Little Rural Change Makers – A Bittersweet Intermezzo
Abhilasha is not the “typical” Janwaar kid. She is much older than the other girls – she acts like a young teenager though – and her playground is not the skatepark but the sewing machine she got one and a half years ago. The skatepark, she only watches from the distance – direct involvement with it came via the homestay Abhilasha and her parents are running. Over the last two years they’ve hosted quite a few guests who have eft Abhilasha with sweet memories.
Abhilasha is a very quiet girl, she’s not one to seize the initiative, she hardly went to school and is basically imprisoned in the house. She’s not allowed to walk alone around the village, and she’s of marriageable age, so both her brother – with whom she has a fraught relationship – and her father are desperately trying to get her married. Even though she doesn’t want to get married she would never dream of disobeying her parents or standing up to fight for what she herself wants. For her, getting married is just the “normal” path of life of a village girl.
Abhilasha says that her life changed with the skatepark. She started to love her village and when we got two sewing machines, she took her chance and became the best embroiderer and seamstress in “town”. I got her some really nice stuff to work with in Paris – needles, fabrics, thread – and she stitched the most beautiful tigers (our logo), on our bags, clothes, on plain cloth and somehow she’s even managed to make a living out of it! And when she started to earn her own living Abhilasha became “someone” – as she’s fond of saying.
A friend from Australia and first class handicraft artist, Trish, gave her guidance from a distance by sending material and samples. Abhilasha’s skills improved and as they improved she became more and more self-confident. She began to smile a lot and you could clearly see how deeply she enjoyed being part of the greater Janwaar community. So when I asked her if she would like to accompany two younger Janwaar girls to Australia where she would meet Trish – her eyes opened wide with astonishment and delight and started to shine. Left to herself, she would jump at the chance. Yet when I went to seek permission for her to go, it was a difficult and even embarrassing conversation I had with her elder brother and father. Many hateful words were mouthed by them, words not necessarily meant to be rude or hateful but words certainly deeply rooted in a very narrow-minded traditional way of thinking and living in a rural Indian society dominated by caste and men. It confronted me with everything I dislike about India. And honestly it was very hard to take, it really hurt me. But somehow we finally succeeded and the two patriarchs were ready to let her go and even graciously postponed her marriage.
Abhilasha was “on board”.
Our preparations for the trip to Australia were already in full swing when Abhilasha joined. We were collecting all the necessary papers for the visas, we had raised the funds for our travels and were planning what to do and where to go … We were all in high spirits.
But then “tradition” struck back.
I had come to Janwaar to get the last requisite signature from Abhilasha’s father when he said the absolutely unforeseeable. In his usual rude manner, chewing as ever his red-brownish tobacco and running around restlessly. Out of the blue he informed me that I could only take his daughter if I would pay him three lakhs INR (roughly 4000 Euros) for her dowry. He was absolutely aware of what he was doing and he did it in his infuriating top-down macho-male manner – but even so I could still sense that he knew he was doing wrong. His restless agitated manner gave the game away. He walked up and down in front of me – puffing out his chest like a little Napoleon, not trying to convince me with arguments of which he had none but cow me into silence and submission with this crude display of male superiority. Male superiority in full tilt reinforced by ignorance and stupidity.
I was thunderstruck, speechless with consternation at first. Then I freaked out. I started yelling I simply couldn’t believe what was happening. Abhilasha was sitting there – helpless and seemingly indifferent – a mirror image of her mother. I felt like I’ve been hit with a hammer. And I left.
I wasn’t sure what to do, how to handle the situation. It took me quite a time. I spoke with some friends and people who were deeply involved in our travel arrangements and I finally and most regretfully decided to take none of the girls. The fun factor was completely out of the window – what could have been a joyous celebration for the whole village – four of their girls were travelling to Australia – turned into something very dark and troubling.
I sat down with the other girls and their parents and felt their immense sadness and intense disappointment. I’m not sure if they really understood my point – but certainly they disagreed with what Abhilasha’s father had done. Some villagers decided to talk to him – At the time of writing I don’t know about what outcome this might have had. I just feel that I should make a very strong point to the village.
Looking at Abhilasha and watching her after the horrible crash leaves me with more questions than answers. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about NOT going to Australia. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about the fact that she’s getting married. I don’t know if she’s happy or not about the fact that she is not allowed to walk outside.
For me it was just another lesson in learning how deeply ingrained these old traditions are and how much (financial) pressure they impose on families … I believe Abhilasha’s father is in despair about getting enough money together to finance the wedding and Abhilasha is just another girl in an Indian village who is not allowed to life her own life. And she simply accepts it as if there were no alternative, as if there were no way out.