Double As and one A+


There was a celebratory air in my home in Kolkata today. As I chatted with ma and baba this morning, right after “tora kemon achish?” (how are you all), I was informed Khushi’s report card is out and she has done very well in school. I saw baba’s face on the camera grinning from ear to ear, while I heard ma’s proud voice in the background, “She got double A in all subjects, A+ in just one.” By baba’s side, with a lovely gap toothed smile stood 7 year old Khushi, looking at me through the computer. My usual Thursday morning suddenly became festive.

She is a 7 year old little girl. Her successful report card for one semester may not seem worth celebrating to some. However, when one knows the relentlessness of her mother to ensure that Khushi receives quality education despite all the obstacles that is thrown in their path, one can not help but doff one’s hat in respect. Khushi’s mother, Breshpati, barely knows Bengali alphabets. She can not read. Once she had Khushi seven years ago, she made a resolution that her child will have every opportunity to education and resources that she lacked. She was employed as a maid early on in childhood so her two brothers could attend school. Her daughter, she vowed, would have a different life. Hearing the hope in her voice as she held her new born in her arms, I enlisted myself as a soldier beside her to help achieve her dreams for her daughter. The real work was done by her mother. Breshpati worked in people’s houses as a domestic help for livelihood yet ensured that her day afforded enough time for her to take Khushi to her tutor’s house for lessons or to her dance class or to her drawing class. Khushi’s birth in a financially strapped family was not going to take away opportunities from her – that was her mother’s promise.

Schooling during Covid has been especially challenging. Schools went online. It took Breshpati and my parents quite an effort to understand the technology. Little Khushi figured out how to attend classes before her grown ups did though. She attended school from our living room, neatly attired in her school uniform and did her homework with the help of her tutor, a lovely young woman who also comes from an impoverished family, and with the help of my mother.

Attending school

Every morning she sits next to baba as he reads the Bengali newspaper and tries to sound out the difficult words along with him. He helps her with the words if she stumbles. Ma makes sure her penmanship is good and her grammar is perfect. When we video chat with them, they proudly summon her to greet us in English. She asks us, “How are you?” And my parents marvel at her lovely English pronunciation. She recites for us sometimes and dances too. She loves performing and is a natural in front of canera. The adopted grandparents look on with unabashed pride.

When I heard about her good result, I asked my parents to buy her a gift to celebrate her success. Her mother chimed in, “No didi, don’t give her anything. Let us see how she does in her final exams.” We compromised on a chocolate bar while promising a bigger celebration after her final report card, which I believe will be equally good.

I am not sure what is in store for this little girl. Education is not the top priority in the neighborhood she lives in. Girls marry young and become young mothers. Her mother, however, talks of endless possibilities for her daughter. She tells her child she can become anything in life, just get an education. She lays out the only path available to Khushi that will be her ticket out of poverty. My parents and my family here are cheerleaders and supporters.

That little girl is surrounded by love and support. That may just be enough to see her through. She and her mother fill me up with hope.

Khushi


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She didn’t have a daak nam (pet name or nick name) when we first saw her. She was simply a bundle of dimpled chin, kicking thighs, little hands and a cherubic face. As we entered our house in Kolkata, after a long 25 hour travel, we saw her intently focussed on the ceiling fan overhead, taxing her two month old brain to understand what makes the funny thing work. We walked towards her, she tried to focus her eyes on the faces of these strangers and uttered some adorable kitten sounds with a toothless smile. Sean asked me what was Bangla for happy.

‘Khushi.’ I said.

‘She should be named Khushi then because that is what she is. Khushi.’

Khushi is the new-born baby of our domestic help, Breshpati. As she lay there, kicking her impossibly little yet impeccably shaped tiny feet, Khushi didn’t know she was unwittingly the key player in a tragic drama that her birth has begun. Her birth in the ‘wrong’ gender, to be precise. Although she was born at the end of May in 2013 in a semi developed country called India, she was still unwanted because she didn’t have a penis. She was healthy and impossibly cute but she was still a girl. Her father’s family didn’t want her. After her birth in a hospital where the sanitary conditions left much to be desired and her mother had to stay up all night to keep little cockroaches off her new-born baby, Khushi’s father did not come to see her. He finally came after several days, and after innumerable phone calls. We met Khushi when she was almost 3 months. Till date, her paternal grandparents hadn’t come to see their grandchild. Breshpati was at our house, cooking for us. She meant to take her baby back to her in-law’s house after we left. She was nervous. She was nervous about the reception she and her daughter were going to get in a home, which was supposed to be her ‘forever home.’

