The other side of illusion

An urbanite’s journey into India’s interior, just off the busy highway, just next to the bustling economies of Delhi and Gurgaon

Aditi Bhansali Mewat

Driving into the district of Mewat, I anticipated all the in-built visions of rural life in India. Solely brought up in Delhi, my experience with the rural Indian setup has been limited to glances through train windows and roadside dhabas. But never before have I set a foot in these villages. So I was imagining the Indian rural clichés of colourful garments being adorned by the women folk, masses of children playing with tid-bits

on the road, men starting their routine work after a meeting at the local tea stall and other such pleasant imaginings till I was shaken with the ground reality of the widespread poverty and ignorance. I was dismayed at the backwardness of this alien world. I was horrified at the state of elementary education in rural India and the nerve-racking ignorance harboured by all of Mewat’s inhabitants. I felt more ignorant about my own world than the one outside.

 Farms of golden colours spread as far as the eyes could see, with narrow roads like the only reminders to urban lifelines. Thatched roofs, stone houses, muck in the water and mud palaces of the unfortunate greeted me. Nauseating smells came uninvited. Energetic children in clothes varying from briefs to their birthday suits flickered here and there, jumping on cattle, quarrelling over a bent tyre, following the cars with glee and competition. The sun made water glisten on their brown backs as they jumped gleefully into the tiny lakes. Clear muddy hands making sand cakes in the water, children of any time will remain just children, untouched by dread or disillusionment of their times.

Women in this predominantly Muslim community were reluctant to even answer in mono-syllables.  They marry early, are faithfully fecund, and bury their small dreams through life’s passage.

The first town to visit was Kairaka which is an Indian villagedom at its very heart. Entering into the NGO SMART’s centre for training I was greeted by many shy eyes and hooded heads. About 20 girls sat on the floor amidst snippets of cloth and books, and all adjusted their veils in order to show their respect for the visitors. The girls were extremely timid. After a long and trying war with the sums given to them on the blackboard, they finally opened up to the outsiders who were there to evaluate their achievements. Nazma, a girl dressed in brown, wrote her name shyly, but no one noticed. She quietly wiped it out and wrote it in a larger hand and waited patiently and expectantly until five minutes later the evaluator saw it.

I thought of Gurgaon, not so far away, where technology and business were booming and a metro was being planned. I felt a sudden hatred for the system which had been fair to me and unfair to so many.

A bumpy ride ahead with the view of the Indian pastoral life came in front of me as we rode to Machhroli. The previous SMART centre had fallen in a pile of rubble and it had conveniently shifted to a brick shack next door. And then, peeping inside, I saw about thirty eager girls, excited to meet the new people who actually had come to see them. I noticed many hand-made murals on the walls, clothes made from paper, names of the animals and plants and the alphabets. A motivational poem was written on a decrepit blackboard in a neat hand. I think that’s when their hopes hit me with headlights and no warning. These girls have got to have it in them. They could be orators, businesswomen, homemakers, lawyers, teachers out there, all wasted under the dominance of orthodoxy. The sheer contrast of talent and the lack of opportunity and justice stung.

The girls at Machhroli were the brightest I met that day. When the evaluator told them to add up numbers, a girl in orange multiplied them. I felt a sudden triumph when each answered the question allotted to her correctly. It was almost as if it was my own personal victory. A few fumbled, but in the end all opened up and spoke about their lives.

Getting up early, cleaning and dusting their houses, making breakfast and other such chores dominated their mornings till they visited the centre. After 1 pm, they reluctantly had to get back to their mounting chores of cooking, cleaning and taking care of their siblings. Many girls were married off early and their lives had no music, no television, and no games.

Parents below the 30-40 age group still supported the basic education of girls, but the elderly have not come out of the slumber of the ancient world. Marry, procreate, manage the household and listen to the husband -- there is no other holy order for these girls.

Surviving the golden ages, domination and the independence struggles comprise all 4,000 years of India’s exotic history. We have to battle ignorance of a new kind. Not just the ignorance of the world beyond, but the ignorance of opportunities and a better standard of living. We have to put the shame of ignorance to shame. Eradicate it, only by planned and apt education. Robert Browning said “God’s in his heaven, all’s right with the world”…here it seems impossible.

I felt a surprising reluctance to leave these keen young girls of Mewat, who liked to steal glances at me and looked away shyly when I beamed at them. My brain felt violated. It was a horrific vicious circle. Someone wise once said that there can be no sanctity, no truth, and no spirituality without women. Then why are these girls given a life without a dream, a vision or permission or freedom of expression? Surely our forefathers did not fight for this? It seems that they are made to practise the fourth amendment without question. There can be no development until education and freedom do not reach all of India’s offspring. But the key to it is to realise this. “Only the educated are free” and only the free can really know themselves. Small glimmers of hope come when I see people work zealously for these girls. I pray that the dedicated do not give up. With millions of people living in unsuitable as well as unhygienic conditions, it gave some relief to my injured soul that people who cared existed and did not get tangled with the flawed system. At least some are conscious. And hence there is hope.

Maybe Prometheus will redeem us. Maybe Pandora will smile again.

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