Notes of a young mother.
[By Manika Dhama]
“It’s a girl.”
Immediately after I heard her first cry the doctor informed me that I had given birth to a girl. Perhaps I was just imagining their lack of enthusiasm at the news, but while they ran customary checks on her, I wondered how people usually broke the news of a baby boy’s birth and whether it was as solemn. A little while later they handed her over saying “Here’s your daughter.”
I had to stop smiling and purse my lips into a pout so that I could kiss her cheek. Truth be told, I followed the kiss with trying to check if she had my eyes. She didn’t, and I thought, “Ah well, perhaps it is better if she has her own version of everything.”
She was born in 2011, the year the Census in India came out with a grim statistic – the sex ratio in the country had declined to its lowest since Independence, at 914 females to 1000 males (the final population figures since put out by the Registrar General’s office have been significantly upwardly revised to 918). Infant mortality plays truant across the country but so does active silencing of the female voice before and after birth. Countless female foetuses do not get a chance to open their eyes and look at the world. Some who do grace the air with their first cry are forced into darkness, sometimes by helpless mothers but most often by ‘family’ who ask the mother to “look away” and forget all about it. And forget we do, because our collective consciousness has learnt to look the other way.
Nearly three decades before that census, an old woman drove through the summer night in an Ambassador car in central India. Her daughter-in-law was in labour after having laughed her heart out at a humour classic earlier that evening and had to be taken to the hospital. The father had not been granted leave by his (Government) employers. So the two women rode alone hoping to see a healthy, possibly laughter-loving baby soon.
The baby was born in the early afternoon the next day and was immediately diagnosed with infantile jaundice, which is a common ailment among newborns. However, this affliction was severe and the infant was placed in the nursery for nearly ten days with photo therapy that required the eyes to be shielded. The mother, a paediatrician, knew the range of symptoms and how bad things could get if the baby’s condition worsened. She may have cried thinking about all the bad things that could happen to the child. But ten days later, her little girl, was ready to see the world.
My early years were spent around the gorgeous hills in the north Indian state of Himachal Pradesh. While I created childhood memories of river stream picnics, devoured years later through scenic photographs, my mother worried some more about her shy girl and how life would treat such a quiet child. It didn’t help that relatives did their bit comparing cousins and suggesting that the feisty tomboyish one would grow up to ride a bike and wipe the tears of the wailer. That image, like most other plans hatched too early, didn’t quite play out that way. But I found myself being encouraged to search for my voice, irrespective of the form it came through.
Slowly I learnt that your voice that pushed forth your will was the strongest tool a person had, not by trampling on the sounds of others but by ensuring that you made yourself heard. Instead of looking the other way, I learnt that you had to jump right in the centre of the ring and fight; because there were things that needed to be verbalized and others that were waiting for just a little support. It also became amply clear that most people (women included) found nothing more fearsome than a woman with an opinion.
Under-graduate studies took me to an all-women’s college in Delhi, the nation’s capital, where I’ve been based ever since. During the daily commute by bus (living in the suburbs meant I needed to change two), I encountered molestation of the butt-pinching, breast-grabbing, hand-on-crotch variety, where only the degree varied over time. The more comfortable Delhi Metro had not begun then and there was no “women’s coach” to get pushed into. Like all other things a woman must “learn to live with”, we used elbows, safety pins and loudly shaming the culprit to get by.
This was also the time I was exposed to countless stories from around the world detailing the trials and triumphs of women through the ages. The suffrage movement in U.S. and Europe, the closeted yet brilliant lives of gifted women writers and harsher realities closer home that showed up in newspapers every day, and continue to, with increasing viciousness, today.
Rape, acid attacks, domestic violence, female foeticide, all stem from the base desire to silence and force into submission the valiant voice within a woman’s heart. This is the voice that often threatens established ‘norms’ and seeks an alternative life not crafted entirely by others. She questions, admonishes, refuses to accept all that women before her were ‘supposed to do’. This refusal to ‘conform’ and be ‘tamed’ creates conflicts, which unfortunately do not lead to questioning their relevance as much as it does to the silencing of the ‘aberrant’ voice of the woman.
Even as I write this piece, I receive a message from a female friend about having been accosted by two men on a bike at a crowded parking lot in Delhi in broad daylight. She was walking from the metro station, tagging along with the daily crowd, when these two men first started making lewd comments from a distance and then they pulled up closer. Before she had time to react, the rider pulled out a bottle and threw the contents on her face. In those fifteen minutes of chaos she was certain she had been attacked with acid.
It turned out to be hot water. She lost her balance and collided with the pillion rider and they both fell. Her left arm was bruised and while she tried to get back up on her feet, the attackers had fled. The crowd that had by now gathered around her was full of people some of whom tried to help, while others simply stared or worse still, laughed at her. She could hear murmurs of “these things keep happening to girls”. Luckily a nearby vendor had noted the number on the bike and armed with that my friend went to the nearby police station to lodge a complaint. The officer on duty looked at her and said she probably invited the boys’ attention because of her clothes, which revealed her legs. He went on to suggest that since nothing was going to happen to the case anyway, she should just get out of the mess and FORGET ABOUT IT. She went on to lodge a complaint against the boys and the police officer. Based on the bike number plate, the boys were rounded up the next day and turned out to be local hawkers. My friend identified them and they were taken into custody.
I relate this incident here to remind us that it is not alright to find reasons for a crime against women in the clothes she wore, the things she said or how she behaved. And it is not alright to pretend like these things happen in a faraway universe outside of our lives. Or that these are everyday occurrences so we must all forget about it. For then we’re teaching our girls to ALWAYS BE AFRAID (or silent) and telling our boys that they can get away with ANYTHING. Neither of those reflects the true meaning of freedom.
Every year we proudly celebrate the decades since India became a free state. And yet it remains unfair to joyously proclaim this freedom when one half of the country’s citizens are denied the right to life with dignity. Why must a woman have to ‘fight’ to survive, thrive and lead a life on her own terms? Why doesn’t it bother enough people’s consciousness to do something about it, in their own, small way? Why must we close our eyes to the reality of discrimination, abuse and inequality and answer it not by punishing perpetrators but by forcing the female voice into submission or silence?
My life has had more in common with many women and most men from a similar socio-economic background than with countless other women across the country. This life has been unhindered by struggles that scores of women face everyday. My education, marriage, motherhood, profession have not been dictated by those around me. I continue to enjoy (or falter at!) the fruits of my labour, with support of those around me. This ‘privileged’ existence has come most significantly from the social milieu of the family I was born into, but it has also come from the uninhibited sky under which I was left free to dream.
As my daughter turns three, I continue to celebrate the things she says and does, to feed her curiosity of all the new things she encounters, to lead the way till she wants to walk alone. In all the things she and I will share over time, I wish we never have to talk about “learning to live with” being a woman in India. And when we do, I hope these words conjure up images of a carefree life, bound only by her will and not by externalities that force her actions.
Every child is born with a song in her heart, one that she polishes over time, humming and setting it to tune. It is for us to let her sing to her heart’s content, without erecting walls that trap her voice within.
One woman in a big city (Photos by Mayank Austen Soofi)
2. (the author with daughter)
3. (with brother)
4. (with mother and daughter)