Iris C F Gomes
This is the experience of a girl who had the gumption to explore unfamiliar territory, notwithstanding her disability. She stumbled upon an India so far removed from the vision of the Father of the nation, Mahatma Gandhi.
Stacy Rodrigues is a visually impaired artist and writer. She has surmounted her own travails and can be considered a heroine in her own right. When she is not lost in the comforting brush strokes of art or the soothing therapy of poetic lines, Stacy keeps herself engaged tutoring students in the English language. It so happened that some time back she had the opportunity to teach a young man from Uttar Pradesh. He described an India foreign to her knowledge. She was intrigued by his stories and decided to pay his village a visit.
On her arrival at *Ameerpur (name changed) she was scrutinized by the people, especially the women, like a novelty. They began touching her, feeling the texture of her skin and her clothes in naïve fascination with this visitor who seemed strange and amazing to them. Thus began Stacy’s unique sojourn of one and a half months.
The houses consist of a single room where up to twenty family members reside. The houses have no windows which prevents the women folk from looking outside. Latrines are outside the house. Courtyards have high enough walls to curb any curiosity. Charpoys are used as beds and meals are simple. Everything from vegetables to chicken is called ‘sabji’ (vegetable) for some strange reason. Horses are as common as stray dogs are in Goa and they still use horse carriages.
The notion of gender equality is viewed as a sin. The girls are not educated but stay home and do beadwork they call ‘moti bannana’ (making pearls). They are married off at thirteen or fourteen into a life of slavery. Sometimes they are forced to marry men much older than them.
The soon to be married couple is not allowed to see his or her future spouse until after the wedding ceremony. This has proved to lead to criminal activity on occasion. Stacy relates how on the wedding night of one couple, the two young people were left alone. Before anything could transpire between the two to consummate the marriage, the groom was summoned to have a word with the Collector. As the Collector is a well-respected personality in the area, the young man hurried away, warning his wife that when he came back he would signal her by crowing like a rooster. Unfortunately, five ruffians also heard him. The village has very limited access to electricity and so it was dark in the house. Each man took turns with the bride, calling out in the manner the groom had indicated. Since the young woman was not really acquainted with her husband, the ruffians were able to do the dastardly deed in the cover of darkness. When the husband came back the exhausted bride was fast asleep and would not respond to his cry. He questioned her after waking her up and she replied that he had already gone back and forth five times. It was then that they realised what had happened. The Panchayat met and decided that it was not the girl’s fault in any way and the groom’s family accepted her. From that time seeing the photograph of the future groom and bride is permissible. It seems surreal but it in fact happened during Stacy’s stay there.
Casteism is rampant here. The chuda caste is considered untouchable and they are only allowed to perform the most menial tasks. A young medical student was in the habit of occasionally conversing with a girl of the chuda caste. The villagers began to gossip and sully his good reputation. Stacy says, ‘Pride and honour are very important for these people.’ As a result the young man placed his neck on the railway track to allow the train wheels to go over it. The first attempt was stalled as the driver stopped the train. He then went between the bogies and placed his neck in a similar position. This time the driver could do nothing without risking the lives of the passengers as the train would derail if he stopped. It is claimed not a drop of blood spilled from his decapitated body. The villages saw this as evidence of his innocence and the whole village went into mourning.
Another incident Stacy relates, has to do with a Muslim boy’s friendship with a Hindu girl. This too was misinterpreted as a love affair. The boy was waylaid and murdered. The girl hanged herself on hearing the news because she realised she would be next. Stacy is very critical of the double standards held here. Sexual escapades are a reality, albeit clandestinely. Pretence shields false pride.
The women tried their best to convince Stacy that her manner of thinking was wrong and would take her to hell. Women were meant to be subservient to men was the attitude they held. Ironically, she also heard them lament their plight when they met as a group. They complained that they received no respect at all. And yet, generation after generation has continued with this trend of behaviour. Education, which is restricted to the men, has hardly made a dent in their boorish conduct. Stacy berated them that instead of rectifying the state of affairs and teaching boys to honour women, they are happy to wallow in their cesspool of hubris. She has no doubt it fell on deaf ears. Corruption rules with degrees bought and crimes swept under the rug with bribery. ‘I was so glad to come away. They asked me to come back but there is no way I’m going back,’ she says, expressing her appreciation of the creature comforts she is privileged to have in Goa.
Ameerpur is the reality of most of rural India. One wonders if we are eligible to be called a developing country when villages remain largely untouched by progress, be it materially or ideologically. ‘Who know when things will change?’ Stacy sighs. This is the perfect cue for agencies of social change to pull up their socks and commence with projects that will bring meaningful transformation. There are various groups that are doing positive work in pockets of India, but what we need to see is social change at an accelerated pace to make India truly shine.