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Come… See our village!

PRIA and Martha Farrell Foundation are collaborating to develop a model for fostering health and wellbeing for married adolescent girls and girls at risk of child, early and forced marriages. We are sharing our ideas, challenges and best practices as we work with communities including girls, boys, men and women, in an effort to better the lives of these girls, so that they can become #MoreThanJustBrides. Recently, Julie Thomas, Program Officer, went to Loda Basti in Panipat to meet with adolescent girls in the village resource centre set up by PRIA.

The meeting started. The girls seemed excited, eager. Except Pooja. She was distracted and constantly looked towards the door. For a second I thought she was not interested, but then I realised her restlessness was because she was not feeling comfortable in the group.

Fourteen-year-old Pooja belongs to a Brahmin family while the other girls in the group are Bawariyas, a lower caste. The meeting was taking place in PRIA’s resource centre in Bawariya Basti. Pooja’s friends from her neighbourhood had attended the previous two meetings, but not today.

I got diverted by the active girls in the group. I asked, “Do you know your village? And your basti (neighbourhood)?” Ofcourse! they answered, in near unison.

“So tell me something about your village,” I said.

The girls started whispering amongst themselves. I heard random words: “chota gaon”, “kabadi”, “gandagi”.

“But I am not familiar with your basti, or your village. How will I know what they are like?”

This gave the girls some pause for thought. Once again the whispering started. Then Kiran stood up and said, “Chalo didi, hum aapko basti dikhathe hai.” (Come on, we’ll show you our basti.)

“How wonderful!” I said excitedly. “Let’s take some photographs as we walk around. Does anyone know how to click photographs with a phone camera?”

Immediately, Pooja stood up. Without saying a word, she took my phone and clicked a few pictures of the group and showed them to me and the other girls. Wonderful! I could see her eyes sparkle. Maybe it made her feel important that none of the other girls knew how to click pictures. But I should not be judgemental. I was happy that she wanted to be involved. I asked her to click pictures of all the things which are important for the village, like the water pump, the shops, temples, etc, and things she found interesting.

We started our walk, with Pooja right in front, happily clicking pictures. We saw garbage everywhere. The girls told me that rag picking was the most common occupation among the households in their neighbourhood. The rag pickers collect the kabadi (trash), sell what is useful and dump the rest outside their own houses. When it rains, the entire basti becomes a mess.

We had stopped to talk. A woman stepped out from her house and spoke to us. “Dekh behen, itna kooda. Lekin kya kare, issi se hum apna pet bharthe hai, hame aur kuch nahe aata.” (Look at the amount of garbage. But what can we do? We are able to eat because of the trash we collect and sell. We don’t know any other way to earn money.) I could see many girls nodding in agreement.

“Do you like this profession?” I asked.

The girls looked at each other. They were quiet for a while. Then one said, “Arre didi, hame aur kuch kaam karne nahin denge gharwale, chahe wo ladki ho ya ladka.” (Whether it’s a boy or girl, our families will not let us do any other work.)

We continued our walk around the village. Lajwanti, one of the earliest settlers in the neighbourhood, joined us. She took us to see the temple her ancestors had built. There she offered us glasses of water. But Pooja refused to take one. Before I could say anything, Lajwanti started entreating, “Arre, pee le na beti. Tu Brahman hai. Hamare mandir main ayee hai, hamara mandir aur bhi shudh ho gaya. Main tere ghar pe nahin bolungi. Kyon bahar walo ke samne hamari naak katwa rahi hai.” (Please take one. You are a Brahmin. You have come to our temple, that is an honour. Our temple has become purer after your visit. I won’t tell your family. Please keep my respect in front of the visitor.)

I wanted to say, “Stop, please stop, don’t beg just because of you are from a lower caste.” But I could not say anything.

Pooja finally gave in and took the proffered glass. I looked at Lajwanti; she was wiping tears. She told me she was so happy because she got the opportunity to serve a Brahmin today. She thanked me, because I had made this possible.

I wanted to tell her not to thank me, but rather see herself as worthy and equal to me, Pooja, or any other human being. But I knew her happiness would not let her hear my words.

We continued our walk. We saw the two shops where the waste was sold. There were huge piles outside. Young boys from the basti hung around the shop. Drunk men lay on the road; others played cards in the shade of the trees. It was no surprise when the girls told me that domestic violence was a huge problem in their basti. Some of the girls were abusing drugs, seeing their mothers, fathers and brothers doing so. They were surrounded by dirt, alcoholism and drugs, how could they not be influenced?

So engrossed was I in listening to their problems, that I hadn’t noticed Pooja walking away. It was only when a boy handed me back my phone that I realised she had left the group.

I returned to the resource centre, a bit dejected. Why had she left midway?

Then I saw her. She was waiting for me inside. I thanked her for taking the photographs. “You have taken some very good ones,” I said appreciatively. “But why did you leave the group?”

She hesitated to answer. I could see her struggle with herself before she replied. “Teen hafte se hum Bawariya ladkiyo ke saath baithe hai, unki basti main, unke saat khel rahe hai, bol rahe hai. Aaj pehli baar eak Bawariya ke ghar se paani piya hai, unki basti ki gali mein gayi hoon. Hum toh unke ghar ke angan main pair nahe rakthe. Gharwale kya kahenge? Mujhe darr lagta hai main un jaise na ban jaun.” (For three weeks I have been associating with Bawariya girls, talking to them, playing with them. Today for the first time I entered their neighbourhood, even drunk a glass of water offered by them. We Brahmins don’t associate with them. What will my family think? I’m afraid. I don’t want to become a Bawariya.)

I understood her fears. This was the reality of much of rural India, where caste overwhelms how you live your life.

But then she said something that left me smiling with hope.

“Lekin mujhe yahan achaa lagta hai… khelna, baat karna, aapki baate sunnaa. Main toh agli meeting ke liye bhi aungi.” (But I like coming here. The games, what we talk, listening to you. I’m definitely going to come for the next meeting.)

What a wonderful world it would be, where Brahmins, Dalits, Bawariyas, everyone sits together, laughs, learns and lives life.


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