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Archive for June, 2011

“If only I could be a widow!”  Many of the women I have encountered here, particularly those caught in the trap of violent and abusive marriages say this, half in jest.  But knowing the solemn and near-single-minded importance given to marriage in Indian society, I realise that there is a dead seriousness behind the apparently casual remark.

The stereotype of the traditional Hindu Indian woman is of the loyal and stoic wife:  one who prays all through her adolescence for the divine boon of a good husband, and then performs religious ceremonies all through her married life so that her husband is repeatedly reborn as her husband over the next seven lives.  These young married women whom I am talking to are very traditional Hindu women, in one of the very tradition-bound social regions of the country.  Why then do are many of them echoing this wish to be widows?

I probe this with Rekha and Vinita,  two young women in their early 20s. If widowhood is what they wish for, whatever happens to all the fasts and ceremonies that they observe weekly, monthly, and annually, for the welfare of their husbands?

“We are expected by our families to do all these wifely duties.  And, for years, we did  pray for our husbands to reform at least for the sakes of our children, ” they say.   But now they have given up hope of this ever  happening; they admit to me that they would be better off as widows, free from oppression by their alcoholic and abusive husbands.  I look at them with sadness that finds immediate response in their trusting eyes into which tears come welling from deep within.  What kind of hopelessness leaves such young women gazing into such a barren future?

Marriage comes early in the lives of these women, and they are unable to conceive of a life choice of remaining unmarried.  Nor is divorce, separation, or running away from home a realistic prospect.  For one, motherhood comes close on the heels of marriage, and the responsibility for and commitment to the upbringing of their children is theirs alone.  Then there is social insecurity of living lives ‘unprotected’ by a man. And, finally, there is the fear of bringing shame on their natal families.

Rekha and Vinita are two sisters who are married to two brothers, a common practice that poor families in rural Rajasthan adopt for social convenience (of negotiation and building a relationship with a single family), economy (since marriages are performed for both siblings together) and, not least, for some minimal emotional security and companionship for their daughters in the marital home (given that joint families are still the norm).  Both women are illiterate; their husbands barely better off than them in this regard.  They are  dalits,  traditional leatherworkers, but belong to landowning families (in this part of eastern Rajasthan, all castes have viable landholdings);  there is also a tradition among these communities of  hiring themselves out as daily agricultural workers, during the lean seasons on their own family farms.

The sisters were married off when they were barely 15 and 16, respectively, by a father who simply wanted to be done with his duty of marrying them off at the earliest opportunity. The young men he chose for them were known in their village of residence to be delinquents from childhood, drunkards from even when they were boys, who had dropped out of school after elementary level to become layabouts.   If their  father had made even perfunctory enquiries in the village, he would have known that the young men would not make desirable husbands who could keep his daughters happy.  But he did not care; the only criterion that mattered to him was that the family owned agricultural land and  had its own house; a comforting assurance that, at the very least, his daughters would have a roof over their heads in their new homes.

For Rekha and Vinita,  coming face to face with their new lives as married women was a shocking experience.  Brutal forced sex by drunken husbands, early onset of motherhood and repeated pregnancies meant  that within less than four years, Rekha was a mother of two surviving children – a girl and a boy – and Vinita  the mother of three little sons.  Given the acute disease of son preference in Rajasthan (and, indeed, most parts of India) their parents-in-law had turned a blind eye to the drinking and rowdy behaviour of their sons when they were boys. They were now relieved that, with the focus shifting to the new daughters-in-law,  they themselves would no longer be the only butt of their sons’ misbehaviour.  Let down by their natal family, and with no support forthcoming from the elders in their married home,  Rekha and Vinita had no one but each other for comfort and sympathy.

A few months ago the two women came to work for us as farm hands.  With time, they chose to work as regular employees, and also became willing to do housekeeping duties, thus giving us an opportunity to interact with them more closely.   The experience of job stability – as different from their earlier lives of daily wage labour with different employers – and the secure monthly income that this entails;  the perks of employment on our farm – nutritious daily meals; clothes, footwear and winter gear; literacy lessons; medical advice and care, interest free loans, crèche facilities for their children during long school holidays -;  and opportunities for pleasant social interaction with the community of women and men that work on the farm,  are slowly changing their self-perception.  From a situation of low self-worth, they are beginning to feel somewhat self-assured,  stemming  from the fact that for the first time they feel that they are in a social environment that gives value to their labour, and treats them as the vibrant young women that they are.  All these act to encourage them to repose some trust in us.  It is in some such moments of comfort that they openly speak about how even widowhood would be preferable to their present lives.

They point to Meera, another worker on the farm, who is a widow. Meera’s walk is brisk, she is always smiling, and looks serene.  Although her husband died in a road accident he, too, was an alcoholic and abusive husband who was drinking himself to death before the truck knocked him down.  Meera has to support her three children on her single income.  But,  at least she is able to do it in a stress-free environment.

