A bright september sun shines through the trees, fishing nets hanging out to dry in the sun, a winding road down bifurcating the green fields from the huts. Hills encircle the landscape like a drum circle around a folk song. Green fields stretch out into the horizon as if covering up a bitter truth with pristine beauty.
We walk a little further in, feeling the sun on our faces like we hadn’t quite felt in the city. The Breakthrough video van trails ahead of us, announcing out the schedule, mobilizing the community, the booming mike and the animated tone drawing out the crowds.
I’m not going to talk about the details of the show, which was so much fun, mainly because I want to talk about something else. Prejudice. My prejudice.
I grew up in the city of Jamshedpur, and then moved to Delhi. So throughout my life, all I’ve been a part of is the common city narrative of impoverished rural people, unable to distinguish between good and bad, unable to understand that the world around them had changed, people that needed to be educated and reformed.
As I talk about my experiences in Rampur, I want to highlight not the problems of the village, and there are many. I want to talk about the conversations I had with the people over there. People who surprised me, and in many cases inspired me. People who were committed to newer ideas and to change.
One woman I spoke with after the show was this woman who had been married off at the age of 14. She has two daughters and two sons. She wants her daughters to grow up to be doctors, engineers, teachers, policewomen or government officials. She believes that in a land where her destiny was a premature wedding, her daughters could use the resources that a new world had to offer and summon a spirit of resilience and perseverance to carve out a different destiny.
Another woman who actually volunteered to speak told us that her family gets a lot of suitors for her teenage granddaughter, and she rejects everyone because “Let her study now”, she says with a twinkle in her eye. That twinkle is perhaps resonant for the dreams of her granddaughter, it is perhaps a reflection on the life that she wanted to live, and she hopes her granddaughter will be able to.
I spoke to teenage girls who were quick and witty and intelligent, who knew about the laws that protect them from an early marriage and were very interested in how they could work with Breakthrough to affect change at a community level. I spoke to village nukkad naatak groups who profess feminism in the yard around the village temple. They talk about equality and freedom in the village and bring hope that while the traditional has always been masculine, the modern can be more inclusive.
Unfortunately, the opportunities afforded to these girls are hardly enough to bear the weight of their big dreams. Many people never make it out of the village and in the absence of a way out, fall into the same cycle again, passing on their dreams to their next generation in resignation.
The people in Rampur don’t need to be ‘reformed’, they don’t need ‘civilization’. They need opportunities. They need better infrastructure, and better governance, and better schools and universities and a better public distribution system. Because I saw young women, fifteen or sixteen years old, carving through age old structures with the promise of a better tomorrow. I have seen mothers, who were married off as children, speak about dreams for their children.
Today we start celebrating ‘The International Day of the Girl Child’. The theme this year is ‘Girls’ progress = Goals’ progress: A Global Girl Data Movement”. The premise is the need to plug the gap in the data that we have about these communities. A sub theme this year is Early Marriage. And I have never felt as much vigor as I do now to work towards it.
I’m not claiming that I have nearly the cognitive or experiential fortitude to fully understand their issues, and their struggles in a comprehensive manner. However, among them, I realized that there was a larger subtitled conversation that was taking place everyday, one that we couldn’t understand because while we may speak the same language, the contextual understanding for those words is very different and based in their lived realities.
It reminded me of what Gayathri Spivak, an Indian American scholar said. The subaltern (tribals, communities without representation and access to resources available to the rest of us) is speaking. But can we hear them?
There is a new generation of young people out there rethinking gender and taking on a difficult world. And we’re going to have their backs.