It could have been my story but it isn’t because of an accident – the accident of birth. I am going to write a story today. A true story that shook me to the core. This story didn’t make the newspaper but it didn’t stay within the neighborhood where it took place either, it spread word to mouth and it reached me here, in America.
Not too long ago, a young woman, who we shall call Reena, was dreaming of a happy home with a loving husband. She didn’t belong to the emergent middle class in India, she was from the lowest strata, living in a simple home in a slum in Kolkata and dreaming of a simple, but content life with the man she was about to marry. It didn’t work out as she had planned, like it often doesn’t! Her husband didn’t share her dreams and didn’t want to share his life with her either. He drove her away after a few years of marriage. The reason? Who cares about it? She is just a woman and she is absolutely replaceable.
Reena came back home broken, abused. Her family did not welcome her with open arms. Why would they? She was just another mouth to feed and their resources were meagre. She had taken her share of the family inheritance in her dowry. When she returned empty-handed, she found she had no support in anyone or in any form. She was stigmatized since she was returned by her husband. It was her shame, she must have been at fault, of course! One day, during a quarrel, her brother said her life was not worth living. She was a burden to them, she was a burden to the world. The woman was emotionally vulnerable to begin with, she broke down completely and set herself on fire to end it, once and for all.
She couldn’t finish the job that she started though. Neighbors rescued her and took her to the hospital. Instead of succumbing to her injuries, she hung on to life. Reena survived. She walked out of that hospital with a misshapen face, disfigured with horrendous scars. She withdrew within herself, hid in the house for a while, covered her face with the pallu of her sari. But for some strange reason, she rediscovered her will to live again. This experience transformed her…gave her a will to try one more time, to take a shot at life. She didn’t talk to a therapist about it, she barely had two square meals but she must have figured out what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger, for she came out of her house swinging, determined to make it!
She was always a hard worker, she started looking for a job as a domestic help. But faced rejection, yet again. People didn’t want to look at a scarred face in their house doing their chores. A retired couple were divided on this issue of hiring Reena. Mrs. Basu wanted to give Reena a job on humanitarian grounds, to give her a chance at life again, while Mr. Basu feared the grandchildren, when they came to visit, will be scared by her. He was sympathetic to what life had dealt her but wasn’t ready to employ her for her deformity.
My India is shining brightly for many. We are hosting the Commonwealth games, beauty pageants, the Formula 1 car racing! It is an exciting time to be in Inda with its trendsetting fashion, booming IT industry, entertainment industry, the telecom industry. The glittering, sparkly malls, the retail therapy that my friends do to pick themselves up when they’ve had a rough day, the big decisions they make whether to buy the Prada handbag, the Jimmy Choo slippers, the latest iPhone or Mac Air. By saying this, I am not passing any judgements on anybody or trying to act holier than thou. If I didn’t dislike shopping with a passion and I had the money, who knows, I would probably do the same! We have been free from the British rule for only 65 years and look where we have come! I applaud the efforts of my country women and men. Hard work, perseverance, grit, determination, talent – a combination of all these have propelled the country forward despite the snail paced bureaucracy and corruption. But there are these pockets of darkness that we need to, yet, illuminate. Many, many good men and women are working hard to make a difference. I have had the good fortune of meeting some of them and seeing the fruits of their effort. While it is certainly encouraging, we still have a long, long way to go. So many women, urban and rural alike are underprivileged, uneducated, and are still at the mercy of societal indifference, neglect and discrimination.
I was discussing the state of women with some Indian friends, while sitting in a beautiful home, eating delicious food, when one of my friends commented that we are not in a position to criticize India. We left the country a while ago and what exactly are we doing to change the situation? We have lost the right to criticize the day we boarded the plane to leave for good. That brought me down from my lofty, all-knowing state and dashed me to harsh reality! My friend was right! It was so easy for me to criticize and point out the problems at a social gathering and then do nothing about it but just return to my comfortable home, to get a good night’s sleep. What a hypocrite!
I couldn’t do a thing to change Reena’s situation but I wanted to try. I spoke to Mr. Basu pleading with him to employ Reena for her skills and not reject her, yet again, this time for the deformity of her face. Children are sensitive, and by giving Reena a job, he can actually set a great example for his grandchildren. This is a perfect opportunity to teach his grandchildren the important lessons of giving a fellow human a chance, to teach them everybody deserves a chance, the lesson of looking deeper for beauty than what is visible to the eye, the lesson of compassion and empathy, the lesson of acceptance of others who may be different! His grandchildren will be enriched by this experience. They will learn from her that if life gives you lemon, make some lemonade. I do believe I have convinced him. I just may have a good night’s sleep tonight.