Rekha and Vinita, too, are for all practical purposes the sole breadwinners for their families.  Both their husbands do occasional wage labour as welders in Jaipur city, and on other days use their incomes to enjoy themselves in bars and dhabas (roadside eating places), eating meat and getting drunk.   There are nights when they don’t return home.  On other days and nights, they more often than not turn violent towards their wives, alternating between thrashing them mercilessly for imaginary misdemeanors or plying them with maudlin attention as a prelude to sex.  When the women resist or refuse sex the thrashing resumes.  Kitchen utensils are smashed, doors slammed, locks broken, verbal taunts of sexual misconduct in the workplace hurled at them, after which the men either go into a deep slumber or ride away together on their motorbikes for another few days of disappearance.

The children are a steady witness to this violence.  We are unable to understand whether the behavioural changes the women describe are an outcome of this, but while Rekha’s six year old daughter has gradually retreated into total silence and is today labelled dumb by everybody around, Vinita’s eldest son who is eight gets sudden panic attacks when he is at home, throwing himself on the ground and frothing at the mouth as he shrieks “He is coming! He is coming!” and tries to ward away an imaginary male attacker.

Every now and again, one  or both sisters  have to absent themselves from work, either because the children fall sick or, more often, because the husband is at home drunk and wants to be pampered with food on demand and round-the-clock attention.  Without warning, his mood swing might push him to indulge his male power  through verbal abuse  or physical violence.   Generally, the supposed basis of these bouts of violence is the suspicion that because their wives are ‘exposed’ to men at the workplace, they must be straying from the path of virtue.   When the women began work with us, within a few days their husbands visited to check out the place.  On their return home that evening, the women were thrashed for going to work in a place that had male co-workers.

Of late – whether as a result of regular nutritious meals eaten in a convivial environment, or being in a supportive atmosphere where women’s rights is a regular subject of discussion –  Rekha’s and Vinita’s faces carry a new blush of youth and optimism, and they are learning to laugh again.  In these changed circumstances, their husbands are finding it hard to stomach what they are seeing, even as they refuse to improve their own ways.

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THE DESPATCH RIDER

Sreedharan Nair was a “despatch rider”.  He rode a gleaming black motorbike that made an awesome sound that you could hear from miles away, as he raced across the city’s streets doing his important official job. The sound of his bullet engine (which is what his motorbike was also called) and sight of his black streaking figure was enough for everybody to come rushing out to their windows.  And people who were on the street gazed in awe as traffic policemen in khakis and puttees that wound up their calves, stood at attention and saluted as he roared by.  In those days of hardly any motorbikes on the roads – certainly none which shone so bright, boomed so deep, or had such a purposeful-looking rider in the seat -, the despatch rider was one of the most exotic figures in sight.

It was also the days …the decade following Indian independence…when the government – the sarkar – was everything.  So, every time the despatch rider took to the road, it was a signal that a vital national matter was being attended to.  You see, the despatch rider’s job was to carry urgent and confidential files to senior bureaucrats outside of office hours for their perusal and signatures, and deliver them back to the office, where people stood by to forward those files for action with immediate effect.

Despatch rider Sreedharan Nair came to our house often.  It was usually on a Sunday or public holidays, but sometimes it was also late in the evening often close on the heels of my father returning home from the office.  Father was a workaholic, and either worked round the clock at the office, or thought about his work even when he was at home.  He invariably came home late every evening, after we children had eaten our dinner, and it would happen often that the despatch rider would arrive soon after father had entered the house, with some files for him to look at.  Perhaps father’s workaholism kept the despatch rider and others in father’s office, too, working virtually round the clock.  On the rare occasions when he returned home before dark, father probably left enough work for his multiple secretaries to continue with.   After all, India was a young nation in the making, and the challenges were endless, and the excitement of public service heady.

Of course, such ramifications of my father’s work  never occurred to me then.  It just seemed natural to us children, that grown ups should be working all the time.  Also, in this way, they at least kept out of our way, and we could play, or put up plays, or do what we wanted pretty much most of the time.  Houses were large,  and gardens rambling, and grown ups led their own lives away from us in much the same way as we led ours in our separate world.  Linking the two sets of lives were the troops of house servants who went about their work, also seemingly round the clock, except when they disappeared in the mid-afternoons into their – what used to be called – “quarters” which were attached to the house but discreetly out of sight and sound.  They interfered with us children only when it came to calling us for meals (and telling us that mother had left instructions that we should eat this or that, usually things we didn’t like, like green peas), or escorting us to school and back.  Or they responded when we asked for help like making snack for us, or opening an over-tight lid of a bottle of jam, or when father and mother were away on late evening social engagements and the servants played chaperones, sometimes telling us stories and keeping us up when it was their job to make sure that we went to sleep.  We were always conscious that they were around, hovering invisibly, ready to appear at a single call.