I don’t know what can be more entertaining than babies – of any species. I can spend hours just staring at the face of a baby and Khushi provided me my baby fix. As I sat next to her, watching her dark liquid eyes, rosebud mouth, little tongue and every expression, I thought back upon the time I had given birth to Sahana. I felt on the top of the world. Was I any less than a queen, triumphant, with a living miracle in my arms? Phone calls, visits, cards, gifts, good wishes and love flooded our lives. While Sahana slept, her nursery filled up with toys which she didn’t need, and perhaps never played with. She didn’t want for love, attention or anything material. And here was another baby, lying by herself with just one rattle for toy, and the ceiling fan for her mobil. Her mother was busy cooking for another family, instead of spending every waking minute with her, like I did, to drink in the last drop of her infancy. She simply doesn’t have the luxury. And Khushi was still khushi. She learnt to entertain herself, she looked around, smiled at the light that came in through the French windows and touched her pretty face. She clung on to a piece of her bedding and tried to bring it to her mouth, she got a handful of her own hair and gave it a hard pull. Her face registered surprise but she didn’t cry out. As I stroked her soft skin, I got uncharacteristically angry. Angry at our society, the ignorance, the pretentiousness that India is shining. Angry and ashamed that girl children were still a liability, still a burden. WHY? HOW LONG?

I first met Breshpati when she was a skinny 10-year-old. Her older sister used to work in our house and she used to tag along with her to watch television. After a few years, I heard Breshpati was given in marriage at the tender age of 14. The bridegroom’s family saw her in the streets, liked what they saw and asked for her hand. They wanted less dowry. Her family manipulated her age, changed papers to reflect she was eighteen and married her off – one less mouth to feed.

Within a year of the marriage she fled from her marital home when her husband tried to choke her in his drunkenness. When her brothers and parents told her to go back and accept her fate, for God had meant her to be with her husband, she said she would rather give up her life.

My parents decided to employ her in their house as a domestic help and I made a condition that she has to go to school. The school part didn’t work out, despite private tutor, adult literacy centers. The television with its lure of mushy soaps kept books and alphabets far away. She worked for over 10 years, saved up a decent sum in the bank…and fell in love.

Against the wishes of her family, she married her suitor who didn’t earn much money, lived with his parents and was controlled by his mother. Later, I found out she had spent her last penny that she saved in the bank to provide a decent dowry to the man, who claimed to love her and wanted to marry her. I was disappointed at this, but heard good stories about how the young man treated her. ‘She deserves all the happiness. She will get it this time,’ I thought. Within a year, I heard Breshpati was pregnant.

I talked to Breshpati whenever I had a chance during my visit to Kolkata, to find out what plans she had for her future which, now, involved another precious life. I learnt, from our conversations, that change was happening in my country. Imperceptible, perhaps, but slowly and steadily. Mindsets of young women, at least among the urban poor, were changing. I do believe media is somewhat responsible for this positive change. Showcasing some strong role models in popular television was helping women mold their ideals and demand their rights. Breshpati, I found out, wasn’t going to request acceptance for her girl child from her in-laws, she was going to demand it. Her face glistened in excitement as she animatedly explained to me her plans for her daughter. She had made it clear to her husband that if she felt any kind of disregard towards her daughter because she was a girl, she was simply going to pack up and leave. She made it clear that she is more than capable of raising her daughter by herself and raising her well. She is determined to give her daughter the best opportunities at education that she can and her little girl should never feel she is any less than a boy. This was no different from what I wanted my girl to believe! She believes in equal opportunity for both boys and girls and woe be to the one who makes her daughter feel otherwise. As she talked more, she looked no less than a queen, who was ready for battle and who was also sure of her victory. As her daughter suckled at her breast, she reminisced the missed opportunities that she didn’t avail. Her mother took her to work at a young age so they had enough money to send her older and her younger brothers to school. She was determined not to let that happen to Khushi.

Breshpati’s face sparkled as she spoke. Khushi will be OK. Breshpati is indeed the queen and we all her soldiers. My family, my parents. We will make sure Breshpati gets all the ammunitions she needs to win the battles against the social stigma against her child’s gender, against illiteracy, poverty and injustice. I felt better as I planted a kiss on little Khushi’s head and said goodbye. In her mother’s sparkle, I saw India sparkling. We are not shining yet, but we have started to sparkle. That’s a start!

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