smiles! :-)

“What is your daily life like?” - She told me she was out of firewood and would be back in a minute. She came back and continued - “ This is how busy I am. At home, I cook for my mother and sister. I come here at 9 and work till 6 in the evening. Then I go back home and cook again. Also, I have to nurse my old mother and sister. There is never a moment when I am free.”
A busy day in my life is much different from hers.  I was lost in thought.

It was when Bhagyashree poked me that I woke from my stupor. I asked her  “What is your story?”
To me Bhagyashree seemed like a more cheerful and bold person. She listened to songs while cooking, talked enthusiastically with people who come to the mess and is outgoing when compared to Hoshyakka. I presumed she has a happy life.

Bhagyashree was from  a village called Morabagi, which is about 5 kms from Jalihal. She studied till 10th grade in the high school at her village, with the medium of instruction being Marathi. Her parents, unlike the others, encouraged her to study further. She can read and write in Marathi. She was 18 years old when she completed her pre university education in the arts stream. She decided to study further and joined a course in Nursing. After her 1st year, her parents decided to get her married, against her wishes. Nobody listened to her and by force she was married along with a dowry of Rs.80,000.

Bhagyashree - the chirpy soul!

She stayed at her in-laws for 5 days. Since it was against her wishes, she could not continue living there with somebody she was not ready to accept as her husband. She returned to her home. Her parents and grandparents forced her to return back, but she did not budge. This continued for several months.  At this point, it was much more than what she could take. She did not know where her life was going. Her parents would not support her education and she did not want to go back. She decided to work for the mess which would keep her busy, give her time to think and also earn some money which would make her financially independent. She, like Hoshyakka, earns Rs.60 per day. Bhagyashree is now 20 years old.

This kind of a story was not something that I had expected to hear from such a chirpy soul. I was stunned. “ What have you decided to do now?”, I asked. She replied calmly - “I have been working here for several months. My parents have realized that I will not go back at any cost. I want to continue my studies. I have decided to complete my Nursing course. I will be attending college from this September.”
“What do you plan to do after you complete your course?”
“ I want to work. I shall take up a job, earn money and give a meaning to my life”
This girl has a lot of dreams and  I hope she will chase each one of them.

It was after these conversations that it occurred to me that these two young women are winners in a true sense. Having lived at the village for about a month, roamed around across 15 villages and interacted with people, I have noticed how conservative and superstitious these people are. Girls are not educated beyond 7th grade.  Girls are married off at an age as young as 14. A heavy dowry is a must. Girls as young as 17-18 are already mothers. All they do is cook, wash and clean. They are unaware of what is happening in the big world outside. Young widows (20 years and above) are not allowed to get married again. Female foeticide is very common even today. In most cases, daughters do not get any share in their parent’s property even. 

We often read of athletes who fell down during a race but got up to run to the finish line. We read of kings who lose everything but still find strength to win everything back. Although very inspiring, these stories are a little far from the stories of the Bhagyashrees and the Hoshyakkas of the world. The athlete who ran the race was already a successful athlete when he began. He could afford the training, he could garner enough support to participate in the race. It is one thing to come back from a temporary failure and when there is love and some semblance of hope. It is completely another thing to come back from a situation of deep despair - a situation when everything is against you and there is no one to help.

The fact that the village society look down upon such women makes their task only harder. It is really inspiring to see how these two young women have broken all the barriers and have taken control of their lives. I can imagine the intensity of opposition they must have faced from the village folk. Their tenacity and determination is remarkable.  How many of us know of such people who are struggling in the remote parts of our country?

I am sure that these two young women will stand as examples and a source of inspiration to all the womenfolk  in and around their villages.  I bow to their achievements and wish them the very best in their lives.

