On the cover of an Indian magazine are two children, a boy and a girl, twins, standing shyly near their mother. They are about 10 years old. The boy is taller and clearly weighs more than the girl, though his eyes are more bashful than hers. The mother’s face is impassive—I get the feeling I’ll never guess what she is thinking or feeling when the picture was taken. They all stare into the camera, the mother unsmiling, standing in front of an unpainted little brick house.
She is Rajmati, the wife of Saket Ram, a farmer from a northern state in India. She cleans, cooks and keeps house for her family, which includes her mother-in-law, a widowed sister-in-law and an unmarried brother-in-law. She is 24 and looks 50. There is no running water in her village and every morning she trudges three miles to a river to get two pots of water for her family. Her daughter goes with her, but can carry only one earthen pot on her head. Her husband leaves early for the fields with his brother and she lets her son sleep in till she can come back and give him his breakfast before he leaves for school. His twin sister comes home with her pot of water, bathes, and helps her mother cook flat wheat breads for her brother and the rest of the family. He eats four; she is offered one and eats it happily. Some days when she is hungry even after eating her share she begs her brother for a piece of his and he gives it to her almost always willingly. She never questions her mother about the discrepancy, she knows she is a girl and this is her lot.
My first born, my son, was born three years after my marriage. I worked in the quality control department of a TV manufacturer and opted to stay home from the day he was born. Three years later, I was pregnant again. I wanted a daughter so badly I took to praying every night. I’ll never drink again, I’ll never fight with my husband again, I’d bargain with God in my prayers, just give me a girl. You see I had a great deal at stake here. The survival of my family name depended on my having a daughter. I am the only daughter of a single child, my mother.
I belong to the Nair community of Kerala, a state in south India, where the family lineage is through the mother. My children bear my name, not my husband’s and my daughter by giving birth to girls would carry the family name further. My son bears my name but his children will carry their mother’s family name. There are very few communities in the world, which are matrilineal. In our family, the birth of a female child is cause for great celebration. When I grow old and wish to live with one of my children, I will consider my daughter’s home first.
While feticide and infanticide of females goes on in the world we stand as a community for equality or even feminine superiority. It’s an undeniable fact that a woman’s place in her home and in society is highly enhanced if the traditional patriarchal system is abolished. A Nair woman enjoys so many privileges her counterparts in the rest of India do not. Even a hundred years ago, Nair women were encouraged to learn and work outside the home. They were assured of a fair share of their parents’ property and were on an equal if not higher platform than the men folk. Domestic abuse was unheard of.
In Rajmati’s house girls are married off when they are 10 or 11. Her older sister was wed when she was eight, to a man 40 years her senior, who died a few months after the wedding. The young widow was not expected to burn at her husband’s funeral pier as the family was forward thinking but maybe she was better off dead. Since her widowhood she has been forced to live a life of extreme severity, her hair was shorn when she was eight-and-a-half, she is allowed to eat only one meal a day and has to spend her days praying for the salvation of her soul and her dead husband. She is banned from all social gatherings and is considered inauspicious. Rajmati fears speaking to her sister lest the same fate befalls her.
When her daughter came into this world she had cried with the rest of the village. Even as they celebrated the birth of the boy alongside, the woman folk of the village beat their heads and keened, mourning the birth of the girl child. Perhaps they knew what you and I find hard to fathom——about the life of a girl in a patriarchal society like Rajmati’s.
The American magazine I read today has a story about teen mothers. It also features a story about domestic violence and on the cover is a young woman, with dead eyes—blackened, both of them, by her spouse. The story is strange; she is battered by her husband regularly but chooses to live with him. She does not want to press charges against him or leave him. Where will she go if she leaves him? Is it legitimacy, social or otherwise that she is after? What can this being of a different gender offer her that she bears this abuse without complaint or recriminations? I wonder as I draw parallels between the various stories.
I look into my 10-year-old daughters’ eyes for answers. I see laughter, fun and innocence. She is growing up in this country, in these times. I try and imbibe in her, values I hold dear. I hold her close and see my progeny in our embrace.