When things like a train derailment happened -.and these almost always happened at night; I could never understand why that was so – the despatch rider would be zooming between office and our home several times through the night. My father would be up on the phone all night… or getting ready to leave for the site of the accident…The lights in the part of the house where the grown-ups lived would be blazing…the cook would be making multiple cups of coffee, mother would be buzzing around packing a suitcase for father’s inspection tour to the site…

The ”Ariyalur Disaster” (either the train was called the Ariyalur Express or the accident took place near the town of Ariyalur, I can’t remember which) was one accident that made a huge impact on me. Nobody actually explained anything to us about what had happened.  None of the grown ups thought it necessary that we know what sort of work they did for a living; and on  nights such as the Ariyalur Disaster, nobody seemed to think that we children might wake up in all the disturbance and want to know what was happening; we were expected to keep out of sight and out of the way.  But I gathered from the endless discussions between my parents and people who came to visit following the disaster, and the number of times that father disappeared “on line” (which is what railway officials going away on tour was called, so different from what it is to be “online” these days!),  that thousands of people had died.

When we woke up in the morning after such nights, the house would wear its calm everyday look, with not a hint of what had happened the night before.  Our routines were never disturbed, and with the help of the servants we would get ready for school, eat breakfast and be off.  We understood at such times that we were not supposed to ask for father or mother. Their lives spinned pretty much in their own orbits…except when they announced some plans that included us.  Like a vacation (rare).  Or a trip south for a family wedding (often).  Or, when they decided to get angry with one of us (very often)…

Back to the despatch rider.  Oh, by the way.  The despatch rider’s counterpart when  father was “on line” – traveling across the length and breadth of the country or focusing on some specific region, administering the railways which were under his charge – were the “dak boxes” (when “on line”,  father traveled in his own special “saloon”, a railway carriage that was like a complete home: with two bedrooms, living room, office, kitchen and staff accommodation).

Dak” was the name for bulky files: sheets of typed paper with little notes scribbled in pen along the margins, and placed between cardboard flaps wrapped around with broad red cloth-lined strips which were held together by white nadas (thick string) tied into bows.  The foolscape sheets had little slips of paper pinned to them, that stuck out from the top and sides (precursors of our post-its).  I remember getting my hands pricked on occasions when I had tried to act like a smart eager beaver or curry favour, by  offering to  take out files for father when I was with him “on line”.  I also remember being scolded by the peons for handling these office pins; Govind, father’s senior-most peon would show me his one white eye and remind me that when he was dusting father’s desk in the office, a pin on the desk had jumped up and struck his eye, causing permanent blindness.  To this day I have a fear of those pins, particularly in their rusty avatar.  And Govind’s sad white eye comes up before me whenever I have an eye problem, so unforgettable was the impact that his disability had on me, with both my parents also feeling awful for what had happened to him.

If the despatch rider carried individual files or small bunches of files, the dak boxes carried files by the score.  Painted a gleaming black – just like the despatch rider’s motorbike – the dak boxes, secured by locks affixed with a wax seal,  came to my father in batches.  They traveled on trains that were meant to connect to the train to which his saloon was attached.   Several of these boxes would be loaded into his moving office in the saloon at whichever was the earliest station where he could be found.   The dak boxes brought my father files from his office at the headquarters.  His paper work never stopped, even when he was on the move doing other official duties.  Every file in every box was attended to immediately, however late in the day it arrived, and would be sealed and ready for offloading at the next big railway junction.  Sometimes on those long “on line” journeys,  if I happened to be his sole family companion, I would peep into the saloon office and there he would be, sitting at his curved desk, wearing his thick black rimmed reading glasses and reading his files while simultaneously dictating to his saloon secretary who took furious notes in shorthand in an attempt to keep up with his scorching pace.  The secretary, too. had to work round the clock (in his office cabin at the rear of the saloon), since father worked all the time anyway.  After all, the government’s task of administering the country could not be allowed to pause at all.  This meant that every time a haul of dak boxes arrived, a corresponding haul of completed boxes – files already perused, accompanied by fresh, copiously typed notes or letters etc. – was returned,  put on the next available train that would take them back to the headquarters in the shortest possible time.  Father’s pace of work meant that every station master of every station along the route that he was taking had to stand by in readiness to make sure that the chain of work – symbolized by the heavy dak boxes – was never broken.