Friday, September 2, 2011

My stint in Rural India - My two cents

As part of my Grassroutes fellowship road trip ( Special thanks to Deepak for informing me about it :-) ), I traveled to Sangli, Maharashtra. Although it is nowhere near a Bangalore or a Mumbai, it is moderately well developed. The district of Sangli has a taluk named "jat" (pronounced as zath) which in turn has 147 villages under it. The villages are drought hit and have hardly any water available. There are approximately 3 lakh people living in these villages."Jailhal" is one of the 147 villages.
    When I first reached Jalihal, I was astonished to see the lifestyle of these people. To me, it seemed like I had travelled back in time. They had no electricity all throughout the day, still used bore-well pumps, travelled on cobbled roads , had drains running right in front of their homes, and had no sense of basic hygiene. Girls as young as 13-14 were married! I felt like I was reliving history. My first thought was - “Oh my God!”. Here is a link to a short photo essay which has more information on the lives of these people.

After settling in and interacting with the village folk for a few days, I felt that from a point outside their frame of reference, they were in equilibrium. They seemed happy and contented.Their income was enough to satisfy their needs and small desires. “Oh my God!” was now replaced by “I am here to do what exactly?”
When I entered that so called ‘perfectAtlantis’, I found that there was so much inequality and unrest. More than anything else, it was the gender inequality that hit me in my face. It is as if the voice of the womankind is non-existent. Women were nothing more than home makers and had no right to anything, not even education. Young widows were not allowed to re-marry. They stayed financially dependent all their lives. Young people (boys and girls) lacked even basic exposure; their goals for life were so narrow. Moreover, people seemed extremely reluctant to come out of their comfort zone.
Looking at the many young widows (20+ year old), I was terribly disheartened. I asked the village folk – “why do you not let them marry again?” They replied – “It is against our Sanskar (culture)”. I had expected something such as that. I shot back at them with - “define culture”. They said “something that has been followed by our elders for years”. I was stunned. I was disappointed with the answer! I retorted -“Sanskar is something that makes the lives of people progressive and better and not something that makes the lives of people miserable” Their response “You have come here for a month. See around and have fun!”
The way this conversation ended is something I can never forget. For the first time in my life I felt defeated. No amount of arguments from my side seemed to convince them because in the first place they did not want to get convinced.I then thought to myself - “I have so much to do here.”

 It took a few more days to develop a good rapport with the villagers. They seemed to notice my confidence and leadership. Young girls and womenfolk would look forward to meet and talk with me. The older women felt - “If onlyI had the opportunity to study.” 

 It was at this point that I knew my golden opportunity had come. All I had to do then was make them realise what their daughters’ lives are going to be like if they did not educate them now. Some women seemed to agree with me and have decided to educate their daughters. This alone, I believe was a victory for me. It made me happy!They understood that there is a big world outside which is progressing every second. They realised that they must not let themselves be left behind.

 Another striking thing I noticed was the difference in our definitions of education. For instance, a city girl like me was totally alien to grazing cows, treating scorpion bites, handling snakes and the like. I never knew that the milk from the leaf of a plant can get the poison from a scorpion sting out. It was basic chemistry – concentration difference! Every kid in the village knows this. There was also a difference in how we evaluated people - a person who manages his farm, earns money, looks after his entire family (which includes many elders because the lifespan around these villages is more than 100) and teaches his children to be as responsible as he is, is well respected and considered cultured. I come from a background where a person’s status is determined by the number of significant digits in his/her salary.
What they fail to notice is that, through education one can learn how to manage all the above in a better way. For instance, keeping lakhs of money at his home is useless. Education makes him understand that investing in a business or keeping the money in a bank is profitable and ideal. Instead of two bulls he can use a tractor to make his life easier. He can implement sub soil irrigation instead of cribbing about less water and bad crop. It is their inertia or reluctance I must say that makes them shy away from education. This is what I consider ‘ignorance’. Being contented is good, but being complacent is not.

Education, of the sort that we city students undergo, is not necessarily the means to a high-paying corporate job only. After all, the purpose of formal education is to initiate a student into becoming a seeker of knowledge. It is so that the students are taught how to think.
My experience has also made me realise their lack of knowledge about microfinance. They do not seem to understand investments and profit/loss. The solution again is good foundation – Education.

I feel that there is a lot that needs to be done in rural India. Changing the way they see life is something that is really hard. It is a deep rooted problem which will need patient work. The saying “Rome was not built in a day” is apt here. The people here need to be taught to claim what is theirs from the government. They need to understand that they deserve more. We should kindle their desire for “more and better.”

I intend to share more of my experiences on my blog soon...