While the dak boxes and father’s never-ending work cycle were something that we children could witness up close on the rare occasions when we traveled with him on the saloon,  they did not really interest us.  What caught our fancy was the despatch rider, and every visit by him to our home was for us an occasion to savour.  Since his visits were usually on holidays or late evening hours, we would hear him even when he was some  distance away, and take up position at one of the windows lining the verandah fronting the road, leaning out dangerously and craning our necks to watch him glitter to a stop outside the house. He would whip his right leg smartly off the bike, ease off his helmet, smoothen his hair, and click his leather shoes up the stairs to the door.  In a flurry of competition we would dash to open the door for him even before he rang the bell, stumbling over the servant whose job it was to receive visitors.   And each time we would look up at his face to be rewarded with his slow friendly smile.  To him we may have been  the super boss’ kids –  he never spoke to us when father was within earshot – but for us he was our hero.  Even though we adored him we, too, remained decorously silent when father was around. But the admiration in our eyes, our shining pleasure in seeing him, was on full display for him and he always responded with warmth and affection in his smiling liquid brown eyes.

He was always nattily dressed in tight black trousers held up by a flashy broad black belt, white shirt, and sharply pointed black leather shoes that had a raised heel.  To my young eyes he seemed incredibly stylish…particularly after father’s office clothes of baggy cotton trousers, bush shirts, and what were called “pathan sandals” in the summer, and suits and formal office shoes in the winter.  I later on learnt that father’s shoes were all branded wares from England, or custom-made by his favourite Chinese shoemaker, and that all his clothes were of the best quality and impeccably tailored, but I was too little to understand all of that then.  Sobriety and understatement in my own home only added to the glitter that over-statement held to my eyes.

The drama at the door would continue as Sreedharan pulled himself up to his full height, clicked his heels and marched in, saluted my father and respectfully handed over the files he was carrying.  I remember hearing my mother say that Sreedharan had spent a few years in the army before joining the railways, which endowed him with a stamp of reliability, efficiency and smartness – essential virtues for a despatch rider who carried important documents.  While father read the contents and  signed the papers, Sreedharan would remain standing at attention, face impassive.  But he would give us his admirers –  making signs to him from behind a curtain – a secret smile from beneath his handle-bar moustache when he thought it was okay to do so.  Then he would salute, turn around smartly and leave.  We would wait impatiently for father to also leave the room before rushing to the windows again to take up position to watch Sreedharan start his bike and once again streak away with his precious cargo.  Whenever he felt that he was not being watched by an elder, Sreedharan would flash us a wave as he turned the bike in one swooping arc and raced away giving out his mighty roar.

It was when we ran into him sometimes, idling near his bike in the parking bay of father’s office, that Sreedharan would laugh and joke with us in his heavily accented Malayalam-Tamil drawl, swoop us up into the air and swing us around – like a true pal.

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Post-script:

It must seem indulgent to evoke in today’s India the nostalgia for a simple and charming world that is forever lost.  To someone of today’s generation – like my young son for whom I write this story – the tale of a despatch rider who evoked admiration and awe, and a workaholic government officer for whom public service was a sacred duty, might even sound unreal.

For, everything has changed.

It is not just the physical fact that despatch riders conveying files on motorbikes have become an anachronism in a world of internet and email.  Or that “being online” is another world  altogether from being “on line”!

It is not just that Bombay has become so overgrown and congested that even swanky cars – leave alone motorbikes! –  do not cut any ice on the smog-filled roads. Or, that Cuffe Parade with its genteel quiet seaside promenade and empty-of-traffic-straight-as-an-arrow-road that led to Churchgate – the scene of this story – is unrecognizably overrun by skyscrapers, sedans, slums, and false snob value;

What has really changed is that the almost equal admiration and awe that ordinary public servants like Sreedharan Nair and top ranking public servants like father  could evoke – in the eyes of adults and children, people in high places and people on the street, alike – for their dignified and transparent dedication to their work, no longer holds;

What has really changed is that the charm and genuineness of a despatcher’s ride on a motorbike while on ‘national duty’, has not been replaced by anything with the power to evoke a similar sentiment or excitement.  The blinking red light on every vehicle that ferries every little bureaucrat or politician around the city succeeds in evoking only public disdain and disgust, if anything at all;

What has really changed is that today it is not the speedy execution of decisions in the public interest that is the hallmark of the government’s functioning, but deliberate delays in and obfuscation of public issues; where, every time a file needs to move from one government desk to another, palms must be greased in sufficient measure for the money to travel all the way up from the peon (or despatch rider) at the door to the bureaucrat at the top;

What has really changed is that the ordinary person in India no longer counts for anything, and is repeatedly trampled underfoot by bossism at every level.  Which is why Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement received such unbelievably spontaneous support from hundreds of thousands of ordinary people from across the country, demanding strong means – of which the Lokpal Bill has now become a single tangible symbol –  that can ensure that public servants at all levels do the work for which they are paid, that decisions in the public interest are taken speedily, and that those violating the public good  are punished publicly.

Perhaps it sounds too simple to say this.  But it was possible in those days for  an honest and dedicated bureaucrat to set the tone at the top, and it did trickle all the way down to an honourable and proud despatch rider at the bottom.

 

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